OT Services in Schools: Enhancing Special Education

OT Services in Schools: Supporting Special Education with Occupational Therapy

As enrollment in special education programs grows, so does the use of occupational therapy (OT) in America’s schools. However, how can administrators address this rising demand? What essential insights do they need about offering OT services in schools, and how can they utilize this crucial tool to enhance both special education and the overall educational experience?

Discover the indispensable role of occupational therapy in schools, benefits for special education, and how to prepare your institution to meet today’s growing demands.

The Growing Importance of Occupational Therapy

From hospitals and nursing homes to post-acute care centers and rehab facilities, OT is a fundamental component of care delivery in a variety of settings. Whether it’s bathing, getting dressed, operating a laptop, or playing a game, occupational therapists fill a vital role in helping people learn or regain the abilities they need for daily living, from self-care to social interaction.  

Often delivered as part of a larger recovery plan that also includes physical therapy and other specialized care, occupational therapists help people recover from illness or surgery, or adjust to other changes in their health condition. As such, it’s become an important feature not just in clinical settings but other places where people live and work, like correctional and educational facilities.

OT Services in Schools: Equal Access Laws

Even as demand grows for skilled OTs virtually everywhere across the country, few settings need them more urgently than schools. Required by law to ensure that every child receives fair access to free education, many facilities now employ OTs as part of a team that also includes physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and other clinical professionals.

Laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) require schools to work to ensure that children with special needs not only meet their academic potential but also develop the skills they need for adulthood. That means treating them not as a separate population, but in a way that’s fully integrated into the larger student body.

These laws also require the delivery of OT by certified professionals, and not just any member of a school’s staff. In addition, the growing awareness and diagnosis of autism and other developmental conditions has led to higher enrollment in special needs programs. Taken together, these factors may pose a challenge to schools that need to staff occupational therapists.

How OT Helps Schools Meet Special Ed Needs

This rising enrollment in special education programs corresponds with the growing importance of OT services in schools. Today, OTs and occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) are instrumental in helping children with a wide range of special needs, including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and muscular dystrophy. They can also help children with developmental delays like dyspraxia, birth conditions like spina bifida, neurological conditions, and other related needs.

In addition to working directly with these children, OTs also fulfill other essential roles with a school, such as:

  • Planning and implementing specific care plans for each student for each school year, including individualized education program (IEP) planning, along with periodic evaluations and updates
  • Helping ensure the physical accessibility not just of classrooms but also cafeterias, gyms, and other important spaces
  • Planning and coordinating extracurricular activities
  • Supporting and communicating with families and caregivers

Certified OTs also help decide what interventions are needed in any given instance. Conditions like autism require a variety of solutions, rather than a single routine. For instance, some children with autism may need more help with motor skills, while others may require a focus on social development. The OT helps set the best course of action by focusing on these individual needs.

7 Benefits of OT Services in Schools

This ability to help children at the individual level helps schools provide fair and equitable educational opportunities and meet their obligations under federal law, as well as any additional state mandates. Implementing functional, well-staffed OT services in schools also helps meet a number of other important goals, including:

1. Meeting Critical Goals

Occupational therapists can help schools develop important skills for special needs children — not just in an academic sense, but also relating to achieving independence in adult life.

2. Promoting Inclusion

Offering OT services in schools means more effectively addressing specific needs such as autism or eating/swallowing problems in a way that doesn’t isolate those with disabilities but ensures equity with other students.

3. Raising Standards

By positively impacting the academic success of individual students, occupational therapy programs can also help raise the quality of the educational experience for the entire student body.

4. Improving Attendance

Offering OT services in schools can improve attendance not only by enabling access to physical spaces but also by providing interventions to eliminate frustrations commonly experienced by special needs children.

5. Keeping Up With Best Practices

Part of the role of a certified OT includes helping implement new methodologies, technologies and/or specialized devices, and equipment to benefit special needs kids and boost program efficiency.

6. Boosting Focus & Participation

Occupational therapy programs can empower students with special needs to focus and participate in class with calming exercises, visual skill development, improved communication, or other techniques.

7. Achieving Behavioral Improvements

Finally, OT services in schools can improve the classroom environment by promoting behavioral and mental health interventions, too. For instance, occupational therapy can help empower special needs students to develop the behavioral skills they need to manage emotions that like anger or impatience.

Using Healthcare Workforce Solutions to Source OT Professionals

Every state sets its own rules for OT certification and how therapy is delivered for special needs students. For instance, some states only permit certified occupational therapists in special education classrooms. Other states allow certified occupational therapist assistants (OTAs) and aides to conduct some of this work, albeit typically under an OT’s direct supervision.

After first ensuring that they understand the rules governing OT services in their state, schools can ensure that their programs are effective and fully staffed by sourcing the professionals they need with the help of a dedicated employment provider.

A workforce specialist can not only provide access to OTs, OTAs, and other necessary workers, but also help employers understand their obligations under state law. That includes understanding the impact of laws like IDEA, which sets limits on how many students are needed to hire a full-time occupational therapist. They can also offer guidance as to what funding or resources are available to support their programs under those same laws.

Meet the Need for OT Services in Schools

From OTs and OTAs to PTs, SLPs, nurses, and so many other clinical professionals, CareerStaff specializes in helping schools and other facilities make sure they have the clinicians they need to support their students, along with an entire suite of healthcare workforce solutions.

Contact us today to find out how our Joint Commission-Certified solutions can help your school — or request OTs now!