PHYSICAL THERAPY IN THE SCHOOLS
Physical therapy in the school setting is a bit different than traditional physical therapy. The overall purpose of school-based PT is to help the child achieve his or her academic goals by ensuring that they can access their school environment, maintain safety, and interact physically with their peers.
Physical therapy is considered a “related service” within the school system, meaning that typically, a child must qualify for special education services before he or she can be evaluated for physical therapy. There are many ways a child can be identified as qualifying for special education services including speech/language disability, learning disability, cognitive disability, autism, and several others. If a child qualifies for special education in one or more of these areas, and there are gross motor concerns such as walking ability, balance, safety, coordination, etc, physical therapy is asked to evaluate the child. If, after evaluating the child, the physical therapist determines that the child has delays that prevent him or her from safely accessing the school environment or physically interacting with their peers, physical therapy services are initiated with consent of the parent(s).
In relatively few instances, a child may qualify for physical therapy without requiring any other special education services. This child would qualify as having an “orthopedic impairment”, meaning that he or she has a long-term disability that hinders his or her mobility or safety within the school environment but does not affect any other area such as speech, cognition, or learning ability. A child who happens to injure himself or herself during the school year would not qualify for school-based physical therapy as the condition is not long-term. In that case, the child would receive traditional out-patient physical therapy services if warranted.
Once physical therapy services are initiated for a child, he or she will be seen by a physical therapist (PT) or physical therapist assistant (PTA) anywhere from once a semester to twice a week, depending on the needs of the child. School-based physical therapy is provided in a variety of settings within the school including in the classroom, on the playground, in phy ed class, or in a separate therapy room. Occasionally, the PT or PTA will accompany a child or children on a field trip to assist and challenge them in a different environment, if appropriate.
Most children referred for physical therapy are already receiving other special education services. However, if you have a concern about your child and he or she is not already being seen by physical therapy, you should contact your child’s teacher or building principal. We may be able to suggest interventions for the family or teacher, but if that does not help, the formal evaluation process may need to be initiated.
Erin Kolar, PT
Chanda Strzyzewski, PT
Patti Wendland, PTA