How to Become a Children's Physical Therapist
Child physical therapists know the profound joy of helping children and their families achieve greater happiness under challenging circumstances. Ever since their field of medicine was born during the polio epidemic of the 1920s, these therapists have relied upon an impressive array of techniques to treat musculoskeletal problems and improve the mobility of children facing numerous health conditions, including:
- Cerebral palsy
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Chronic pain
- Cystic fibrosis
- Developmental delays and movement disorders resulting from premature birth
A therapist interviews children and their families, and uses physical examinations to diagnose the source of the child's movement difficulties. From there, the therapist guides and individualizes a treatment regimen. Therapists work to improve children's motor development, strength, range of motion, endurance, balance, coordination, gait difficulties, heart and lung endurance, and delayed motor development.
Having broadened their patient population significantly through the decades, child physical therapists successfully treat patients using an extensive set of skills and techniques that include:
- Manual manipulation and other physical therapy techniques
- Breathing training and motor learning
- Developmental, recreational and play "therapy"
- Adaptation of daily care activities to a child's special needs
- Designing, fitting and using assistive technology, orthotics and prosthetics
- Burn and wound care
Every child responds best to a unique, carefully crafted treatment plan, which the therapist creates. Child physical therapists also teach children and their families about safety and home exercises, since improving physical function often requires daily practice. Providing expert consultation to school and daycare is often the therapist's responsibility as well. These professionals support the family and child by coordinating care with other health care professionals and providing advocacy and social assistance when necessary.
Therapists find motivation, diverse challenges and great reward as they work to strengthen and promote a child's independence and integration at home, in school and in the broader community.
Child physical therapists work in nurseries, neonatal intensive care units, childcare centers, schools, community healthcare centers, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, or directly in the child’s home. They also work in international development, and in disaster settings where they may treat children who have lost limbs due to landmines or war-related trauma.
Depending on the setting, work hours vary. Therapists who work in hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation facilities, and similar settings often enjoy the option to work full or part time. Those working in schools find their schedules influenced by school hours. Therapists performing in-home care often must adjust their schedules to provide services to children during hours when they are home, making evening or weekend visits if necessary.
As a minimum requirement, future child physical therapists must graduate from a physical therapy master's program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). The Master of Physical Therapy degree requires 2-2.5 years for a student to earn. However, the Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) has increasingly become a desired degree. The DPT takes at least three years, and provides in-depth training in pharmacology, radiology, and body systems. In 2017, new graduates taking the national physical therapy licensure exam will be required to have completed a DPT.
To gain entrance to graduate school in physical therapy, students must first earn an undergraduate degree from a four-year college. It is advisable to major or minor in subjects such as biology, anatomy, child development, neuroscience or physiology. Many strong students compete for admission to graduate programs in physical therapy, so maintaining a high grade point average in a science-related subject is important. The graduate records exam (GRE) is also required for admission to graduate school.
While in graduate school, future child physical therapists must complete an internship under supervision from a licensed clinician. The aspiring therapist must then complete an APTA-credentialed post professional clinical residency in pediatric physical therapy, which provides additional expertise in pediatric anatomy, development, and body systems.
Licensing and/or Certification
Licensing requirements vary by state. In general, licensing requires completing a degree from an accredited graduate program as well as passing the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), administered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. After becoming licensed as a physical therapist and completing specialist training, prospective child physical therapists are eligible to take the Physical Therapist Specialist Certification Examination. Throughout their careers, licensed therapists will be required to complete periodic continuing education requirements in order to renew their licenses.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Child physical therapists usually have a deep desire and a natural aptitude for working with special needs children and their families. Children’s developing bodies are amazingly plastic and have a surprising potential for rehabilitation, which enhances the rewarding nature of child physical therapy. However, a therapist must also be prepared for the challenges of working with children whose movement may remain impaired throughout life. The therapist must be able to convey this information to children and their family in a compassionate manner, while at the same time motivating them to continue therapy to meet their maximum potential. Such work requires excellent communication and interpersonal skills, and the talent of a “coach” to motivate children to push past obstacles. The ability to handle the stress of children’s frustrations when dealing with their limitations is also valuable.
These therapists spend a lot of time on their feet. Anyone considering a career in this field should be aware of the physical demands of manipulating, repositioning, and helping a child with restricted movement.
Opportunities for Advancement
Child physical therapists can advance their careers by taking on supervisory roles, such as training future therapists or managing physical therapy programs in settings such as hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Child physical therapists can choose to develop their own private practice, or enter a group practice with other physical therapists or physicians, which may carry the advantage of higher pay.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a physical therapist in 2010 was $73,610 per year. Child physical therapists may earn as much, or perhaps more, due to their specialized training and high demand. Salary varies by work setting; in general, physical therapists who work in physician offices and hospitals earn higher salaries. Salary also varies by geographic location. Currently the highest-paying regions are located in metropolitan areas in California, Texas, and Alaska. To earn extra pay, a physical therapist can also work as a consultant to businesses or other organizations in need of their expertise.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics states anticipates that the job growth rate for physical therapists from 2010-2020 will be 39%, which is considerably higher than average. Child physical therapists might expect a similar rate of growth. Job outlook is quite good thanks to new medical technologies that prolong the lives of special needs children, such as preterm babies and trauma victims, all of whom will require the therapists' specialized skills.
- Pediatric Physical Therapy Journal, the official journal of the APTA and Dutch Association for Pediatric Physical Therapy
- International Organization of Physical Therapists in Pediatrics (IOPTP)
- American Physical Therapists Association Section on Pediatrics
- American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties
- Centers for Disease Control Toolkit for Parents on Early Childhood Development
- National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- The Family Village Project at Waisman Center, University of Madison-Wisconsin