Occupational Therapist Assistant Degrees, Schools and Career Overview

Occupational Therapist Assistant Education, Schools and Career Overview

The American Occupational Therapy Organization (AOTA) states that occupational therapy as a profession involves “helping people across the lifespan participate in the activities they both want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations)”. And while we often equate the word “occupation” with “job,” an occupational therapy professional sees their clients’ occupations as the basic functions they need to perform in order to live the lives they want to live. So, for working adults, an occupation may truly be a job. A child’s occupation is learning and developing, an older adult’s occupation is living independently. Occupational therapy professionals identify the specific tasks that each client needs to be capable of performing in order to live his or her life as fully and independently as possible, and then work to eliminate any barriers to their clients’ success.

An occupational therapy assistant, or OTA, is a health care professional that delivers treatment under the direction of an occupational therapist. An occupational therapy assistant delivers rehabilitation services for a wide variety of conditions among all age groups. OTA’s need to be certified in most settings, and with certification, the practitioner may be described as a “COTA” (certified occupational therapy assistant.)

Occupational Therapy Assistant Specializations

Occupational therapy assistant jobs may be found in rehabilitation units within hospitals that specialize in orthopedic conditions – where bones are mending– or within units that treat neurological problems, such as stroke or spinal cord injury. General weakness and loss of function can be problematic for older adults who live through serious illnesses, such as pneumonia or infections, and retraining them to re-master their ability to function independently is also a responsibility taken on by occupational therapy professionals.

In outpatient clinics, OTAs may work as members of a team that treat injuries sustained on the job, or they may help those in need of additional therapy after being discharged from a hospital rehabilitation unit.

In the mental health environment, occupational therapy assistants work as part of a team that treats impairment associated with an array of mental health diagnoses. An OTA in this environment will work to help these individuals learn the skills necessary to live successful, self-supporting lives within their communities. In the case of those who need the continued support of medical organizations, occupational therapy professionals help to integrate these individuals into activities that will enhance their quality of life and maximize successful socialization with those around them.

OTA’s who work with children address the limitations that may accompany an illness or injury that prevents a child from developing normally or living the typical life of a youngster. OTA’s work in pediatric settings where they address the barriers to typical motor development, sensory management or cognitive development. These limitations are addressed through exercise, therapeutic techniques and environmental adaptation. An OTA may also be part of a team that customizes adaptive medical equipment, such as wheelchairs. Occupational therapy assistants may also work in a school setting with a team that helps children function within the classroom so as to allow them to receive a mainstream public school education.

How to Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant

Becoming an occupational therapy assistant starts with the right education – an OTA degree program. Here’s info on how to enroll, and what to expect for OTA certification, licensure, career advancement options and more.

Occupational assistant degree programs

The first half of an occupational therapy assistant degree program is generally oriented around introduction to the field of occupational therapy. This would involve gaining familiarity with the terminology, the patients with whom an OTA would work and the therapeutic principles an OTA would incorporate into daily practice. These programs can also include courses that introduce students to normal function and movement, human development and psychology in the context of occupational therapeutic intervention.

In the second half of an OTA program, courses become more challenging and teach more advanced therapeutic principles including kinesiology, which is the study of human movement. This latter half would also include coursework that teaches documentation principles and writing techniques, as properly recording assessment, and annotating progress throughout therapy sessions is an absolutely vital component of the therapeutic process.

Aspiring occupational therapy assistant students should also expect courses on ethics in medical practice, as well as professional considerations in the field of occupational therapy.

Occupational therapy assistant schools

There are many programs available to students interested in pursuing a degree in occupational therapy assisting offered through both public and private colleges. Occupational therapy assistant programs are also offered through schools that specialize in allied health careers, and those that emphasize vocational programs.

Many programs offer multiple enrollment tracks allowing students to choose between full-time and part-time schooling, and many offer evening programs for those who are working to put themselves through school.

Occupational therapy assistant license

Occupational therapy assistants are licensed in nearly all states. Because occupational therapy assistants work with more fragile populations within medical settings, many states want to ensure the protection of the consumer by licensing individuals who work closely with these populations in a recuperative therapeutic capacity. This allows the state’s licensing body to assure the public of the fact that these professionals have completed education and testing requirements that denote competency and ethics.

Most states that license OTAs also require regular continuing education in order to renew the license. Continuing education requirements are typically 16-24 hours of courses every two years, although each state sets its own requirements. Some employers even pay for continuing education as part of a benefits package. Occupational therapy assistants have some choices when it comes to continuing education, so they often deepen their knowledge and expertise specific to the population that is served where they work. Becoming an expert in some of the therapeutic principles that are essential to the health care organization demonstrates value and commitment to the organization, which helps contribute to salary increases.

Occupational therapy as a profession is regulated differently in different states with regard to the use of physical agents and modalities, commonly referred to by the acronym, PAMs. PAMs include the application of heat, ice, ultrasound and electric stimulation. Authorization to use these agents during therapy is regulated on a state level, but many occupational therapists find their professional range is enhanced by getting a PAMs certification as required by their state. OTAs also often find that completing the coursework to be PAMs certified is a benefit to their organization.

Occupational assistant therapy certification

The requirement for certification is dependent on the mandates set by each state, as well as on the setting in which an occupational therapy assistant intends to practice. Some states accept national certification in lieu of licensure to ensure that an occupational therapy professional has completed comprehensive training and has demonstrated a core knowledge base through examination.

In order to become a certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA), an OTA must pass the certification exam administered by the National Board of Certification for Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). In order to be eligible to sit for the exam, applicants must graduate from occupational therapy assistant schools accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). Transcripts that verify attendance and graduation must be provided to the NBCOT in order to be eligible to take the examination. Additionally, all fieldwork through clinical rotations must also have been completed.

Occupational therapy assistant training

Occupational therapy assistant jobs are very hands on. Helping people perform acts of self-care and facilitating the process by which a patient re-learns lost or impaired abilities requires these professionals to be up-close and personal with the clients and patients they’re serving. As a result, there are rigorous fieldwork requirements established by OTA programs.

An occupational therapy assistant will complete sixteen weeks of fieldwork through the course of their education. These field positions are broken up into several blocks, and are assigned in various locations so that students get the benefit of working with a variety of clinical populations.

Clinical rotations OTA students participate in early in their training are oriented more towards observation and service delivery under the direct supervision of an occupational therapist, while rotations that students participate in as their training progresses are more demanding. These advanced training rotations require students, as directed, to begin assuming larger caseloads while performing all the duties that an OTA would be expected to perform in a professional setting, including documenting assessments, writing reports, and collaborating with other team members.

Career advancement for occupational therapy assistants

Experience is the biggest factor that influences earning potential for an occupational therapy assistant, and this, of course comes with time. Because occupational therapy assistant programs provide training that is broad in scope in order to produce graduates with the widest number of employment options, there is much to learn about specific populations and specialized therapeutics. An OTA who decides to pursue additional training and continued education that includes new methods of therapy may be well positioned to negotiate a higher salary.

However, occupational therapy assistants can also seek out certification that provides testament to the quality and level of their skills. In fact, this is typically required to seek licensure in a state, along with other requirements. Most often, a skills and knowledge examination is taken through the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT), and continuing education is needed to maintain certification.

OTAs could also find a position in which they are promoted to a head manager or a role to overseeing other occupational therapy assistants. Finally, those who truly enjoy the field but are looking to advance their knowledge, skills and pay may want to become an occupational therapist or physical therapist, although much more education is required.

OTA Salary and Career Outlook

Many healthcare positions are expected to fare well in the coming years in terms of demand, as an aging populations lives longer, healthier lives and as advances in medical technology continue. Here is an idea of what to expect for occupational therapy assistant salaries and job growth numbers in the coming years:

CareerTotal EmploymentAnnual Mean Wage
Occupational Therapy Assistants44,990$61,880
2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2018-28 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Professional Organizations for Occupational Therapy Assistants

The American Occupational Therapy Association is a national organization that supports the profession of occupational therapy. AOTA assumes a role of centralizing information for the profession, advocating for the profession when discussing national health care policy, and making efforts to improve access to health care and rehabilitation services for the nation’s population. Members of the occupational therapy profession can choose to join AOTA to connect with other professionals so as to better maintain an awareness of changes in the profession including legislation that improves the public’s access to the services of occupational therapists and their assistants.


1. Occupational Therapy Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes312011.htm

2. Occupational Therapy Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapy-assistants-and-aides.htm

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