Becoming a Pediatric Physical Therapist: 5 Things You Need to Know
What is pediatric physical therapy?
Pediatric physical therapist work with a variety of children ranging from babies with torticollis or delay, orthopedic sports injuries, and children with delays due to diagnoses such as cerebral palsy and autism. Pediatric PTs help to improve gross motor skills, walking pattern, strength, balance, coordination, and motor planning through a variety of interventions that incorporate functional play.
Pediatric physical therapists focus each session on improving the child’s quality of movement and/or facilitating a gain in gross motor milestones. These gross motor skills typically follow a pattern such as gaining head control, tolerating prone (tummy) positions, rolling, sitting independently, crawling on stomach, creeping on hands and knees, pulling to stand, standing without support, walking with hand held assist, walking without assist, jumping and running.
Within Kids Place, we not only assess if a child can perform a certain skill, but we assess the quality of movement to make sure that they participate in gross motor skills safely, effectively and efficiently. Pediatric physical therapists are focused on making sure the child is safe to move around their environment and perform games/sports with the peers.
How to Become a Pediatric Physical Therapist
I often reflect on the journey I took from deciding I wanted to become a pediatric physical therapist when I was in high school, to my first day of PT graduate school, to today as a pediatric PT at NAPA Center Boston. What advice, tools, and tricks would I give my high school self to better prepare for what is ahead? If you are thinking about becoming a pediatric physical therapist yourself, or are a parent of a child working with a physical therapist and are curious how we ended up in this field, here are 5 things you need to know about becoming a pediatric physical therapist.
1. Be committed
Most physical therapy programs in the country are a 3-year graduate program, in which you will become a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) following graduation. This requires an undergraduate degree, pre-requisite courses, and many logged hours of observation.
Whichever program you choose, know this: it is not easy.
You will learn A LOT in those 3 years. A lot of PT programs wait until you have learned all the foundational knowledge before even touching on pediatrics in year 3. If you have an interest in working with kids even prior to starting PT school, contact local pediatric outpatient clinics, early intervention agencies, school therapists, or even local pediatric hospitals— many clinics (including NAPA!) love having volunteers. It allows you to observe the therapists in action to log your shadowing hours and also gives the therapists an extra set of hands!
If you discover your interest in working with kids during PT school, talk to the clinical coordinator for your school’s program about completing a pediatric clinical rotation. PT students typically have 4-6 clinical rotations throughout the 3-year program and it is important to capitalize on any pediatric experience you are able to complete. It is even helpful to babysit or work as a summer camp counselor to find out if you enjoy working with kids!
2. Learn, learn, and learn more!
Even after graduating and becoming a PT, you will never stop learning. There is always new research being published, new colleagues with different experiences to learn from, and kids with unique diagnoses walking through the doors who you have not worked with previously. Specifically in pediatrics, it is crucial to learn from other disciplines, such as occupational and speech therapy, so you can aid in treating the whole child. Seek out these learning opportunities as often as possible, collaborate with your team members, and never fear asking questions!
3. Build your professional network
You will find that the world of PT, specifically pediatrics, is very small. Reach out to and stay in contact with any PTs you have shadowed in the past, your professors and classmates, clinical instructors, past colleagues, and peers you meet at conferences and continuing education courses. This will allow you to make connections and take advantage of any opportunities for your career that may arise in a variety of settings!
4. One size does not fit all
Every child and family you work with is different. Even if multiple children have the same diagnosis, each will present uniquely and with his or her own personality. What works with one child may look completely different with another child. It is crucial to try, adjust, be creative, try again a different way, and be ok if something does not go as planned. And don’t be afraid to ask for help! Brainstorming ideas and problem solving with colleagues is the best way to help your kiddos meet their goals.
5. Your family will grow by hundreds of children (and their families!)
Working with children as they develop, grow, and meet new milestones allows you the honor to become an important addition to their family. The most exciting part about being a pediatric PT is teaching and empowering parents, siblings, and extended family members to help their child meet his or her goals.
How is pediatric sports physical therapy different from general therapy?
Bringing your youth athlete to a Children’s sports physical therapist means you’re working with a team of highly qualified, skilled and experienced pediatric and adolescent sports medicine experts. They know sports injuries, and they know the special needs of children and teens. And while physical therapists who see adults can treat pediatric patients, children and teens may make up a small percentage of their practice. Pediatric PTs, on the other hand, are specialists in kids and teens, dedicating their careers to treating them..
Children’s bones, muscles and joints require special care. Growth plates—–the areas at the end of the long bones in the arms and legs responsible for making new bone tissue—–are still open in children and teenagers. If these growth plates become injured , and are not diagnosed or treated properly, it can lead to damage that may leave youth athletes permanently sidelined from their favorite activities. Pediatric sports PTs are trained to recognize, identify and treat these types of injuries specifically.
How Can Sports Physical Therapy Be More Youth Friendly?
Pediatric sports PTs can translate your child’s or teen’s therapeutic goals into exercises that seem more like a training session than therapy, making rehabilitation both challenging and fun—that can mean better compliance and a faster recovery.
Pediatric sports PTs bring a special understanding about children and teens:
- Young athletes need special attention.
- Teens need individualized treatment too—they are still growing and are not young adults.
- Children need hands-on cuing, and teens benefit from this too.
- They need close supervision to perform exercises with proper technique.
Sports Physical Therapists Share a Passion for Children and Sports
A pediatric approach to sports physical therapy offers passion, atmosphere and experience to your child’s treatment. We have a passion for young athletes and will bring that passion into our work. After all, many pediatric sports PTs were youth athletes themselves; they come to your family with a personal understanding of what your child may be going through.
For children and teens, that passion results in good feelings about their treatment:
- They feel understood and heard.
- There’s a mutual understanding that fosters respect.
- It translates into more effective therapy.
The role of the pediatric physical therapist for children on the autism spectrum
The role of pediatric physical therapy is to help children who have difficulty with functional movement, poor balance, and challenges moving through their environment successfully. Some children on the autism spectrum have low muscle tone, some have poor balance, others may not be well-coordinated, and still others may have a combination of all of the above. These are all areas that a physical therapist can address. After an assessment, the physical therapist will design and implement a program that will help to improve the individual child’s areas of need and increase overall function and participation.
(Many children or adults who have an accident and hurt themselves can benefit from physical therapy, whether they are diagnosed with ASD or not. This article does not address this type of rehabilitative therapy.)
Physical Therapy Areas of Intervention
Gross Motor Skills – using large muscles for sitting, standing, walking, running, etc.
Balance/Coordination Skills – involves the brain, bones, and muscles in a coordinated effort for smooth movement; for example, as in climbing stairs, jumping, etc.
Strengthening – building muscle for support and endurance; for example, to walk for a distance without becoming tired.
Functional Mobility/Motor Planning – moving through space, day to day, for independence and efficiency; for example, to climb onto the rocking chair and make it rock back and forth.
The Importance of Motor Skills
Gross motor skills enable children to explore and learn from their environment. Young babies’ neck muscles develop, allowing them to hold their head up and see things from an upright position. Trunk muscles strengthen, enabling children to sit and soon after crawl and begin to explore their surroundings on their own. Toddlers learn to walk, climb, and eventually run. As children become adults, motor skills continue to be important for independence.
What is the Goal of Physical Therapy for a Child on the Autism Spectrum?
Every child on the autism spectrum is unique. Not every child on the spectrum will need physical therapy. If physical therapy is found to be medically necessary and the child could benefit from physical therapy services, a program will specifically be designed for his or her needs.