Occupational Therapy OT

| 15 January 2024

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Advocating Trauma-Informed Occupational Therapy for Adolescents: USAHS’ Dr. Karen Park Explores Approaches to Establish Inclusive, Transformative Classrooms


According to a study published in the National Institutes for Health (NIH) National Library of Medicine, “Trauma exposure is common during childhood and adolescence and is associated with youth emotional and behavioral problems.”

Since the global COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing dialogue has emerged regarding the enduring effect of trauma on adolescents. The heightened attention underscores the imperative to gain a deeper insight into how various forms of trauma affecting young individuals influence their everyday lives and to explore how healthcare professionals can provide essential support.

Karen Park, OTD, OTR/L, Doctoral Coordinator, Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy (OT) Programs at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) in San Marcos, CA, is an occupational therapist (OT) with a specialization in trauma and its impact on adolescents.

Dr. Park has experience in pediatric practice in a variety of settings including early intervention, clinic, school, hospital and outpatient children’s mental health. She is board-certified in Pediatrics by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and holds Advanced Practice certification in swallowing assessment, evaluation and intervention in California.


Dr. Karen Park, OTD, OTR/L, Doctoral Coordinator, Assistant Professor, OT Programs at USAHS was a guest on the OT Schoolhouse podcast

She is the Vice President (VP) of the Association of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in Occupational Therapy (AAPI-OT). She aims to heighten the organization’s visibility within the profession to increase engagement and better support the community with research and other opportunities.

She recently completed a chapter on adolescents and adolescent development for a soon-to-be-released OT textbook.

As Doctoral Coordinator at USAHS, she supports doctoral students with Capstone projects. For students, the Capstone process involves critically analyzing how they relate to the world and connect with their communities.

Dr. Park says there is an increased student interest in looking at the experience of trauma in youth. She helps students understand the complex, holistic experience of trauma and facilitates programs and research to support the adolescent population.

“As an OT, how do we really focus on the occupational impact of this for the child, and also the family and the community as a whole,” Dr. Park asks.

She says community partnerships have allowed students to step into spaces and meet a need for OT services.

An enriched understanding of trauma-informed care for adolescents

Dr. Park talks with Jayson Davies, MA, OTR/L, host of the OT Schoolhouse Podcast, a resource for school-based occupational therapy. She unpacks the impact of trauma on adolescents, encourages inclusive education and offers solutions for how OTs might support those dealing with trauma.

The conversation centers on how hidden traumas that adolescents face daily sometimes go unnoticed but may have a long-term effect. Dr. Park and Davies review the broader spectrum of trauma that encompasses a desire for belonging and exclusion due to identity-based microaggressions. They explore practical strategies to create trauma-informed classrooms and inclusive environments that promote healing, growth and resilience. They also talk about the development of a toolkit of evidence-based interventions and approaches to address the effects of trauma in school-based settings. Listen to the podcast below:

A shift in perspective: Why it’s more important than ever to address youth mental health

Dr. Park explains that while she has been studying childhood trauma for a while through her practice and fieldwork, the pandemic “placed an increased focus on this area and demographic.”

She says the pandemic played a role in creating disruptions, isolation, fear and sometimes subtle traumatic experiences. She argues that challenges and events in the world impact how we develop and form identity.

Dr. Park describes the transitional period of emerging adulthood as critical in identity formation. “It’s interesting too, because of the social media presence, we also see them having that exposure to some traumatic experiences and images of violence and terrible events around the world.”

She explains that due to the emotions that come about from that exposure, OTs need to be able to communicate with youth and process through the traumatic impact. She says youth should be “able to critically think and analyze, see different perspectives and decide for themselves what is valuable and important to them.”

Davies and Dr. Park also discuss Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). She says research is pushing to redefine ACEs.

“As OTs, we are criticizing the whole notion that this is the only trajectory for individuals who experienced pervasive trauma. We argue that there’s a way to really turn this ship around,” she says.

Dr. Park describes the value in thinking about trauma-informed care as a protective factor for youth – like a consistent caregiver in the social-cultural environment. She argues that PACEs, Positive and Adverse Childhood Experiences, paint a more holistic picture. “We want to consider all of these things – how we also support buffering of our children and increase positive experiences to support children in their development,” Dr. Park says.

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Practical strategies to create trauma-informed classrooms and inclusive environments

Dr. Park explains that trauma can play a role in how students learn and participate in the classroom – from attention span, long-term engagement, self-regulation, emotional regulation, sleep, physical pain and nervousness. “For youth with brains continuing to be constructed – every experience, positive and negative, changes the trajectory of brain development.”

She says OTs can play a valuable role and promote healing, growth and resilience in schools. She stresses the need for school-wide programs related to bullying and building support that increases belonging for students with diverse and intersectional identities.

Dr. Park shares the need for more inclusive case studies that portray different identities and positive experiences without misrepresenting them. She encourages educators to be aware of curriculum violence or curriculum that misrepresents identity or contributes to gender or racial profiling.

“We want our classroom or learning environments to be inclusive and transformative and also want to center our shared humanity,” Dr. Park says. As an instructor, she works to dismantle the hierarchy in the classroom.

She says, “I emphasize that we are all learning together.” As a Doctoral Coordinator, she establishes a space to nurture the community’s growth. “With some Capstone projects, they may become experts [on a topic] more than I may be,” Dr. Park says.

According to Dr. Park, psychological safety is a prerequisite to learning and engagement with the curriculum. She says we should foster an environment where students can be authentic and express their unique opinions, perspectives and ideas, which paves the way for belonging. “We are not asking our authentic selves to be left at the door. We establish a space where all of these factors are really welcome and all of these identities or positionalities are embraced as a community,” Dr. Park says.

Dr. Park continues to advocate for trauma-informed care for adolescents and innovate ways that school-based OTs can better support the students they serve and create environments where they might thrive.

Listen to Dr. Park’s conversation on the OT Schoolhouse podcast. Follow her on Instagram @KarenParkOTD for more OT content.

Are you interested in making an OT impact? Learn more about USAHS’ collaborative graduate OT programs and apply today.

Images provided by USAHS and Unsplash.


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