As I walked through the hallways, wondering where to get started and how to begin, I wished I had something I always do (the organizer that I am), a checklist! A checklist of the things I need to accomplish first, separating the absolute ‘have-to’s’ from the ‘can-do-later’s’.
To be honest, even though you may be a therapist with excellent treatment skills, it can be very overwhelming if you don’t know what comes along with your job as a school-based OT. This could often be time consuming, and you could find yourself getting lost in this for the first few weeks or even months.
Personally, I have worked in over six school districts across the bay area (CA), and I want to bring everything that I learned, along with my personal experiences, to you. You can have decades of experience in the school system and still not know everything about the job! This article offers insight into what helps you effectively prepare for your job as a school-based OT. It is something that I wish I had had, when I first started out.
This is going to make your job SO much easier, I assure you!
Things to know – an OT Checklist
1. Introduce Yourself
At the District Office, introduce yourself to the SPED director, the administrative assistant, the technology staff, everyone you think would be involved in making your job easy. Make sure they know who you are; visibility is important and the familiarity will go a long way in making your work easier!
At each of the schools, meet your fellow therapists, teachers who you may potentially be working with, the Principal, and most importantly, the school secretary. At one of my first IEP meetings, as the round of introductions began at the table, the Principal of one of the schools I served looked at me and said “I haven’t met you before.” It was embarrassing. I had tried to introduce myself on multiple occasions, but she was either out of her office, or busy with someone else. I should have persisted. Regardless, it taught me the importance of being visible, you don’t want the parents of a child to get the impression that you’re not part of the team.
2. Build a positive relationship with the school secretary
At most sites, the school secretary is the one who will help you gain access to things like the copy code for the copy machine in the staff room, a room for your OT sessions (sometimes it is a cute little space, sometimes a room that you will share with another therapist, sometimes a tiny something like a windowless closet, or at other times the vast emptiness of the MPR. Either way, you’d want to build a positive relationship with them!)
They will also set you up with some other essentials such as:
- A map of the school site (since you will be shuffling between different kids in different classes and familiarizing yourself to each site, especially if you are at multiple schools takes a while!)
- The IEP calendar – This is sometimes compiled with the IEP team and at other times it is ready ahead of time. Grab a copy and pen down all the meetings that are relevant to your caseload in your calendar. Some schools have specific days set aside for IEPs; try and arrange your schedule so that you’re there on those days, to avoid additional and unnecessary drive time.
- The Bell Schedule – Knowing the timings will help you schedule your sessions accordingly.
- The School Calendar – Important to keep note of holidays, non-instructional days.
- The Staff Roster – Get to know which teachers you will be working with, their classroom numbers, their emails for ease of communication especially scheduling OT sessions.
3. Technology Staff
Remember I told you to say your “hellos” to the lovely technology department? Well, here’s why—they are the ones who will assign you a laptop with access to the school’s and district office’s printers. You will NEED that to print worksheets, IEP reports, etc.
4. Get your schedule set up by week 1
Okay, realistically, this will probably not happen. It may take a couple weeks or sometimes even a month for you to have a set schedule for the school/schools you’re servicing. Reason being, those students on your caseload are probably being seen by multiple therapists who are also trying to fit them in their schedules. In addition to that, some states have set rules that the child cannot be seen for therapy during physical education (PE) and certain other times of the day. You will be juggling around A LOT, because that’s what normally happens. Have a rough skeleton or a draft, and then move the tiny humans around like players on a game board. Juggling your schedule can be fun but also time consuming, but once you’ve figured out a schedule template that works for you, it will make things easier. Having a blank landscape of Monday through Friday set up in 30 minute increments through the day helped me tremendously. Having a digital calendar for your schedule is also extremely helpful. In case your administrator asks for a copy, or you want to share it with your supervisor or colleagues for whatever reason, it is easy to send them a link to your digital calendar.
5. Create buffers in your schedule
If you schedule everyone back to back for therapy, that will leave you with little time for productive non-treatment things that you will be pulled into inadvertently. There may be a screening for a student, or a staff member might want to ‘briefly discuss’ a child who may have concerns. You may have an IEP meeting scheduled in the middle of the day for some reason. Whatever the case, keeping some time in between sessions is always a good idea. Referrals can be pouring in throughout the year, so you may have to add students on your caseload as needed as well. And if you’re traveling from one school to another, you will be thankful for the extra 10 minutes to grab a cup of coffee!
6. Schedule times for Assessments/Screenings/Report writing
Try to set aside certain blocks of time for these events. You will not ALWAYS have an assessment or a screening every week. In that case, use this time to prepare for your sessions, prep treatment material, update your quarterly progress reports when due, make phone calls, write emails, there is always something to be done. Having this block of time may ensure that you get all your work done at the school site (which is not always a reality) without having you carry a lot of work home.
7. Talk to the Aides/Paraprofessionals
They are the professionals who often know most about the student, their schedule, etc. It always pays to have a good relationship with them since they can be important players on your team when it comes to carryover of therapy in the classroom. Developing a good rapport with them will be a huge advantage to you, when you’re trying to educate them on the child’s OT services.
8. Be a team player
There will be times when you will probably be adjusting your schedule half way through the year because another therapist simply cannot make any modifications to theirs., or the student is picked up for another therapy and has to be at a certain place at a certain time. Whatever the case may be, BE A TEAM PLAYER. Adjust, try and make things work if it’s not too hard for you, schedule wise. Try and co-treat with the SLP if possible. Think of solutions!
9. Get organized
I am such a sucker for stationery! My husband calls me a hoarder because I have boxes full of pens, sticky notes, planners and what not at home. But that’s besides the point! Organizing actually helped me a lot in my job as a school-based OT. Get binders/folders and organize your forms, treatment planning sheets, checklists, and handouts on a per school basis. Sometimes you may have the good fortune of having a room at every school you serve and you can just leave the binder there if you know you won’t need to be referring to it. I also kept digital copies of the important documents in order to access them at any time at any place.
10. Therapy material
If your school/company is reimbursing you for materials that you are purchasing for therapy, that’s great! Get your materials in place at the beginning of the school year itself. You may either choose to keep all your items in one bag and transport it across different school sites, or you could keep some of the materials at each school. Play it by ear. Having a library of digital materials which you can have easy access to, is one of the better ways to organize your therapy material. You could use these in a variety of ways; print them out for in-person sessions, for your teletherapy sessions, and even if you’re doing a hybrid model. Verge Learning Inc. boasts of a vast content library, with contributions from some of the top OT and SLP content creators in the industry!
11. Collaborate with other therapists, especially OTs
If all the OTs working at the district can manage a monthly meeting, that would be ideal. This is where you could discuss difficult cases where you may be hitting a wall with treatment ideas, or just simply want to talk OT with other OTs!
12. Nobody is perfect
Know and understand that it is okay to make mistakes! Especially as a first-timer in this position or at this location, you might forget to update something in a section for an upcoming IEP, or may erroneously schedule a student for therapy at the same time as another therapist did… it is okay! Things like this happen, and all you need to do is take a deep breath, work through the issue, and make a note to yourself, so it doesn’t happen again. Don’t beat yourself up over it! Reach out for support if you need, to other therapists, to teachers; you are all ultimately part of the same team! I remember before my very first IEP, I sat with the SLP in her room for the entire lunch break discussing if I had uploaded everything I needed to in the system. It helped a great deal to have that second pair of eyes looking over what needed to be done.
13. Be flexible!
We’re OTs. We are masters at teaching people how to adapt. Apply that to your school job as well and you will enjoy your job rather than be stressed about it. Does a student have something else going on the day you normally see them for therapy? No problem. Group them into a session later to make up for the lost time, or push into class with them.
Wishing you all the very best in your school-based venture!
Being a school-based OT was one of the most fun and most fulfilling jobs I have had. I wish you all the luck and hope you succeed beyond your wildest expectations.
What did you have the most difficulty with when you first started out as a school-based OT? What are the resources that you found helpful?
Let us know in the comments section below!
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Krupa Kuruvilla, MA, OTR/L
Product Specialist at Verge Learning
XceptionalED Leader at XceptionalED
Want to learn more about me? You can find a quick intro to my background and experiences HERE!
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