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What Classes Do I Need to Take to Become a Certified Occupational Therapist's Assistant?

by Michele Norfleet, studioD

A certified occupational therapy assistant provides support to an occupational therapist. A potential COTA must complete an associate degree and, in most states, fulfill requirements for certification and state licensure. But, coursework is not the only consideration for potential COTAs. Therapist assistants should be physically fit to deal with the physical demands of the job and be prepared to work with people with patience and compassion.

Know Before You Go

Before embarking on a course of study, prospective students should be aware of the duties and responsibilities expected of a certified occupational therapy assistant. A COTA provides services to help patients achieve or recover functional independence, improve their quality of life and manage day to day activities when affected by accidents, surgeries, chronic illnesses or developmental disabilities. Therapy may focus on range of motion and strength exercises and techniques to optimize function in daily living activities in home and work environments. Occupational therapists and their assistants help patients manage pain by identifying factors that contribute to painful episodes and teaching the patients ways to strengthen muscles and alternate ways of accomplishing tasks to decrease the frequency and severity of pain. Although a certified occupational therapist evaluates and prescribes a course of therapy for the patients, the COTA works directly with the patients to reach their treatment goals in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and private practice facilities.

The Classes

Classes leading to a 2-year associate degree for occupational therapy assistants are offered at community and technical colleges. Although the specific classes needed vary depending on the college, most programs require courses in biology, psychology, anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, medical terminology, rehabilitation theory and basic therapeutic methods. A period of field experience is usually required during the second year of the program and often includes at least 8 weeks of supervised training. During the field experience, the student works in a therapy setting under the supervision of a certified occupational therapist.

Understanding the Courses

Medical terminology courses cover medical language relating to body systems, diseases and physical conditions and include professional language and medical abbreviations that the COTA will encounter in the field. Occupational therapy theory and practice classes teach fundamentals of occupational therapy, including service delivery principles, legal implications and ethics. COTAs need an understanding of the human body, and this is taught in basic anatomy and physiology classes. Kinesiology classes focus on individual muscles and their functions, joints and movement patterns. Additional occupational therapy classes give COTAs a working knowledge of therapy techniques to teach patients to stretch and strengthen muscles and to help developmentally disabled patients function successfully in society.


The final step to becoming a COTA, after earning an associate degree, is the certification exam offered by The National Board of Certification in Occupational Therapy. In addition, most states require licensure, which may include this NBCOT certification. The COTA must submit an application to the state licensure board indicating completion of the state-specific requirements. The state license is then issued to applicants who have met the state requirements.

That's Not All

After earning a degree and completing certification and state licensure requirements, COTAs aren’t finished with classes. Most states require that COTAs complete continuing education classes every three years to maintain their licensure. Continuing education classes keep COTAs up-to-date on best practices, delivery of effective patient care and clinical and professional issues. Coursework is offered through OT conferences, college classes and online courses.

About the Author

Michele Norfleet is a freelance writer who writes on travel, home and garden and education topics. She has coauthored a handbook for teachers on school-wide discipline and has contributed tips for special-needs students in the basal curriculum for RCL Benziger. Norfleet holds a master's degree from Southern Illinois University and has experience as a special-needs teacher and speech pathologist.

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