6 Strategies to Start the New School Year

Are you gearing up for the new school year? Hoping to supercharge your school-based OT practice this semester? No matter how long you’ve been in the game, there are actionable steps you can take today to make your school-based OT practice more effective all year long.

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 time-saving strategies that you can employ. 

One way I do this is by blocking off my schedule at the beginning of the year 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? Take 5-10 minutes now 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 upfront, 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. 

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 – they will also save you time.

If you’ve kept physical documentation/paperwork in the past, consider making a commitment this year to go all digital. This was easily the most time-saving change I’ve made to my practice and now I could never go back to paper planners, notes, or even work samples. 

Get your school-based OT templates ready

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. 

Take a few minutes now and think about the tasks you do over and over again in the schools. Do you already have templates for them? Can they be refined? Do you need to create anything new? If you’re new to the schools, don’t worry! You’ll have a better idea of this once you start. 

Alternatively, 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. 

“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

new school year OT

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 at the beginning of the year 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. 

Plan to 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. Take a couple of minutes now to decide how you’ll be involved in it this school year, and set a goal for yourself!

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
new school year OT

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.”

If you’re looking to set yourself up for success in your school-based OT job this school year, implementing some of these strategies 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, time-saving, and joyful. See you there!

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