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deb hopper paediatric occupational therapy

What is a Paediatric Occupational Therapist? A Chat With Deb Hopper

Deb Hopper is an occupational therapist with an inspiring career pathway, and a highly adaptive one. Initially graduating as a forensic adult OT, she jumped off the beaten path and opted for paediatric OT practice in rural Australia. Out of necessity, she created a business that now provides resources and assistance to other OTs around Australia. Deb joined us for a conversation about her paediatric occupational therapy journey.

Tell us a bit about your journey from OT graduate to paediatric occupational therapy.

My professional journey has taken me from a new graduate occupational therapist (OT), working in forensic mental rehabilitation in Melbourne to paediatrics at Forster-Tuncurry on the Mid-North Coast. Many may raise an eyebrow as to the relevance of the skill base that translates from forensic adult OT to working with children, but as OTs know, the unique skill set we graduate with can be adapted across many practice areas.

I still laugh at the thought of me, as an OT of 4 years’ experience in mental health in my paediatric OT interview at Forster Community Health Centre. The first question was “so tell us about your experience working in a paediatric setting, and the assessments and tools you have used”.

“None”, was my reply, “but I’m happy to learn”.

So began my journey into the life of being a paediatric OT. Yes, a steep learning curve the next 10 years! Right from the start, I’ve had a love of learning new things, reframing and re-creating in creative ways, and then sharing with others:

When working at community health, for example, I created a fine motor and hand strengthening package for local schools and teachers, and loved packing out our little group room in sharing ideas and strategies with preschool and school teachers. I suggested to management that if there weren’t enough funds to purchase extra resources for the department, then perhaps we could charge $5 a head for teachers attending our training.

In 2007 I started my company Life Skills 4 Kids when I was at home with my firstborn, when he was about 6 months old. My creative mind had time to do some thinking, and I started finding all these OT resources online on overseas websites that were too expensive to purchase individually, and so a basic website was created with one product—enabling you to design self-regulation programs to change kids’ lives—to start with, and Life Skills 4 Kids was born.

Now 16 years later I’ve transitioned from public health to private practice, I’ve experimented with clinic-based, mobile, school and a flexible mode of delivery, with and without staff at various stages, all to meet my current family/work-life needs.

It’s been a journey and I’ve learnt a lot—I now run my private practice out of some lovely rooms at the back of a church, mentor over 100 paediatric OTs around Australia, have four online programs to support OTs, parents, OTs in business, and now paediatric Allied Health Assistants.

Building a practice in the online space has changed my life and my business in so many ways, including having flexibility in my week, change in focus by supporting both local therapy clients versus supporting OTs, parents and allied health assistance through online programs and diversification of my income streams.

It’s humbling to start from being a rural therapist feeling unsupported and isolated and now being able to support so many others.

What are some opportunities you’ve had to really make a difference to patient or community outcomes?

During the Covid-19 lockdowns I created a resource to support parents in knowing how to tell their children that the lockdowns had been announced: how to support them in the transition from face-to-face schooling to at-home schooling, and tips for how to keep some structure and routine in their day so they felt the safety of “some” routine. This was so important to share, so I called the local Prime 7 news team and over the next few months was interviewed twice—once on the release and another on an update at the start of the next lockdown.

I’ve learnt through my career that if you feel strongly about something, you need to step outside of yourself, put your nerves aside, and don’t be afraid to be visible. While it’s nerve wracking to put yourself out there, when you have a message you have to take every opportunity to share it. I have written seven books and been interviewed for TV and radio talking about kids’ mental health and how parents can support their kids at any stage. It’s important to share your knowledge and not just want for people to come to you.

I believe that no matter what your role is, if you feel strongly about something, you’ve been created to action that and step out, even if you were the shy, anxious one at school.

Do you have a defining career experience?

This is a hard one. Most my defining moments are the little wins I see with my clients. Like when a pre-schooler holds a pencil with their fingers on the pencil, or after six months they climb onto a swing for the first time, or you’re taking a teen out shopping and they pause and look for traffic for the first time. That’s what I find gratifying.

In terms of my online presence, again, there are so many little wins. The first invoice I created (and thinking someone was going to pay me), to hiring my first staff member, or bigger wins like launching our beautiful website last year, or a new membership.

Probably my most rewarding experience has been to launch, nurture and grow my paediatric OTs inside The Kids OT POD—an online membership to support paediatric OT clinical skills.

They are all wins to celebrate.

In there anything you would like to see done differently in the paediatric OT space?

The paediatric OT workforce has been flipped in the past 12 years. The NDIS has allowed so many more participants to access services, which has allowed for flexibility in creating your own business, but the risk for allied health and not just the OT profession is to:

  1. Make sure that in this new billable climate that we provide training for our allied health professionals in how to run a business.
  2. Encourage new graduates to work as an employee for 4-5 years at least to find their feet and be confident in their OT role.
  3. When younger therapists are in employee roles, we need to make sure we set realistic billing targets, nurture them, make sure we support their self-care, and provide supervision or pay for external supervision. I hear so many horror stories of just the opposite.
  4. Invest in their own professional learning. Yes, it’s an expense, but it’s such an investment. Whether it’s investing in courses, conferences, group, or individual supervision, it’s so important. I’ve learnt that the more you learn from others, you fast-track yourself to success.
What advice would you give to your graduate self?

I would tell myself to accept my creative thinking, to realise that these ideas are there to be nurtured, and that it’s OK to create and step out and share with the world.

I’m so proud to be an occupational therapist and love my job every day. I love the diversity, I love the opportunity to mentor and support other OTs in my profession, and I love having the opportunity to expand my mentoring skills now to support allied health professionals in their very important role.

To find out more about occupational therapy as a career, see our article on the A-Z of Allied Health that focuses on occupational therapists.

Connect with Deb Hopper on LinkedIn to view her career history and website information.