Smiling physical therapist assistant helping a boy perform exercises

The Role of PTAs in Pediatric Care

The Challenging but Rewarding World of Pediatric Physical Therapy

Smiling physical therapist assistant helping a boy perform exercises

Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) are pillars of support in many physical therapy services. Many clients who attend physical therapy work with a PTA. In fact, some clients spend most of their time with a PTA rather than a physical therapist. PTAs maintain attention to detail and a strong commitment to patient care. These traits are essential for helping treat people’s injuries, illnesses, and disabilities.

In physical therapy, the role of a Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistant is to help children perform therapeutic exercises that increase their endurance, balance, and coordination. These professionals promote pediatric health and wellness by supporting physical therapists at clinics nationwide. Their patients typically range in age from infancy to adolescence.

This blog post will explore the specific contributions and challenges of PTAs in treating pediatric patients. We’ll also review the duties, techniques, and educational requirements for becoming a Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistant. Learn how to become a Physical Therapist Assistant and consider the top PTA jobs to see if this career path suits you.

Understanding Pediatric Physical Therapy

Pediatric PTAs work with patients ranging from newborns to young adults. There are many unique considerations in pediatric physical therapy, such as growth and developmental stages. These PTAs strive to help their patients live independently in a variety of environments. It all starts with an interview between the physical therapy team, the child, and their family. The end goal is to strengthen the motor skills of young patients.

Some common conditions treated by pediatric physical therapists and PTAs include:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Concussion
  • Congenital Heart Defects
  • Developmental Delays
  • Diabetes
  • Down Syndrome
  • Flat Head Syndrome (i.e., Plagiocephaly, Brachycephaly, and Dolichocephaly)
  • Hypotonia
  • Infant Prematurity
  • Musculoskeletal Issues
  • Scoliosis
  • Spina Bifida
  • Spinal Muscular Atrophy
  • Torticollis

The Role of PTAs in Pediatric Care

It’s well-known that people require more medical care as they age, but children often need physical therapy. This is why Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistants are so important. They help younger patients improve their mobility and fine-tune their motor skills so that they can thrive. Under the supervision of physical therapists, Pediatric PTAs guide patients through strengthening programs designed to enhance their mobility and overall health.

In addition, Pediatric PTAs must maintain a collaborative approach and work with physical therapists, occupational therapists, and other healthcare professionals. PTAS must implement treatment plans and conduct exercises. They should also monitor each pediatric patient’s progress.

Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistant Duties

Although job duties can vary depending on your location and employer, the daily tasks of a Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistant will generally include the following:

  • Assessing each patient’s progress and reporting back to the physical therapist
  • Assisting patients with exercise programs prescribed by physical therapists
  • Performing hands-on therapy like stretching or reducing tone
  • Teaching families how to continue their child’s plan of care at home
  • Using therapeutic equipment prescribed by the physical therapist

Physical therapist assistant helping a young girl use an exercise band

Common Conditions Treated by PTAs in Pediatric Patients

PTAs encounter a wide range of conditions and disorders when treating pediatric patients, including cerebral palsy, developmental delays, musculoskeletal disorders, genetic disorders, and sports injuries. Let’s take a closer look at each condition.

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy (CP) covers a group of disorders that affect how a person develops, moves, and postures. It is typically caused by a brain injury that can occur before, during, or after birth. Some injuries may be the result of trauma, a stroke, or any loss of oxygen.

Those who have CP can have issues with touch and communication. Others might even experience seizures due to CP. However, physical therapy can benefit people with CP throughout each stage of their life. The goal of physical therapy is to improve bodily functions and daily lives. Under the supervision of a physical therapist, PTAs can help people with CP perform tasks like walking or using a wheelchair in various situations. Additionally, these professionals can help families receive equipment to support their loved ones with CP.

Developmental Delay

A developmental delay means that young children are slower to reach mental and physical milestones than their peers. Delays can occur in motor control, self-care, thinking, speaking, and playing.

According to ChoosePT, “Early identification allows for more effective treatment during the preschool years. Early treatment can lessen the need for expensive special education services later.” In fact, physical therapists and PTAs can treat developmental delays in children of all ages. They do so by providing hands-on care, patient education to parents, and prescribed exercises at home.

Musculoskeletal Disorders

Think about it like this: Our musculoskeletal system contains key parts, such as muscles, joints, tendons, and more. Without this system, we couldn’t support our body’s weight, protect vital organs, or move. So, musculoskeletal disorders need to be taken seriously. Pediatric musculoskeletal pain can involve joints, muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments, and headaches.

These issues might be caused by inflammation or stiffness. Others might be the result of overusing muscles while exercising. In a similar vein, sprains and strains can cause tendon or ligament pain. When it comes to bone pain, the most common causes are surgical procedures and, of course, broken bones. There are so many potential causes of headaches. Some instigators might be diet, medications, genetics, stress, hormones, inflammation, tight muscles, etc. We can’t overlook medical conditions like scoliosis and juvenile arthritis, which can cause pain as well.

You might be wondering about the symptoms of musculoskeletal pain for pediatric patients. Again, many signs include fatigue, muscle spasms, stiffness, swelling, soreness, and burning sensations. Children might also have trouble sleeping or experience issues with their gross motor skills. Physical therapy and occupational therapy are some of the most common treatments for musculoskeletal disorders.

While each patient has an individual treatment plan, all physical therapy aims to help people improve their lives and perform daily tasks with as little discomfort as possible. Many professionals will even incorporate a child’s favorite color or hobby into their sessions to make therapy more palatable.

Woman helping a young man with down syndrome at a table

Genetic Disorders

The root of genetic disorders is a change or mutation in the DNA sequence. They might be caused by a mutation to one gene, missing chromosomes, and more. Some genetic disorders are more complex and caused by gene mutations and environmental factors. Genetic disorders you might have heard of could include Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, and Prader-Willi syndrome.

Various symptoms can arise from genetic disorders. Some children will experience movement issues, sensory processing disruptions, learning difficulties, communication roadblocks, muscle weakness or coordination problems, and delayed motor milestones. Thankfully, physical, occupational, and speech therapy can assist with some genetic disorders. Physical therapy teams often work on improving endurance, muscle strength, gross motor coordination, range of motion, and balance/coordination skills. They also aim to help their patients acquire functional skills. They might suggest modifying a child’s environment to help them thrive (i.e., home, school, etc.)

Sports Injuries

When it comes to sports, there are several conditions and injuries that children can experience. They might include spinal injuries, bone and growth plate fractures, overuse injuries, a range of dislocations and separations, and concussions or other traumatic brain injuries. It probably goes without saying, but the primary causes are sports and resulting collisions.

Treatment options may include splinting or casting, crutches and wheelchairs, medication, surgery, and—you guessed it—physical therapy! Thanks to regular sessions of PT, young athletes can restore their physical health and minimize future risk of injury. Physical therapy can teach children the proper (and best) movements for their body, such as the best ways to fall, reduce collisions, etc.

Techniques Utilized in Pediatric Physical Therapy

PTAs use various techniques and modalities to assist their patients in pediatric therapy. They may utilize therapeutic exercises, manual therapy, and neuromuscular reeducation. Throughout this process, Physical Therapist Assistants must be adaptable so that they can tailor treatment plans to suit the individual needs and developmental stages of pediatric patients.

Here are other techniques that a physical therapy team might use:

  • Aquatic therapy
  • Balance activities
  • Developmental activities
  • Strengthening activities
  • Elastic therapeutic tape
  • Gait training
  • Sensory integration therapy
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Physiotherapy
  • Neurodevelopmental treatments (NDTs)

You might find therapy balls, small trampolines, various hoops, balance beams, foam rollers, stretchy bands, and other items in pediatric physical therapy. There may even be toys to encourage head turning or reaching; remember, the setting will likely be curated for each patient’s treatment plan.

Medical professionals studying anatomy in a classroom

How to Become a Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistant

Because Pediatric PTAs must meet the basic requirements for licensure, they must graduate from an accredited associate-degree program and pass the NPTE exam. Some professionals in this field also pursue advanced proficiency in pediatrics. See the American Physical Therapy Association to learn more about specialized training in several areas of physical therapy for the physical therapist assistant.

Here’s our breakdown of what it takes to become a Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistant:

1. Complete a Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Program

If you’d like to become a Physical Therapist Assistant in the U.S., you must earn an associate degree from a PTA program that CAPTE accredits. It’s important to remember that each program will have its own set of admissions requirements. To give you a better idea, the PTA degree program at Unitek College requires a high school diploma or GED, a grade point average of 2.5, and a passing score on the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) exam. In addition, the Unitek College program requires background checks and drug screenings.

While your PTA education will likely include some general education requirements, most of your program will focus on core classes like anatomy, diseases and disorders, medical terminology, and patient care interventions. Students also learn about kinesiology, assistive equipment, and therapeutic exercise.

(Click here to learn how to become a Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistant.)

2. Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam

To obtain your PTA license and start your career, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). This test demonstrates your mastery of the necessary skills to perform PTA tasks. It is a multiple-choice test with 200 questions. Keep in mind that you’ll have four hours to complete it.

If you’re nervous about taking the test, you might want to speak with graduates in this situation. Talk to your teachers and counselors. Consider practice exams, too. Go to the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy website to learn more about these exams. They offer PEAT, or the Practice Exam and Assessment Tool, to give you an idea of what to expect on the exam.

Remember that you can only retake the test up to three times in any given 12-month period.

3. Obtain Your PTA License on a State-By-State Basis

After you’ve completed the NPTE, you’ll be eligible to become licensed in the state(s) where you plan to work. Because the NPTE is a national exam, transferring your scores to gain licensure in different states is usually straightforward. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy will be your go-to resource for determining each state’s licensing requirements for PTAs.

Although some states have different requirements for maintaining your PTA license, most states will require the completion of ongoing education programs or proof of current employment and relevant work experience.

Physical therapist assistant studying a patient's back

4. Gain Work Experience and Additional Certifications

The next step is to build your resume and gain work experience. If you’d like to stand out from other job candidates, you should consider learning sign language to communicate with children with hearing impairments. PTAs who want to specialize in pediatrics should apply for jobs with pediatric physical therapists. Not only is this one of the most valuable ways to gain experience, but it can also serve as an excellent networking opportunity.

In addition, you might want to consider advanced specialization or certification. Look into accreditation in pediatrics with the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. This organization provides an option called the Physical Therapy Association’s PTA Recognition of Advanced Proficiency Program.

To achieve this designation, you must have 2,000 hours of work experience, with at least 500 hours in pediatrics. You must also meet specific requirements like education, job performance, etc. If this interests you, continue reading at the American Physical Therapy Association.

Challenges of Treating Pediatric Patients

PTAs in pediatric settings face several challenges. They interact with children who are medically fragile, experience developmental delays, or suffer from other conditions. This means they must be devoted to their jobs and have extensive training. Some of the primary challenges of this job include communication barriers with children, addressing parental concerns, and managing behavioral issues.

You can overcome these challenges through effective communication techniques and fostering trust with pediatric patients and their families. According to Sara Jones, a physical therapist in the field, “You need a keen eye to detect physical defects and developmental abnormalities, a creative mind to keep therapy interesting and fun, and a load of patience.”

Remember to include the parents, too. Your patient will likely achieve greater results if their parents are active participants. So, try to integrate each parent into the sessions as much as possible. This could also have the added bonus of teaching parents what to do at home.

Benefits of Treating Pediatric Patients

As a Pediatric PTA, you can profoundly impact each child’s development and quality of life through therapy interventions. You will likely experience tremendous personal and professional fulfillment after witnessing your patients achieve milestones and overcome challenges. This can also have a domino effect on everyone else. As your pediatric patients continue to improve, families and caregivers will feel the positive impact, fostering collaboration and trust in the therapeutic process.

Many PTAs find great satisfaction in working with younger patients. Adolescence is a time of growth, and Pediatric PTAs strive to help children improve balance and coordination, regain movement, participate in developmental activities, and more. If you are good with kids and want to pursue physical therapy, then a career as a Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistant could be the ideal choice for you.

Physical therapist assistant helping a young boy use an exercise band

Your Journey into Physical Therapy Starts Here

In summary, this article sheds light on the career path of a Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistant. For people who love helping children improve their motor skills, becoming a Pediatric PTA could be a perfect career choice. Although disabilities or injuries can be a part of life, pediatric physical therapy can support wellness and promote independence. Now and in the future, there will always be a need for healthcare professionals like Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistants.

There are many rewarding aspects of a career in pediatric physical therapy, such as positively impacting children’s lives and promoting their well-being. If this is one of your career goals, pursuing your passion for pediatric therapy with ongoing education and professional development in this dynamic field is essential. Unitek College offers a Physical Therapist Assistant program in Sacramento and several other healthcare programs. They are designed to equip you with the skills and knowledge needed for a successful healthcare career.

At Unitek, we aim to provide you with the necessary skills and experience to excel as a Physical Therapist Assistant. We want you ready to contribute as compassionate, ethical professionals who uphold the dignity of their patients. Upon graduating, we also want to prepare you for licensure by helping you confidently undertake the PTA certification exams.

In addition, our career services team offers several perks. They provide students with mock interviews and networking opportunities with potential employers. They also offer resume critiques to help each student succeed in becoming a PTA.

Join us today!