Everything you need to know about pediatric occupational therapy

The College of St. Scholastica By  The College of St. Scholastica  |  @StScholastica  | 

Occupational therapists play an important role in our communities as they work to enable patients to engage in the meaningful activities of daily life. They step in when a person's ability to live independently is disrupted by illness or injury. With the goal of helping their patients lead more independent and active lives, occupational therapists will often specialize in working with a specific patient group, such as older adults, individuals with mental illness or children and youth.

Many of these focus areas hone in on restoring the abilities of those who have lost capabilities they formerly possessed. This may be due to aging or as a result of a traumatic event, injury, addiction or mental illness. Pediatric occupational therapists, however, have a unique opportunity to work with children, ensuring they are provided with the best possible start during some of the most crucial developmental phases of their lives.

Pediatric occupational therapy practitioners provide support to infants, toddlers, children and youth, as well as to their families in a variety of settings. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) has actually highlighted children and youth as one of six key focus areas for occupational therapy practice in the 21st Century as part of its Centennial Vision.

There's a lot to learn about the ins and outs of pediatric occupational therapy. If you're considering pursuing this fulfilling, respected and increasingly in-demand career path, you've come to the right place. Read on as we explore the details of this coveted specialty, the numerous ways pediatric occupational therapy practitioners impact the lives of their clients and the most sought-after characteristics of those who thrive in this position.

Pediatric occupational therapy: The career details

The children and youth focus area of occupational therapy centers on helping children develop the skills they need to grow into high functioning, independent adults. The variables that may be hindering a child's ability to progress normally will vary depending on the child, and it can at times be the duty of an occupational therapist to help determine the underlying causes of delayed social or cognitive development. They can then explore potential solutions and design a suitable therapy plan.

The skills of pediatric occupational therapy practitioners are viewed as critical, since the longer a child goes without mastering the skills required for success and independence, the more the problem can compound as they get older. Some of the general developmental areas they address include cognitive skills, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, self-care tasks and social skills.

Occupational therapists practicing with children and youth will often incorporate play into their interventions to help motivate children. This tactic also helps to reduce potential anxiety they may experience through the process. This can involve games, puzzles, toys, songs and physical exercises. Through working with pediatric occupational therapists, children are not only enabled to develop critical skills, but they often also build upon their levels of confidence and self-esteem.

The typical work environment for occupational therapy practitioners specializing in children and youth can vary from hospitals and clinics to schools and community outreach programs. With a growing need for their specialized skills, employment of occupational therapists — regardless of specialty or focus area — is expected to grow 21 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's more than three times the national average for all occupations.

Pediatric occupational therapists are well-compensated for their important work, earning a median annual salary of $80,045, according to the latest Glassdoor report. The entry-level degree for an occupational therapist today is a master's degree. However, the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education has recently mandated that the entry-level degree for new occupational therapists will be the doctoral degree by 2027. Pediatric occupational therapists with earned bachelor or master degrees will be "grandfathered" under the new mandate. All occupational therapists are required to become licensed in the state(s) in which they are employed.

Pediatric occupational therapy: The rewarding benefits

Pediatric occupational therapists have a unique opportunity to make an impact that will last the entirety of their young patients' lives. They help instill skills that will allow children to grow into self-sufficient, successful adults. Consider the following ways occupational therapists help children and youth as an example of the services you could expect to provide with a career in pediatrics.

Autism

Children with autism commonly experience impairments with social interaction and communication. Many also live with restrictions relating to interests, activities and play. Occupational therapy can help children with autism function better in both home and school environments.

This requires a working knowledge of underlying sensory issues these children may face, as sensory processing issues can lead to some of the more obvious difficulties with social interaction and communication. In fact, it's been estimated that 80 percent of children with autism have sensory processing problems.

Pediatric occupational therapists are trained to address sensory-processing issues and help equip parents to successfully manage their child's behavioral struggles. While parents may already be aware of sensory triggers, occupational therapists can help clarify the role of sensory processing and provide caretakers with practical advice on how to address it.

Occupational therapists who work with children with autism typically do so through school environments, in and out-patient hospitals or private clinics. Therapy sessions can involve swings, interactive play and activities that require the child to problem solve in order to participate in childhood occupations, according to AOTA.

Literacy

A recent examination of nearly 4,000 students revealed that those who are not reading proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school before receiving a high school diploma than those who are proficient readers.

Pediatric occupational therapists can work amidst a team of education professionals to increase participation in reading and written communication. They do so by supporting individual students, groups of students and even whole classrooms, modifying activities and environments to make literacy skills more accessible. This includes building literacy skills by addressing things like play, language, attention, emotional regulation and other components that aid in successful performance.

With literacy, many occupational therapists may break the process into sections —­ such as visual processing, auditory processing and verbal reasoning — working with students bit by bit until their weaknesses are strengthened.

Mental health

Pediatric occupational therapists can play an important role in identifying early signs of a mental health disorder. They provide services to children who are diagnosed with a range of mental health and behavioral disorders. They may also intervene with children who may be "at risk for failure," including those whose families move frequently or those from families facing economic and social disadvantages, according to AOTA.

After completing a client-centered assessment, occupational therapists can then seek to determine the factors that impact the child's ability to meet the demands of the roles and activities that comprise their daily lives. AOTA suggests that occupational therapists use interventions to promote social-emotional learning, regulate overactive or underactive sensory systems, collaborate with families and medical or educational personnel, and more. For example, practitioners can help the child incorporate some intermittent sensory and movement breaks into their days while training educators and parents to improve attention and decrease the impact of sensory overload.

Obesity

Occupational therapists can also play a valued role in addressing childhood obesity. Obesity can impact the physical, social and emotional health of affected children. They become at risk for developing conditions like asthma, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and limitations in physical play. It's also true that negative social attitudes can lead to bullying and, at times, depression.

Pediatric occupational therapists are trained to perform necessary intervention in a number of environments, including schools, communities and homes. This can include addressing culturally appropriate healthy food preparation, enjoyable physical and social activities, strategies for decreasing negative stigmas about weight and bullying.

Occupational therapists can work alongside parents, teachers and nutritionists to provide the necessary education to enhance healthy lifestyles in all children and youth.

Pediatric occupational therapy: The practitioners who thrive

As with most specialties, it takes a practitioner with a specific set of strengths and interests to thrive in pediatric occupational therapy. "We have many students who are attracted to the field of occupational therapy and want a career where they can work directly with children," says Nancy Gabres, Assistant Professor in the Occupational Therapy Department at The College of St. Scholastica. She adds that the pediatric occupational therapy students she's known are drawn to helping children lead productive lives, and many have had extensive experience working with children as nannies, babysitters or as personal care assistants.

Gabres explains that in general, the most successful students are those who can develop and implement a behavior plan when needed, can adapt their interaction style to the developmental level of the child they are working with, and who have a sincere interest in understanding the world of a child of any given age.

This also includes maintaining a working knowledge of the newest toys on the market and a willingness to pretend to be Elsa from Frozen one minute and then Superman the next, Gabres says. "To be successful with children you have to have energy and enthusiasm that lasts throughout the day and, for most, a playful personality," she adds.

Because pediatric occupational therapists work with patients ranging in age from infancy to adolescence, the most successful practitioners offer a wide range of expertise. "You have to have a deep understanding of child development across all developmental areas," Gabres says, referencing motor, cognition, psychosocial development and education skills. "You also need to understand how disease, illness and injury impact development."

Gabres also stresses that child and family-centered care is critical to successful outcomes for all children. "The family and the family system are your clients as well. In all areas of practice, a therapist needs to be comfortable with many people in the room while providing therapy services. When you work with children, you may have siblings, parents and grandparents all present during an intervention session."

Do you have what it takes to thrive as a pediatric occupational therapist?

Even in selecting a fulfilling specialty like pediatric occupational therapy, there are still many different avenues your career can take. Some occupational therapists, for example, have a role in Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) working with premature and medically compromised babies. Others provide home-based services, while some practice in in-patient and out-patient delivery systems. There are also many who work in Early Intervention programs and within school systems.

Whether you'll be working with young students to improve their crucial literary skills or lending your services to children with a mental health disorder or obesity, you can enter each workday as a pediatric occupational therapist knowing you'll be making an impact in someone's life.

If you're curious to learn more about this in-demand career, visit The College of St. Scholastica's Occupational Therapy program page for more information about your options.  

The College of St. Scholastica


The College of St. Scholastica is an independent private Catholic Benedictine college with locations across Minnesota, in addition to many high-quality programs available online and through convenient evening and weekend formats. Since 1912, St. Scholastica has been preparing students for a life of purpose and economic gain by engaging students in the love of learning and active citizenship in the world. Our mission is to provide intellectual and moral preparation for responsible living and meaningful work. 

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