Here is what you can expect working as a school physical therapist. It can be a tremendously rewarding career for the right person. Understanding the role, its challenges, and the benefits can help you decide if working in the field of school-based PT is a good fit for you.
What do physical therapists do in schools?
School-based therapists help students with disabilities overcome their physical challenges to achieve their educational goals. Helping such students thrive in a mainstream educational environment helps them learn and socialize at the same pace as their peers.
Typically, a school physical therapist is part of the team that develops an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for students. They develop treatment plans and implement appropriate therapy strategies to ensure students can physically access education resources.
What is the role of a school-based physical therapist on an IEP team?
School physical therapists work in a collaborative environment with occupational and speech therapists, as well as teachers and aides. Parents also participate in the IEP conversations, as they know their child’s strengths, needs and interests better than anyone else.
You will use these insights to create a specific, individualized therapeutic plan for each student that helps them meet grade level curriculum expectations. You will also support the child’s participation in classroom activities and extracurricular activities with their classmates.
Is physical therapy repetitive in a school setting?
Working in physical therapy in schools is an exceptionally fulfilling option. The differences between clinic-based and school-based physical therapy
are many. You will be helping young people begin lives that are full of promise, despite their disabilities. If you enjoy being part of a team, the collaborative nature of working in a school is an ideal physical therapy work environment
. Ultimately, choosing a career in school-based physical therapy will allow you to:
Work on different tasks every day
School-based PT is anything but routine. The important duties of a school-based physical therapist
include the challenge of developing and modifying treatment plans. Coordinating with teachers, staff and parents, you will help children succeed academically, participate in enrichment opportunities and extracurricular activities, and even sports. Every day will bring you a new challenge along with a new reward.
Meet clients with different needs
You will have the opportunity to work with children of all ages and help them work through various types of physical challenges. Your expertise will support developmental milestones, such as refining walking and running skills, participating in group play, and throwing and catching. You will use a variety of techniques to help students truly thrive.
Get involved in treatment plans for different age groups
Because student needs and abilities change as they grow, you will refine treatment plans to evolve with them. As students mature, they will be able to better communicate their desires and hopes to you. From developing basic abilities to eventually participating in team and individual sports, their achievements will depend on your work to open new horizons for them.
Enjoy a positive work environment and work-life balance
Another reason to become a school-based physical therapist is the healthy work-life balance. Instead of grueling 12-hour shifts in a hospital, you will mostly work during school day hours and rarely on weekends. In many cases, you will also have summers off. Because of high demand and federal mandates, you will not need to worry about budget cuts like you might in a hospital or nursing home. Job security brings great peace of mind.
Thrive in a rewarding, fun role that matters
Because you will likely work with students over many years, you can see real progress over time. Helping a young person overcome challenges and achieve their goals is tremendously rewarding. And the work is fun, as you dance, laugh, and play games with students.
What is the salary of a school physical therapist?
School-based physical therapists have the opportunity to make good money as they advance in their roles. Location, job responsibilities and experience will affect salary ranges. Most salaries are comparable to those offered in hospitals, nursing homes and home care. According to Salary.com
, the average salary of a school physical therapist ranges from about $68,560 to $80,085 a year.
What are some advancement opportunities for school-based therapists?
Most people who pursue a career as a school physical therapist enjoy the hands-on work the role requires. That said, career advancement opportunities
are plentiful. Taking advantage of continuing education options will open doors for career growth and can help you better help students. Some of the advancement opportunities for school-based physical therapists include:
Becoming a lead therapist or moving into management
You may start as a physical therapist assistant and move up to a fully-certified physical therapist as you acquire the essential skills for school-based physical therapists
. From there, you may move into management or lead district or state-wide training and program development.
Organizations such as the American Board of Physical Therapy Residency & Fellowship Education
(ABPTRFE), the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties
(ABPTS) and the American Physical Therapy Association
(APTA) can connect you to initial training resources and post-professional continuing education.
In addition to formal training and certifications, these organizations offer events and online resources that can enhance your skills as a school-based physical therapist
and your career.
Starting a private practice
While getting support in school is vital to students, they may need additional support in their lives outside the classroom. By opening a private practice, you can contract directly with families to provide at-home and travel support to students. In many cases, you can continue your school-based role, but take on additional work after hours or during the summer months.
Becoming a consultant
School districts are always evolving their approaches to providing in-school support to students with disabilities. When you have some experience under your belt, you might have valuable best practices to share with schools that are refining their programs. You might also find that policy makers and regulators can benefit from your insights. Working as a consultant can advance the field as a whole and bring greater benefits to students.
What is a typical day like for a school-based physical therapist?
Physical therapists in a school setting work with children with all types of challenges. You may work with students with conditions such as spina bifida, amputations, neurological disorders, or lasting complications from traumas and accidents.
Each day as a school-based physical therapist is unique. Specific IEPs require that you create a specific plan for each student. Changing educational challenges and opportunities for extracurricular activities give you an opportunity to apply creative problem-solving and critical thinking skills in order to find solutions.
Daily job duties of a school physical therapist
Though the exact duties can vary significantly from school to school and role to role, some common responsibilities of a school physical therapist include:
- Identifying physical impairments/delays for each student.
- Developing a treatment plan that helps develop motor skills, posture, movement and mobility, sensorimotor processing, and use of assistive devices.
- Monitoring, evaluating and preparing reports on student function and progress, and maintaining a variety of records.
- Participating in meetings as member student’s support and education team and collaborating over the school year.
- Helping develop the IEP or 504 plan for each student.
- Providing direct and indirect physical therapy in the school.
- Coaching and advising teachers, parents and paraprofessionals in understanding the IEP, 504, specific techniques and available equipment.
- Lifting, transferring and positioning children and equipment as necessary.
Do physical therapists have high caseloads?
Caseloads for school-based physical therapists vary greatly, meaning it’s difficult to state what an “average” workload entails. Usually, you will keep the same caseload for the entire academic year. As you learn what therapy techniques work with each student, caseloads may become even easier to manage.
What physical therapy paperwork is required of school-based PTs?
As a physical therapist, paperwork and documentation is inherently a part of the job. Hospitals and other facilities often require just as much documentation and paperwork as a school. This practice often aligns with a student’s IEP.
In general, school physical therapists document each session with the student and share it with parents, teachers and administrators. Specific documentation practices, including recording platforms, may vary based on the state and specific school you are working in.
If the role of school physical therapist sounds like it might be a fit for you, searching through school physical therapy jobs
can give you an idea of what is available. Related roles can be found among school occupational therapy jobs
Search School-Based Therapy Jobs