Five Ways to Make Your Successful Switch to School-Based Practice

Proper Preparation and Ongoing Support Can Make Your Switch a Smooth One

Female school-based therapist leans over elementary-aged children as they sit at a classroom table coloring pages with crayons.A veteran Speech Language Pathologist recently told me about her daughter, an Occupational Therapist seeking a job as a school-based therapist.

“She’s feeling so frustrated,” said the SLP. “No one will hire her without experience. But the only way to get experience is to get hired!”

Sadly, that young woman’s experience isn’t unique—which is a shame, because our nation needs more clinicians like her who want to transition to school-based practice. Almost every therapeutic discipline faces a shortage of qualified practitioners in schools.

Like any reputable therapy provider, we at Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) place a high value on experience and the wisdom that comes with it.

Therapists who have an interest in changing to school-based practice can do so. If you provide the motivation, we’ll provide the mentoring and support to make your switch to school-based therapy happen! 

Here are five ways how:

1. Showing New School Therapists the Ropes

To be effective in school-based practice, therapists must master a whole new world of acronyms (IEP, PPT, MDE… the list goes on!) as well as important legal terminology and mandates.

In PTS’ School-Based Academy (SBA), we give practitioners who are new to schools a “crash course” in the language and practical skills your new therapy setting demands.

Through both take-home resources and in-person training, SBA gives you a “survival guide” for your school-based therapy job. As PTS Executive Director Candice Knox, OTR/L, says, it “eliminates a lot of the fear and frustration that come with moving to school-based practice. It lets us take someone with strong clinical skills from another setting and help them make a positive impact in the schools from day one.”

2. Giving In-School Therapists On-Site Support

After our therapists complete SBA, they can count on our Clinical Directors and mentors—all seasoned clinicians themselves—to provide further guidance, counseling, and a shoulder to lean on.

Phone conferences about difficult cases can be helpful, but sometimes new therapists need another pair of eyes, literally, on a particular student or classroom.

Research-based practice is always a priority, but nothing replaces in-person sharing and on-site modeling.

Since we started providing related services 20 years ago, PTS has always invested in Clinical Directors who can meet with our therapists in the schools. I still make site visits myself, and I see firsthand how they help our clinicians grow.

For example, one of our new physical therapists (PTs) was working with a student who had hypotonia and coordination issues. This PT had an excellent neuro and orthopedic background, but no formal training on sensory processing disorder and how it affects quality of movement. Once we discussed the child’s vestibular and proprioceptive deficits and did some preparatory activities to address them, we saw an exciting and immediate improvement.  

On-site visits like this one, to supervise and support our clinicians, result in more good done for not only the students but also the therapists!

3. Helping Assess Student Eligibility for Related Services

Female school-based therapist sits next to a desk in an empty school classroom with shelves in background, smiling confidently.We’ve found one of therapists’ biggest challenges in changing to school-based practice is determining eligibility for services.

In a medical model, therapists only need to identify a deficit and demonstrate progress in treating that deficit.

But in school-based practice, students only qualify for services if the identified deficit impacts their ability to access their free appropriate public education.

For example, a student with a prosthetic lower leg would only be eligible for PT in a school setting if mobility or safety issues limited his participation in school activities. 

When our therapists wonder whether their clinical findings would qualify a student for direct services, they can send their evaluations to either their PTS Director or their mentor for a second opinion. Having access to clinical mentorship is key.

4. Advising About When Enough is Enough

Knowing when to discharge a student can be equally challenging.

Sometimes it’s easy. The student has met her or his goals and is ready to graduate from therapy!

Other times, the student has a significant long-term disability and is no longer demonstrating enough progress to justify ongoing direct treatment.

A clinical mentor can help a new in-school therapist strategize about making a student’s program more consultative and adaptive or treatment-focused. Collecting enough sound data to justify recommendations is always the first step.

Our Directors will also often role play with our therapists, helping them prepare to present their findings to parents and teachers in positive, constructive ways. “Telling it like it is” can make you look like you’re abandoning a student who still has issues or, worse, giving up hope. But tempering the facts with a healthy dose of encouragement can make all the difference.

5. Building Strong Professional Relationships

School-based therapy requires clinicians to manage a large number of relationships, some of them very complex.

It’s not uncommon for well-meaning therapists to find themselves caught between a demanding parent, a concerned teacher, and a school administrator who’s keeping an eye on the budget.

Trust and respect are the foundations of any good relationship. When mentors help new therapists prepare for a difficult IEP meeting or a due process case, they can instill those therapists with confidence. They can help therapists hone their ability to present information clearly, listen respectfully, and compromise appropriately.

Let PTS Speed Up Your Progress as a School-Based Therapist

The heart of school-based therapy, and pediatrics in general, isn’t found in books. It’s found in learning from another clinician who’s farther along in the journey.

At PTS, we know giving new therapists the chance to grow as a person and a professional is worth the investment of time and resources. When we help people start strong, they finish strong!

Want to know more about how PTS can help you get your school-based practice off to a strong start? Give us a call today at 610-941-7020, or click here to see what school-based therapist jobs we’re looking to fill would be right for you!

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