For Kathleen Marran Schlenz, it is the little shifts in learning that can make all the difference for a child’s happiness and success.
A South Kingstown resident, Schlenz has long been motivated to provide Rhode Island’s children with the passion they deserve through occupational therapy.
On May 26, she was recognized for her longtime dedication to working with children when she received the “Champion for Children” award from the Washington County Coalition for Children during its annual Children’s Issues Forum.
Receiving the award was a gratifying feeling for Schlenz, who says she has been able to love the work she has done every day for 30 years.
“I have learned so much more from the children and families around me than they have from me,” she said.
Her journey through working in occupational therapy started when she attended Quinnipiac University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in the profession. She describes occupational therapy as an allied help profession, where focusing on an individual’s interests that bring them happiness will lead to therapeutic success.
She has worked with people who are overcoming challenges with disabilities after strokes or cerebral palsy, developmental delay, Down syndrome and people with mental health issues. She now primarily works with children from birth to age 21.
“In occupational therapy, I help families navigate a [disability’s] challenges to be able to get back to what makes [the client] happy, to get them to their passion and to what gives them quality of life,” Schlenz said.
Throughout her career, Schlenz has primarily been a pediatric occupational therapist though she has experience working with adults while at Vanderbilt Rehabilitation Center at Newport Hospital. After a move to Seattle, Washington, she began working in a children’s hospital’s medical center in the traumatic brain unit. She later received a master’s degree in rehabilitation medicine to expand the way she approached child care.
“I’m a neurology nerd. I love the brain and learning how the brain works, how it affects our behavior, our choices and emotions,” she said. She is fascinated by brain development in children and its plasticity and malleability. “I’ve always had a passion for development and how this little brain learns and grows – at the same time fascinated by how this same little brain can be resilient and overcome disabilities, abuse or neglect.”
Schlenz has worked in private practices, Newport and Rhode Island hospitals and for school districts including serving the North Kingstown school system. She was among those who pioneered the Easter Seals Rhode Island chapter as an early intervention provider. Now she teaches occupational therapy at Salem State University specializing in pediatric care. In addition, she has continued her role as the occupational therapist at the Block Island School for 14 years.
She said she feels lucky that every job she has held she has loved, and she is grateful for the opportunities she has taken that have brought her to many new chapters.
“My mother always tells the story about when I was little she would ask me and my brothers what we wanted to be when we grew up,” Schlenz said. “And even when I was little, I would say, ‘When I grow up I want to have 100 kids.’”
A few years ago, she was reminded about this story and realized, in a way through her work, she has done just that.
Schlenz loves teaching her students at Salem State University about caring for young patients because she knows the impact it will have on future children.
“If teachers and parents understand disability better, they can help kids chase [the joys of living],” she said.
“Relationships [with the client] are the most important thing I can teach [my students] as a therapeutic tool,” Schlenz said. “It’s not about a specific strategy or a specific toy or tool, it really is about relationship and getting to know the kids and families, while not imposing your own values on them.
Schlenz said she is not always worried about the outcomes like many professionals, but rather, she focuses her goals on an individual’s passions and interest.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know,” she said about child advocacy. “Families don’t know enough to advocate for a child that is struggling to learn or they don’t know about special education or occupational therapy. So the louder and more comprehensive my voice can be in terms of supporting kids’ learning needs, the more children can be successful.”
She spoke about her technique to reaching big differences by making small shifts.
“I often make suggestions, for example, for kids with low muscle tone,” she said, noting this disability can make school very difficult and exhausting. “One time, I recommended turning a kid’s chair around so that he could lean on the back part of his desk so he can be held up so the chair is supporting him more than his [weak] muscles.”
Another time, a client of hers wanted to play T-ball but had muscular dystrophy so holding the bat and swinging was too difficult. Her suggestion for a search for lighter, aluminum bats would later help him participate in the sport.
While so many individual moments bring her gratitude and accomplishment, she said it’s the socio-cultural issues that give her pause while she works.
“My biggest frustration and the biggest wall that makes it hard to do my job is poverty and the stress that comes along with poverty, and I think that our culture in this country is in a very divisive state right now in terms of people that are struggling with poverty,” Schlenz said. “The blame game is not helpful to children.”
Poverty affects development, she said, not because of a wrong gene or that there is damage to the brain, but rather the stress to the family system. Nutrition and positive play time, which all affect brain development, are sometimes difficult to properly meet in situations of poverty.
As she reflected on her career, she said her family has played just as much of a role as any client.
“My two biggest teachers were my own two children,” she said. Her son, Emmett, 22, and daughter, Anna, 19, have taught her the most profound lessons in how a peaceful and compassionate brain develops, she said.
Schlenz said the current balance between working in Block Island and teaching at Salem State University has allowed her to transcend her passion while making learning accessible to children.