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What is the Difference between Physical and Occupational Therapy?

The Kioko Center
What is the Difference between Physical and Occupational Therapy?

Special and general educators carry many roles, including observing child development from many different perspectives. A teacher may refer a student for a speech evaluation, cognitive testing, or a behavior assessment. While these performance areas seem distinct, teachers are often uncertain if they should refer a child for physical or occupational therapy since there is sometimes overlap between the two professions.


Both occupational and physical therapists are licensed professionals who graduated from an accredited program (occupational therapy is an entry-level master’s or doctorate, and physical therapy is a doctoral-level degree). In a school setting, occupational and physical therapy are added to a qualifying child’s plan to support their educational outcomes. For example, suppose a child has an abnormal gait pattern but can still navigate their classroom environment safely and efficiently. In that case, they may not qualify for school-based physical therapy.

Note: If a student’s occupational or physical therapy needs do not involve their ability to access their education, they may be a better candidate for outpatient therapy.

What is physical therapy?

A physical therapist (PT) evaluates and treats a student’s physical motor skills. After evaluation, a physical therapist creates a plan of care and works with students to improve motor skills. A physical therapist may recommend adaptive equipment to enhance students’ ability to access their motor skills in the classroom. Examples of physical therapy intervention may include:

  • Balance: Navigating the classroom without falling.
  • Mobility: Climbing the stairs safely.
  • Strength: Having the postural control to maintain a sitting posture at the desk or floor.
  • Stability: Stabilizing the core body and joints so the child can kick a ball (hip joint) or cut with scissors (shoulder joint).

What is occupational therapy?

An occupational therapist (OT) also evaluates and treats students, but instead of focusing on physical motor skills, they support participation in meaningful activities. During the school day, activities might include lessons, lunch, social participation, transitions, specials, and more. An OT creates an intervention plan to build student skills, change the activity, or modify the environment for successful student participation. Some examples of occupational therapy intervention include:

  • Handwriting: Using visual motor skills to use lines to create letters and aligning the letters on the baseline.
  • Sensory processing: Integrating all of the sensory information in a classroom in a way that is adaptive and doesn’t inhibit their participation.
  • Holding a pencil: Using a functional grasp so the child can record their thoughts on paper.
  • Dressing: Independently dressing for classroom transitions, including recess or toileting.

Still unsure about where to send the referral? Each case is unique and some students benefit from both disciplines. Touch base with your special education director, physical or occupational therapist to discuss an appropriate evaluation.

At the Kioko Center we are passionate about providing the very best OT therapy and SLP therapy services for children and young adults. We serve the schools, therapists, and families that support them. We are a pediatric therapy organization that specializes in occupational therapy and speech therapy. Our multidisciplinary, holistic approach gives each child the best chance to realize their full potential.


The Kioko Center
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