Special Education

Understanding the Difference Between Clinic-Based and School-Based Physical Therapy

If you are transitioning from a clinic or hospital-based physical therapist job to a school-based PT job, you may have an idea about how these physical therapy settings are different. After all, you know you will be working with children and teens in an educational environment as opposed to a clinical setting. Although the foundations of your responsibilities as a physical therapist are similar, there are also many differences to be aware of. Consider some of the following questions and answers regarding the differences between clinically-based and school-based PT work.

What is Clinic or Hospital Based Physical Therapy?

When you work in a clinical setting, such as a nursing home or hospital, physical therapy is usually recommended by the doctor based on the patient’s diagnosis. It is also common for hospital based physical therapists to work with patients who have just gone through a surgical procedure and require physical therapy before going home. The role of a physical therapist in this setting is to restore physical mobility and functionality. In addition to conducting physical therapy activities with the patient, a physical therapist will also work to educate the patient on what they can do outside of the hospital setting in order to maintain practice outside of the hospital setting. They seek to educate their patients on safe practices as well as exercises to practice, in order to maintain progress in their treatment.

What is School Based Physical Therapy? 

The goal of providing physical therapy in schools is to ensure that students are able to achieve optimal educational success within their school environment. When it comes to qualifying for services in a school setting, physical therapy is considered a related service for children who benefit from special education. Children who receive special education services are entitled under law also to receive physical therapy services, which support a student’s individualized educational program (IEP). Physical therapy in a school setting certainly comes with its rewards. To play a role in a student achieving developmental milestones such as participating in group play and  throwing/catching. Physical therapists are often involved in assisting sport teams at the high school level.

Different Types of Physical Therapy Settings

With a variety of physical therapy settings, there are certainly several factors to consider when searching for the perfect fit. While there are both pros and cons to any setting, there are an abundance of options that will ensure a perfect fit. Here are a different types of physical therapy settings to consider.


Within hospitals, there are a few departments that physical therapists work in. For example, physical therapists in acute care assist patients who are recovering from a surgical procedure or are recovering from another medical emergency. Physical therapists in this role work with patients to determine their level of physical ability and what kind of additional therapy they require before leaving the hospital. Another type of physical therapist in hospitals include inpatient care. These physical therapists regularly treat patients who remain in a hospital setting.


In a school setting, physical therapists work with students in order to help them achieve optimal educational success within their learning environment. In this role, school-based physical therapists may work with a team of teachers and other school-based professionals to ensure that an individualized plan is created for the student(s). This can include actions such as the most efficient seating arrangement within the classroom, as well as additional accommodations to serve the student. School-based physical therapists usually work one-on-one with the student(s) in order to work on various techniques and movements that will address the students’ physical therapy needs. 

Home Health

Physical therapists that practice home health visit patients in their homes in order to conduct physical therapy services. Patients made require home health PT in the case that they are unable to leave their house to attend physical therapy appointments or they feel more comfortable with receiving care in their home setting. Providing physical therapy to patients within their home setting presents the unique opportunity to address the patients’ specific goals and needs. 

Nursing Homes

There are several reasons for physical therapists to provide services in nursing home settings. For instance, with a high risk of falling, physical therapists often assist seniors to develop balance in order to reduce their chance of falls. Aside from applying increased safety measures, physical therapists assist seniors with regular physical exercise which is an overall health benefit by improving mobility and strength.  

Are Physical Therapy Techniques Different in a School Setting?

The principles of physical therapy – such as improving motor function, strength, and balance – remain the same regardless of the setting. Therapists in all settings assess their patients and implement therapeutic interventions. But physical therapy in a school setting primarily addresses physical challenges that interfere with the child’s education. For example, a physical therapist may work with a student to explore seating adaptations or teach children how to use adaptive equipment that helps the student move around the school.

It’s common for therapists to focus on increasing mobility and safety so children can participate in school activities. In some instances, physical therapists instruct teachers on how to assist the child with physical tasks or help the student use adaptive equipment.

What is the Best Physical Therapist Work Environment For You?

There are several factors to consider when choosing the best work environment as a physical therapist. For instance, consider the physical working environment such a school, hospital or home setting. Do additional research on the specifics of each option to see which appeals to you the most. Also, another factor to take into consideration is which patients you will be working with. Does a school environment seem like an area that you would thrive in? Perhaps working to assist an elderly population is where you would prefer to practice. Be sure to consider all of your options, ask questions and do research. The Sunbelt Staffing team is a great resource to help guide you when choosing your next physical therapy assignment. Be sure to utilize their assistance as you move forward in your physical therapy career. 

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