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How to Become a Pediatric Occupational Therapist

Nov 16, 2023

Pediatric Occupational Therapy Session with Child

Pediatric occupational therapy is a rewarding career with a lot of potential growth. Pediatric OTs help children and adolescents with injuries or disabilities improve their mobility and live more independent lives.

In this article, we’ll walk through what a pediatric occupational therapist is, what steps you would take to become one, and how much you can expect to make as a pediatric OT.

What Is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist?

A pediatric OT works with children and teens who have suffered an injury or have congenital, cognitive or physical disabilities that have affected their mobility. They help them develop and refine the motor and processing skills they need to perform day-to-day tasks. These include tasks such as

  • Grasping and picking up items
  • Handwriting and drawing
  • Feeding skills, handling eating utensils and drinking cups
  • Playing and socializing
  • Performing self-care tasks such as brushing teeth and hair

The goal for each of their patients is to gain the ability and confidence to perform those tasks on their own—to become more independent and functional.

To do that, pediatric occupational therapists will start by observing a patient and checking their medical history. Through a formal assessment, they will determine a patient’s limitations and come up with a plan for rehabilitation.

A rehabilitation plan will include exercises that focus on specific goals. They will then work with their patient to perform these exercises and record their progress. As the patient progresses, a pediatric OT will adjust the plan as needed.

A pediatric OT will also provide exercises to perform at home with a parent or guardian.

Pediatric occupational therapists are advocates for their patients. They will work with other healthcare providers to make sure they are receiving the right treatment, and they work to ensure that each patient is able to be successful and independent across multiple environments and contexts.

How Do Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Differ?

If you’re considering both occupational therapy and physical therapy, it’s important to know what each profession does.

While both work with patients who have suffered injuries or live with physical limitations caused by illness or congenital conditions, the way they treat their patients is different.

Pediatric physical therapists often help children with mobility difficulties, developing their gross motor skills,  or orthopedic conditions. A pediatric physical therapist’s focus is for children to be as mobile as possible in their lives. Pediatric physical therapists address anything that may impact a child’s movement, posture, or body alignment. Meanwhile, pediatric occupational therapists work on a wide variety of motor skills, play skills, cognitive functioning, along with sensory processing to help their bodies interpret information from the environment so they can better understand their world around them.

In fact, a patient may see both a physical therapist and an occupational therapist as part of their treatment plan.

How Do You Become a Pediatric OT?

There are several steps to becoming a pediatric OT. Let’s walk through each of them.

Bachelor’s Degree

If you want to become a pediatric OT, you will first have to complete an undergraduate program relevant to the field. Usually, pediatric occupational therapists earn bachelor’s degrees in majors that include

  • Psychology
  • Education or special education
  • Biology
  • Kinesiology
  • Exercise physiology
  • Pre-occupational therapy
  • Child development

Some undergrads take on an internship in occupational therapy while they are earning their degree. If you’re serious about specializing in pediatric occupational therapy, or even if you simply want to see if it’s for you, look for opportunities to work specifically with children or adolescents.

Master’s Degree and Optional Doctorate

Once you’ve completed your bachelor’s degree, and perhaps an internship, the next step is to earn a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Typically, a master’s program spans two years. Here, you will begin to specialize in your chosen field with courses related to health and human sciences, patient care, and occupational therapy techniques and practices.

You will also have to complete a number of clinical hours with an occupational therapist.

After you complete your master’s degree, you could go on to pursue a doctorate, although it’s not required. It does, however, open up opportunities for higher salaries and promotion to more senior positions.

Test, Licensing and Clinical Hours

After your master’s degree, it’s time to take your NBCOT certification exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

Once you pass, you are certified to work as an occupational therapist, but you still have to be licensed in your state.

According to the state of Arizona, occupational therapists have to satisfy five requirements to obtain their license and work in Arizona.

  • be of good moral character
  • successfully complete a master’s program
  • successfully complete a period of supervised fieldwork
  • pass the NBCOT exam
  • pay the appropriate fee

To apply for a license, Arizona requires a copy of your NBCOT exam, sent directly to them from the organization. To do that, go to www.nbcot.org and request a Score Transfer Report.

You will also have to submit a copy of a valid fingerprint clearance card issued by the Arizona Department of Public Safety, along with proof of completion of your master’s degree and your supervised field work.

For more information, visit the Arizona Occupational Therapy Association’s website.

There are further certifications you can pursue, including certification by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), which offers board certifications in pediatrics.

This is an optional step, but it does give you the opportunity for further education in pediatrics, as well as more credibility in the field. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) offers a board certification program for pediatrics and other specialty areas.

How Much do Pediatric Occupational Therapists Make?

Indeed.com lists the national average salary for pediatric occupational therapists at about $83,000/year, according to Indeed. Salaries in Arizona meet that average.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), occupational therapy jobs are expected to grow 16% between 2019 and 2029, faster than other related professions and similar to that of pediatric physical therapy.

What Kinds of Skills Do Pediatric Occupational Therapists Have?

Aside from their formal education, where pediatric occupational therapists acquire the hard skills they need to assess patients, design treatment plans, and work to improve patients’ mobility, there are a number of soft skills they need, as well.

Those include

  • Listening and communication skills
  • Patience and empathy
  • Problem-solving skills and the ability to think creatively
  • Flexibility and the ability to handle stress
  • Time management and organization skills

Is Pediatric Occupational Therapy Right for You?

If you like to work with kids and teens, and the idea of helping your patients build their confidence and their independence, the field of pediatric occupational therapy might be the right fit for you. At Jodi Gilray PT, our team offers a great working environment, great team, and mentoring for personal growth.

If you’d like to learn more about becoming a pediatric physical therapist, check out a program near you, or get in touch with our hiring manager, Dawn, at (928)-771-9327 or dawn@gilraytherapy.com.