Kathy Zeltmann works at PS 71 and Grover Cleveland HS, both in Ridgewood, Queens, helping students to discover the skills they have and to develop them so they have the best possible chance to learn and to achieve their best possible life.
What do people misunderstand about occupational therapists?
We’re very poorly named, and that’s always the joke among our colleagues: Do you help people find jobs? No, we don’t. Occupations are meaningful tasks or activities, and occupational therapists use those tasks or activities to engage the student in the process of building skills or regaining skills that have been lost.
What is your goal or objective?
Our mission is to make the child as successful and effective as possible within the school community. There’s a long-term goal that fits in the child’s IEP that you never take your eye off, but there are steps along the way. We deal with function so we would never have a goal to increase range of motion 20 degrees in the upper extremities. We would say the child will be able to don and doff his own coat and hang up his own backpack. We don’t want to keep a child on therapy forever. We want to give the child tools that are going to grow with them. We help them become ready to learn.
How do you do that?
It’s creative. There are so many ways to achieve the same end. They range from the very pragmatic, like having them hold the pencil correctly to prevent fatigue, to giving them a pencil grip, to getting them in the proper sensory state to learn, using things like movement or breathing to calm them so they better attend to tasks and focus.
Why is your job so challenging?
There isn’t a prescription. There is no one way to help a child. You’re always trying to match the therapy to the need of the child, and you’re always treating how the child is responding.
What credentials are required?
You need a master’s degree to be an OT. They are talking about moving toward a PhD model but we’re not there yet.
Why do you need so much expertise?
What we do is not haphazard, it’s evidence-based. You need to know the anatomy of the child even though you’re treating function. You need to know a lot about the human body, about movement, about the brain and how the brain functions. We see students with different types of developmental delays and different diagnoses, so there’s a lot of underlying material you need to know. You need to deal with the wide variety of abilities you will come across.
What’s the difference between a physical and an occupational therapist?
They are supportive professions, and we work collaboratively. A lot of people think physical therapists are gross motor people and occupational therapists are fine motor people, however there is some blurring of that. But PTs are masters of skills and OTs are masters of putting meaning and function into those skills.
Can you describe a difficult situation you’ve faced?
I had a student in District 75 who had cerebral palsy. He had a one-on-one para and was completely dependent. But this kid really had a bright look in his eyes. He was very motivated. He only had very little movement in his right hand and several digits. But he was smart and he was witty. We got him a speech communication device and he was telling jokes on that. I struggled with how to help him get around. We got a motorized wheelchair, and he shocked everyone. He was able to use a joy stick and he backed into the elevator on the first try. He was nonverbal, but that brightness in his eyes? He was always listening, always absorbing, always learning. To figure out that child was a puzzle. But it culminated successfully with that power chair.
What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
I originally did this because I felt like a fraud in my first career on Wall Street. I wasn’t fulfilled. It didn’t jive with who I was. I had a major operation on my leg and had to endure six months of physical therapy. Soon after, I started the process to become an OT. People joke that it became like a religion to me. I really like the philosophy. I like the methods. I found the right fit. But in the 20 years since, I’ve experienced personal losses. The fact that I found work that is so meaningful and that I enjoy is truly a gift. I empower these kids, but they have gotten me through the last 20 years in a very upbeat way. I don’t look at disability the same way I did before. You come to realize that we all have them. Igniting my students’ passion to move forward, seeing them finally get it, that’s the part of occupational therapy I love.