Pediatric Physical therapists (PTs) are licensed medical professionals who have specialized knowledge and experience in working with children and their families to maximize motor development, independence, fitness and active participation in the family and the community. Pediatric PTs work with children from birth through adolescence and participate on teams with other specialists, including physicians, occupational therapists and speech therapists.
A team approach will maximize a child’s overall development, with the family being the most important member of the team. PTs treat children of various diagnoses, including cerebral palsy, developmental coordination disorder, Down syndrome, hypotonia, genetic syndromes, torticollis and developmental delay. A child’s diagnosis (or lack of a diagnosis) is less important than the individual needs of the child.

The physical therapy process begins with a conversation with the family or teacher to discuss general concerns and is followed by evaluation of the child in the context of their daily routines and activities. If the child is evaluated outside their natural environment, parents will be asked to report specific concerns related to the child’s daily life. This evaluation may include the child’s mobility skills, sensory and neuromotor development, flexibility, strength and endurance, posture and balance.

Pediatric physical therapists offer a variety of strategies to address identified areas of concern. Some of these strategies include developmental activities, strengthening, motor learning approaches, balance and coordination exercises, adaptation of daily care activities and routines, equipment design, fabrication, and fitting and orthotic prescription.

Children are seen by physical therapists in different settings including:

  • Early Intervention (EI) for Children from Birth to 3 years old.
    • Children in this age group can obtain a free developmental evaluation if the family or doctor have developmental concerns. Certain diagnoses will also qualify for therapy services.
    • Children need to meet a certain percentage of delay to qualify for services. If parents continue to have concerns or they want additional therapy they have the option to pursue private outpatient therapy services.
    • Therapy fees vary by state from free to sliding scale.
  • Public Preschool (Special education and related services, which includes PT) for Children 3-5 years old
    • Integrated or self-contained programs vary by district.
  • Public School for Children 5-21 years old
    • Special Education and related services (PT, OT, speech)
    • 504 Plan: accommodations for children with disabilities who don’t need special education; this includes PT
  • Outpatient or Home/Community Therapy Services
    • Families may seek PT services instead of, or in addition to, school/EI services.
  • Acute care and rehabilitation hospitals

The picture of PT intervention for children varies greatly based on age, diagnosis, and severity. PT with an infant will be play based, focus on the family, maximizing sensory/motor experiences and supporting the family to best meet the needs of the child. As the child enters preschool age the goals evolve to increased independence with mobility, self-care skills and success on the playground. In addition to mobility, posture and gross motor skills, physical therapy for the older child may also focus on helping to develop recreation, fitness and leisure skills that can take them into adulthood.

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