Physical therapy has been a preferred form of rehabilitative medicine for children since the 1920s, when the polio epidemic brought the physical therapeutic techniques used for treating musculoskeletal disorders into the spotlight.
Today’s physical therapist assistants, under the close supervision and direction of licensed physical therapists, implement similar methods to help develop and promote the strength and range of motion children need to play and function independently.
Physiotherapy is often considered the method of choice when it comes to helping children with developmental delays and movement disorders achieve developmental milestones, such as crawling, sitting, standing, and walking.
PTAs use therapy to promote the development of children with health conditions that include:
- Cerebral palsy
- Chronic pain
- Cystic fibrosis
- Muscular dystrophy
- Traumatic brain injuries
The goal of a pediatric physical therapy program is to alleviate pain, develop/restore function, and/or improve one or more of the following:
- Motor development
- Range of motion
The Work of Physical Therapist Assistants in Pediatrics
Physical therapist assistants promote pediatric health and wellness by providing support alongside other medical, educational, developmental, and rehabilitation specialists. In all cases, pediatric physical therapy involves collaboration, consultation, and interventions using evidence-based practice.
Physical therapist assistants working in pediatrics focus on helping infants through adolescents (usually birth to age 21) reach their maximum physical potential so as to function independently in any number of environments. The expertise in movement and clinical reasoning that PTAs bring allows them to work with physical therapists to examine, evaluate, diagnose, and provide interventions for pediatric patients.
Pediatric physical therapy begins with an interview with the child and the child’s family, during which time the physical therapist identifies the child’s needs and the family’s concerns and evaluates the child in the context of performing daily routines or activities. From there, the physical therapist assistance, under the guidance of the physical therapist, develops and implements an activity-based program that best addresses the needs of the patient.
Pediatric physical therapy may involve any number of activities aimed at:
- Balance and coordination
- Burn and wound care
- Cardiopulmonary endurance
- Developmental activities
- Motor learning
- Movement and mobility
- Recreation, play, and leisure therapy
- Safety, health promotion, and prevention education
- Use of assistive technology
- Use of orthotics and prosthetics
Education, Training, and Certification Options for Physical Therapist Assistants in Pediatrics
Physical therapist assistants interested in working with pediatric patients often choose to pursue pediatric-focused electives as part of their physical therapist assisting associate degree program. Although pediatric physical therapy classes are always included in physical therapist assisting associate’s degree programs, elective courses provide students more opportunities to further specialize in this unique area of physical therapy.
After earning an associate’s degree in physical therapist assisting, passing the PTA National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), and qualifying for a state license, new graduates often pursue jobs working with pediatric physical therapists—many of whom have achieved a specialist certification in pediatrics through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.
PTAs most often work with pediatric patients in settings that include:
- Childcare centers
- Community health centers
- Rehabilitation centers
Working alongside pediatric physical therapists is one of the most effective ways to gain valuable experience in this field.
Physical therapist assistants looking to achieve recognition for their work in pediatrics may also pursue the Physical Therapy Association’s PTA Recognition of Advanced Proficiency Program through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists. This designation requires candidates to achieve an advanced level of proficiency in an area of physical therapy assisting, such as pediatrics.
To achieve this recognition, candidates must possess at least 2,000 hours of work experience (500 hours of which must be in pediatrics) and meet specific requirements in four categories:
- Continuing Education
- Job Performance
- Community Service/Leadership
The American Physical Therapy Association’s Section on Pediatrics serves as a comprehensive and reliable source of information on pediatric physical therapy. The Section on Pediatrics represents pediatric physical therapy and promotes members as practitioners of choice for children with movement dysfunction.