How to Get OT Observation Hours: 6 Things to Know Before You Shadow an OT

6 Things to Know Before You Observe an OT

So you’ve followed my advice in the first few steps of this post and successfully set up your OT observation experience – congratulations! Now you’re probably wondering what to do before your first day at the site.

I’ve compiled a list of the most important things you should be aware of before embarking on your shadowing experience. From the importance of being an informed observer to remembering to take note of particularly meaningful moments, I’ve covered several things I wish I had known before I started observing OTs!

  1. Variability in OT Practice: Don’t Judge All of OT By One Site You See!
    As you observe at various sites, be aware that the clinical practice of OT can look very different across settings, and even between therapists in the same setting! Although there are “best practice” guidelines for clinicians working in virtually all traditional settings, therapists may not be aware of or able to follow these guidelines for various reasons. For example, one school-based OT might only work one-on-one with kids in a pullout classroom on handwriting and fine motor skills, while another may be providing embedded fine motor and social skills interventions to a small group of children in an integrated classroom. Therapist practice styles can vary widely, because clinicians have variable levels of experience and knowledge and each person takes a slightly different approach to treatment. If you want to know why a therapist is doing things the way he or she is, just ask (tactfully)! Keep an open mind when you’re observing, and try to ask about or think about reasons why what you see across or within settings might be different.

    In essence, don’t think that the practice you see in one place is what OT looks like everywhere. Seasoned therapists use different forms of reasoning, styles of interaction, and frames of reference to provide the best experience for each individual client, and the best way to get a complete picture of what OT looks like is to observe multiple therapists in multiple settings. In sum, don’t judge all of OT by one site you see!

  1. The Importance of Being an Informed Observer
    Wherever you are observing, make an effort to do a little research on the kinds of services being offered so that you can contribute to the conversation and ask intelligent questions. For example, if you are going to a pediatric clinic where OTs do feeding therapy, read a journal article or another reputable source of information on the topic. Then take what you learned and use it to help inform your observations and form the basis for the questions you ask (see Tip #3).

    To learn more about various interventions or practice settings, you can consult one of AOTA’s many Fact Sheets that provide information about how OTs help clients with various conditions. Taking time to learn about what you see while observing demonstrates your interest in the profession and will help you gain a clearer understanding of occupational therapy as a whole in the long run.

    (To read the Fact Sheets, click on one of the practice areas you are interested in learning more about at the left of the page linked HERE.)

  1. Question Everything! (Politely)
    If you feel that what you are seeing may not be “quality OT,” or if you are just not sure how what the therapist(s) is/are doing is benefiting the client(s), just ask! Be professional and non-confrontational with your questions, and remember that in many situations you cannot observe or know everything that is actually going on in the setting or with a client. For example, if you see a therapist using a specific kind of sensory integration protocol with a child (the Wilbarger Deep Pressure and Proprioceptive Technique and Astronaut Training are two of the more controversial practices out there right now, which you can read more about HERE) and you are not sure how it is supposed to help, you might say “When I was reading more about sensory integration after observing last week, I noticed that [INTERVENTION] was described by some people as being ineffective. What do you think?” or “I don’t know much about what you’re doing with Sam. Could you tell me more about it?”

    By asking open-ended questions, you are creating a learning opportunity not only for yourself, but for the therapist who must think about and explain why he/she is doing what he/she is doing (i.e. his clinical reasoning). If you are still skeptical about what you see after hearing an explanation, make a note of it and research it later or consider posting somewhere like the OT Connections forums to find more answers.

  1. It’s a Small World, After All
    …and those aren’t just lyrics to a super annoying song. The world of OT isn’t very big (but it’s growing!), and OTs in an area can be closely connected with one another and with the greater professional body. If you have a negative experience at one observation site, you should definitely refrain from complaining about it to another local therapist! While you may be tempted to discuss one therapist’s “terrible ideas” or “bad OT” with the supervisor at the next place you shadow, avoid embarrassing yourself or appearing unprofessional by keeping your opinions out of the workplace and venting to your friends and family instead. You can tactfully ask questions about the things you saw that you are unsure about (see Tip #3), but it’s best to avoid making negative comments about any specific individuals. You never know who knows who, and you don’t want to negatively impact your current or future opportunities!
  1. Take Note of Important Experiences
    While observing, be sure to make a note of experiences you have that confirm your desire to become an OT, demonstrate the power of the profession, or profoundly impact a client. These are likely to be the same experiences that you will want to write about in your future application and scholarship essays, and they can also be great ways to explain the profession to your friends or family members who are unfamiliar with it. Make sure that you keep a running Word document or notebook of your observation experiences, and record ideas for essays as you observe and learn.
  1. Observation Hours: Quality over Quantity
    Prospective students often wonder “How many OT observation hours is enough,” and the truth is that there is no “magic number” for the amount of time you should spend observing OTs. Although it’s hard to say exactly how much shadowing is “enough,” if I had to make a suggestion it would be to only include experiences where you shadowed a therapist 3 or more times or for more than 10 hours on your resume or applications, unless you were observing a specific intervention within a specific time frame (ex. A 2-hour driving evaluation or a three-day camp for kids). Any shorter than this and it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of the therapist’s work, the clients, and the setting’s operations as a whole and portray it as a relevant experience. (Of course, feel free to observe therapists for shorter periods – this advice is only for experiences you plan to include on a resume or application!)

    And while it may seem like a good idea to spend your time shadowing OTs in 5 or 6 different places to get hours, especially if you are short on time before your application is due, this may not be the most effective way to gain experience and make your application stand out. Although seeing therapists in a variety of places is certainly helpful, it can be less beneficial for you to have spent only a few hours in multiple sites versus having a lengthier, more involved shadowing experiences in 2 or 3 places.

    In the two years that I spent in college between deciding on OT as a career and being accepted to OT school, I was only able to directly observe OTs in two settings as a result of time, financial, and other constraints. However, I spent a great deal of time in both places; I volunteered in an adult outpatient setting for one month for roughly 40 hours per week and in a pediatric outpatient setting for about seven months, for 10-20 hours per month. I also lived and worked at a camp for people with disabilities for one month (although there was not an OT). Although three sites could be considered a fairly limited range of observations, I feel that the relationships I built with supervisors and staff (who later wrote my recommendations), the lessons I learned, and the client improvement I observed made the time I spent at these three places more meaningful than having several short-term shadowing experiences.

    If you have time to shadow OTs in five or six settings, go for it, by all means! But be sure that you aren’t sacrificing the quality and depth of your experiences for the sake of having a long list of sites on your resume or application.

I hope these tips help you better plan for and make the most of your upcoming OT observation experience. Now go forth and get those hours!

What advice would you give a person who is about to shadow an OT? What advice do you wish you had known when you were collecting observation hours? Share your ideas in the comments!

NOTE: While it is important to get observation hours in a variety of settings, make sure you read each program’s admission requirements very carefully to ensure you have the correct number of direct observation hours with an OTR or OTA. This means making sure that your supervisor or the person who you are observing with is a licensed therapist, and not another staff member at the site (i.e. a PT, a teacher, etc.). Additionally, check to see whether a program has more specific observation requirements (ex. 20 hours each in pediatric and adult settings).

7 thoughts on “How to Get OT Observation Hours: 6 Things to Know Before You Shadow an OT

  1. yogainphilly May 5, 2016 / 8:55 am

    Hi there– I’m gathering materials together to apply for OT school this summer. I’m, wondering how important you think observation hours are versus non-OT volunteer hours? Thanks!

    • lej1123 May 10, 2016 / 11:01 pm

      Without knowing more about your specific situation, I can’t really say which are more important. OT programs like to see well-rounded applicants, and most have a minimum number of observation hours. Most applicants have experience in 2-3 OT settings, and many have other work/volunteer experiences that round out their resumes. If you want more specific info, I would email the admissions coordinators at the programs you’re interested in for more information about what they look for in applicants. Hope this helps!

  2. medmissmom August 15, 2016 / 12:58 pm

    I will begin observation hours at a local school next month and need an OT observation hours log form for them to complete. Do you know how I can get a generic printable one, all the ones I’ve found on the internet are not editable? Thanks for your help!!

    • lej1123 August 17, 2016 / 9:15 am

      Good question! It’s great that you’re getting organized early, because keeping tracking of your hours AND your learning will be crucial when it’s time to apply to OT school and write your admissions essays.
      A simple solution is to create your own log sheet (in Word or Excel) with three columns for the date, time spent at the facility, and anything you observed or learned that day. You might also consider adding a space to have your supervisor sign to verify your hours, although that’s not necessary. Best of luck, and email me at with any other questions!

  3. Randi July 29, 2019 / 6:45 am

    I really enjoyed reading this post. It typically is a requirement for prospective Occupational Therapy (OT) students to earn observation hours. You did a good job conveying what observation hours looks like and how the person shadowing the OT clinician can expect to interact and engage appropriately. However, the second bullet point “the importance of being an informed observer”, is an area that I disagree with. It is stated that the observer should do their research on the kinds of services being offered to contribute to the conversation (Therapydia, 2017). My experience shadowing was with three different companies totaling 80 or more hours. I have also had prospective students shadow me on 5 different occasion for approximately 6 hours at a time. Each setting and clinic have different policies and procedures in place and explaining that to a person trying to get observation hours it is not feasible for them to learn. Shadowing an OT should entail watching the services provided to the patient and not have any previous judgment or expectation on how that service should be provided by the observer. What do you think about this?

    • lej1123 August 17, 2019 / 10:17 am

      Thanks for commenting! I think you make a great point, in that an observer should be doing just that — observing and getting a basic understanding of the interventions and environment in a particular practice setting. For the purpose of this blog post, I considered the term “informed observer” to mean that a person who was observing in one setting would at least do a minimal amount of research or learning about a setting before going to observe. For example, an observer going to watch an OT in a school setting would do well to read some blogs or check out the AOTA website about school-based OT to have a basic understanding of OT’s role in schools — not necessarily reading for expertise, but for general information. This way, when they arrive, they can enrich their experience by asking their supervisor some basic questions about how they perceive their role in the setting compared to the national professional association’s description and get more insight, rather than not having looking up ANYTHING and asking unhelpful or very basic questions that might not contribute to their enrichment or are easily found online (Ex. age of clients served, or other basic questions).

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