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How to Become an Occupational Therapist Assistant

How to Become an Occupational Therapist Assistant

You might want to know how to become an occupational therapist assistant for your next lucrative career move. It’s a path many take and a good one to pursue. After all, this is a challenging and rewarding career field that can make a real difference in people’s lives.

OTAs work with occupational therapists to help patients regain and improve their ability to perform everyday activities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects OTA jobs are growing 34% from 2020-2030. Therefore, this is one of the fastest-growing jobs in the country. This guide will overview what it takes to become an OTA, such as education requirements and job duties.

In brief, what exactly does it take to become an OT assistant? Keep reading to find out.

The Occupational Therapist Assistant

An occupational therapist assistant (OTA) works with an occupational therapist (OT) to provide therapy services to patients. OTAs are responsible for carrying out a treatment plan designed by the OT and helping the patient to reach their goals.

Becoming an OTA requires completing a two-year accredited occupational therapy assistant program. Also, upon graduation, OTAs must pass a national certification exam to become certified occupational therapy assistants (COTAs).

According to the BLS, the occupational therapist assistant salary average was $61,520 per year in May 2021.

Certified occupational therapy assistants have completed an accredited program and have passed a national certification exam. As a result, COTAs work under the supervision of an OT to provide therapy services to patients.

What Does an Occupational Therapist Assistant Do?

OTAs may be responsible for:

Carrying Out Treatment Plants Designed by Occupational Therapists

As assistants, OTAs work under the supervision of occupational therapists. For example, the OT will develop a treatment plan for each patient, and the OTA will carry out that plan.

A treatment plan may involve leading patients in exercises, helping them use adaptive equipment, or providing support and guidance.

Documenting Patient Progress

This documentation is essential in helping the OT assess the treatment plan’s effectiveness and make necessary adjustments.

Educating Patients and Their Families

OTAs are essential in educating patients and their families about their condition and how to manage it. They provide information about adaptive equipment and safety precautions. As a result, OTAs help patients and families live more independent and fulfilling lives.

Helping Patients Reach Their Goals

Reaching goals involves providing support and encouragement. It also requires allowing patients to practice new skills or motivating them to stay on track with their treatment plan.

Providing Therapy Services to Patients

Therapy services are probably the most obvious responsibility of the OTA, but it is also the most important. The OTA’s job is to provide therapy services to patients that will help them to improve their function and quality of life.

In summary, it involves leading patients in exercises, helping them use adaptive equipment, or providing support and guidance.

What Is the Difference Between an Occupational Therapist Assistant and an Occupational Therapist Aide?

The main difference between an occupational therapist assistant (OTA) and an occupational therapist aide is that an OTA is a trained and certified professional, while an aide is not.

OTA’s have at least an associate’s degree from an accredited occupational therapy assistant program. They must also pass a national occupational therapy assistant certification exam. The exam is administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT).

To maintain certification, OTAs must complete continuing education credits every four years.

  • Generally, occupational therapist aides have a high school diploma or equivalent. They may receive on-the-job training. However, completing an accredited OTA program or passing the national certification exam is not required.
  • OT assistants can perform a broader range of tasks than aides. For example, they can provide direct patient care and carry out treatment plans.
  • Aides, on the other hand, generally provide support to OTAs and occupational therapists. They perform administrative tasks or provide therapy treatments under the close supervision of an OTA or OTs.
  • OTA’s typically work in hospitals, outpatient rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing facilities, home health agencies, and schools. Aides may also work in these settings, as well as in daycare centers and long-term care facilities.

The Difference Between Occupational Therapy Assistant vs. Physical Therapy Assistant

The main difference between OTAs and PTAs is the type of patients they see and the treatments they perform.

  • An OTA works with patients who have mental, physical, developmental, or emotional disabilities. They help these patients develop, recover, and improve their daily living and working skills.
  • A PTA works with patients with injuries, illnesses, or conditions limiting their ability to move and perform everyday activities. PTAs help these patients improve their movement, relieve pain, and prevent or reverse the physical decline.
  • While each works under the supervision of occupational and physical therapists, there are key differences in their scope of practice.
  • OTAs typically have more contact time with patients. They are also involved in every stage of the treatment process, from assessment to discharge planning. Meanwhile, PTAs focus on implementing therapy plans and carrying out treatments prescribed by the physical therapist.

OTA vs. PTA: Job Duties

An occupational therapy assistant helps patients develop, recover, and improve their daily living and working skills.

They also instruct patients and caregivers on using adaptive equipment and safety devices. OTAs typically have more contact time with patients than PTAs. In short, they’re involved in every stage of the treatment process.

A PTA works with patients with injuries, illnesses, or conditions limiting their ability to move and perform everyday activities. Specifically, they help these patients improve their movement, relieve pain, and prevent or reverse their physical decline. They carry out treatments prescribed by the physical therapist. Also, PTAs instruct patients on using adaptive equipment and safety devices.

OTA vs. PTA: Education and Certification

Most states require OTAs to be licensed or certified. Candidates must complete an accredited occupational therapy assistant program to be eligible for licensure. Then, they pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam.

Some states have additional occupational therapy assistant requirements, and most require physical therapist assistants to be licensed or certified.

Licensure eligibility requires an accredited physical therapy assistant program and the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE).

In conclusion, the main difference between OTAs and PTAs is the type of patients they see and the treatments they perform.

OTAs work with patients with mental, physical, developmental, or emotional disabilities. In contrast, PTAs help patients work through injuries, illnesses, or conditions that limit their ability to move and perform everyday activities.

How to Become an Occupational Therapist Assistant

Students must complete an accredited occupational therapy assistant program to become occupational therapist assistants. There are currently more than 200 such programs across the United States, many of which take only two years or less.

Below are the necessary steps to take to become an occupational therapist assistant:

1. Research Different OTA Programs to Find the Best

Step one to becoming an occupational therapist assistant is finding the right accredited program. There are many things to consider when choosing a program, such as cost, location, and curriculum.

Here, students can decide whether they want to attend a full-time or part-time program. To determine the right fit, students need to ask themselves the following:

  • What is my budget for tuition and other associated costs?
  • Do I have the time to commit to a full-time program?
  • What are the admission requirements for the programs I am considering?
  • What does the curriculum offer at each program?

These are only a few pertinent questions students should answer before deciding. Once students have narrowed their choices, they can begin the application process.

2. Consult an Admissions Counselor

Simply researching and asking around might not be enough to decide which OTA program is best. That’s why many students consult with an admissions counselor.

Admissions counselors can provide more detailed information about each program. For example, how popular the program is, what type of job placement assistance is available, and how long it will take to complete.

Additionally, they can help students with the admissions process and provide tips on making their applications stand out. Most students find that meeting with an admissions counselor is helpful, giving them a better sense of which program is right for them.

Counselors have an in-depth understanding of each program and can offer first-hand advice.

3. Apply for Occupational Therapist Assistant Programs

Aspiring candidates’ next step is applying to occupational therapist assistant programs.

To do this, they must submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, and personal essays. Students should also take the time to research each program’s requirements as they vary from school to school.

Consulting with an admissions counselor is handy because they’re well-versed in what can help students get into their dream programs.

4. Fulfill the Program’s Prerequisites

After meeting the occupational therapy assistant requirements, students may have to take and pass a physical examination and complete a background check. Programs typically require these before students begin their occupational therapy assistant studies.

Liberal Arts and Science degrees have specific coursework that students must complete before enrolling in an OTA program. Therefore, the requirements will vary depending on the program students choose.

5. Start and Complete the OTA Program

Now that everything is in order, students can officially start their occupational therapy assistant courses!

These programs typically last between 24 and 36 months and include classroom instruction and clinical rotations. During the clinical rotations, students will have the opportunity to work with patients under the supervision of licensed occupational therapists.

This hands-on experience is essential for students. It provides a chance to put their knowledge into practice and learn how to work with different types of patients.

6. Pass the National Certification Examination

After completing an accredited occupational therapy assistant program, students must pass the National Certification Examination (COTA). This exam, administered by the NBCOT, is required for licensure in most states.

7. Obtain State Licensure

The final step to becoming an occupational therapy assistant is obtaining state licensure. To do this, students must apply to their state’s licensing board and pay any associated fees. They will also need to pass a criminal background check and provide proof of passing the NBCOT exam.

Once students meet the requirements, they will be licensed occupational therapy assistants!

8. Start Your Career as an OTA!

Now that you know how to become an occupational therapy assistant, it’s time to start your career!

There are many different settings in which OTAs can work, such as hospitals, private practices, nursing homes, and schools. Nonetheless, OTAs play a vital role in helping patients improve their quality of life.

OTA Education Path

There are different education paths for students interested in becoming an Occupational Therapist Assistant (OTA).

Below, we discuss what students can expect in different degree paths.

Associate’s Degree

Community colleges offer the most common type of program for aspiring occupational therapist assistants, an Associate’s degree.

These programs typically last two years, including classroom instruction, and offer clinical experience. Students take courses in anatomy, physiology, psychology, and other health-related topics.

They also complete hands-on training in a clinical setting, working with patients under the supervision of a licensed occupational therapist. After completing an accredited program and passing a national exam, graduates are eligible to become certified occupational therapist assistants (COTAs).

Bachelor’s Degree

Here, students with an OTA associate’s degree can pursue a bachelor’s in occupational therapy assistant. This four-year program typically leads to a career as an occupational therapist.

An OTA bachelor’s degree can lead to a related field, such as physical therapy or speech therapy. Bachelor’s degrees in this field typically take two to three years to complete, leading to careers as physical or speech therapists.

COTA students must complete a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy and pass a national exam.

Certified occupational therapist assistants work under the supervision of licensed occupational therapists to provide therapeutic services to patients.

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Master’s Degree

Advancement is the key for occupational therapist assistants. Many employers prefer to hire certified occupational therapist assistants with master’s degrees.

A master’s degree in occupational therapy can be completed in two years and leads to a career as an occupational therapist. Students interested in this professional step can pursue a master’s in any major. However, most OT programs require prerequisite biology, psychology, and sociology coursework.

Certificate Programs

Finally, there are certificate programs for those who want to become occupational therapist assistants. These programs typically last one year and include classroom instruction and clinical experience. Students take courses in anatomy, physiology, psychology, and other health-related topics.

They also complete hands-on training in a clinical setting, working with patients under the supervision of a licensed occupational therapist. After completing an accredited program and passing a national exam, graduates are eligible to become certified occupational therapist assistants.

In conclusion, students should choose between these paths based on their goals, interests, and time frame. All of these options can lead to an occupational therapist assistant career.

Factors of Selecting an OTA Program

There’s more to curving your path as an OTA than just learning how to become an occupational therapist assistant. With the right approach and mindset, you’ll be on your way to success in no time.

But how do you know what to look for when narrowing your choices of occupational therapy assistant courses? Here are a few key factors:

Accreditation

First, consider whether or not the program is accredited. Accreditation means it meets the standards of the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE).

There are currently only 228 accredited OTA programs in the United States, which may narrow your choices considerably. However, attending an accredited program is essential, as it will make you eligible to take the NBCOT Exam.

This exam is required to become a certified occupational therapy assistant. To maintain your certification, you’ll need to complete continuing education courses every few years.

Length

Students should also determine how long they are willing to commit to an OTA program. Full-time programs typically take two years to complete. However, some accelerated programs may take as little as 18 months.

Part-time programs may take up to three years to finish. It’s important to note that most OTA programs do not offer online coursework, so you’ll need to be able to attend classes in person.

Coursework Type

When considering OTA programs, you’ll want to look at the curriculum to get an idea of what courses you’ll be taking. In general, occupational therapy assistant programs will include coursework in various topics such as:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Occupational therapy theory and practice

You’ll also likely have the opportunity to participate in clinical fieldwork experiences, which will allow you to put your knowledge into practice. Selecting the right occupational therapy assistant program is an important decision that will affect the rest of your career. Be sure to research and choose a program that’s right for you.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Licensure and Certification

In most states, occupational therapy assistants need a license. The procedure usually includes graduating from an accredited National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) accredited program. Then, take a qualifying examination and apply.

Specific requirements vary from state to state. Aspiring OTAs should consult their state’s licensing board for complete details.

A COTA credential is not required for practice but may improve job prospects, and the NBCOT offers the certification. For eligibility, candidates must have graduated from an accredited program and have passed the NBCOT certification examination.

A bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy may make students eligible for the certified occupational therapist assistant-occupational therapist registered (OTA-OTR) credential. A credit that the American Occupational Therapy Association offers.

To qualify, candidates must meet all requirements for certification as an OTA and pass a written examination.

Some states have certification programs for occupational therapy assistants, but OTA practice doesn’t require them.

OTA Licensing and Certification Requirements

As mentioned in this how-to guide, most states require occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) to be licensed or certified. The requirements for certification or licensing vary by state.

Alternative Paths

In some states, aspiring candidates may be able to become an OTA without certification or a license. But they still must complete an accredited occupational therapy assistant program and pass a state-recognized exam.

Alternatively, some states allow non-licensed practice if OTAs have previous work experience under the supervision of a licensed occupational therapist.

The requirements for certification or licensing also vary by state regarding continuing education. In most states, OTAs must complete several continuing education credits every few years to maintain their license or certification.

Main Requirements

While the requirements vary by state, the three main requirements to become an OTA are:

  1. Complete an accredited occupational therapy assistant program
  2. Pass a state-recognized exam
  3. Obtain a license or certification from the state in which you wish to practice

These three requirements ensure that OTAs have the necessary education and training to provide quality care to patients.

Limitations

There are several limitations to becoming an OTA:

  • First, not all states offer certification or licensing for OTAs.
  • Second, in some states, the certification or licensing requirements may differ from what we cover in this how-to guide.
  • Third, while most states require OTAs to complete continuing education credits to maintain licensure or certification, a few states do not have this requirement.
  • Also, some states only allow individuals who have completed an accredited OTA program to become certified or licensed.
  • Lastly, the requirements for certification or licensing vary by state and may change over time.

Aspiring occupational therapy assistants should research the requirements for certification or license in the state where they wish to practice. In short, ensuring that they meet all the requirements.

Exam

OTA licensure or certification generally requires passing an exam. The type of exam needed varies by state, and some states require the NBCOT Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant Exam.

Other states have exams that applicants must pass. The NBCOT provides a list of state regulatory agencies that can provide information about the specific exams required in each state.

Applicants should contact their state regulatory agency to determine which exam is required. Once applicants pass the exam, they will need to complete a few additional steps before they can begin practicing as an OTA.

These steps generally include completing a background check and applying to the state regulatory agency. Applicants should contact their state regulatory agency for specific requirements.

NBCOT Certification Explained

National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) offers the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) credential. To be eligible for the NBCOT COTA examination, an individual must have completed an accredited OTA program and fieldwork.

The NBCOT COTA examination tests the knowledge and skills of entry-level occupational therapist assistants. After passing the examination, the individual receives a credential by NBCOT as a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA).

Why is an NBCOT Certification Important?

The NBCOT COTA credential is the only OTA credential recognized by the American Occupational Therapy Association. It’s also the only one recognized by state occupational therapy regulatory agencies.

The NBCOT COTA credential represents one who has met the national standards for the entry-level OTA. The student has demonstrated the necessary knowledge and skills to provide quality occupational therapy services.

In addition, the NBCOT COTA credential is a requirement for occupational therapist assistants practice in some states.

Occupational Therapist Assistant Career Information

How Much Do Occupational Therapist Assistants Make?

According to the BLS, the average occupational therapist assistant salary was $61,520 as of May 2021. The top 10% of earners made more than $61,960 annually, while the lowest 10% made less than $23,860.

The average salary, however, depends on many factors, such as geographic location, education, and experience. Occupational therapist assistants working in rural areas or small towns may earn less than those employed in large metropolitan cities.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Job Outlook

The occupational assistant job outlook is bright: the BLS projects a 34% growth in OTA jobs from 2020 to 2030. For perspective, the average for all occupations is only 5%.

During the decade, the BLS predicts the job market will create about 8,800 new occupational therapist assistant jobs across the US.

Different Jobs for OTAs

In addition to working in clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes, occupational therapist assistants may find positions in:

  • Schools
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Outpatient facilities
  • Home health agencies
  • Hospices
  • Correctional institutions

Part-Time vs. Full-Time Work

Similar to many other jobs in the healthcare field, occupational therapist assistants often have the option to work part-time or full-time. Full-time may be more suitable for those with more time for family or other obligations. Meanwhile, others may opt for part-time work to earn a higher hourly wage.

Full-time may offer more opportunities for advancement and higher salaries, but it also requires working evenings, weekends, and holidays.

Related Careers

Those interested in a career as an occupational therapist assistant may also want to explore other related positions, such as:

How to Become an Occupational Therapist Assistant: FAQs

What does an Occupational Therapist Assistant do?

An occupational therapist assistant (OTA) works with an occupational therapist to provide therapy services to patients. OTAs are responsible for carrying out treatment plans and helping patients improve their ability to perform everyday activities.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Occupational Therapist Assistant?

It takes two years to become an occupational therapist assistant. The length may vary depending on your chosen program and whether you attend full or part-time.

What are OTA Requirements?

Aspiring OTAs need a high school diploma or equivalent. Some programs may require applicants to complete prerequisite coursework in biology and psychology.

In addition, all states require occupational therapy assistants to be licensed or certified. Licensure generally requires the completion of an accredited occupational therapy assistant program and passing an exam.

What Occupational Therapist Assistant Prerequisites must I meet?

Applicants to occupational therapist assistant programs must have a high school diploma or equivalent. Some programs may require applicants to complete prerequisite coursework in biology and psychology.

How long is an Occupational Therapist Assistant program?

An occupational therapist assistant program generally takes two years to complete. The length may vary depending on your chosen program and whether you attend full or part-time.

Can I Earn an Occupational Therapist Assistant Degree Online?

Yes, some occupational therapist assistant programs are available online. The AOTA must accredit the occupational therapy assistant online programs you choose.

Do I Need Certification to be an Occupational Therapist Assistant?

Yes, all states require occupational therapist assistants to be licensed or certified. Licensure generally requires the completion of an accredited occupational therapy assistant program and passing an exam.

How much will I spend to become an Occupational Therapist Assistant?

Occupational therapy assistants must earn an associate’s degree, which generally takes two years to finish and costs around $5,000-$24,000 at a community college.

Take the Next Step

Suppose you’re interested in becoming an occupational therapist assistant. Then the first step is to research programs and find one that’s right for you. Choose an accredited program to ensure you meet all licensure requirements.

Once you’ve completed a program, you’ll need to pass an exam to earn your certification or license. After that, you’re on your way to a rewarding career helping others!

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