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!
- 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!
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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).