6 Ways to Make Your School-Based OT Practice More Effective Right Now

Looking to make your school-based OT practice more effective? Whether you’ve been a school-based OT for one year or twenty-five, here are six actionable steps you can take to make your school-based OT practice more impactful and meaningful today. 

Put systems into place for time management

Schools in America are chronically underfunded, and one way this shows up is intense workloads for school-based OTs. While you shouldn’t be expected to carry a truly unmanageable caseload, there are some timesaving strategies that you can employ. 

One way I do this is 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 end up doing helps prevent more treatment time from being added where it simply won’t fit in. Another method I use to save time is attempting to only be in one building per day. Do these sound like changes you could make to your practice, too? Could you go further? Take 5-10 minutes to brainstorm areas where it feels like you lose a lot of time and potential systems you could put into place to make these processes more efficient. 

Cassandra, a Dynamic School OT alumni who has been practicing for five years, made some of these changes in her practice. “I really appreciated all of the organization tips. I struggle to make time for daily notes after a long day and there are a lot of things where if you put the work in up front, it will save you time in the long run! It has encouraged me to get some better systems in place to help me to be more organized and confident in my position!” 

If you’re doing all of this, and you find yourself still struggling to come up for air? Talk to your admin. It’s likely that more staffing is needed. And no matter what you do, never work off the clock or more than your contracted hours. 

ways to make your school-based OT practice more effective

Use technology to make your life easier

Technology has its pros and cons, but one huge positive is how much it can simplify your job. Consider doing things like completing daily documentation digitally, or using Google Forms to track consults with teachers. Not only will these changes make progress/data easier to review and stay on top of, it will save you time as well. 

Emily, a school-based OT who has been practicing for less than a year, started using more digital tools in her role after taking The Dynamic School OT Course. “I loved the number of templates and links to resources to help organize my practice. I also loved how Devon integrates simple existing applications like Google Forms and Calendly which I use all the time outside of work and provides ways to make coordinating all of the workflow for your students much more efficient.”

If you’re looking for other ways to become more efficient with technology as a school-based OT, check out this blog!

Use school-based OT templates

One of the nice things about school-based OT is that there are many tasks that are repeatable. This gives you a chance to practice and get better at your role over time. But more than that, it gives you an opportunity to use templates. Writing the same email over and over? Use a template. Giving the same handwriting strategies to general ed teachers? Create a document that you can share again and again. Writing up an assessment of a student? You better believe you’re using a template! It’s so nice to not reinvent the wheel every time you’re doing a task – and it will save you time to not have to re-write the things you find yourself saying repeatedly. 

Plus, you can save even more time by finding templates from other school-based OTs online. I share many for free in my Facebook group, and I also give a huge bundle of 100+ templates and other resources to Dynamic School OT students. 

“I  LOVED the extra resources and templates. They are a huge help to a new school-based therapist.”

– Sherita, School-Based OT of Less Than One Year

“The resources are one of my favorite parts because now I have tools I can use immediately and somewhere to start with creating my own templates.”

 – Angelica, School-Based OT of Less Than One Year

Refine your referral process

If your OT department is well-established, you might find that your referral process is already working well. If that’s the case, score! But this definitely isn’t always the case. Setting up a referral process can help you ensure the students that are referred to you 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 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. 

Jennifer, another alumni who has been in the schools for about two years, started focusing on her referral process after seeing how it was working well/not working so well in various districts. “I have been a travel therapist so I have just kind of went with the flow of what the past therapists have done for referrals. The information you gave was really helpful and hoping to implement some of it in the future.”

Become more involved with RtI/MTSS

Response to Intervention (RtI) or Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) are global processes used throughout school districts. School-based OTs have huge potential to be involved in these processes! As always, check with your district leadership to gain clarification on RtI policies are procedures specific to your district, but here are some ideas to get started:

Tier 1 RtI – All Students

  • OT provides in-service to teachers on various OT strategies
  • OT runs a fine motor center in all kindergarten classes

Tier 2 RtI – Targeted Group

  • OTs work with a small group of students identified by teachers as needing extra support

Tier 3 RtI – Intensive, Individual 

  • OTs may make highly specific strategies for a student based on data collected by general education

There are many other ways to be involved with the RtI process, so if this is an area that interests you, it’s worth learning more about once you feel like you’ve mastered managing a caseload. Take Caitlyn, who has been working in the schools for three years. “I enjoyed the information about RtI/MTSS, which is an area that I am currently trying to learn more about and implement more successfully at the school I work at! The supporting resources were all very helpful as well and will help save a TON of time!”

ways to make your school-based OT practice more effective

Brush up on the laws and regulations

If you’re brand new to the schools, this is actually the first thing that I recommend you do. The importance of the law is easily the biggest difference between school-based practice and other settings. 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 school-based practice. Luckily, this information is available freely online. Honestly, this task alone can feel intimidating, but it’s so important to do so that you can fully serve your students as well as protect your license. Even if you’ve skimmed the laws before, consider reviewing 1-2 pages a day of the relevant portions of the following documents:

  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

Molly, another Dynamic School OT alumni, highlights how important it is to know the laws in this setting. “I liked the deep understanding of the laws and emphasis on how this can affect practice. I’ve been working in schools, directly from grad school, for 3 years but never felt I got a great introduction to them. Devon does a great job at breaking down this information in a way that is understandable and also gives great suggestions for how to navigate challenging situations.”

Terra, a school-based OT of one year, also emphasizes how being very familiar with the law protects yourself and your OT license. “I am always paranoid about making my practice legally defensible and you gave me lots of tools that I can begin using. This course was a great investment in my practice. I have purchased others in the past, trying to better understand the scope and nitty-gritty of school-based OT and to my disappointment – they were full of things I already knew (as a 1st year OT!)”

If you’re looking to set yourself up for success in your school-based OT job, implementing some of these changes will definitely help. And don’t feel like you have to do all of these overnight – pick one or two areas to focus on, and take small steps each day to meet your goals. And once you’re ready to explore these strategies further, come join us in The Dynamic School OT Course. You’ll find an in-depth look at these areas and actionable steps to make your school-based OT practice more effective, timesaving, and joyful. See you there!

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