How to Become an Occupational Therapist

The responsibility of the teacher is to educate their students and provide them the tools to succeed. However, there can be a host of external factors that students face, which can hinder the learning process and requires personal help outside the classroom, especially when it manifests as a physical or mental problem. For school children and youth, dexterity issues such as poor handwriting, or difficulty holding a book or instrument correctly, and issues concentrating in class or during homework are wildly common, increasing the challenge of school for students. School occupational therapists are there to help make sure daily activities inside and outside the classroom come easier to them.

Occupational therapists play an integrative role in the school environment, tackling student-specific issues with designed care, and streamlining solutions into the greater environment, albeit in the classroom, auditorium, or schoolyard. Occupational therapists often communicate with teachers and parents to better understand a student’s issues and craft solutions such as, adjusted seating arrangements and home exercises to get them back on track.

Job Description for Occupational Therapists in Schools

Occupational Therapists in Schools hold responsibility for assisting students with physical, mental, and social disabilities to perform daily activities in the school environment. According to the American Journal of Occupational Therapy (2013), occupational therapists evaluate all the components of social competence and determine whether a child’s motor, social, emotional, and cognitive skills; ability to interpret sensory information; and the influence from home, school, and community environments have an impact on his or her ability to meet the demands of everyday life.

Occupational therapists have to manage various stakeholders throughout the process, including students, teachers, parents, school administrators, and healthcare administrators. Occupational therapists highly recommend early childhood evaluations to identify student disabilities early on, and planning treatments in the child’s early cognitive development stages. Streamlining efforts between teachers and parents to implement treatment strategies is a critical responsibility, therefore occupational therapists must be communicative and decisive throughout the process.

Demand for Occupational Therapists in Schools

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, big city areas have the highest employment levels for school, adult, and rehabilitation occupational therapy, with the New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles/Long Beach, Chicago, Dallas, and Boston areas topping the list.

Elementary and Secondary Schools employ approximately 13,420 occupational therapists, accounting for an estimated 14% of the field.

Overall, the occupational therapy field has a growth outlook of 24% (faster than average) for the next ten years as of 2016.


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Occupational Therapist in Schools Shortages by State

A shortage area is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as a role in which "there is an inadequate supply" of qualified professionals. The Department allows states to identify their own shortage areas, but encourages them to follow a prescribed methodology based on unfilled positions, positions filled by professionals with irregular certifications, and positions filled by professionals certified in other areas. Because the Department allows states to report shortages as they wish, some states only report teacher shortages while others include administrative shortages as well. Please reference each state's department of education to learn more about their particular shortage areas.

According to the 2016 U.S Department of Education Teacher Shortage Areas Report, the following states reported a shortage in school occupational therapists:

  • Nevada
  • Washington
  • Illinois

Salary for Occupational Therapists in Schools

According to the BLS, the average salary for a school occupational therapists was around $73,400 in 2016. The current highest paid states for school, adult, and rehabilitation occupational therapists are Nevada, Texas, New Jersey, Virginia, and Connecticut (as of May 2016).

Work schedules can vary just as dramatically: some school occupational therapists work year round, others work on the school year schedule.

Steps to Becoming an Occupational Therapist for Schools

Education Requirements

Because Occupational Therapists in Schools are fully trained therapists, they need at least a bachelor’s degree—usually in occupational therapy, but also in a relevant field such as: biology, kinesiology, health sciences, psychology, or linguistics (AOTA FAQ). All states require a master’s degree in occupational therapy from an approved institution by the American Occupational Therapy Association to earn a license, and thereafter are eligible to enter the workforce. We recommend reviewing the latest state occupational therapy licensure requirements provided by the AOTA for further information. In addition, check your state’s Board of Education requirements for practicing as a school occupational therapist in public and private school settings.

Continuing education is a key component to renewing your occupational therapy license. Requirements for occupational therapy continuing education credits vary by state, therefore it is recommended to confirm the rules and regulation within your state of residence. The AOTS offers resources for CE credits.

National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) Examination for Licensure

The final step toward becoming a practicing school occupational therapist is passing the NBCOT exam. Steps to completing the NBCOT requirement include an online application fee of $480 - $530, submission of official college transcripts, a background check, and earning a passing score on NBCOT examination. Check the NBCOT exam handbook for more information.

Earning a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy

Earning a doctorate in occupational therapy (OTD) can accelerate your career, paving the way toward roles in healthcare administration, education, clinical leadership, and field research. Read more here about earning a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy.