Essential Skills for Occupational Therapy Students

To excel in your occupational therapy degree program and career, make sure you learn and cultivate these soft, hard, and online learning skills.

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Expert Review

Alicia Reiser

- Bio

After years of providing occupational therapy services at hospitals and rehab centers around Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Alicia Reiser opened her own practice, dedicated to helping patients “that others have given up on or were never even identified.” Based in the cities of Allentown and Bethlehem, A Rise Above Occupational Therapy Services is dedicated to helping teens and adults living with neurological conditions think, move and perform everyday tasks. She spoke to us about some of the skills she thinks people in her profession need.

last updated

Last Updated: 02/25/2021
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Occupational therapists and OT assistants work with patients dealing with new and challenging circumstances in the wake of an illness, injury, or disability, helping them recover everyday skills or work with them to master completely new ones. It’s an in-demand career due to the critical and specialized skills an OT can provide. While these skills are honed on the job, they are also cultivated in OT school.

This guide was designed to help students considering enrolling in an occupational therapy program online — as well as those who are already enrolled — learn how to succeed in their studies and get a head start on developing the skills they need as an OT. Learn which soft skills and hard skills are crucial to have to thrive as an occupational therapy student and professional.

5 Soft Skills for Occupational Therapy Students

Soft skills don’t relate directly to your job, but you use them regularly to get your job done. They include things such as communication, work ethic, adaptability, critical thinking, and time management. Hiring managers look for these skills because they can transfer from job to job, making for adaptable employees. Here’s a look at some essential soft skills that occupational therapy students should be striving to grow in their occupational therapy programs.

1. Organization

Any student needs to be organized, no matter their area of study, but it’s an especially important skill for occupational therapy students to cultivate. As an occupational therapist, your clients depend on you to give them your full attention. You’ll only be able to accomplish this if you have your documentation and courses of treatment in order. For example:

  • You’ll need to make sure you haven’t double-booked clients and that you’ve allowed enough time to move from patient to patient.
  • If you’re working with other therapists or in a clinical setting you’ll need to organize your schedule in a way that attends to your patients without disrupting the workflow of others.

2. Flexibility

Being an occupational therapist and OT assistant means never knowing what your day-to-day routine will be like. Clients can postpone or cancel their appointments. It’s a job for people who can be prepared for uncertainty and cope with change.

  • You might spend one day working with senior citizens and the next day solely focused on children.
  • The types of clients you’ll deal with can change from situation to situation, as the issues that require the help of an occupational therapist affect people from all walks of life.

3. Empathy

Occupational therapy is a field designed for people with deep wells of compassion and empathy, as you’ll have to watch and assist patients who may be struggling physically, mentally and emotionally. These patients need an occupational therapist who can treat them with genuine warmth and sympathy and make them feel at home and accepted without using judgement or negativity.

  • It’s a role that requires patience. You might have to work with clients that are frustrated, stubborn, impatient, or depressed, while treating them the same way you would good-natured patients.
  • Some clients might take weeks to achieve success, while others take several months or even years. You’ll need to show patience with these clients, even if they aren’t patient with themselves.

4. Problem Solving

There’s no one-size-fits all remedy for occupational therapy patients. In order to succeed with your patients, you’ll need to plot out strategies appropriate for their issues. Think of it like solving an equation. There might be more than one day to get to a conclusion, one that is a result of your problem-solving skills.

  • Occupational therapist is categorized by the Department of Labor’s ONet OnLine as an investigative occupation.
  • You’ll be required to think critically, search for facts, and figure out solutions on a regular basis.

5. Collaboration

Collaborating now with your fellow occupational therapy students is good practice for when you leave school. As an occupational therapist, you might find yourself needing to work with other professionals including doctors, psychologists, and physical therapists.

If you’re working in a school, you might need to collaborate with speech pathologists or therapists, as well as with parents, teachers, and administrators. Whatever the case, it’s a job for people who welcome team-work.

Other Important Soft Skills

In addition to the skills listed above, occupational therapy students should cultivate these other soft skills in preparation for their careers as OTs and OT assistants:

  • Strong interpersonal skills: You’ll need to relate to and interact with people from all walks of life.
  • Energy and enthusiasm: It’s tough to do after spending hours on your feet, but your energy can be contagious and make your clients want to approach their work with enthusiasm.
  • Sincerity: Even children can see through insincere people and will respond well if you can convey real compassion and kindness.

5 Hard Skills for Occupational Therapy Students

Soft skills are attributes we pick up throughout our lives. They are abilities that may not apply directly to our jobs but can still help us do them.

Hard skills, on the other hand, are skills you learn either on the job or in training for your career. Occupational therapy students will need to learn the following hard skills to excel in their program and field.

1. Medical, Neurological, and Anatomical Expertise

Anatomy courses are a must for occupational therapy students, as you learn how physical problems connect to the body’s performance. To excel as an occupational therapy student and OT, you will be required to know the physical and neurological needs of both children and older adults and have a strong foundation in neurological issues. This includes:

  • Comprehension and ability to apply knowledge of the methodology, principles, and protocols for diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of neurological and physical injuries, illnesses, and disabilities.
  • The ability to provide career counseling and guidance to patients using acquired expertise, practice, and training.

2. Verbal Communication Skills

Occupational therapists need to listen and understand what their patients are saying and be able to communicate instructions back to them.

  • If you plan to work with children, you’ll need the ability to explain complex words and ideas to them in a way they can understand.
  • You’ll also need to communicate with family members, doctors, and caregivers, while possibly delegating work to an occupational therapy assistant.

In any case, you’ll need to communicate clearly and confidently when listening and speaking, understanding industry jargon and knowing when to use and not use it.

3. Written Communication Skills

As an OT student and professional, in addition to verbal communication skills, you’ll need to develop your proficiency with the written word as well.

  • You’ll need to keep detailed notes and records that explain patient progress and courses of treatment.
  • You’ll be required to describe reasons for a particular course of treatment to insurance companies.
  • You’ll need to write reports you can share with other professionals.

4. Observational Skills

A good occupational therapist is a keen observer, studying clients carefully in order to find the best possible care. You’ll need to pay attention to what patients say, but also to what they’re not saying. For example, you might have a patient tell you that they aren’t experiencing any pain, but you notice them wince or strain anytime they move a certain way.

5. Technological Skills

Although you’ll be doing a lot of hands-on work with your clients, you’ll also need to cultivate some technological skills. Those skills could require:

  • Learning the ins-and-outs of electronic record-keeping and mastering new medical software.
  • Becoming adept at meeting with patients via telehealth interfaces. You may find yourself needing to build up this aspect of your practice and familiarizing yourself with this tech to the point that you can make your patients feel comfortable using it as well.
  • In-depth knowledge of cutting-edge software designed to help patients such as text-to-speech software.

Other Important Hard Skills

As an occupational therapist, you’ll need to understand how to find, understand, and parse data. You’ll need to take deep dives into research data and patient records while meeting patient treatment protocols.

3 Online Learning Skills for Occupational Therapy Students

In addition to the hard and soft skills mentioned above, occupational therapy students will need to cultivate online learning skills. You might enroll in a master’s or doctorate occupational therapy program that requires you to take courses online or a fully-online program. Either way, you’ll need to approach these classes with the following skills in mind.

1. Self-Discipline

Occupational therapy students enrolled in online programs will need the self-motivation to stay on top of deadlines.

This means learning how to minimize distractions by turning off your phone and setting aside time to study and recognizing the settings where you learn best. Make sure you’re reading all the communications you get from your professors so you don’t miss any deadlines or important instructions or updates to your coursework.

2. Time Management

Have you given yourself enough time to finish your work? Use the same rule for time management for online courses as you would for traditional classroom lessons: two to three hours of study or homework for every hour you spend in class, meaning a three-credit hour course would require six to nine hours a week of reading, assignments, etc.

Use a calendar or planner to remind yourself about important deadlines and to block out time for reading, writing, and studying. Try not to procrastinate. Rather than cramming all your work into one session, divide assignments and projects into more manageable chunks.

3. Exam Prep

Passing the exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) means you are ready to begin practicing as an occupational therapist (or occupational therapy assistant).

Like any exam of its type, it’s one that requires a great deal of preparation, which is why the American Occupational Therapy Association provides an NBCOT exam prep for its members. This tool includes an online dashboard that shows you your strengths and areas where you may need to focus more, along with practice tests, flash cards, and customized quizzes that will meet your exact learning needs.

Insight from Occupational Therapy Graduate Alicia Reiser

Alicia Reiser
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After years of providing occupational therapy services at hospitals and rehab centers around Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Alicia Reiser opened her own practice, dedicated to helping patients “that others have given up on or were never even identified.”

Based in the cities of Allentown and Bethlehem, A Rise Above Occupational Therapy Services is dedicated to helping teens and adults living with neurological conditions think, move and perform everyday tasks.

She spoke to us about some of the skills she thinks people in her profession need.

What’s a skill that occupational therapists need to have that you didn’t know you would need?

I think the biggest skill that an occupational therapist needs to have is flexibility with out-of-the-box thinking. Because every person is different, a strategy that may work for client A may not work for client B. Along with that comes patience as you try different strategies and treatment options. Occupational therapy spans the lifetime from newborns to end-of-life, so depending on your setting, you need to be able to problem solve for all types of clients. Being flexible allows you to have many solutions for one kind of problem.

How has COVID-19 affected what you do? It looks as though telehealth was already part of your practice, but it seems like it would probably become more critical when people have to socially distance themselves.

COVID-19 initially had a huge impact on occupational therapy. It definitely was a pivotal moment when we realized we may not be able to see clients in the outpatient setting. I quickly researched how to do telehealth from the experts who were already doing it and took some courses. We then had to advocate with our state and national professional associations to allow telehealth to be reimbursed by insurance carriers. We implemented performing telehealth to those that were appropriate and for those who still needed to come in, we adapted our schedules for only one person in the clinic and were diligent in cleaning and infection control. Patients were leery to come in or do telehealth as well, which impacted us for a while. We currently still offer telehealth for those who prefer that option.

What’s the biggest challenge facing people in your field?

One of the biggest challenges we face as occupational therapists is people understanding what our profession does and the impact it can have on people’s lives. This doesn’t just include clients, but other professionals and insurance carriers also. Productivity demands by some large companies have ruined the functional and creative spirit of what occupational therapy truly is. That is why I opened a private practice — to keep true to helping people according to their healing time, not according to someone else’s.

What advice would you give to people considering a career as an occupational therapist?

Stay true to the cause. Occupational therapy is an amazing field that allows you to reach so many people in so many ways — even during a pandemic. From working with children with developmental disabilities, to the older population with low-vision or home modification, to adults with orthopedic hand injuries or neurological conditions whose ability to function has been taken away, to mental health in the community or health and wellness for those with chronic diseases, occupational therapy is one of the best career choices you could ever make.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

What I enjoy most about what I do is that I honestly feel that I help people every day restore or develop the function they need to improve their quality of life and be successful. The connection you develop with clients is the most amazing experience about occupational therapy. I have shed many a tear when a patient moves their arm after a stroke for the first time or when a Parkinson’s patient reports they haven’t fallen getting dressed in two weeks now. When you see a child use a skill for the first time instead of having a meltdown, you can literally see the growth and everyone’s hard work pay off. It isn’t always a quick process and it takes time, but making a functional difference every day in someone’s life — what other job can say that they do that?