When Does a Therapist Have the “Right” Amount of Experience?


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?



About TheAnonymousOT

Pediatric Occupational Therapist
This entry was posted in Insider Information, Lessons Learned, Therapy Process and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to When Does a Therapist Have the “Right” Amount of Experience?

  1. christiekiley says:

    I am so glad you addressed this issue! I am a pediatric OT who has been practicing as a therapist for about a year and a half (though it feels soooo much longer!). However, I have worked with and taught children since I was practically a child, and I coached and taught children for 3 years in between undergrad and OT school. During those 3 years, I learned so many more practical therapeutic strategies for working with children with autism than I did during my 2 years of OT classes and fieldwork. So by the time I graduated and started working, I had quite a bit of experience under my belt, though not as an official OTR/L. You’re right on the money when you say it’s all about the fit between child and therapist, regardless of credentials or experience. Looking forward to gaining even more skills as I continue in my career.

  2. missawesomenessdotcom says:

    Hey AnonymousOT, I’m really excited to see this blog – just learned of you through therapyfunzone.com who linked you. LOVE it. Can’t wait to read up on all your Pinterest-tries and visual perceptual stuff. You rock! Karen (over at missawesomeness.com)

  3. Sarah says:

    I ask myself this on a daily basis, being a soft 6 months into my career. I have, however, only had ONE parent ask me how long I’ve been practicing, and that was really only because she knew I was new to the clinic and asked outright if it was my first job, to which I responded that I had “just graduated” (and had been practicing a grand total of 3 weeks at that point, but I didn’t get specific with her). And she didn’t ask for another therapist! Yay me. Honestly…if I had a child, especially one with a profound issue such as Downs, severe CP or autism, I might want someone with more experience than I have.

    I think I’m only now feeling at home and confident in what I’m doing, although some of the more difficult kiddos, like my many 2 year-olds with autism, still make me feel my inexperience. Thankfully I’ve got great co-workers and bosses to advise me and tell me when my goals for new kids are lame (or when I have 10 too many…), etc.

    Although there are some days when I lay in bed after a long day and pray for the ability to time-travel to 5 years from now when I’m a much better OT. One day….

    • Sarah,
      Thanks for sharing! I know it can be challenging in the beginning, but I’m glad you have a great support system! Why is it that the less sure of what I am doing with a client, the MORE goals I make? Haha! It happens… I am sure you are a great OT, and the experience will come. Enjoy the ride. 🙂

  4. Kerry McCracken says:

    Hi! Anyone out there have advice for a school OT (of 21 years) going into clinical Pediatrics? I started at a non-profit clinic but now realize there are many differences to clinically based treatment from the school-based. All the Other OTs at this clinic have quit and I don’t have co-workers to help me figure out goals, evaluations and even how to write daily notes that are perused by Insurances. Not used to this and wonder if I should just quit?

  5. mamanya says:

    When my child (2 yrs 7 months old that time) started speech therapy, we were given a twice a week schedule with two therapist. The first one is a senior, with at least 5 years experience and the second therapist just graduated from 3 year diploma school and only few months experience. Guess who worked well with my child? The second one! 😊


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