Christine Peters and Deirdre Haltermann
Definition of Physical Therapy
In the educational setting, physical therapy addresses the ability to move parts of the body, to assume and maintain postures, and organize movement into functional gross motor skills. Physical Therapists work with students to build strength and endurance for safe, functional mobility ( e.g., climbing stairs, opening doors, moving about the school, carrying materials, accessing the playground, participating in field trips).
Qualifications of the Physical Therapist
Physical Therapists must pass the physical therapy state licensing exam and hold a current New York State license to practice as issued by the State Department of Education. This license must be periodically renewed. All therapists are required to attend continuing education programs to maintain NY State licensure. To obtain a license the physical therapist must have an entry level bachelors, masters, or doctoral degree in physical therapy from an accredited physical therapy program as approved by the American Physical Therapy Association. Currently entry level programs for physical therapy are at the doctoral level.
A therapist has knowledge of current federal and state regulations pertaining to special education and section 504. They have an understanding of the medical and educational disabilities of students. They are trained to select/administer appropriate assessment tools, to interpret those results and to plan and implement intervention within the educational program.
Role of the Physical Therapist in the Educational Setting
Therapists in the educational setting are responsible for assessing and evaluating student function within the school environment, and planning for integrated intervention services. They work in collaboration with the IEP or 504 committee. The therapist develops and implements services based on the goals developed by the team. The therapist provides information and strategies to educational personnel, students and parents. In addition, therapists are available to consult with school personnel regarding school environment accessibility (ie. bathroom/classroom modification or bus/playground accessibility).
Referral for Physical Therapy Services
Anyone who suspects that a student needs physical therapy services may initiate a referral. The referral may be made by a teacher, parent or physician and is directed to the child study team or CSE/504 administrator. Parental permission is required before evaluation and/or services can be rendered. Medical prescription is required before services can be provided.
Reasons for a referral might include:
- Not alternating feet when descending steps
- Frequent falling
- Unable to carry a lunch tray
- Difficulties in physical education classes or on the playground
- Poor strength or endurance
- Inability to maintain up right posture when at the desk
- Problems in maneuvering within classroom space
Evaluation may include:
- Review of pertinent medical and educational records
- Interviews with the student, parent, guardian, teacher, and para professionals
- Observations throughout the school environment
- Evaluation of activity demands that impact educational performance
- Standardized assessments
- Assessments of students' neurological, musculoskeletal, and cardiopulmonary systems
Therapists are not required to attend IEP meetings but have a professional obligation to provide input regarding therapy services decisions.
The decision to provide physical therapy services should be based on educational and medical research, and should adhere to IDEA and No Child Left Behind principles.
Physical Therapy Service Delivery
Services are provided to enable the student to benefit from his or her special education program and facilitate access to the general curriculum. Services are provided in the students' general education routine through staff training, direct services, and consultations. Frequency is determined by the team based on child’s age, degree of disability, program, classroom resources, physical environment, and educational needs.
Regular physical therapy progress reports are provided to parents as frequently as progress is reported to parents of students without disability.