Guide to School-Based Occupational Therapy as a Career

what is school-based occupational therapy

Occupational therapy (OT) is a treatment that helps people with an injury, disability, illness or chronic pain find purpose and independence in their lives. This therapy typically includes developing or regaining the necessary skills for everyday tasks, activities and routines, though the specific roles and responsibilities can vary. Occupational therapists can specialize in numerous settings like rehab facilities, mental health clinics, outpatient clinics, schools, hospitals, clients’ homes and more. 

The purpose of OT in school settings is to help students fully access their education and the benefits it offers. Read on to learn more about a school-based occupational therapist role, the specific job duties involved and what skills you’ll need for the position.

What Is the Role of an Occupational Therapist in Schools?

Occupational therapy in schools is primarily focused on supporting students, helping them build the skills to actively and successfully participate in the school environment. Rather than teaching core curriculum classes like science or reading, occupational therapists work on building skills like:

  • Fine and gross motor skills.
  • Sensory processing.
  • Social skills.
  • Vocational skills.
  • Environmental modification.
  • Seating and positioning.
  • Rest and play.
  • Attention and concentration.
  • Executive functioning.
  • Self-care skills.

School occupational therapists often team up with the special education team of school psychologists and counselors, teachers and speech-language pathologists, as well as the parents and caregivers. These professionals work as a team to address deficits that can negatively impact a student’s education.

Job Duties of a School-Based Occupational Therapist

To help students be their best, occupational therapists must first identify areas for improvement and what deficiencies are present, if any. 

Occupational therapists start by determining if a child is eligible for OT services and the best way to help them. The therapist uses various assessments, interviews and questionnaires to assess their skills, sensory processing and more. When a student shows signs that they’d benefit from occupational therapy, the occupational therapist will work with the student’s teachers and team to establish a plan and goals.

Documentation and data collection are another large part of occupational therapy in schools. It’s crucial to document your students’ progress so you can recognize successes and narrow down areas for more improvement. As an occupational therapist, you’ll document a student’s ability to handle their personal materials and needs, maintain organization, navigate various areas of the school, use necessary technology in the classroom, write and draw legibly and more. These notes will help you track progress and make adjustments as needed. 

Push-in Services vs. Push-out Services

School-based occupational therapy only occurs within the school setting. Depending on the student’s needs, occupational therapists will deliver either pull-in or push-out services. 

In push-in services, the occupational therapist is part of the general education setting. This arrangement lets them assist multiple students at once, providing accommodations and feedback in live learning situations. Push-in services are a great way for occupational therapists to collaborate with teachers and provide the tools and resources they need to continue skill development.

Pull-out services are a bit more in-depth and personalized. Here, the occupational therapist will pull the student out of the general education setting for individual or small group instruction. Occupational therapists also build and collaborate on individualized education plans, which they can address and modify more easily with one-on-one consultations. 

Goals for School-Based Occupational Therapists

School-based occupational therapy goals typically involve ways to help students accomplish tasks related to fine motor skills, writing, communicating, sensory processing and self-regulation and care. For example, you may be working with a student who has difficulty with the fine motor skills necessary for cutting and holding the scissors correctly. One goal you set for this student might be to cut out at least three out of five simple shapes with smooth edges, using minimal assistance and guidance. 

Skills Required for Occupational Therapy in Educational Settings

skills required for occupational therapy in educational settings include communication, collaboration, patience, organization and creativity

Because school-based OT varies from other occupational therapy settings, you’ll need specific skills to help you succeed in the position. Some of the most important skills for a school occupational therapist include:

  • Communication: The ability to communicate clearly with students, teachers and parents is essential. Open communication with students provides clarity and encouragement, and lets you set well-defined tasks and goals. Strong communication skills are also necessary for updating teachers and parents.
  • Collaboration: It’s important to remember that occupational therapists work closely with a team of other professionals to ensure students are reaching their full potential. Collaboration ensures everyone is on the same page and working towards a shared goal.
  • Patience: Students may feel frustrated or even defeated at times. It’s important to have patience and be understanding of your students’ feelings. A positive attitude and reassurance can go a long way.
  • Organization: As we mentioned earlier, documentation is a large part of an occupational therapist’s responsibilities. With a high number of cases and notes for each of them, parents, teachers and other professionals rely on you to stay organized.
  • Creativity: Working with younger kids often requires a certain level of imagination and creativity. Students may get discouraged performing the same activities without noticeable progress. In these cases, it will be up to you to come up with new activities and instructions.

Benefits of Being a School Occupational Therapist

School-based occupational therapy is an extremely rewarding career, and there are numerous reasons to pursue it. While each occupational therapist has parts of the job they like the best, here are some popular benefits of being a school occupational therapist:

  • Variety: School occupational therapists have a lot of variety in their days. From different age groups to different ability levels, each day can involve something different. 
  • School working hours: Because school-based OT services take place within the school setting, the hours are similar to those of a teacher. Occupational therapists typically work during the day and have weekends off.
  • Helping kids: A school setting lets you watch the kids you work with grow. You often get to work with the same kids year after year, giving you the chance to see their progress and celebrate their successes with them.
  • Collaborative environment: As a school occupational therapist, you’ll work with numerous people. In addition to seeing students, you’ll be collaborating with teachers, counselors, aides and parents to create effective plans.
learn more about school-based occupational therapy with CEUs from ERI

Learn More About School-Based Occupational Therapy With CEUs from ERI

Whether you’re interested in beginning a school-based occupational therapy career or advancing your current knowledge, there are many educational resources and options available to you. Consider how CEU courses from ERI can advance your career and improve your patient outcomes. With virtual and live learning opportunities, ERI can teach you effective techniques through hands-on practice and acclaimed instructors. 

Founded by therapists for therapists, ERI provides convenient and progressive courses to allow you to improve your career. Contact us today for more information on occupational therapy courses and how you can get started.