Become a Pediatric Occupational Therapist – Education & Licensure Guide

Children can have a variety of physical, cognitive, emotional, and cognitive impairments. These impairments can range from mild to disabling and can impede a child’s ability to grow, attend school, or even perform day-to-day tasks. Highly trained pediatric occupational therapists work with these children to help them gain the skills they need to move through the world and grow into independent adults.

Pediatric occupational therapists have completed a master’s degree in occupational therapy, are certified by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT), and are licensed to practice in their state. They work with kids of all ages, including premature infants, toddlers, and even teenagers. The primary skills they teach are cognitive, gross motor, fine motor, self-care, and social skills. While they often work in occupational therapy clinics, they can also be found in schools, hospitals, and in the homes of their most intensive clients.

Occupational therapy is a growing field with an anticipated 16 percent increase in jobs nationally between 2019 and 2029. This increase in demand in pediatric occupational therapy is primarily due to the rise in autism spectrum diagnoses. More pediatric physical therapists are needed in schools to help kids with autism integrate into classrooms.

Check out the step-by-step guide below to learn more about how to become a pediatric occupational therapist and positively impact the lives of kids.

How to Become a Pediatric Occupational Therapist

Pediatric occupational therapists must earn a master’s degree in occupational therapy and earn state licensure. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to become a pediatric occupational therapist.

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)

The path towards becoming a pediatric occupational therapist begins by completing high school or obtaining a GED as this is required for most bachelor degree programs. Having a high school diploma or GED demonstrates a minimum level of education and a dedication to completing an educational program.

Students who wish to pursue a pediatric occupational therapy career should take high school classes such as biology, child development, and psychology. Volunteer experience while in high school with children with development, physical, or mental disabilities can help boost college applications and provide early hands-on career experience.

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

A bachelor’s degree is necessary to become a pediatric occupational therapist. There are a number of undergraduate majors students can complete, including kinesiology, anthropology, psychology, anatomy, and biology.

Many master’s programs have prerequisite coursework requirements, so students should ensure they take the necessary courses for admission. These classes can include anatomy and physiology, statistics, medical terminology, and psychology. Admission to master’s programs can be competitive, so students should ensure they have volunteer or work experience with children who have development, physical, or mental disabilities as this can boost applications.

Step 3: Obtain a Master’s Degree (Two to Three Years)

The last educational step towards becoming a pediatric occupational therapist is to complete a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Most professionals earn a master’s of arts or science in occupational therapy. Students should ensure the program they attend is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE), as this is required for both certification and licensure.

Most occupational therapist programs are general programs. Students who wish to pursue a career in pediatric occupational therapy should look for a program that has a strong pediatric emphasis, has pediatric clinical internship sites, and has faculty with pediatric specialties.

The University of Southern California Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy offers a two-year entry-level professional master of arts (MA) degree in occupational therapy. This program is designed for students who have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than occupational therapy. Students complete three intensive immersion experiences in adult rehab, mental health, and pediatrics. The program has a pediatric emphasis throughout the entire course of study and has key faculty with extensive expertise with children.

Professionals who have already earned an occupational therapy master’s degree but want to work with children should consider the post-professional pediatric certificate at Misericordia University in Dallas, PA. This six-course certificate gives professionals the additional knowledge and training they need to provide occupational therapy to kids. Students can customize their education as five out of the six courses can be elective, including classes such as grant writing, pediatric feeding issues, child development in international settings, and neonatal intensive care issues.

Step 4: Obtain National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) Certification (Timeline Varies)

Occupational therapists must obtain certification from the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) to practice. The requirements to be eligible to sit for this exam are:

  • Complete an entry-level occupational therapy degree from an ACOTE accredited program
  • Submit official transcripts
  • Agree to abide by the NBCOT Practice Standards and Code of Conduct

Candidates have three years from the date they complete their program to be eligible to sit for the exam. The exam costs $515, takes four hours, and consists of three clinical simulations and 170 multiple-choice questions.

Step 5: Apply for State Licensure (Timeline Varies)

Occupational therapists are required to be licensed in all 50 states. Pediatric occupational therapists only need to meet the licensing requirements for standard occupational therapists. Requirements for occupational therapists vary by state, so applicants should contact their local board to ensure they have the necessary qualifications. For example, to become an occupational therapist in Florida, candidates must:

  • Complete an ACOTE accredited program
  • Be of good moral character
  • Complete six months of supervised work experience
  • Pass the NBCOT exam
  • Pass a background check

Step 6: Apply for Work as a Pediatric Occupational Therapist (Timeline Varies)

Once licensed as occupational therapists, aspiring pediatric occupational therapists can apply for work. Volunteer or work experience, as part of an educational program or not, in a pediatric occupational therapy clinic can help boost candidates’ job application.

What Do Pediatric Occupational Therapists Do?

Pediatric occupational therapists work in a variety of settings, including children specific occupational therapy clinics, hospitals, schools, or home health companies. Day-to-day duties vary based on place of employment, but typical responsibilities of pediatric occupational therapists include:

  • Observing pediatric clients and reviewing their medical records
  • Evaluating children’s condition and needs
  • Performing mobility, feeding, and cognitive tests on children
  • Identifying parent and child’s goals for occupational therapy
  • Writing a treatment plan to meet goals
  • Assisting children in completing exercised to meet their goals
  • Teaching parents how to perform exercises with their children
  • Evaluating living and school environments to ensure they meet the children’s needs
  • Recommending and fitting special equipment to pediatric patients
  • Maintaining careful client records

How Much Do Pediatric Occupational Therapists Make?

Occupational therapists—including those in pediatrics—earn $86,210 per year on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020). Wages vary based on place of employment, level of education, and years of experience. The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $56,800
  • 25th percentile: $69,710
  • 50th percentile (median): $84,950
  • 75th percentile: $101,590
  • 90th percentile: $121,490

Pediatric Occupational Therapist Professional Associations & Resources

  • American Occupational Therapy Association
  • American Occupational Therapy Foundation
  • Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about counseling careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.