Reducing Your Special Education Program’s Therapist Turnover Rate

You’ve probably seen too many school-based therapists come and go through the “revolving door.”

Just as it’s getting harder to find special education teachers, it’s tougher to hang on to qualified clinicians. Constantly changing relationships between therapists, teachers, and students means kids have a harder time progressing toward their goals.

And a high therapist turnover rate in special education programs isn’t just bad for students. It’s bad for your budget. 

Whenever we at Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) run analytics on a program, we find no greater roadblock to cost-effectiveness than constant churn in team makeup.

The good news is you can play a key role in stabilizing your therapy team—and your budget!

When Your Special Education Therapists Quit, Do You Know Why?

Knowing the special education staff turnover rate is high doesn’t help you fix it. But after more than 20 years providing related services, we’ve got some ideas!

Here are the top three reasons we find therapists move on.

1. Lack of Support 

The most common complaint we hear from therapists wanting reassignment is they’re not getting support from the school administration: the building principal, the school psychologist, or what we in Pennsylvania call an LEA (Local Educational Agency), the “check signer” at the IEP meeting.

When therapists come with data from standardized tests or months of progress notes only to see their recommendations swept aside to please a parent or teacher, they take it very hard. 

If a student’s been receiving Occupational Therapy for writing for years, for instance, and hasn’t made meaningful progress, the OT will likely recommend reducing direct services and transitioning to consultation regarding compensatory strategies. But when the team forces the therapist to continue treating indefinitely, she quickly grows frustrated.  

Another common sticking point is a parent demanding the team add IEP goals the child has no hope of achieving.

For example, as a Physical Therapist, I’ve heard parents demand we add a walking or “ambulation” goal to an IEP for a student with cerebral palsy who’s working on holding their head erect for 5-10 seconds at a time. Adding that goal to the IEP puts everyone, especially the PT, in a difficult spot. 

As we tell our teams, at the end of the day, the special education leadership decides which battles we fight and which we surrender. But an established pattern of disregarding a therapist’s professional opinion tends to lead to turnover.

As an administrator, you can encourage your teams to respect the most qualified professional in a given area’s opinions. You can also resolve disagreements over recommendations before they reach families.

And encourage consistently applied eligibility criteria for therapy services.  When rules are constantly changing, therapists feel they don’t know what’s acceptable and what’s not.

2. Lack of Basic Resources

The next step you can take to prevent staff turnover in special education classrooms is to make sure those staff have the basic resources they need to do their job effectively! From having no access to the school photocopier to having no treatment space at all, a lack of resources makes therapists feel devalued.

Take space as an example. Clinicians know space is at a premium. I’m not saying a therapist necessarily needs a permanent private office.

But at least strategizing with her about what rooms or spaces in the building are open for use at what times can go a long way. It shows you’re taking her experience and expertise into account when making decisions about who goes where. As a PT, I was happy to have dedicated space under a stairwell where I could store some equipment and preserve a modicum of privacy and dignity for students.

Administrators can be great advocates for their therapy teams. Ensuring therapists have what they need to do the job right saves time, and time saved is money saved!

3. Scheduling Challenges

One of our PTs came to me exhausted, saying he was ready to resign. His schedule was unmanageable.

Smiling male elementary school student sits in red wheelchair in his school library, awaiting his special education therapist.He was running back and forth between a middle school and a high school (about a quarter mile apart) five times a day because teachers weren’t being flexible enough to let him schedule all the students in one building consecutively. Due to a parking shortage and the time it took to move his car, he had to walk most of the day. In bad weather, he’d end up cold or wet.

I spent a few hours with him one morning. By 1:00 pm, my FitBit calculated we’d walked more than three-and-a-half miles going from one student to the next! All this back-and-forth travel was costing the school district hours of lost productivity and hundreds of dollars per day. 

I called the special education director. Once she appreciated the toll the situation was taking on the PT, she spoke with both buildings’ principals. She told them the therapist would be available in either the morning or the afternoon, but would not be going back and forth between schools. Although the teachers were reluctant to flex on the times, we ultimately planned a schedule livable for everyone. 

This story is a perfect example of the power you have to value your therapists and lower your special education staff turnover rate!

PTS’ Top Tip for Preventing Special Education Staff Turnover: Ask and Listen!

The number one thing you can do as an administrator to help stop staff turnover in your program is ASK your therapists HOW you can help!

Smiling female school-based special education therapist leans over shoulder of elementary school girl using laptop computer.Ask:

  • What is your experience like?
  • What else do you need to do your jobs?
  • How is it working with the staff at their buildings? 

Being heard and supported plays a huge role in determining whether a therapist decides to stay in her position or goes looking for greener pastures when contract renewal time comes around at the end of the school year.

The benefits of stable teams go beyond the financial. The relationships formed between therapists and their students are vital to establishing progress over the long haul.

And when teachers trust therapists’ judgment, students aren’t “over-qualified” for services, and can be exited from the caseload when recommended. 

Don’t underestimate what your support as a special education administrator means to a therapist in the field.  It can make all the difference!

If you’d like to find out more about how PTS can help you stem your special education program’s turnover rate while doing more good for more of your students, call us at 610-941-7020, or reach out to us online.

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