How to Assemble a Top-Rate Team of School-Based Therapists

Four Keys to Getting and Keeping the Best Clinicians for Your Program

How is staffing a school-based therapy program like making the perfect vegetable soup?

It takes just enough of this, and not too much of that!

Here at Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), we know what works and what doesn’t when cooking up the right mix of top school-based therapists. You need the practical experience and wisdom veteran clinicians bring, seasoned with new therapists’ flexibility and innovation. You also have to consider how personality and work style differences will flavor the team.

For more than two decades, we’ve been showing public school districts throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware how to transform a special education program into a Therapeutic Ecosystem™—a total integration of team, tools, and technology that makes a positive impact on students without making a painful one on your budget.

Here are four keys we’ve discovered to perfecting the ecosystem’s first element: the team.

Key #1—Make the Right Match Between Therapists and Your Students

Pediatric therapists can work in a huge variety of settings and with a wide range of clinical cases. It’s one of the best things about the field.

But this plethora of choices does make hiring school-based therapists more complicated. Simply looking at the number of years’ experience on a therapist’s resume can’t tell you everything. You have to think about how well the therapist’s skill set will fit YOUR students’ specific needs.

To determine whether a therapist would be a good fit, it’s important to start with a thorough analysis of the following factors:

  • The kinds of students the therapist will be serving.
  • The personalities and culture of key teachers and principals in the buildings where the therapist will serve.
  • The amount of time needed to cover individual buildings based on the amount of service covered, not the number of students on caseload.

A mismatch in any of these three areas can result in a failed placement. A therapist either can’t meet the caseload’s demands or decides, “This just wasn’t what I signed up for.” Either way, you’re stuck with a mid-year vacancy to fill.

Because we know how complicated hiring therapists for schools can be, PTS has Clinical Directors, who are themselves pediatric specialists, make those decisions. Unlike far too many agencies who hire therapists over the phone, without ever meeting them in person or even completing a formal interview, we know there’s no substitute for a face-to-face conversation. It often reveals much more detail than you’ll find in a four-page curriculum vitae.

Key #2—Connect Therapists’ Clinical Expertise with the Caseload

Therapists don’t need to have experience working in schools to successfully transition to school-based practice.  What they do need is a skill set readily applicable to the needs of a program in the educational setting.

school based therapistFor example, we’ve seen physical therapists (PTs) from adult rehabilitation centers do an outstanding job treating a middle- and high-school caseload of severely involved students. Both the adult and the school-based setting require PTs focus on function and the need to build rapport with the individuals being treated.  

That said, some student populations, such as autistic support, require very specific expertise in sensory processing, behavior management, and/or augmentative communication. Therapists who haven’t had the opportunity to learn about this student population under an experienced mentor can struggle.  While therapists come out of school with some basic understanding of autism, a less experienced therapist will need access to an expert clinician for advice and ideas.

To meet this need, we’ve developed a career path over the years that experienced therapists can follow to become mentors. The Farmers Insurance slogan also rings true in pediatric therapy: “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Much of what veteran therapists know can’t be learned in books but can be shared in a diverse team, so look to create a balance of experience and new blood.  

Key #3—Choose Therapists with Your Buildings’ Cultures in Mind

One thing we’ve learned the hard way is a bad match between a therapist’s personality and a school’s culture can rarely be fixed.

For example, a highly structured learning support teacher who thinks, “My classroom is my kingdom” may clash with a veteran therapist who thinks, “Listen to me because I’m the expert.” Both individuals know their stuff, but what should be an all-star team can quickly degenerate into a clash of the Titans.

When you’re looking to place a school-based therapist in a building with a very rigid, “do it our way” culture, consider choosing a more easy-going clinician over a self-proclaimed expert. On the other hand, if you have a parent population that tends to be litigious and demanding, that expert might be just who you need to defend outlandish recommendations from outside clinic evaluations.  

Key #4—Set Reasonable Workload Expectations for Therapists

To run efficient and productive programs, you must set people up for success from the get-go when it comes to workload.

If you start a therapist with an overwhelming caseload that requires she see 20 students a day, no one is going to be happy. The therapist will feel swamped, teachers will find her unsupportive, and students won’t get the quality treatment they need.

Don’t just look at the number of students a therapist covers. Look at the amount of direct service and consults required per week. Students get varied intensities of service, so if a therapist has classrooms with students who have high service frequencies on their IEPs (such as a classroom with students who have multiple disabilities), she won’t be able to cover as many students because the ones she has require so much time.

The same thing goes for setting a therapist up with too light a workload. If a school-based speech-language pathologist only needs to see seven or eight students per day, she won’t be doing any small groups. Your budget will be inflated because she’s using a full-time salary to cover a part-time caseload. 

Trust Your School-Based Therapy Staffing to PTS

What’s the takeaway message?

Perfect vegetable soups don’t cook themselves—and stable, efficient, productive, and effective teams of school-based therapists don’t just happen! They result from time spent planning and preparing on the front end.

Make the effort to get an accurate picture of your buildings’ cultures and your students’ needs on the one hand, and clinicians’ experience and capacity on the other—then make your match.

It’s a lot of work. But PTS can do it for you.

We’ll assess your program’s specific needs in detail, then draw on our extensive network of qualified and credentialed independent therapists to find the best matches for you.

Our 95% therapist retention rate means stability for your district’s special education and related services, and our on-site management of therapeutic teams means more time for you to plan for your program’s future.

Call PTS today at 610-941-7020 or contact us online to get started putting the perfect therapeutic team for your district in place.

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