School-based OT is a wonderful job, but it can be a challenging setting to break into if you have no experience. However, it is totally possible! Whether you’re a brand new grad looking for your first OT job, or whether you have 20+ years of experience in another setting, there are steps you can take now to become a more competitive applicant.
Research School-Based OT
Before you even send that first application, your initial step should be researching school-based OT. This setting is pretty different than a lot of others, and if your OT school experience was anything like mine, you probably didn’t learn a ton about it. There are lots of ways to conduct this initial research (this blog that you’re reading is a great start!), and I recommend getting info from multiple sources. Interviewing a friend who works in this setting is also a great idea.
This preliminary research will not only help you understand the focus of this setting, but also help you decide if you even want to become a school-based OT in the first place.
Take School-Based OT Continuing Ed
Once you’ve done some free research, a great next step is taking some continuing education in this area. No, this isn’t a necessary step, and it can feel daunting to invest money in a job you’re not sure you’ll even get. But, if you want to stand out as an applicant even if you don’t have experience, this is a good way to show that you’ve put in the work to understand and learn about this setting.
Touch Up Your Resume
Before you send in any applications, take a good look at your resume. If it’s been a long time since you’ve updated it, this is a great time to do so! Or, if you’re new to OT in general, this is the perfect time to craft a resume that makes sense for this setting. Regardless of where you’re at, highlight any experience you do have with kids. If you’ve worked in outpatient pediatric OT, great! But even if you have non-OT experience with children, find a way to include it. This could be the nannying you did in college, the summer camps you worked, or even a volunteer position you held. If you’ve worked in a school in any capacity, this is also worth including. If you’re a new grad, it’s okay to include your fieldwork placements, especially if they had anything to do with schools or kids.
Regardless of your work history, take a moment to think about the ways your previous jobs prepared you to work as a school-based OT. For example, if you’ve worked as an OT in inpatient mental health, highlight the fact that you know how to handle challenging behaviors and de-escalate situations. If you’ve worked in SNFs, you could mention how you involved the family, nursing staff, and other stakeholders in meeting therapeutic goals, much like school-based OTs do at IEP meetings.
Your resume is also a great place to include any of those continuing ed courses you’ve taken that relate to school-based practice.
Work On Your Interviewing Skills
One of the biggest barriers to breaking into school-based OT practice is the interview. Most interviews are unnerving enough as it is, and if you don’t feel confident or knowledgeable about this area of practice, it can be even more anxiety-inducing. Luckily, the format of school-based OT interviews is pretty similar, so you can get an idea of what questions they might ask you in advance. At the bare minimum, you should have a good idea of how to explain the IEP process and the difference between school-based OT and medical model OT.
If you don’t knock your first interview out of the park, that’s okay. Take time to reflect and write down any questions that you weren’t prepared for or didn’t answer well. Try to think of each interview as practice instead of the be-all, end-all.
Get Clear On Your Values
Something that will show through the interview process are your values. Why do you want to be a school-based OT, really? Maybe you absolutely love kids and have been preparing to help kids with disabilities all of your life. Maybe you have a personal connection. Maybe you value education and want to help all children access it. Regardless of your reasons, get clear on what they are and practice articulating this. If you’re not sure yet, this article on what I personally love about being a school-based OT may help guide your thought process.
Getting your first school-based OT job may require some flexibility. Because you don’t have the experience, there may be some things you have to compromise on that a more experienced school-based OT wouldn’t. Of course, you should never accept unethical or unsafe working conditions. But, you may have to accept less pay than you were hoping for, a longer commute, or an age group that you don’t like as much. Cast a wide net when you send out applications and remember that it’s all part of the process. And if you need help finding more places to apply, this article may help.
Consider Travel Therapy
If you’re looking for the quickest way to get a job in the schools, travel therapy is a strong contender. Again, this requires flexibility, but if you’re open to changing locations, even for a short amount of time, this could be a great fit! Schools generally utilize travel therapists because they are having trouble filling a position locally, which means they’re more open to less experienced therapists. Plus, travel therapy often pays more than permanent positions, so this can be a nice bonus.
One thing to keep in mind if you do pursue this path is that travel therapy often requires you to hit the ground running – so be sure you take it upon yourself to find mentorship in this setting.
Find Ways To Put A Personal Touch On Things
As impersonal as the job hunting process can feel, remember that these are people – potentially people you will work with every day. Take opportunities to share things about yourself that make you unique. This could be in a cover letter, email to the special education director, or thank-you notes sent after the interview.
Job hunting can really be the pits, and you might get discouraged if you don’t get the first, second, or even third job you’re applying to. Remember that the people making these decisions are trying to pick the best person to serve their students, and it isn’t personal. But this doesn’t mean give up – it just means keep trying until you find a school-based OT job that’s a great fit for everyone involved. If you want it badly enough, you will get it. It just may take some time.
School-based OT is a wonderful job, and we need more therapists like you who really want to be in this setting. Even if you have no experience, you can break into a school-based OT job. If you’re looking for a great primer on school-based OT that will prepare you for both the job search process and the work itself, I’d love to have you in The Dynamic School OT Course. This is a comprehensive CEU course that will teach you everything you need to know to get a job in school-based OT and knock your first year of practice out of the park.