How to Become an Occupational Therapist

The responsibility of the teacher is to educate their students and provide them the tools to succeed. However, there can be a host of external factors that students face, which can hinder the learning process and require personal help outside the classroom, especially when it manifests as a physical or mental problem. For school children and youth, dexterity issues such as poor handwriting, or difficulty holding a book or instrument correctly, and issues concentrating in class or during homework are common, increasing the challenge of school for students. School occupational therapists are there to help make sure daily activities inside and outside the classroom come easier to them.

Occupational therapists play an integrative role in the school environment, tackling student-specific issues with designed care, and streamlining solutions into the greater environment, whether in the classroom, auditorium, or schoolyard. Occupational therapists often communicate with teachers and parents to better understand a student’s issues and craft solutions such as adjusted seating arrangements and home exercises to get them back on track.

Job Description for Occupational Therapists in Schools

Occupational Therapists in schools hold responsibility for assisting students with physical, mental, and social disabilities to perform daily activities in the school environment. Occupational therapists evaluate all the components of social competence and determine whether a child’s motor, social, emotional, and cognitive skills; ability to interpret sensory information; and the influence from home, school, and community environments have an impact on his or her ability to meet the demands of everyday life.

Occupational therapists manage various stakeholders throughout the process, including students, teachers, parents, school administrators, and healthcare administrators. Occupational therapists recommend early childhood evaluations to identify student disabilities early on, and plantreatments in the child’s early cognitive development stages. Streamlining efforts between teachers and parents to implement treatment strategies is a critical responsibility, therefore occupational therapists must be communicative and decisive throughout the process.

Demand for Occupational Therapists in Schools

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 data, big city areas have the highest employment levels for school, adult, and rehabilitation occupational therapy, with the New York/New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles/Long Beach, Philadelphia, and Boston.

Elementary and Secondary Schools employ approximately 16,770 occupational therapists, accounting for an estimated 13% of the field.

Overall, the occupational therapy field has a growth outlook of 18% (faster than average) for the next ten years as of 2018.

Occupational Therapist in Schools Shortages by State

A shortage area is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as a geographic location in which "there is an inadequate supply" of qualified professionals. The Department allows states to identify their own shortage areas, but encourages them to follow a prescribed methodology based on unfilled positions, positions filled by professionals with irregular certifications, and positions filled by professionals certified in other areas. Because the Department allows states to report shortages as they wish, some states only report teacher shortages while others include administrative shortages as well. Please reference each state's department of education to learn more about their particular shortage areas.

Salary for Occupational Therapists in Schools

According to the BLS, the average salary for a school occupational therapist was around $74,670 in 2019. The current highest paid states for school, adult, and rehabilitation occupational therapists are New York, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Florida (as of May 2019).

Work schedules can vary just as dramatically: some school occupational therapists work year round, others work on the school year schedule.

Steps to Becoming an Occupational Therapist for Schools

Education Requirements

While not everyone will share the same OTD journey, we have gathered some common steps and milestones for you to you consider.

According to the  American Occupational Therapy Association since occupational therapists in schools are fully trained therapists, they need at least a bachelor’s degree—usually in occupational therapy or a relevant field such as: biology, kinesiology, health sciences, psychology, or linguistics. All states require a master’s degree in occupational therapy from an institution accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) to earn a license, and thereafter are eligible to enter the workforce. Furthermore, all entry level OTs will be required by AOTA/ACOTE to earn their doctorate starting July 1, 2027.  We recommend checking with your state on what the OT certification requirements are where you wish to practice. In addition, check your state’s Board of Education requirements for practicing as a school occupational therapist in public and private school settings.

Continuing education is a key component to renewing your occupational therapy license. Requirements for occupational therapy continuing education credits vary by state, therefore it is recommended to confirm the rules and regulation within your state of residence. AOTA offers resources for CE credits.

National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) Examination for Licensure

The final step toward becoming a practicing school occupational therapist is passing the NBCOT exam. Steps to completing the NBCOT requirement include an online application fee, submission of official college transcripts, a background check, and earning a passing score on NBCOT examination. Check the NBCOT exam handbook for more information.

Earning a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy

Earning a doctorate in occupational therapy (OTD) can accelerate your career, paving the way toward roles in healthcare administration, education, clinical leadership, and field research. All entry level OTs will be required by AOTA/Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) to earn their doctorate starting July 1, 2027. Read more here about earning a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy.

Last Updated May 2020