At first, all I knew was that I did not want to go to medical school but I wanted to be in a helping profession. After observing a single pediatric occupational therapist “play” in a sandbox and have a pillow fight for an hour, I felt pretty confident that I had found the career path I was looking for. Occupational therapy is a legitimate profession that would encourage me to stay forever young. What could be better?
Looking back at this hasty decision, I don’t have any regrets, but there are some things I wish I had known…
While anatomy and physiology may have been straight forward, the practical course work in pediatrics, psycho-social dysfunction and physical disabilities often left my classmates and I disgruntled when our questions were frequently met with: “it depends.” With a history of earning straight A’s and memorizing textbook answers, the ambiguity of “it depends” was unsettling and a frequent source of frustration. Thankfully, I learned to become amenable and, ultimately reliant on this response as I grew as a clinician.
While in school, the textbooks and lectures educated us on diagnoses. While in the clinic, it’s the individual client that primarily guides treatment, however, not the diagnosis.
For this reason, when therapists are asked questions about their clients, there are no textbook defined answers. Often times, the answer will depend. Not only does the answer depend on the individual, but sometimes it depends on the time of day, the environment, the audience, the use of a preferred motivator, and the list goes on…
Each time a group project was introduced it was met with an eye roll and exasperated sigh. Not only did that mean that your grade was dependent on the quality of work produced by your peers, but it also meant trying to coordinate the busy schedules of full-time students, most of whom also had part time jobs. What I know now is that the collaboration is invaluable. Upon graduating, I purposely sought out a job where I would be surrounded by my peers with whom I could learn from and collaborate with. The more cohesive the team (OTs, PTs, STs, teachers, parents, etc.), the better the results for our MVPs- our clients.
It may be our undergraduate and graduate degrees that we put on our resumes but let’s give a big shout out to our preschools who taught us the songs and nursery rhymes that we recite on repeat, day-in and day-out, to keep our patients engaged.
I had seen tactile play before. I anticipated the mess of shaving cream spread across the mirror or the rice bin scattered around the floor. I hadn’t anticipated the mess of having a perfectly prepared treatment plan going completely awry. No matter how much a therapist may plan prior to a treatment session, there is bound to be at least something that takes an unexpected turn. Maybe your patient refused his nap today and is now cranky, refusing to participate even in his most preferred activities. Or maybe your patient didn’t have recess during school and is full of relentless energy keeping him from participating in the craft that you spent an hour prepping. I now know (but sometimes-frequently- need to remind myself) that it’s okay. We find a way to work with the child where he or she is at on any given day. Flexibility is key.
You’re never done being a student, and if you think you are, you’re doing something wrong. Whether it is formally from my managers or informally based on personal reflection or observation, I am learning daily. What we learned in the classroom set the foundation. But what we learn on the job, sitting in the uncomfortable grey area, singing our songs, repeating our rhymes, and cleaning up the messes, that’s the invaluable education needed to be an effective pediatric occupational therapist.
Samantha Cooper is a pediatric occupational therapist at NAPA Center Los Angeles. When not engaging her clients through play, Samantha can be found balancing her love for ice-cream with spin or barre classes or trying to cuddle her dog, Cassidy, who would much rather have her personal space.
At NAPA Center, we take an individualized approach to pediatric therapy because we understand that each child is unique with very specific needs. We embrace differences with an understanding that individualized programs work better. For this reason, no two therapeutic programs are alike. If your child needs our services, we will work closely with you to select the best therapies for them, creating a customized program specific to your child’s needs and your family’s goals. Let your child’s journey begin today by contacting us to learn more.