Outside the Classroom with an Occupational Therapist

Outside the Classroom is a series of interviews with professionals who work in education settings. From social work to occupational therapy, library science to administration, many jobs become a whole new ball game when students and academics are involved. Here are a few of our burning questions for the professionals that classroom teachers find themselves working alongside, and their advice for those who’d like to join them.

1. What’s your name, location, current profession?

My name is Catherine Hoyt Drazen. I live in St. Louis, MO and I am a pediatric Occupational Therapist.

2. Where did you earn your certification(s) and where did you go to school?

I got my doctorate in Occupational Therapy (OTD) from Washington University in St. Louis. I am licensed in Missouri. You can also get a master's degree in OT or an associate's degree to be a OT assistant. I’ve done some additional training to learn specific interventions that I thought would be helpful for my population/demographics.

3. How long have you worked in your field?

I have been a practicing occupational therapist for six years.

As a new therapist, the hardest thing was to learn my own boundaries. I learned how to be invested in each child, but also make sure I kept boundaries so that I had time for myself as well.

4. How long have you worked in an education environment, and in what capacities?

I think occupational therapy is actually all about education. Part of therapy is to make sure that the child and parents understand what’s going on so they can contribute to goal development and to the intervention.

I strive for every therapy visit to be helpful by providing education to the child and parent about a new strategy or concept at an appropriate level so that it can be incorporated into their everyday routines. I think helping parents to understand how they can help their child thrive is really the most important part of therapy. Parents will always know their child best and can have the biggest impact in their progress.

So to answer your question, I believe occupational therapists work in an education environment every day. I practice primarily in early intervention, which is set in a home environment for 0-3 year olds before they start schooling. This is under Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and is run by the Department of Education. At age 3, the child gets evaluated by the school system to see if they qualify for early childhood under Part B of IDEA.  

I have also been a teacher for graduate students in occupational therapy, as a clinical educator, mentor and guest lecturer.

5. What’s the most rewarding part of your job now? What do you find most challenging?

The most rewarding part of this job is being there when a child learns a new skill or masters something that was challenging. The joy on the child’s and parents' faces bring me such deep happiness. Nothing beats a hug from a parent who is overjoyed from seeing their child succeed.

When it comes to logistics, the hardest thing is the scheduling. It is really hard to accommodate everyone’s needs. Emotionally, however, the hardest thing is working with a child when the family isn’t really invested or interested in being around. That is really hard for me.

As a new therapist, the hardest thing was to learn my own boundaries. I learned how to be invested in each child, but also make sure I kept boundaries so that I had time for myself as well.

6. Why did you decide to perform your current profession in an education environment?

As a child, I was able to witness the profound impact that the first few years can have on a child’s development and achievement. I knew I wanted to be involved in early intervention. I think having that association with the education system helps make sure that services can be provided to everyone that needs it.

In traditional therapy environments, many people are limited to the number of visits or type of therapy they can receive. In the educational environment, children receive the services they need for however long they need it. 

7. What skills did you have to acquire to allow you to adapt to that environment?

My degree prepared me more for clinical-based care. I had to learn how to work in people’s homes. I really enjoy it very much, but I had to learn how to act when entering someone else’s home. Sometimes things surprise you a lot and you have to learn to respect everyone’s lifestyle, how to navigate sometimes awkward interactions and get people to engage in conversation.

I also learned how to use whatever is available in that home for a therapeutic purpose. Something that stuck with me that a teacher told me once was “You’ll know you’ve mastered home visiting when you can make a therapeutic activity with a ball of dust.”

8. What advice would you offer a person with an education background who is considering entering your field?

Yay! I think an education background is perfect for OT!  Some OT’s do one-on-one therapy, but many OTs do group therapy, as well.

I recommend looking at different occupational therapy programs to find one that will fit your needs. Some programs are more research-based, some are more clinical-based, and with varying prerequisites.

Don’t be shy, email the faculty and ask questions if someone is working in an specialty you are interested in. I recommend shadowing an OT, even in a couple different specialties because that might give you a better idea of what a day-to-day looks like. It also exposes you to the large variety of directions that you could go with an OT degree.

9. What advice would you give to a person working in your field about working in an education setting in general?

I recommend that OT’s who are considering to move to an education setting should take a bit of time to read and understand the federal and state laws regarding education-specific services. While it may be frustrating, it will familiarize yourself with what the scope of practice is for OT, who is eligible and what services/frequency you can advocate for. It is also helpful for talking to parents and helping them navigate the system.

Catherine Hoyt Drazen OTD, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist in St. Louis, MO, owner of My Little Sunshine Pediatric Therapy and admin of Early Intervention Occupational Therapists on Facebook. She is certified as a parent educator with Parents as Teachers and specializes in early intervention with 0-3 year olds.