Special Education School Partners with University OT Programs


At the Watson Institute, a special education school in Western Pennsylvania, offering professional development opportunities for our staff is a critical component to providing comprehensive, high-quality special education services to students with special needs. Our partnerships with local universities provide invaluable professional development opportunities for staff.

The Watson Institute works with students in various programs at Duquesne University and Chatham University, including Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, and Special Education. Since the start of the school year, students in Occupational Therapy (OT) programs at these universities completed site visits to the Watson Institute as part of their school curriculum and in partnership with Watson’s experienced therapists at our Education Centers in Sewickley and Bridgeville.

Watson & Duquesne University Occupational Therapy

At Duquesne University, 16 graduate students in their fourth year of the Occupational Therapy program participate in a 5-week professional mentoring partnership at the Watson Institute’s Education Center Sewickley and Education Center South.

Dr. Jeryl Benson, Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy at Duquesne University, oversees the students in the program and works collaboratively with Deb Smitsky, an Occupational Therapist at the Watson Institute to guide pupils through functional learning experiences.

The Duquesne students, who worked in pairs, were matched up with a Watson Institute student. During their first visit, the students conducted an assessment which was used to create a comprehensive intervention/treatment plan for the subsequent sessions. The pairs worked with the same student each week so they could implement the exercises outlined in their treatment plan and monitor the students’ progress.

The Duquesne OT students collected data and conducted assessments throughout their time working with the Watson students, which was shared with Watson’s therapists to support continued evidence-based interventions with our students.

At the Watson Institute, every student’s needs are unique so their IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is tailored to meet their unique goals. The Duquesne students customized the activities and interventions in the treatment plan with their student’s individualized needs in mind. The activities varied week-to-week to address different goal areas.

For example, one of the pairs worked with a student to practice his handwriting skills, writing out words and practicing letters on a chalkboard and using index cards. Another group practiced grip strength and fine motor control while the student was in motion on a swing. A third pair worked with their student using a sensory bin, locating pipe cleaners inside a container filled with rice, then practicing tying knots with the pipe cleaners.

Watson & Chatham University Occupational Therapy

In addition to our partnership with Duquesne University, Watson’s Occupational Therapists also partner with Chatham University’s OT program. Once a year, around 40 graduate students from the Occupational Therapy program at Chatham visit students at the Watson Institute’s Education Center Sewickley and Education Center South.

Julie Voelker, an Occupational Therapist at the Watson Institute, coordinates their annual visit with Tina Lekas, an Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy at Chatham.

“I enjoy teaching students in many different aspects of what we as therapists do at the Watson Institute.” Ms. Voelker shared. 

The students were split up into four groups so they could rotate through the therapy rooms, getting the chance to spend 20 minutes each session with four students at the Watson Institute’s special education schools. 

Each of the Watson students presented unique occupational therapy needs so the Chatham students had a chance to ask questions and learn from our Occupational Therapists. This provides the students with an opportunity to get hands-on, practical learning before they start their level 2 field work.

Watson welcomes the opportunity to host students completing their field work requirements as well.

Professional Mentoring Facilitates Functional Learning

Partnerships with local universities like Duquesne and Chatham have been beneficial both to the students at the universities as well as to students and Occupational Therapists at the Watson Institute.

The graduate Occupational Therapy students are able to gain valuable experience working with students with special needs, implementing intervention plans in real-life scenarios, and learning how to gather data for research and evidence-based treatments.

The Watson Institute therapists also gain insights from the Occupational Therapy students. Anyone who has taught or served as a mentor knows that when you share knowledge, your students aren’t only learning from you, you also learn from them. Mentoring partnerships are often a mutual learning experience.

We are grateful for strong partnerships with local universities such as Duquesne and Chatham for the opportunities to teach and learn through these professional development mentoring programs.

“We welcome therapy students from many colleges and universities in the area to come to Watson to gain hands on experiences with our students.” shared Ms. Voelker.

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s special education school programs for children with special needs ages 3 to 21.