Therapist #1: An occupational therapist (OTR) with 3 months of experience and a master’s degree.
Therapist #2: An occupational therapy assistant (COTA) with 4 years of experience and an associate’s degree.
Who do you want working with your child? (Remember, I’ve told you nothing about personality types or interpersonal skills.) Could you still make that decision based solely on the information I’ve just provided?
Some parents do. They will call into the clinic and say, “I want the therapist with the most experience;” while others might say, “I want the one with the highest credentials.”
Or, if a parent doesn’t ask about a therapist’s experience level before they are placed on the schedule, it isn’t uncommon for the first interaction to go a little like this:
“Hello! Nice to meet you! I’m Jane, the occupational therapist.”
“Hi. So, how long have you been doing this?”
While this has happened several times in my career, it has begun to taper off. Could it be that I’m starting to look older? Perhaps it is assumed that a person’s age is directly proportional to their therapy skills, or maybe I just look so darn intelligent that no one wants to question me. (Ha!)
I will say, when I first started, the experience question terrified me. What if a parent didn’t like me because I only had 6 months of experience? How could I get them to trust someone fresh out of graduate school?
Around the 8 to 12 month phase in my career, I simply started rounding up to “around a year” because I thought it sounded better. But honestly, what difference did it make? What was the magic number?
Does a parent think, “Oh phew, she has 5 years of experience. Here, take my kid!”
I know parents have to look out for their children and only want the very best, so I can’t even blame those that use certain credentials as their gauge. But honestly, there are benefits to ALL levels of experience.
Those new graduates are fantastically gung-ho, ready to find a solution for everyone they meet. I remember that feeling. I was going to change the world, one child at a time. No goals were unreachable; nothing had jaded me like limited progress, lack of parent follow through, and all that other real world sadness.
Plus they all seem to have so much energy. Where do they get that? These are the therapists that spend their weekends crafting the latest treatment tools from shoe boxes, rubber bands and PVC pipe. Hey, don’t forget I do that every once and a while too…
So then, what might actually differentiate an experienced therapist and a new graduate?
Opinions and preferences.
All those suggestions they gave us in school? I’ve tried them out in the real world and decided which ideas I liked and which ones were junk. It’s a big difference between the promises and theories you are tought and practical real-life applications.
More experienced therapists have also had additional training in specialized programs due to the fact that we are required to complete around 15 hours of continuing education each year.
As for a COTA versus an OTR, it really just depends on the therapist. Check out my post, A “Who’s Who” of Occupational Therapy, to compare the specific differences in training that these two professionals receive. In the grand scheme, I wouldn’t make a snap judgment about a therapist based only on the letters that come after their name.
I always tell parents to give a therapist a try to see if they are a good fit for their child. I like when a parent calls in and asks, “Which therapist do you think would work well with my child?” because this question goes beyond an arbitrary number.
From my perspective as a therapist, I’ve tried to come up with my own answer to this question. When will I have the “right” amount of experience? I think that’s impossible to answer. Am I a better therapist than I was last year? Sure. Three years ago? Definitely. However, I will always be learning and growing, dedicating my day to doing whatever I can to help my clients and their families. I hope that’s what a parent wants to see in me as a therapist.
So, you tell me. What is the “right” amount of experience?