Physical therapy professional helping a young girl lift weights

PTAs in Pediatric Care

What They Do, Why They’re Important, and How to Become One

Physical therapy professional helping a young girl lift weights

Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) have one of the more rewarding jobs in all of healthcare, as their expertise helps countless people become stronger, healthier, and more independent. And for PTAs who love working with children, a career in pediatric physical therapy can be exceptionally fulfilling.

Pediatric PTAs have the chance to make a long-term impact on kids who still have their whole lives in front of them. Whether it’s injury recovery, correcting developmental issues, or managing chronic conditions, pediatric physical therapy is critical in helping young patients grow up to be healthy and happy.

In this article, we’ll take a close-up look at pediatric PTAs—including common conditions they treat, some techniques they use, and the schooling and experience required for a career in pediatric physical therapy.

Looking to learn more about a career as a PTA? Check out our in-depth guide on how to become a physical therapist assistant, or explore our curated selection of the top PTA jobs.

What Is Pediatric Physical Therapy?

Like other forms of pediatric care, pediatric physical therapy specializes in accommodating the unique needs of growing children, from newborns to teenagers. As children move through the different stages of development, pediatric physical therapy helps them develop the strength and confidence they need to play, learn, and explore.

Children may need pediatric PT to recover from injuries or surgeries, to address developmental issues, or build their strength and flexibility so they can enjoy normal childhood activities. Pediatric physical therapy also helps treat neurological conditions or manage long-term challenges like autism, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, or Down syndrome.

The Role of PTAs in Pediatric Care

As in any physical therapy setting, PTAs in pediatric care work closely with their supervising physical therapist. While PTAs don’t perform initial evaluations or create treatment plans themselves, they’re often present during the first appointment with a new pediatric patient, especially younger patients who may need a little extra attention.

Once a treatment plan has been prescribed by a pediatric PT, pediatric PTAs work closely with children in several capacities. PTAs often help children learn to walk with a healthy gait, and guide them through exercises or activities designed to train certain movements or improve their balance and coordination. Because younger patients may not have the attention span for a full-on exercise routine, many times these activities will be presented in the form of a simple game or another form of play.

Pediatric physical therapist assistants may also implement other treatment modalities like stretching, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation, depending on the individual patient and their needs. Aside from hands-on care, a huge part of a pediatric PTA’s job is also teaching parents how to continue their child’s treatment plan at home to encourage healthy development and continue their progress.

Common Conditions Treated by PTAs in Pediatric Patients

PTAs who work with pediatric patients learn to treat a huge variety of health conditions, though there are several common reasons for kids to need physical therapy early in their lives. Some of the most common conditions PTAs treat include:

Cerebral palsy – A family of neurological disorders that affect how the brain and muscles interact, symptoms of cerebral palsy usually first appear in early childhood. Symptoms can be quite disruptive and include severe difficulties with movement, reflexes, and coordination. Physical therapy can be very helpful in enabling children with cerebral palsy to reach their full potential and maximize their quality of life, especially when started early.

PTAs can help children with cerebral palsy develop their motor skills, avoid injuries, and prevent movement problems from worsening over time. Using techniques like structured activities, gait training, and strength and mobility work, physical therapy often helps children with cerebral palsy become more capable and independent.

Physical therapy professional working with a boy who has cerebral palsy

Developmental delays – When children aren’t accomplishing certain important developmental milestones like learning to sit up, walk, or grasp things, physical therapy can be useful in getting them back on track. During the initial evaluation performed by a licensed physical therapist, they’ll determine the extent of any developmental delays and look into their underlying causes.

Once a treatment plan is established, pediatric PTAs work with young patients to help them build the strength, balance, and coordination to move fluidly and perform everyday tasks. Helping children develop their sensory and motor skills on schedule sets them up for success in school, sports, and beyond.

Musculoskeletal disorders – There are many different musculoskeletal conditions which affect pediatric patients—including scoliosis, club foot, hip dysplasia, and other deformities of the feet, toes, and limbs. These health issues can lead to movement limitations, chronic pain, and other health problems if not adequately addressed through physical therapy and other treatment methods.

Pediatric PTAs help treat musculoskeletal disorders with techniques like bracing and gait training, as well as several other treatment modalities. For children who need adaptive equipment like prosthetics, PTAs are also instrumental in teaching them and their families about proper usage, care, and upkeep.

Genetic disorders – A significant number of children live with hereditary health conditions like Down syndrome, autism, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and many other conditions that can affect movement, sensory functions, and other aspects of life. For pediatric patients with various genetic disorders, physical therapy can provide great relief for physical symptoms and opportunities to build both learning and social skills.

While there is no cure for these medical conditions, PTAs can make a major impact in the lives of pediatric patients by reducing pain, improving mobility and coordination, and helping each child reach their full functional potential.

Sports injuries – Whether it’s playing peewee football, a rickety rope swing, or a tumble off the top of a playground, children are amazingly innovative in finding new ways to injure themselves. In addition to treating patients with long-term health conditions, PTAs in pediatric care also help otherwise-healthy children recover from all types of injuries.

In many cases, physical therapy for pediatric patients looks similar to the therapy full-grown adults receive following a sports injury or surgery—but with special accommodations for still-growing bones and joints. Pediatric sports PT usually involve restoring function to injured areas and ensuring that strength and range of motion return as fully as possible.

This is far from a complete list of medical conditions pediatric PTAs may treat throughout their career. Through collaboration with their supervising physical therapist (and other colleagues like physicians, nurses, or occupational therapists), pediatric PTAs can provide individualized treatment that changes children’s lives for the better.

Pediatric Physical Therapy Techniques

PTAs in pediatric care use many different treatment modalities to help young patients reduce pain, improve mobility, and build strength and coordination. Some of the most common techniques include:

Therapeutic exercises – By targeting specific movements or actions, PTAs can help children train their balance, strength, and motor functions. Often, these exercises will take the form of structured play for younger patients.

Close up of a young boy lifting weights in physical therapy

Manual therapy – Manual therapy techniques like stretching and massage are useful for treating certain conditions that lead to tight muscles or reduced range of motion and can be very helpful for pain relief.

Neuromuscular education – By training the brain-to-body connection, pediatric PTs can help children significantly improve their quality of life and ability to play, learn, and accomplish daily tasks.

Electrical stimulation or ultrasound – These treatment modalities can be useful in managing pain and inflammation, encouraging healthy tissue regrowth, and breaking up scar tissue following surgery or major injury.

Like any healthcare provider, physical therapist assistants must be flexible and adaptable enough to adapt to patients with very different needs. In addition to closely following each patient’s established treatment plan, PTAs must watch closely during treatment for any changes in the patient’s condition that could indicate a re-evaluation from their supervising therapist.

How to Become a Pediatric PTA

To specialize in pediatric care as a physical therapist assistant, you’ll start with the essential first step of earning your PTA degree. From there, gaining relevant experience and completing pediatric-focused continuing education courses can qualify you for a career in pediatric physical therapy. Let’s take a closer look at the steps in the process and what it takes to accomplish each one.

For a more detailed look at everything that goes into accomplishing a career as a PTA, check out our in-depth guide on how to become a physical therapist assistant.

Earn your PTA Degree & License

Earning your associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program is the first and arguably most important step. Many PTA programs take two full years, but some schools offer accelerated programs that can shorten the timeline of your new career. After earning your degree and passing the PTA version of the National Physical Therapy Exam, you’ll be eligible to earn your license on a state-by-state basis.

Gain Experience as a PTA

After you’ve earned your PTA license, you’re ready to enter the workforce and start your career. Any work experience is valuable at the beginning of your career, though for PTAs interested in pediatric care, it makes sense to seek employment at a clinic that cares for pediatric patients.

Enroll in the APTA’s Advanced Proficiency Pathway Program

The American Physical Therapy Association offers Advanced Proficiency Pathways for several PTA specialties, including pediatric physical therapy. These advanced pathways build upon your baseline PTA knowledge to make you more effective in working with certain conditions or patient populations. As part of the process, you’ll need to find a supervising pediatric PT to oversee your progress through the program and serve as a mentor.

Complete Continuing Education Requirements

After you’re enrolled in the APP for pediatric physical therapist assistants, you’ll have a certain period of time to complete 60 hours of relevant continuing education courses. For pediatric PTAs, these could include subject matter on providing therapy in school settings, how to deliver more effective play-based therapy, working with children who have autism, or many other topics.

Even after you’ve fulfilled your continuing education requirements for advanced proficiency in pediatric physical therapy, learning is a career-long pursuit for any healthcare provider. Staying current on the latest evidence-based treatments and techniques ensures your patients receive high-quality care while also putting you in a better position for lasting career success.

Challenges of Treating Pediatric Patients

While working in pediatric care is a rewarding career path for PTAs, it also comes with its own set of challenges. Children may have limited communication abilities compared to full-grown patients—especially children with neurological or genetic disorders. Just like teachers have to learn to communicate effectively with young people, pediatric PTAs must learn a similar skill set. They must also remain calm when faced with certain behavioral challenges that are often linked to their patient’s health conditions.

Concerned or overbearing parents can also create challenges for pediatric healthcare providers, including PTAs. In most cases, parents’ concerns come from a place of wanting to protect their child from harm or discomfort, which means building trust and rapport with families is essential to avoid misunderstandings and keep everyone on the same page.

Physical therapy professional helping a young boy lift weights

Benefits of Treating Pediatric Patients

For many pediatric PTAs, the challenges of treating children are more than worth it considering the rewards. Physical therapy can have a profoundly positive impact on children’s development and open up many more possibilities for them—both in childhood and throughout the rest of their lives.

While all physical therapist assistants get the satisfaction of watching their patients make progress, there’s something special about seeing children make strides in their health and well-being. Watching a child’s confidence and curiosity blossom because they feel more in control of their bodies is a uniquely fulfilling experience, both personally and professionally.

Start Your Pediatric PTA Career Journey at Provo College

There’s something about the innocence of youth and the potential of the future that makes pediatric care so satisfying for healthcare providers. And in a career as a pediatric PTA, you’ll have a front-row seat—and a hands-on role—in helping children live up to their dreams.

The right PTA program can set you up to maximize your community impact and your professional success by building a strong foundation for the skills you’ll sharpen throughout your career. The accelerated physical therapist assistant program at Provo College can help you accomplish your career goals with hands-on instruction from experienced physical therapists and a dedicated career services team to help you find your first job.

By earning a PTA degree, gaining the experience to specialize in pediatric care, and continuing your professional growth throughout your career, there’s no telling the number of children’s lives you could change for the better—or the satisfaction you’ll feel along the way.