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Physical Therapy vs. Occupational Therapy in Education

Posted by Lauren DiChiacchio on Dec 16, 2013 2:28:00 PM

physical therapy, occupational therapy, education, allied health, healthcare, behavioral health

If you're a parent whose child receives special education services within a school system, you may be confused as to what the specific differences are between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy as part of your child’s program.

How Services Are Determined:

Both physical therapy and occupational therapy can be provided to students if they need assistance to function within the educational setting. They are considered “related services” under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). 

A child’s needs for related services are typically assessed during the admission process and the recommendations become part of their individualized education program (IEP). The role of a physical therapist and an occupational therapist is to work with the child so that they can increase their ability to function independently in school. They are centered on decreasing the effects of whatever disability the student has, thus improving their ability to move more easily through their school day.

As a physical therapy and occupational therapy staffing firm, we understand how these two services can become confusing to parents.


There are differences between each of the therapies and the definitions below may be helpful in understanding those differences:

Occupational Therapy (OT) is provided to evaluate a child's functional skills in the areas of self-care, fine motor, academic, vocational, and play or leisure activities. Occupational Therapists will consult with both the school's staff as well as with the student's family to  provide recommendations, ways to adapt and suggest activities that may be needed to help improve a child’s functional performance in the classroom.

Occupational Therapy (OT): emphasizes the acquisition of or compensation for functional performance skills needed by students during their educational experience:

  • Fine motor skills: small, finely coordinated hand movements;
  • Visual perceptual skills: the ability to understand and interpret what is seen;
  • Visual motor skills: the ability to coordinate visual skills and motor skills; and
  • Self care skills: feeding, dressing, hygiene, and toileting skills for increasing independence in necessary life skills

Physical Therapy (PT) is provided in order to evaluate a child's functional motor skills so they can move independently during the school days. They will analyze how the child's deficits negatively impact their ability to participate in their special educational program. A physical therapist will make recommendations regarding activities and special equipment that might assist the student in being more independent in the classroom environment.

Areas of focus for the school physical therapist include:

  • Gross motor skills: activities that use large muscles;
  • Mobility skills: moving safely throughout the school environment, including entering and exiting the school bus; and
  • Postural control and alignment needed to perform school activities and for increasing independence in life skills

Both Physical and Occupational Therapists may address the following areas:

  • Strength and endurance
  • Body awareness
  • Classroom positioning and adaptations
  • Sensory motor skills necessary for participation in an educational program

Educational Versus Medical Environments

Providing PT and OT in the educational setting varies differently from how services are delivered in a hospital or outpatient setting.

A medical model focuses on injury or impairment and helping to recover from the injury and/or to improve functionality. The educational model focuses on the functional outcome as it relates to the child's IEP.

Medically based therapy is typically provided within the hospital setting or at an outpatient facility and this may be done in tandem with educational therapy. Alternatively, the educational model is designed to focus specifically on helping the student maximize their experience within the school setting. A school PT or OT works hard to help the student use their environment to develop sensory/motor competence in integrated environments, and to identify strategies that school staff and parents can use in the student's daily routine in order to help them become more independent.

These services are provided to meet IEP goals and objectives. The child's performance will be monitored regularly and will be modified based upon their progress.

Look for an awesome Physical OR Occupational Therapist? Contact us for more information!

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Staffing Plus is a premier healthcare staffing firm that provides temporary, per diem, temp-to-hire and permanent Staffing Solutions for Behavioral Health, Education, and Healthcare settings. We have leveraged decades of experience to assist organizations with the challenges of managing their HR and Recruiting needs.