What is Pediatric Occupational Therapy?

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Pediatric occupational therapy is designed to help children on the path to healthy development. Children may require occupational therapy for daily living activities, fine motor skills, cognitive learning abilities, and more. These children may start their therapy after a traumatic accident or being diagnosed with a chronic illness.

woman playing with play-dough with child

Occupational therapy's purpose is to help patients or clients build the skills needed to perform daily tasks and, in the case of pediatric occupational therapy, perhaps, set them on a path to healthy development.

There are many similarities between treating adults and children in occupational therapy, but the methods and goals differ. If you’re interested in pursuing pediatric occupational therapy as a career, we’ll offer insights on working in this role and its benefits to patients.

The occupational therapy assistant (OTA) program at St. Catherine University can help you enter this career field in as few as 16 months and begin impacting patient lives sooner. First, let’s uncover what the job entails.

What is Occupational Therapy for Children?

Pediatric occupational therapy is designed to help children hit their developmental milestones, moderate sensory challenges, and cultivate self-care, self-regulation skills, and play styles. Treatment sessions may target:

  • Fine motor skills, such as using small muscles in the hands
  • Cognitive learning skills
  • Education-focused skills, impacting pre-writing, writing, and scissor skills
  • Daily living activities, including dressing or feeding
  • Emotional and social skills used in daily interactions
  • Play skills needed for overall development

An occupational therapist will evaluate your child to tailor a treatment plan to their goals. Pediatric occupational therapy treatment also varies depending on age. Occupational therapy for toddlers focuses on more fundamental actions, such as grasping items, crawling and remaining stable, and processing sensory information. In contrast, with older children, it may target more applied skills and those needed for school and learning.

OTA helping patient stand up from couch

Discover what an OTA does and how you can start supporting patients in as few as 16 months.

What Does a Pediatric Occupational Therapist Do?

A pediatric occupational therapist is a certified healthcare professional who has pursued a specialty in pediatrics and childhood development. They may work in hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centers, schools, and other healthcare facilities.

Before the first session, an occupational therapist will discuss with the patient or family what to expect in the initial few appointments. The therapist will typically start their first appointment with an evaluation. This session allows the therapist to assess what skills the child has developed and what can be improved upon throughout their treatment.

OTA working with child and toys on floor

The occupational therapist will assess the child’s fine motor skills and behavior while playing and moving throughout this evaluation. The activities are designed to showcase the specific skills being evaluated and may include:

  • Stringing beads or stacking blocks
  • Writing or coloring
  • Eating familiar foods with various textures (smooth, crunchy, etc.)

Depending on the setting, the child’s parent may or may not remain in the room during the evaluation. Often, they serve as a resource to answer questions regarding the patient’s daily habits or any specific concerns. Being present also allows parents to ask their own questions.

Beyond that initial evaluation, the occupational therapist and their team will create a treatment plan with a set of goals for the client to reach. The following sessions will incorporate age-appropriate activities that keep the child interested and engaged. Every patient’s assigned activities will vary depending on their age and goals; in St. Kate’s blog about becoming a pediatric occupational therapy assistant, we cover a list of intervention activities children may participate in, such as video games or animal-assisted therapy.

OTA work varies by specialty, but there are specific general duties every OTA will perform. Find out more about a day in the life of an occupational therapist.

woman wearing scrubs greeting two elderly patients

Why Might a Child Require Occupational Therapy?

Children with and without a medical condition may require occupational therapy. However, if you notice your child skipping developmental milestones, avoiding certain textures, struggling when interacting with people or objects, or returning to unlearned behavior, it may be time to schedule an appointment.

Many conditions commonly require the treatment of a pediatric occupational therapist, including:

  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Down syndrome
  • Sensory processing disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Spina bifida
  • Learning disabilities

Some patients may also require occupational therapy after the development of a chronic illness, traumatic injury, or the diagnosis of a birth injury or defect. By paying attention to a child’s health and behavior, you can begin treatment early and set them on a path to success.

OT helping patient with holding weights

Learn about alternative OTA career paths and the top 10 occupational therapy specialties.

What are the Benefits of Children’s Occupational Therapy?

Proper development is essential to children’s future success. According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, early childhood experiences can have a lifelong effect on a person’s social, physical, and emotional achievement. So, setting a solid foundation from birth will positively impact learning, behavior, and health.

Children’s occupational therapy benefits the patient and their families, helping to build and improve on:

  • Independence
  • Confidence and self-esteem
  • School performance
  • Play style and social interaction

Occupational therapy for children is not without challenges, as treatment can cause frustration, stress, and other negative emotions or behaviors. That’s why pediatric occupational therapists aim to make therapy sessions imitate play. Not only does this help children learn proper play behavior in a sensory-rich world, but it also allows them to develop necessary physical, cognitive, and sensory skills while having fun.

woman helping a child with a walker

The duration of treatment and the frequency of sessions depend on every child’s unique needs. Just as in the classroom, learning doesn’t happen in a day. The skills patients learn in occupational therapy require repetition and encouragement to become routine behaviors. Throughout the sessions, the treatment timeline will be updated as the patient progresses. With support, patience, and understanding, each child will reach their goals at their own pace until they can achieve their full potential.

Start Working Toward Your Future Career

Pediatric occupational therapy is a notably rewarding niche in the field. Improving the lives of your patients, especially children, through occupational therapy is a gratifying and achievable career path you can be a part of in as few as 16 months. With our hybrid online OTA program and three start dates per year, you can begin a career that aligns with your interests and lifestyle.

Contact us today, and one of our dedicated admissions advisors will guide you through the first steps of your application.

outside shot of st. kate campus

The Ultimate Guide to Occupational Therapy and OTA

Get answers to your questions about the field, about the OTA career path, and about St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program.

book with cover title: Occupational Therapy Assistant Explained