Advice From a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and Blogger
Primary Practice Area: Pediatrics
Years in Practice: 8 years
How did you become interested in OT?
When I was thinking about career paths, I didn’t have a clear idea in my head of what I wanted to do. I had a general idea that I wanted to help people and was leaning toward a career in healthcare. During my freshman year of college I observed a variety of healthcare professionals, and that is when I discovered occupational therapy. I had never even heard of the profession before that! I was really drawn to the holistic approach of OT and as I learned more about the profession, I loved that it was founded in mental health.
Briefly describe your career path.
I never intended to work in pediatrics, but I am so grateful that this is where I ended up. Looking back, I’m not sure why I was resistant to pediatrics, because I spent my high school years babysitting a child with sensory issues, my college years doing volunteer work with children, and all through OT school I was told that my calm demeanor would be a great fit for pediatrics. I guess I couldn’t see all of the signs right in front of my face!
After completing a combined BS/MS program in Occupational Therapy, I worked in acute care with adults for one year. I enjoyed that job and loved the clients, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. After that, I made the jump into pediatrics. I then spent the next five years working for a company that provided a variety of pediatric OT services. During this time, I provided school-based, clinic-based, and home-based early intervention services. It was such a great learning experience for me, because I was able to get a taste of a variety of practice areas within pediatrics. It was at this time that I also began pursuing specialty education in feeding therapy.
When my husband’s job took us to the East Coast, I worked in a private school for students with learning disabilities for a year and a half. I worked primarily with middle school and high school students and I learned so much during that time, as the school had a big focus on developing executive function skills and social skills. I’ll admit, I was a bit worried about working with teenagers, but it was so much fun!
We then hopped back to the West Coast for a year (due to my husband’s job, again), and during that time I worked full-time in early intervention. Again, I really enjoyed this opportunity, as it allowed me to dive deeper into this practice area and get back into feeding therapy, which is a specialty area that I absolutely love.
In January of this year, we moved back to the East Coast (hopefully to stay this time!) and I’m currently in the process of applying and interviewing for a new job. I have definitely had a non-traditional career path (and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it!), but I am so grateful that I have had the opportunity to work in and explore a variety of pediatric settings.
What is your favorite part of being an occupational therapist?
Seeing growth in the children and families I work with. Seeing a child’s face light up when they discover that they can do something new or hearing a parent exclaim with joy when their child does that new thing. It is so special to be a part of that and it keeps me going through any challenges.
What is the biggest challenge?
For me, the biggest challenge is not letting the work overwhelm me emotionally. I am a very sensitive person, which is a great quality to have as an OT, but it can also pose a challenge when interacting with families that are going through emotionally challenging situations on a day to day basis. This is especially true in early intervention, when in any given day, you may encounter a family who just found out that their child has autism, another family who is coming to terms with the long-term implications of having a child with a disability, and a mother who is distressed because her child is not eating as much as she (or her pediatrician) would like. It is an emotional rollercoaster for parents as they move through the new territory of having a child with special needs. I personally am very affected by the emotions of those surrounding me, so I have really had to learn to separate the emotions that I encounter during my work day from the rest of my day. With all of that said, it has gotten easier for me over the years, as I have watched parents grow and progress through these challenging times.
For those less sensitive than I, this is probably not as big of a challenge, and those OTs might just say, “oh, the never ending paperwork!” as their biggest challenge. I may be a bit odd in that I enjoy writing and I’m overly organized at times, so I really don’t mind the paperwork aspect that much.
What changes do you hope to see in your practice area in the next 5 years?
Oh, I have so many thoughts on this, I don’t even know where to start! For early intervention, I would like to see funding continue to get sent this way. I am such a strong believer in early intervention services, and truly believe that the earlier services start, the better.
For pediatric practice (and all of OT practice, really!), I’d like to see more research completed to support why we are doing what we are doing. Research is not only critical for best practice, but also for reimbursement and promoting our profession.
One piece of advice to OT students:
Be open to the many directions your OT career can take. Learn about all of the possible practice areas and you might discover a love for an area of OT that you never knew about!
If someone was interested in pursuing work in your pediatrics, how would you recommend they proceed?
Pediatric occupational therapy covers such a broad scope of practice, it can seem like the possibilities are endless just within pediatrics. I always recommend to OT students, or even occupational therapists who are thinking about switching gears to pediatrics, that the best thing to do is to observe pediatric OTs in action. That is the best way to truly get a feel for what a pediatric OT does day to day. Also, school-based OT is a bit of its own world, with all of the federal and state regulations, so if at all possible, I would recommend a school-based fieldwork experience or practicing in a clinic setting to get the basics of child development down, before moving onto the complexities that can come with working in a school.