Should you become a school-based OT? If you’ve gotten to the point where you’re seriously asking yourself that question, my short answer is yes! Absolutely. But obviously, the longer answer is more nuanced. While I believe a wide variety of people and occupational therapists can be successful in this setting, there are certain qualities that lead to more success in this role.
Do you like kids?
You’d think this would be a given, but I’ve met some people working in the schools where I’m not so sure! However, one thing I will say is don’t automatically write this setting off if you think you’re not a big fan of kids but you’re not sure. I had several grad school classmates who swore they’d never end up in a peds setting and now are happily working in early intervention, outpatient, and schools. So if you’ve never worked with kids in a professional context, consider shadowing a school-based OT to see if you might actually love it!
Do you do well under pressure?
While all OT settings have a certain level of stress, school-based OT can be a different ballgame if you’re not used to it. In this setting, you’ll find that there are a lot of due dates – and they have legal ramifications if you don’t meet them. This isn’t to scare you off from the setting, but it is important to note that at any given time, you’ll be responsible for knowing when your entire caseload’s evaluations, progress notes, and IEPs are due. And caseloads for full-time OTs can range from 25 – over 100, depending on many factors.
Can you keep yourself organized?
I won’t say you have to be a naturally organized person to be successful as a school-based OT, because I’ve definitely known therapists with their own organizational challenges make it work! But what I will say is that you need to have some sort of system for keeping all of your tasks and responsibilities straight. In addition to staying on top of those due dates mentioned above, school-based OTs have many other roles, such as screening students, training teachers and staff, ordering equipment, doing documentation, traveling between buildings, attending meetings, and communicating with coworkers, supervisors, and parents. Having a system in place to prioritize and re-prioritize all the things that need to get done is key.
Do you value education?
School-based OTs work closely with teachers, so valuing them and all of the wonderful things they do is important to this role. And while you will get recognition for your hard work in this setting, at its lowest points, education can be a thankless job. School districts are often faced with budget cuts, hiring challenges, and issues of public perception. Keeping in mind that you’re making a difference in educating the next generation can be helpful on those days where everything feels impossible.
Do you like serving in a consultant role?
While school-based OTs do provide direct service to students, one of the most valuable things they can do in this setting is actually training other staff. Teachers and paraprofessionals have different experience and education than we do as OTs, and they often really benefit from our lens. So if you enjoy the parts of OT where you get to provide patient/family education, you will get to lean into that heavily as a school-based OT!
Are you flexible?
This goes right along with being organized and able to handle pressure. And I feel like flexibility is required in all OT settings to a certain extent. In the school setting, it seems especially important. You may have a plan to see certain students on one day, but then find that 2 of them are absent, 1 is on a field trip, and the other is at a school assembly. Or you may have the perfect session planned for your student, and they end up hating it and destroying any materials you give them. Or you may clear your schedule to make room for an important meeting that gets canceled an hour beforehand because a parent has a last-minute emergency. Or you may have a plan to complete 3 re-evaluations of your students in March but then get a last-minute referral for an initial evaluation that takes precedence. And I could go on! These are just some examples of how your week may not go according to plan. Truly, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a day as a school-based OT that went exactly how I would expect it to. But, personally, the variety keeps it fun and exciting. And, if you’re well-organized, you usually have a good idea of what you can do with any pocket of time that may present itself.
Do you like to advocate?
If you were the student that got top marks on your advocacy projects in OT school, this may be the setting for you! Many opportunities to advocate will present themselves in school-based OT, from the need to advocate for appropriate services and equipment for your student to the need to advocate for your own work-life balance. This is definitely a role that benefits from someone who is willing to speak up for their beliefs and ethics, and it can sometimes help to be a squeaky wheel.
Do you have student loan debt?
Because public schools are nonprofit, working in one may qualify you for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Be sure to read up on the details of this program to see if it makes sense for your personal situation. I have also heard of school-based OTs qualifying for teacher loan forgiveness programs.
Do you like to play and have fun?
Despite the challenges of this setting, at the end of the day, there is a huge boon: you get to play! School-based OT is some of the most fun I’ve had as an OT. Children are so funny and playful, and this setting lights me up in a way that most other settings haven’t. The fact that we get to have fun while we help kids build skills and become more successful is a pretty great benefit.
While school-based OT is not for everyone, it’s a setting that I absolutely recommend trying if you’re curious. Whether you’ve known all along that you wanted to work with kids, or whether you feel a bit burnt out from working in medical/adult settings, school-based OT is a worthy area of practice to consider. Once you’re ready to get started in this setting, come join my signature course, The Dynamic School OT. It’s the perfect primer to setting your school-based OT practice off on the right foot, ensuring you will be effective, efficient, and happy in this setting for years to come.