School-based occupational therapists assist students with various types of challenges by promoting their daily functional performance and benefit from the academic curriculum. Occupational therapy (OT) in the school setting is a “related service” meaning that it is not separate from the curriculum, but supports the student’s participation in the curriculum and addresses the obstacles interfering with attaining academic goals. The profession of occupational therapy is concerned with a person’s ability to participate in daily life activities, also referred to as “occupations.” The occupation of a student in school includes everyday skills like use of school materials, written work, behavior/self-regulation, and self-care.
Within public schools occupational therapy is governed by federal and state special education law, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004. Best practice indicates that interventions are most effective when provided where performance naturally occurs. The academic focus of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) requires that supports be provided in the child’s natural environment.
School occupational therapists may consider the following questions when determining the provision of therapy services:
- What are the student’s educational needs for which the OT can provide unique skills and perspective?
- How do the needs of the student impact educational performance?
- How will OT services improve performance that will contribute to the achievement of the student’s educational goals aligned with curricula?
- What can the OT provide that is different from other team members?
Occupational therapy services in the educational setting differ from those in rehabilitation and other medical settings. OT services in the schools are solely to support the educational process. A student may manifest a disability that does not significantly interfere with educational performance and then school-based OT would not be warranted.
School-based physical therapy is integrated into the student’s educational goals as outlined in their Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The physical therapist may service a student with a variety of disabilities in order to enhance functioning and attain education objectives. They can assist with problem solving to eliminate barriers that hinder access to educational environments and assist in modifications and accommodations to support students in their general educational program. To the extent possible, physical therapy is integrated and provided in the student’s natural environment (e.g. classroom, lunchroom, stairs, hallways, playground). The physical therapist works toward the student’s independence and participation in school.
The physical therapist also provides services to the infant/toddler birth – three population through the Early On Program. These services are provided in the home to assist the family and the child in developing age appropriate gross motor skills and provide assistance in modifications needed at home for the child’s development and success.