When I tell someone I am an occupational therapist, 7 times out of 10 they either respond with a polite, puzzled nod or ask, "Do you help people find jobs?" When I go on to say that I am an occupational therapist in a public elementary school, the typical follow up question is "What job does a kid have?" I will be the first to admit that my profession has a bit of an identity problem.
So, what is occupational therapy?
Let me take a shot at simple explanation: occupational therapists are health care professionals who help people of all ages participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations). This may include teaching a skill, adapting the environment, modifying a challenging task, and educating the client/family in order to maximize participation in and performance of daily activities, particularly those that are meaningful to the client.
Chances are, there are meaningful, important "occupations" in your daily life besides your job...you just may not really think about them until something gets in the way of doing one. Driving a car, preparing your dinner, playing a sport, putting on your own shoes, going to the grocery store, making out with your girlfriend. All occupations.
At school, a kid's job is to play, learn, and take care of himself. When a student is having difficulty with some aspect of participating in his school day due to a developmental delay, disability, or injury, an occupational therapist's job is to help find a way for the student to participate in the full breadth of school activities.
5 Things I Love About Being a School OT:
- I never sit still. My job of chasing kids through obstacle courses, playing with shaving cream, and hanging from swings is wonderfully active. I work with students in many different parts of the elementary school. Over the course of the day, I move from classroom, to gym, to classroom, to playground, to art room...you get the idea.
- I work both independently and as part of a team. Though collaborating as a member of several talented teams is integral to my job, I also have ample opportunity to work independently. I love the balance of community and autonomy.
- Science and art collide in OT. Therapeutic interventions in OT are built on foundational knowledge of kinesiology, biomechanics, neurology, psychological and developmental sciences, but creative problem-solving is what sets OT apart from other rehabilitation and medical professions. As an OT, I am constantly challenged to come up with alternative solutions and my imagination is put to the test. A kid can't seem to sit still and is always tipping/falling out of his seat? Try tying an old bicycle tube around the legs so he can wiggle and kick his feet without disrupting the whole room:
photo from abbypediatricot.com photo from mamaot.com
- My schedule rocks. Unlike many teachers, I have some freedom to build my own schedule. I don't have unbridled control, but the option of changing caseloads, schools, and schedules year-to-year is always available. And, yeah, as I type to you from a plane on my way to Florida for April Vacation, I have to admit that working on the public school calendar is pretty rad.
- Helping kids feel successful is unmatched by any other reward. Sometimes helping kids meet their goals is a struggle. I've worked with children and families who encounter seemingly insurmountable obstacles every single day. But when a beaming kiddo bounces up to me in the hallway to proudly exclaim "I tied my own shoe!", it reminds me why I do what I do. Helping children feel independent and accomplished is self-serving, because it makes me feel independent and accomplished.
Check out this brochure from the American Occupational Therapy Association or visit www.aota.org!