Outlook for K-12 Therapy & Special Education Professions - 2021

Report

Outlook for K-12 Therapy & Special Education Professions - 2021

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This report analyzes a survey of 700+ K-12 therapists and special education professionals across the U.S. to learn what they’re experiencing, how they feel about their roles, and what they believe the future holds for them and their profession. Key findings of this survey include:

How respected do K-12 therapists and special education professionals feel in their career?

The first thing we wanted to understand was how respected the therapists and special education professionals felt in their career.

The majority of our survey respondents, 65%, felt they were either somewhat or very respected. 28% of respondents, however, felt they were either somewhat disrespected or not at all respected.

For a clearer picture, we next dug into which types of K-12 therapists and special education professionals were more or less likely to feel respected in their career.

The majority of respondents across all professions reported feeling at least somewhat respected in their career. 80% of physical therapists reported feeling at least somewhat respected, although interestingly this career had the lowest percentage of respondents report they were very respected.

About 30% of occupational therapists and speech-language therapists reported feeling either somewhat or not at all respected in their careers, the highest of any of the disciplines in our survey.

Unsurprisingly, the factor most directly related with how respected a respondent felt in their career was compensation.

Only 29% of overall respondents felt they were well compensated, while nearly half reported being under compensated.

As you can imagine, the level of respect a respondent felt in a given therapist’s career was directly associated with how well they felt they were being paid.

90% of therapists who said they were very well compensated reported feeling respected in their career, with over half saying they felt very respected.

Only 44% of those who reported being extremely under compensated said they felt respected, and 17% felt they weren’t respected at all.

Interestingly, a majority of therapists who said they were under compensated still reported feeling respected, as did those who felt they were neither well compensated nor under compensated. Even still, it’s abundantly clear that those who feel they’re being appropriately compensated are far more likely to feel respected in their careers.

Also unsurprising? The less respected a respondent felt, the more likely they were to report having recently looked for a new position:

A clear majority of therapists who felt unrespected had actively looked for a new position during the last 6 months, as did 63% of respondents who felt neither respected nor unrespected.

Even nearly half of those who felt somewhat respected reported that they have actively looked for a new position. Only therapists who felt very respected had a very clear majority report they had not been actively looking for a new position.

What causes the most burnout or other significant mental or emotional stress for K-12 therapists and special education professionals?

Feeling respected is a crucial foundation for having a positive outlook about your career, but we wanted to dig deeper into the most challenging issues K-12 therapists and special education professionals face today.

We started by asking our respondents what has caused them to experience burnout or other significant mental and/or emotional distress during the past six months. Here’s what they had to say:

“Documentation and paperwork” was the most frequently cited source of burnout or distress, with 71% of all therapists reporting it had impacted their mental health during the past six months.

Half of respondents said the number or severity of parents and students in their caseload was a significant driver of burnout and/or distress, and nearly half (43%) cited disrespect from non-clinical staff as a mental-health impactor.

These trends held when we asked therapists to indicate the likelihood that each of these issues would cause burnout or other significant mental and/or emotional distress if and when they were to experience them.

Over 40% of respondents said that documentation and paperwork—as well as the number or severity of parents/students in their caseload—would be extremely likely to cause burnout or distress. 15% or less said that those two issues would be unlikely to cause any burnout or distress.

Over half of therapists also flagged disrespect from non-clinical staff as being a significant cause for distress if they were to experience it.

Nearly 60% of respondents said actual delivery of therapy was unlikely to cause burnout or significant mental/emotional stress. Not being caught up on the latest research was the next least likely, but interestingly fewer therapists were likely to cite this issue as being likely to cause burnout or stress than actual delivery of therapy.

This tells us that when actual delivery of therapy is a mental health impactor, it’s more likely to be a high cause for distress than being caught up on the latest research.

Next we compared the causes of burnout in the past six months by therapy discipline.

 

Speech-language pathologists had the highest percentage who called out “documentation and paperwork” as a primary cause of burnout or distress, but it was also the top choice for all disciplines in our survey, except for physical therapists.

SLPs were also far more likely to call out “preparing for sessions” as a major impactor than professionals in most other disciplines. 38% of SLPs said they’d experienced burnout or distress due to preparing for sessions, much larger than “other” which was the next most common group to select that option with 24%.

Social workers were the most likely out of any group to identify the “number or severity of patients,” “disrespect from non-clinical staff,” and “lack of resources” all as being causes of burnout or distress.

Again, physical therapists were the only group where documentation and paperwork was not the most common cause for burnout or distress. The number or severity of patients was the most commonly cited issue among that group, but not by much. 40% – 44% of physical therapists identified each of the top four issues as a primary cause for burnout or distress.

Which causes of burnout were most likely to drive K-12 therapists and special education professionals to quit or find a new job?

According to our survey, “paperwork,” “caseload,” and “disrespect from non-clinical” staff were all the top causes of burnout and distress, but most common doesn’t necessarily mean the most severe. So we dug a little deeper into the data to understand which issues were most likely to cause severe burnout or distress.

To set a baseline, let’s examine how many of our total respondents have actively looked for a new position during the past 6 months:

A little more than half of respondents said they’d actively looked for a new position during the past 6 months. Obviously, there are a lot of reasons why someone might look for a new position, but as we saw in a previous section, the less respected a person felt in their position, the more likely they were to actively look for a new position.

Before we dive deeper into the data, though, let’s also take a look at how many of our respondents are considering leaving the therapy profession entirely in the next five years:

A little less than half of K-12 therapists (46%) said they were unlikely to leave the profession in the next five years, while more than 1 in 3 said they were likely to leave.

So let’s dig a little deeper into our most commonly cited causes for burnout to see if any are more likely than others to cause therapists and special education professionals to either look for employment elsewhere, or to potentially leave the field entirely.

Let’s start by examining the respondents who identified each issue as having caused significant burnout or distress and seeing how many of them also said they’d actively looked for a new position during the past six months.

Nearly 70% of K-12 therapists who identified “actual delivery of therapy” and/or “disrespect from non-clinical staff” as causes for burnout or distress said they’d actively looked for a new position during the past 6 months.

Over 60% of those who cited “lack of resources” or “not feeling qualified or properly trained to handle a specific case or diagnostic” also actively sought new positions.

While “documentation and paperwork” was the most commonly selected issue causing burnout or distress, those who selected it were the least likely to have actively looked for a new position.

Therapists who reported experiencing burnout or distress due to “actual delivery of therapy” top the list here, as well. Over half (52%) said they were somewhat or very likely to leave the therapy profession in the next five years, far more than the 37% response rate in our overall survey.

48% of those who cited lack of resources said they were likely to leave therapy.

“Documentation and paperwork” was toward the bottom of this list as well, with only 37% saying they were likely to leave therapy soon. But this time, it’s those who cited not being caught up on the current research as being the least likely to leave therapy in the next five years.

Both of these charts clearly indicate that certain types of issues can wear on K-12 therapists and special education professionals far more than others. Documentation and paperwork can be a constant headache and source of frustration, it’s true. But burnout and distress caused by actual delivery of therapy, disrespect from non-clinical staff, or lack of resources appear to be far more likely to drive a therapist to another position or out of therapy entirely.

Which professions were most likely to be actively looking for a new position or seeking to leave therapy soon?

Now that we’ve identified which issues were most associated with a desire to find a new position or leave therapy, let’s compare the disciplines to see if they are all being impacted the same, or if some are experiencing more stability than others.

Physical therapists were far more likely to report having actively looked for a new position than any other in our analysis.

More than 60% of “other” professions, psychologists, and occupational therapists had also reported actively seeking a new position. Speech-language pathologists were the only respondents who had a majority say they had not looked for a new position during the past six months.

Speech-language pathologists and psychologists top this list, with about 39% of each group saying they were either somewhat or very likely to leave in the next five years. Social workers had the next largest group say they were likely to leave, although they were the only group who didn’t have any respondents say they were very likely to leave the profession soon.

Interestingly, physical therapists, who were the most likely to say they’d been looking for new positions, were the most likely to report they were unlikely to be leaving the profession soon.

Compensation is closely linked to higher levels of burnout

As we covered earlier, most of our respondents felt they were under compensated, and those who felt unrespected in their career were far more likely to say they were under compensated as well.

So, let’s take a closer look at how closely linked compensation is to respondents looking for a new position or to leave the profession entirely.

As you’d expect, those who reported being extremely under compensated were far more likely to have actively looked for a new position during the past 6 months.

Still, nearly 40% of those who reported feeling “very well compensated” also said they’d been actively looking for a new position. So, while proper compensation is certainly helpful in keeping therapists and special education professionals satisfied in their current positions, it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

We see similar trends among those who say they’re likely to leave the profession soon. Over half of those who reported feeling extremely undercompensated said they were likely to leave the profession in the next five years.

Meanwhile, over half of those who said they were very well compensated said they were very unlikely to leave the profession soon.

Finally, we compared each profession to see which ones were most likely to report being well or under compensated:

Nearly half of physical therapists reported being well compensated, while 12% said they were very well compensated.

The largest group among all the other professions in our survey, however, were those who reported feeling somewhat under compensated. And social workers were the only group in the analysis who didn’t have any respondents report feeling very well compensated.

Closing

The needs and challenges facing K-12 therapy and special education professionals have changed significantly over the past 12 months.

Many sources of burnout and stress are far from new, but there’s no question that the pandemic has added additional weight to those challenges, in addition to adding new hurdles. We need arm therapists with better tools to help them cope with the stresses that impact their professional health.

It’s also clear that more resourcing is desperately needed if we are to stem the tide of K-12 therapy and special education professionals from leaving the profession entirely.

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