Preparing for OT Fieldwork in the Schools

OT fieldwork is an exciting time, and one of the most important parts of your training. But the idea of being thrown into a setting you’re not familiar with can be super scary! The school setting in particular can be so rewarding, but it’s also markedly different than any other OT position. Whether you’re planning for your Level 1 or Level 2 fieldwork in the schools, there are some steps you can take now to make it an easier transition. 

Make contact and find out first day procedures

To ease your nerves, you’ll want to get connected with your fieldwork supervisor ASAP. When you do, one of the most important things you can get settled is not anything to do with clinical practice – it’s onboarding. You’ll want to know what time to show up and expect to be finished. You’ll want to know where to go, especially if your OT covers multiple schools, as many do. You’ll want to know where you can park and if you need a parking pass. You’ll want to know if there’s a place to store your lunch. You’ll want to know if you should bring anything. All of those little things that become routine over time are so important to get established as soon as you can, that way your first day is not fraught with anxiety over what to do or where to be. 

Find out the dress code

Beyond your first day, you’ll want to find out what you should wear to your OT fieldwork. Your fieldwork supervisor should be able to give you some good advice on this. Above all else, I recommend comfortable yet professional clothes and shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. On your first day, it may also be a good idea to dress one shade fancier than you think is typical – that way you have a chance to see what staff actually wear without risk of being underdressed. 

Familiarize yourself with the laws, rules, and regulations

This is one of the most important areas to know in school-based practice. And it’s likely that your pediatrics class in OT school didn’t have time to go over all of the different laws and regulations that can affect this setting. Luckily, this information is available freely online. Honestly, this task alone can feel intimidating to begin, but if you commit to reading 1-2 pages a day of the relevant portions of the following documents, you’ll be ahead of the game!

  1. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  2. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act 
  3. Americans with Disabilities Act
  4. Your state OT regulations/practice act
  5. Your state education regulations
  6. Your district’s special education policies and procedures

Many states may also have a guide specifically for school-based OT, which can be a lifesaver!

Review common assessments 

Assessing students will likely be a big part of your fieldwork, so it can be helpful to familiarize yourself with the assessments that are most common in the school system. Your fieldwork supervisor will likely have insight to this as well, so feel free to include this question in your introductory email to them. Don’t worry if you don’t have access to the actual assessments until you start – you’ll get time to review and observe them before you actually perform one yourself.

OT Fieldwork in the Schools

Start setting up systems for time management

While you’ll likely be following your fieldwork supervisor’s schedule at first (especially if you’re only in the schools for a Level 1), time management is one of the most important skills school-based OTs utilize. One way I do this is by blocking off my schedule for all of my specific tasks such as treatments, evaluation, documentation, responding to emails, and LUNCH. Reserving space in your schedule for ALLLL of the tasks you’ll do in the schools will help you keep a good work/life balance while you complete fieldwork. Other ways I save time involve keeping completely digital documentation, attempting to only be in one building per day, and using Google Forms to track consults with teachers. Again, some of this will depend on what systems your supervisor and the district are already using, but it’s nice to get this established the first week of your assignment.

And as you progress through your fieldwork, if you find yourself taking work home or working over your set hours, have a conversation with your fieldwork supervisor. The school setting can be very busy, but that doesn’t mean you deserve to be overworked. 

Plan to build relationships with school staff and parents

You could say that developing rapport with caregivers is important in any setting, but this is truly the key to being effective in the schools. Since you’re only spending a bit of time with your students, most of your skill lies in training teachers, paraprofessionals, and parents on the strategies you’d like students to use every day. But it’s incredibly challenging to get that carryover with caregivers when they don’t really know you. So spend time right from the start being friendly and getting to know people. One of my favorite tricks for this is sitting in the staffroom for lunch or when I’m doing documentation. 

One last thing – don’t assume that the only people you should give the time of day are teachers. Custodial staff, office managers, and admin assistants are typically awesome people who can really help you out in a jam. 

Get familiar with the referral process

When you get to your assignment, hopefully, you’ll find that there already is a referral process and that it’s working well. If so, score! Familiarize yourself with this as soon as you can. However, as a travel OT who has worked in many districts with inconsistent staffing, I find that there isn’t always a clearly defined referral process. If you’re looking for a project to take on, helping to set up a referral process is a great idea! This can help the OT team ensure the students that are referred for assessment are appropriate and will likely be recommended for services. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve assessed that didn’t go through a referral process who had no need for school-based OT. And the sad part is, for most of these students I could have told you that after spending 30 minutes with them! For this reason, I try to heavily recommend that students are screened instead of heading straight to OT assessment. This will allow me to observe the student in their natural environment and watch for any difficulties that have been reported. I also like this option because it allows me to start giving strategies to teachers right away – whereas the assessment process can take several months before the reports are reviewed and recommendations are implemented.

Before you implement this step, check with your fieldwork supervisor and the district to ensure that they are on board with a screening process. Most will be, but some are hesitant to do so due to fear of litigation. 

OT Fieldwork in the Schools

Exercise your advocacy skills

Advocacy doesn’t stop when you leave OT school! Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately depending on how you look at it, there are still lots of opportunities to advocate in the school setting. You may need to advocate for your students and getting them the equipment they need to be successful. You may need to advocate for yourself and making sure your workload isn’t impossible. You may need to advocate for OT in general to make sure your school teams know that we are more than fine motor therapists! It’s definitely a setting where you may find yourself becoming a squeaky wheel. And don’t be afraid to speak up because you’re “just” a student – you have an insight and fire that is so valuable. 

I hope these tips were helpful! Though learning the ropes of the school setting can be challenging at first, I truly love practicing in the schools now. I hope you feel the same way about your fieldwork! If you have any questions, I would love to have you join me in my Facebook group where I share videos and resources all about school OT. 

Looking to take your learning even further? My course, The Dynamic School OT, is the perfect primer for students who are about to embark on a Level 2 fieldwork in the schools. We’ll take an in-depth look at all of the topics discussed here, as well as evaluation, appropriate interventions, IEP meetings, how to manage difficult situations, and much more. Click here to learn more!

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