Working as a physical therapist in a school setting can be interesting, fulfilling, and, at times, challenging. School-based physical therapists guide students and their families through treatment plans aimed at improving endurance, range of motion, coordination, balance, and/or strength.
The work of a school-based physical therapist is vital in helping children overcome physical issues that may interfere with their social, emotional and academic development. This work is not always easy, but having certain skills can increase your chances of success. Consider the following tips that can greatly enhance your skills as a school-based physical therapist.
Types of skills a school-based physical therapist needs
Building a successful career as a physical therapist means taking a proactive approach to skill development. The role of a school-based physical therapist encompasses a wide-range of skills that can be applied specifically to patient situations, emphasizing the importance of maintaining these essential skills. Physical therapists face a unique challenge, as they must stay up-to-date with industry knowledge, while also communicating efficiently with patients in order to share this knowledge in a clear and concise manner.
We have put together a list of some of the essential skills to have as a physical therapist, specifically in a school environment. These qualities are leveraged on a daily basis and should certainly be assessed when considering a school-based job opportunity.
- Time management. Working as a school physical therapist requires you to juggle therapy sessions, IEP meetings, charting, and other administrative responsibilities. Since there are only so many hours in a workday, having good time management skills is essential to stay on track.
- Teamwork. School-based physical therapists work with other members of a team, including occupational therapists, school counselors, social workers, teachers and parents. Having the ability to work well independently, as well as part of a team, is a necessary skill.
- Communication. Good communication skills are a must for school-based physical therapists. Not only do you need to work well with your students, but you will also be interacting with staff and families on a regular basis.
- Motivational skills. Physical therapists need to have the ability to motivate students to work hard, persevere, and work through obstacles. There will be days where students will not want to do anything, so the physical therapist needs to be an innovative cheerleader to encourage their progress.
- Dedication. Not all children and families are easy to work with. There will be difficult cases and hard days that make you wonder if you are making a difference. Therapists who are dedicated will stick with it when moments of self-doubt arise.
- Patience. All children are different. Some will work hard, while others will prefer not to cooperate. However, a good physical therapist has the patience to keep at it and encourage their students to keep going.
- Physical stamina. It is common for school-based physical therapists to spend a lot of time stooping, kneeling, and crouching as they work with students. Strength and stamina is a must in order to adequately provide services.
- Problem-solving skills. Not every student responds the same way to certain techniques and strategies. Therapists need strong problem-solving skills to push through challenges and adapt to new or changing situations.
- Compassion. School physical therapists work with students who have all types of disabilities, such as neurological, orthopedic or genetic conditions, as well as students who have sustained injuries due to accidents. Therapists should be able to push children to reach their full potential while still maintaining a compassionate attitude.
- Flexibility. Not every day as a school physical therapist goes according to plan. Students get cranky, unexpected situations arise, and sometimes, you have to go with the flow by being flexible.
8 ways to improve your skills as a school-based physical therapist
If you are working as a school-based physical therapist, you want to do the best job possible to help your students reach their academic potential. But have you reached your full potential as a therapist? Part of becoming a school-based physical therapist is continuing your journey of personal growth and education. Consider some of the following ways you can improve school-based physical therapist skills.
1. Become board certified in pediatrics
Position yourself as a trusted specialist and elevate your pt skills by becoming board certified in pediatrics. This certification allows you to deepen your knowledge of physical and developmental needs for school aged children while providing the tools to enhance your assessment skills. Once complete, you will be able to address unique situations better and communicate them to both students and their parents.
Get started with The American Board of Physical Therapist Specialties’ board certification in pediatrics. To become certified, therapists need to complete an application, pay the certification fee, and pass an exam.
2. Build strong relationships with your patients and their caregivers
The difference between a good school-based physical therapist and an excellent one is their ability to build a strong foundation with their clients. School-based therapy is different from working in a hospital. You work with your clients for an extended time. Students and parents need to trust their PT.
To work on this skill, focus on actively listening and taking the time to understand the concerns and needs of both the child and their parents. Maintain a compassionate and non-judgemental approach at all times and make sure to involve everyone in any treatment decisions that need to be made. Building trust takes time, but with mutual respect and empathy, you will be on your way to more positive patient experiences.
3. Recognize when you don’t know something and do more research
Regardless of how long you have been a physical therapist, continuing your education is an essential way to improve school-based physical therapy skills. If you do not have the answer to something, avoid faking your way through the situation. Instead, do your research or consult with colleagues to find the correct answer.
Maintaining a high standard of care should be your main priority, and that requires making an effort to know your subject matter before providing a response.
4. Get involved in a professional PT association
Professional physical therapy associations are a great resource for education and skill development. Organizations, such as the American Physical Therapy Association and state PT organizations, hold workshops and offer continuing education classes.
Joining these associations allows you to collaborate with fellow professionals, exchange insights, and learn different perspectives in the physical therapy field. You can start by researching PT associations relevant to your specialization or location and becoming a member. To get the most out of your membership, actively participate in their events, conferences, and online forums to network and share knowledge.
5. Consider learning a foreign language
Depending on what area of the country you practice in, learning a foreign language may be helpful to improving your skills as a school-based physical therapist. Some communities are more diverse than others and getting over language barriers is a great way to connect to a wider population.
You can learn a new language by enrolling in a class or studying on your own. To get the most out of your studies, practice regularly by talking to native speakers or use language learning apps and other resources to put your skills to the test. Immersion experiences, such as travel or working in environments where the language is spoken, can also accelerate your language skills.
6. Take leadership courses to collaborate better with other team members
Physical therapists working in a school setting usually work as part of a team with occupational and speech therapists, as well as teachers and school counselors. Often offered through community colleges and professional organizations, leadership seminars can help you develop the skills needed to collaborate successfully with other professionals.
With an emphasis on communication, mentorship and decision-making skills, leadership courses are a great tool to improve school-based physical therapy skills.
7. Never stop learning to improve your school PT skills
Ongoing education and learning is a fundamental tool for improving your school-based physical therapy skills. If you want to continue growing in this career, you have to stay current in the field of physical therapy.
Look for ways to improve your knowledge of school-based therapy, such as talking with colleagues in the field, reading trade journals, researching school-based physical therapy activities, and engaging in professional development opportunities.
New technology, information, and medicine are always changing the way you may do your job. Regularly staying updated on the latest research and best practices in pediatric physical therapy will help you continually enhance your skills and provide the highest quality care to your students.
8. Continue showing compassion to students
It is easy to get caught up in developing treatment plans, charting, and completing the many tasks you do as a school-based PT. With large caseloads and busy days, burnout hits even the most experienced physical therapists.
Finding time to relax and unwind is crucial. By doing so, you can better show up for your students and practice with the care and patience to get the job done. Do not forget the reasons you chose a career in school-based physical therapy. Hold on to your compassion and empathy.
Your work as a school-based physical therapist is crucial and never ending. Navigating your role and the unique challenges that come with it can feel overwhelming but actively working on improving your skills as a school-based physical therapist is just one way to feel more confident and show up for your students. By dedicating yourself to skill development, you not only enhance your own professional growth but also provide invaluable support to the students, parents, and teachers who rely on your expertise.
Ready to start a new chapter in your physical therapy career? Check out our school physical therapy job listings to help you get started!