What Do Pediatric Occupational Therapists Do?

what do pediatric occupational therapists do

What is a pediatric occupational therapist is a question that comes up a lot. “Pediatric occupational therapist” may be a term you have come across before. But what does it mean, exactly? You may be one of many people thinking to themselves, my kid doesn’t need a job, so what do you do?

Related: Have a child in therapy? Read more about specific activities your child may do in occupational therapy sessions.

What do pediatric occupational therapists do

Occupational therapy can seem like a misnomer, because these therapists don’t necessarily help people maintain careers. Although – they can! Allow me to explain.

When you search the word ‘occupation’ on Merriam-Webster, the first definition they provide is “an activity in which one engages”. For ease of explaining, many occupational therapists choose to define occupations as activities, or as meaningful activities, that you regularly engage in.

Occupational therapists seek to improve one’s engagement with their
occupations, which does include the work that they do in their career.
Pediatric occupational therapists do just the same, but for kids! They ensure that your child can best perform the occupations in their life. Below is a list of occupations that most children engage in.

All these occupations require many skills and abilities to successfully complete. To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to break down these everyday activities into their separate skills.

Occupational therapists do this regularly; it’s called activity analysis. They take something that can often feel automatic, like writing our names or putting on a shirt, and break it down into the smaller steps and skills that are required to complete the actions. The examples given, writing
one’s name or putting on one’s shirt, require gross motor skill, fine motor skill, intact cognition, and more.

Pediatric occupational therapists will evaluate a child for their fine motor skills, for example, so that they can determine their abilities to feed themselves, write in their role as a student, or manipulate small objects for play.

Additionally, your pediatric occupational therapist may address social and mental wellness needs of your child, as social and mental health is just as important to the engagement in occupations as physical health.

Pediatric occupational therapists help children achieve skills in functional tasks or their daily occupations. These are the things that occupy their time.


Your child may be recommended occupational therapy if they are showing signs of developmental delay in physical, social, emotional or mental domains. They may also benefit from occupational therapy to improve their handwriting , attention, or self-regulation. Although
each case is unique, occupational therapy is usually recommended to help your child become more independent. If your pediatrician or another health care professional suggests looking into
occupational therapy for your child, they will likely tell you why.


Pediatric occupational therapists provide their services in a number of settings. Many of them work in schools, outpatient therapy clinics, or in hospitals. Others work in community and home settings.

Occupational therapists provide interventions for people of all ages, and typically pediatric occupational therapists will serve newborns to age 18.

For those who are over 18, they are able to receive school-based occupational therapy services while they are still in high school, which can be up until age 21 or 22, depending on what state you live in.

WHAT Does an occupational therapy SESSION LOOK LIKE?

When your child first meets their pediatric occupational therapist, they will be evaluated. Typically, the first appointment is a bit longer than the ones that follow, so that a thorough evaluation can be done.

During that time, the therapist will use standardized and non-standardized assessments to determine where your child is physically, socially, emotionally, and/or mentally. Assessments may be done by the child on paper, or through a parent survey, or through therapist direction and observation.

Occupational therapists always strive to be evidence-based and client-centered in their practice. This means that whatever assessments and treatments they use with your child are backed by research and experience (evidence-based) and are specifically geared toward your
child’s interests and needs (client-centered). Depending on the child’s age, interests and abilities, pediatric therapy can often look and feel like playing.

In order to keep a child motivated, familiar tools are often used in therapy. Things like blocks, Legos, trampolines, Play-Doh, puzzles, scooters, beads, and gym mats can be found in just about any pediatric therapy clinic. The therapy that your child receives depends on the following factors: their therapeutic needs, your goals for therapy, the treatment setting and
available materials, and the reimbursement coverage.


Now that we have laid some groundwork for what occupations are, where pediatric occupational therapists work and why a child may receive treatment, we can discuss all that pediatric therapists do. They help kids gain skills in functional tasks. This includes:

  • Play
  • Self-care skills- getting dressed, grooming, bathing, caring for oneself and the tasks associated with self-care
  • Feeding and eating
  • Learning and being a student
  • Leisure activities
  • Sleep
  • Toileting and potty training

And all skills or aspects that allow kids to perform these “jobs”:

  • Motor development and motor planning
  • Feeding and oral motor skills
  • Cognitive development
  • Visual processing skills
  • Sensory processing
  • Self-regulation
  • Social and emotional skills
  • Emotional-regulation
  • Social participation
  • Executive functioning skills- organization, attention, working memory, planning, prioritization, impulse control, and other skills
  • Fine and gross motor skills
  • Safety in the home and community
  • Balance and coordination
Occupational therapists work with kids on daily occupations or daily skills that make up the child's day.

Pediatric occupational therapists do all of this and more. They screen and evaluate clients, write treatment plans and achievable goals, educate families and teachers, consult with other therapists and social workers, supervise Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTAs), and determine the best possible path for your child. And then, when that path doesn’t work, they modify and try again.

What do pediatric occupational therapists do? They do all that they can to help your child be as successful as possible.

Sydney Thorson, OTR/L, is a new occupational therapist working in school-based therapy. Her
background is in Human Development and Family Studies, and she is passionate about
providing individualized and meaningful treatment for each child and their family. Sydney is also
a children’s author and illustrator and is always working on new and exciting projects.