What’s it like to be an early intervention physical therapist in Illinois?

Early Intervention (EI) services are provided to children from birth to age 3 through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – Part C. Sophia and Vivian are two physical therapists that work at Milestone Therapy, and in this blog they will be answering common questions about a day in the life of an early intervention physical therapist serving Illinois.

Sophia Aspin, Physical Therapist
Vivian Chau without mask
Vivian Chau, Physical Therapist

How did you learn about early intervention as a physical therapist?

Sophia: I was exposed to EI briefly during my last (pre-COVID) clinical internship at a school setting. Some of the students I was treating at the pre-school had received EI services. I asked my clinical instructors what EI was, and they told me it was a system through the state of Illinois that offered any healthcare service to kids younger than 3 that needed them. I thought that sounded pretty cool. Then, later when I was interviewed for Milestone, EI was brought up again. I did some research and what I learned on the Provider Connections website and EITP training website really intrigued me. I’ve always enjoyed connecting with my patients, that’s what originally drew me to PT, so EI gave me the perfect environment that I wanted. I interact with multiple family members, I work with kids, and I get to have fun while working! 

Vivian: I first learned about EI during my coursework at the University of Illinois at Chicago. We were assigned a few days of clinical experience with pediatric physical therapists, and I happened to be paired with an early intervention physical therapist. This glimpse into EI piqued my interest in pediatric physical therapy in general, so when it was time to create my wishlist for the full-time clinical experience, I chose (read: hoped for) Milestone Therapy, not knowing I would get to spend the full 3 months with two awesome EI therapists!

Why did you choose the early intervention setting as a physical therapist?

Sophia: I chose the EI setting because I enjoy working with families and kids in a variety of settings. What is unique about EI is that providers can treat kids in their natural environment, meaning we can treat them wherever they most need services. Typically, it’s in the home, however it can be at daycare centers, playgrounds, at a store like Target, or simply outside in the yard! This allows a sort of freedom for the families, the kid, and the therapist to choose where treatment works best. I also chose EI because I think what pediatric therapists do is simply amazing. I love helping a kid learn how to crawl, walk, or play so they can grow and gain more independence! It’s truly a rewarding experience.

Vivian: Everything Sophia said! I love that in the natural environment I can include siblings in our activities, motivate the child with their favorite toys, and get a sense of family dynamics to determine my plan of care. The thrill of kids achieving new ‘firsts’ is one of the main, if not the main, reasons why I love my job. A bonus is that every day I get to drive around different neighborhoods and enjoy the weather (when we don’t have 2 feet of snow on the ground).

Do you see kids in the Milestone Therapy pediatric clinic?

Sophia: I don’t see any of my EI children in the clinic locations, however I do work at our Olympia Fields clinic where I treat pediatric patients of all ages. I enjoy treating at our clinic as well because I sometimes see more orthopedic focused injuries like back pain or after surgery, this is fun too because I can use all facets of knowledge that I learned in school over a variety of settings and ages.

Vivian: As an early intervention physical therapist, no. EI emphasizes the importance of treating children in their natural environment, as mentioned before, because that’s where they ultimately learn the most. Outside of EI, I treat in one school district, and I also see a few older kids and adults with developmental disabilities in their Chicago-suburban homes, but I am not currently treating kids in any of our Milestone clinics.  

What does your schedule look like as an EI physical therapist at Milestone?

Sophia: My schedule is a bit hectic right now due to the pandemic, I have two days a week where it’s split between EI and clinic kids, so half of my morning is EI kids all in the same geographic area so I don’t have to travel too far, and then I drive to clinic. The other days I have just EI, and due to family needs my days have some breaks between them so I can accommodate family schedules. I try not to have big gaps in my schedule, but when it comes down to being able to treat a kid, I’ll be ok with a break here and there. This will eventually go away once I can reach a full caseload! Sessions are usually 60 minutes of direct time, so I typically schedule my kids 1.5 hours apart to plan for travel, bathroom breaks, and eating. For example, if I have a kid at 7:30am, my next kid is scheduled at 9:00am, even if they’re only 15 minutes away from each other, so I can get to the next family in time and double check my plan for that treatment session.

Vivian: I like to schedule my kids so that I don’t have to drive in zig-zags across Chicago and the northwest suburbs. I’m also the type of person who doesn’t like to be late, so I try to give myself a little more time between visits in case I have to wait 15 minutes for a cargo train to pass. Other than direct treatment, I spend some time throughout the day and early evenings communicating with other team members, organizing new files, or planning my strategies. Besides the occasional scheduling question at night, I try to have a clear cut “end” to my work day, but that’s my personal preference.

What do you like most about working with families in Illinois Early Intervention?

Sophia: What I like most about working with families in EI is that it feels like a team effort. Everyone is doing their very best to help kids achieve their goals. I’ve had the wonderful experience of seeing a kid walk for the first time and it’s very rewarding to see the family’s excitement when their kid achieves a goal. I also enjoy working with families in EI because we can choose the environment I treat in, so I know I’m helping the family the best way I can. It’s especially fun when I can treat their kid at a daycare since I can see the kid interacting with other kids and what their social life is like. I also get to hear other adult’s perspectives when it comes to the kid’s strengths and what they need to work on more.

Vivian: I really look forward to the spring and summer months when I can meet families at the park, if it makes sense. If a kid is having trouble climbing up the steps on the playground but is great at going up and down stairs at home, then it makes sense to go to the playground to work on that skill. If running on grass is difficult for the child but there isn’t enough space at home to get a lot of practice in, PT at the park would make sense. Besides the functional gross motor outcomes we’re working on, everyone gets a chance to enjoy the weather, a breath of fresh air, and a change in scenery! Seriously – how many other professionals can say they get paid to  play at the park?  

If you’re a new therapist to the area, a new graduate looking for a great place to grow, or a seasoned vet that is simply not getting the support you need in the field, take a look at Milestone Therapy – we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with a pediatric physical therapy career here!