How to Become a Pediatric Physical Therapist
Pediatric 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 physical therapist (PT) 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. PTs 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, pediatric 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. Pediatric PTs 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.
Pediatric physical therapists work in neonatal intensive care units, schools, outpatient treatment 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.
Pediatric physical therapists must graduate from a physical therapy program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). In the past, the Master of Physical Therapy degree required 2-2.5 years for a student to earn after an undergraduate degree has been completed. However, the Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) is now the 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 pediatric PTs must complete an internship under supervision from a licensed clinician. The aspiring therapist could then complete an APTA-credentialed post professional clinical residency in pediatric physical therapy if they desire, 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 Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. After becoming licensed as a physical therapist and completing specialist training, prospective pediatric PTs 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
Pediatric PTs 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 pediatric 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 as well as the family stresses that may burden the child 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 who will likely grow every year.
Opportunities for Advancement
Pediatric PTs 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. PTs 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.
If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a children's physical therapist, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.
Salary and Job Outlook
Interactive Map of Income and Job Growth Projections
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According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a physical therapist is $82,390 per year. Child physical therapists may perhaps earn more, due to their specialized training and high demand. Salary varies by work setting; in general, physical therapists who work in nursing homes and home health agencies earn higher salaries. Salary also varies by geographic location. Currently the highest-paying major metropolitan area is Las Vegas. To earn extra pay, physical therapists can also work as a consultant to businesses or other organizations in need of their expertise.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics states anticipates that the job growth rate for physical therapists from 2012-2022 will be 36%, 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