Observation hours are a typical requirement for applying to OT grad school. Observations are beneficial for several reasons! This is a great time to explore the field of occupational therapy. It is a great time to learn if the career is a right fit for you. Lastly, it is a wonderful time to start making connections with occupational therapists in your area. You might find it overwhelming at first to lock down observation sites, but, with persistence, you can succeed! I’ve organized this post into before, during, and after segments.. enjoy!
Preparing for Observations
I Googled occupational therapy services in a variety of settings and populations. I Googled nearby schools, rehab centers, hospitals, assisted living communities, and nursing facilities. I made an organized list of locations and contact information to start reaching out to occupational therapists.
My list was quite long; however, some sites didn’t have availability for observations and some sites required you to become a volunteer before attending observations (which included orientations, medical protocol, and the occasional fees).
It is probably in your best interest, especially if you are working part-time or are a current student, to avoid locations that require you to become a volunteer first. This can be time-consuming and unnecessarily stressful. I am not discouraging sites that require this particular protocol; however, personally, knowing that I would only be logging a few hours at such sites wasn’t worth the reward. Instead, I found sites that welcomed me as I was – someone simply interested in becoming an occupational therapy student!
Plan to do more observation hours than what is required by the school you are applying to. I personally logged over 60 hours at 7 different sites. This provided me with so much time to learn and experience what each setting/population had to offer in the field of OT. Added bonus: schools love seeing that you put in more time than you were required to complete!
When in contact with the OT you will be shadowing, there are several things you should verify prior to the observation date(s):
- Observation Hour Totals: Make sure to tell the OT you contacted how many hours you are interested in logging with them so they can provide appropriate dates/times for you to observe.
- Dates/time: Some places offered full-day observations, some offered half-day observations. Write down which day(s) you’re observing, when to arrive, and when you’ll be leaving so you know if you need to bring lunch/snacks.
- Contact Person upon Arrival: Some OTs you contact will be the OT you observe. Some OTs you contact will send you off with a fellow colleague to observe them. Make sure you know who to ask for when you get to your observation site.
- Dress code: Most of the places I observed at wanted me to dress in business casual attire. Make sure you ask what the dress code is because every site is different!
Always plan to arrive early to the observation site. This gives you time to find parking, locate the entrance, and relax before heading inside.
You’ve walked into the observation site. Now what?!
Remember this: You are there to observe. You are there to learn. You are there to experience what OTs do everyday.
Allow the OT to do their job while they are with a patient. Some OTs will walk you through each step of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Other OTs will let you observe and then debrief you later. Save your inquiries until treatment is over, unless the OT is providing an environment of open-communication.
I really enjoyed asking OTs about their educational background, their experiences in various OT settings, their experiences in the OT setting they are currently working in, and why they chose OT as their life-long profession. Doing so created a relationship for broader learning.
In some settings, you will also get to interact with patients. Some patients will tell you their stories openly. If the OT opens this gate of communication for you, dive in! Ask them what they’ve experienced so far through their OT treatment. Observations are a great opportunity to experience therapy with both the OT and the patient.
If the opportunity arises, observe other colleagues who are therapists too. I learned a lot about speech therapists and PTs while I was with OTs. It was really eye-opening to see how all the therapists worked together. Feel free to ask them therapy-related questions too! Remember, you’re there to learn – soak it all in!
Before departing from the observation site, make sure to thank the OT or verify future dates/times you will be observing them. This affirms the relationship you built with them and establishes gratitude in allowing you to be their shadow all day long.
When your time at each observation site is complete, I found it very useful to take notes on my experiences. I wrote down the name(s) of the OT(s) that I observed. I wrote down what I observed in great detail. I explained some of the challenges patients were facing and how the OT was striving to improve their success.
I also wrote down what I enjoyed about the setting and what I was unsure about. Some settings I enjoyed way more than others! Some settings were so educational that I can still remember what I learned from each OT. Some settings I felt were limited by the OT’s enthusiasm to provide me with a strong educational experience. However, some OTs made a lasting impact on my personal professional goals.
Below, I’ve created a list of the types of settings I observed at, the population I observed, how many hours I observed there, and a brief summary of what I experienced. My observation journal is very detailed so I will do my best to provide a brief synopsis.
- developmental center for children with developmental disorders:
- Population: children with autism, Down Syndrome, and other learning disabilities
- OT’s role in treatment: improvements on fine motor skills (i.e writing, use of scissors, learning shapes, working zippers) and gross motor skills (i.e coordination)
- Priorities in this setting: classroom function, improving social skills, improving communication, improvements on age-appropriate independent activities
- Total Observation Hours: 6.5 hours (one day)
- hand therapy in out-patient rehab & adult day care:
- Population: adults, geriatrics
- OT’s role in treatment: fine motor skills via hand therapy, care for chronic pain, coordination
- Priorities in this setting: ease symptoms of chronic pain via stretching & massage, improve ability to complete tasks independently
- Total Observation Hours: 8.5 hours (2 days)
- adult day care:
- Population: geriatrics
- OT’s role in treatment: pain management, memory testing/function
- Priorities in this setting: ease symptoms of chronic pain via heat, massage, and stretching; evaluate memory function for potential return-to-home patients
- Total Observation Hours: 9 hours (3 days)
- skilled nursing facility (SNF):
- Population: geriatrics, adults with psychological disorders
- OT’s role in treatment: teaching ADL safety, memory/cognition treatments, fine & gross motor skills
- Priorities in this setting: promote independence, maintain current memory/cognition functions, develop social skills
- Total Observation Hours: 7.25 hours (1 day)
- Special note: I observed a traveling therapist at this location who had ample experience in a variety of settings/populations. Traveling therapy was intriguing to me and her past OT experiences were very informative. I also observed a COTA who taught me that “everything is OT”. I couldn’t agree more with her!
- hand therapy in out-patient rehab:
- Population: adults of various ages
- OT’s role in treatment: fine motor skills, return-to-work skills, pain management
- Priorities in this setting: strengthen fingers, wrist, and lower arm post-surgery/injury so that patients can return to work or their day-to-day activities
- Total Observation Hours: 10 hours (2 days)
- acute rehab
- Population: adults of various ages
- OT’s role in treatment: ADLs, use of adaptive equipment
- Priorities in this setting: promote independence, transition from hospital to rehab to home
- Total Observation Hours: 12 hours (2 days)
- Special note: This was actually my favorite setting because each patient was different; the OTs used different treatment plans for every patient because every patient needed something different before (hopefully) going home!
- school/developmental center:
- Population: children & young adults (with cerebral palsy and and other physical or developmental disorders)
- OT’s role in treatment: adaptive classroom learning, promote communication with or without adaptive equipment, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, enhance appropriate social skills
- Priorities in this setting: promote communication, teach play, teach classroom skills, teach behavioral skills
- Total Observation Hours: 9 hours (2 days)
There you go! Observation sites 101! I hope that wherever you go or wherever you’ve been to observe has been a positive experience for you. I am grateful for the locations I observed at and the OTs that took the time out of their hectic schedules to teach me what OT is all about! Observing them just affirmed that this is indeed the right profession for me!