Are you new to working in the schools? You may be wondering what school-based OTs wear! Since this setting is a little different than many of the more medically-focused OT settings, it’s a valid question. And while the norms for this will vary based on geographic location and other cultural factors, there are some steps you can take to find out no matter where your district is!
See if the school district has a dress code for staff
You may remember dress codes from your own days as a student, but did you know that teachers and other staff usually have dress codes as well? These rules can vary in formality as well as enforcement, but it’s a good place to start if you’re brand new to the district or school-based work in general. After you’ve accepted the position, you will likely be sent some sort of staff handbook where you can find a dress code, if there is one. If you don’t see it, don’t hesitate to reach out to your contact at the school! This is especially true if you are accepting the position through a third-party agency and not as an employee of the school district.
On your first day, dress one shade more formally than is required
In a professional setting, it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed, so if you’re not yet sure of the vibe of your district, err on the side of formality. This will give you a chance to get in there and see how other staff actually dress. The truth is, even if your district has a dress code for staff, it’s not always strictly enforced. But it’s better to find this out by dressing a bit too formally on that first day rather than the opposite. Plus, on your first day, you’ll likely not be working with students super directly yet, so you won’t need your comfiest or stretchiest clothes.
Common ways for school-based OTs to dress
At most schools, you’ll find that most staff dress business casual to casual. And the nice thing about this is that it can look a lot of different ways! As school-based OTs, this is especially important, because we often need more durable/flexible clothing than say, a high school English teacher. This will also depend somewhat on your caseload. Will you be working exclusively with PreK students? You’ll probably want clothing that makes it easy to move around, sit on the floor, and get messy. Will you be working with older students on executive function skills? Then your outfits can probably be a little dressier. In one district, I worked exclusively with high school students in California – and I was able to wear dresses and sandals! This district was very casual and I often saw other staff wearing sleeveless shirts, hats, shorts, etc. But this certainly isn’t the case everywhere.
Some particular pieces that you may want to consider:
- dress pants with stretch
- more “formal” looking yoga pants
- nice leggings
- jeans (if allowed – some schools only let staff wear these on certain days)
- themed t-shirts (like for your school, or for OT)
- plain t-shirts
- stretchy dresses
- comfortable shoes (especially if you’ll be walking a lot during the day)
- closed-toe shoes (some schools require this)
- a watch (so helpful to use this to track sessions instead of relying on clocks in the school which may not be accurate)
- items that have pockets
- clothes that wash easily
Can I wear scrubs?
While OT is a medical career, scrubs actually aren’t all that common in the school setting! However, this did change somewhat during the pandemic – more schools were okay with their OTs wearing scrubs due to the need to have clothes that washed easily for infection precautions. Some school districts allowed their OTs to wear scrubs even before this, and I think many will continue even after the pandemic is fully over. I personally don’t wear scrubs because I think it looks a little too medical, and in the school system, this isn’t really our focus. We’re there to support educational access, so I try to dress similarly to teachers.
Other things to consider
Beyond clothing, you may want to consider what choices to make with the rest of your outfit. This is especially true if you have any students that may demonstrate aggressive behaviors. If you have students that may scratch you, it can be a good idea to wear long sleeves. If you have students who pull hair, it may be a good idea to put long hair in a ponytail. Minimal jewelry can also be a good idea for the same reason. Of course, behaviors like this are indicative that the student has unmet communication needs that the team will work on addressing. But in the meantime, it’s not a bad idea to take some precautions, especially if you’re new to the student and not yet sure how they’ll react to you.
And beyond your everyday dress, you may want to consider participating in spirit weeks! This is super common in the school system. Dressing up as your favorite superhero, sports team, or costume is fun, helps you feel more a part of your school, and can be super motivating for your students!
Ultimately, finding out what to wear as a school-based OT is a process, and the longer you work at your schools, the easier time you’ll have selecting outfits. And because our jobs often require us to move, get messy, and sit in child-size chairs, the majority of schools are very flexible about what you wear. In any of the districts I’ve worked in, no one has ever deemed something I’ve worn to be inappropriate.
If you’re brand new to school-based OT and have a million questions about getting started, I’d love to have you join me in my signature course, The Dynamic School OT! It’s the perfect primer to school-based occupational therapy, and I can’t wait to see you there!