COTA: Role of a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant

by Angela Stevens on April 27, 2010

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A certified occupational therapy assistant, more easily referred to as a COTA, plays an essential role in the field of occupational therapy. The COTA works directly with an occupational therapist in any number of settings including hospitals, clinics, schools, and treatment centers. Usually the COTA helps provide rehabilitation for patients who are suffering from a variety of medical problems. These problems may be physical, emotional, mental, or developmental depending on the type of facility the COTA is serving.


To become an occupational therapist assistant, you must receive and associate degree or certification from a special training program. While this is helpful and necessary, most training will occur on the job, as techniques and preferences vary depending on the occupational therapist the COTA will be working with.

Many of the schools I’m familiar with use COTAs to help fill the requirements of IEPs and 504 plans. Employing an occupational therapist can be quite expensive for a school district. Instead, they often have the occupational therapist go in and evaluate individual students and create a treatment plan for each student. A COTA will then go in and help students with the exercises or activities outlined by the occupational therapist. The COTA will also keep detailed records of each session and provide regular feed back to the occupational therapist. The occupational therapist can then schedule routine follow-ups to check on progress and make adjustments to the treatment plan as needed. This allows a small school district to utilize the services of one therapist throughout the county and minimize cost without appreciably affecting the care of the students.

In a hospital or center setting, the COTA will typically have more clerical duties in addition to assisting with therapy exercises, preparing therapy machines and areas, and working with the occupational therapist. He or she will often be required to answer the telephone, schedule appointments, maintain medical and office inventory, and possibly work with insurance companies and clients to help settle claims.

Regardless of the environment the COTA will be working in, several traits are necessary to succeed in this career. An assistant must be detail oriented, compassionate, able to precisely follow instructions, and have a great personality. The patients an occupational therapist, or their assistant, will be working with are often in some sort of pain or may find the sessions to be frustrating. It is important that the COTA be sensitive to that pain or frustration without allowing the patient to subvert his or her own treatment by not pushing themselves to their limit. This can be especially difficult for COTAs who work with children, in a school, or any other setting. Being able to walk the line between compassion and necessity is a skill learned on the job and not in a class.

What have you learned as a certified occupational therapy assistant that you never even thought of while in school or training?


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

matthew nichols 04.26.13 at 11:37 am

The patients an occupational therapist, or their assistant, will be working with are often in some sort of pain or may find the sessions to be frustrating.

***Correction***A COTA is not an assistant to the Occupational Therapist, the COTA assists with the provision of Occupational Therapy.

maria switzer 02.13.14 at 2:30 pm

I found this article very informative and even though the error was made about Cota’s being displayed as an OT assistant, as a COTA with almost four years under my belt, my patient care and judgement towards my patients are very accurate, sensitive to their disability. It must depend on the quality of education, experience and if the Cota has been mentored in fieldwork so the therapy can be consistant.

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