October 19, 2023 by HCDE Communications
Vicki Nolan, a physical therapist with Harris County Department of Education, discovered her passion for human anatomy and community service at a young age. Her dedication deepened while studying physical therapy at the University of Texas Health Science Center, during which time she completed a clinical internship with HCDE. This experience cemented her love for working with children and kickstarted her more than 20-year career with the Department.
In observance of National Physical Therapy Month, celebrated every October, HCDE recognizes and appreciates the numerous physical therapists and physical therapist assistants in its School-Based Therapy Services division. These professionals are pivotal in supporting students with disabilities and aiding their classroom mobility and function. Among them is Nolan, who this week shares insights from her enriching journey as a physical therapist. She reflects on the strength she derives from working with children who tirelessly strive to overcome mental, physical, and emotional challenges.
What inspired you to become a school-based physical therapist?
VN: I wanted to be a physical education teacher or coach as a kid. However, I decided to study physical therapy in college because the field offers diverse opportunities and experiences. My internship with HCDE—back in the day when no jeans or “bare legs” were allowed at the Irvington location, I found a love for pediatric physical therapy, specifically school-based therapy, because it allows me to form relationships with children, their families, and teachers. I get to think outside the box to solve problems and help children actively participate in their family, school, and community through teamwork.
How does school-based physical therapy contribute to a student’s classroom success?
VN: Through HCDE, I’ve worked with students in the Waller, North Forest, and Cy-Fair independent school districts, and physical therapy is critical in helping increase their independence, confidence, safety, and participation across the school environment. Every day, we join educational staff dedicated to assisting students to be active learners in the classroom, gym, and playground. This involves academic learning and the development of musical, athletic, social, and self-help skills. We help teachers determine how students in wheelchairs can participate in recess or join the band with their peers. Physical therapists can also provide adapted equipment that allows students to run in their physical education classes or position them to learn in the classroom with their peers.
Why are physical therapists beneficial to teachers in the classroom?
VN: Teachers are my heroes because they often face challenges managing large groups of students with diverse needs. As a physical therapist, I encourage teachers by giving positive feedback when I see great things happening in their classrooms. We are all trying to help students become the best version of themselves. I’ve learned that physical therapists are teachers in their own right. We often educate school staff on best practices for student engagement and how to use proper mechanics to protect their bodies when lifting and transferring students safely. Similar to providing students with adapted equipment, those collaborations are in place to help teachers do their jobs efficiently by supplying supportive tools such as mechanical lifts, supportive seating, changing tables, adapted classroom furniture, and more. Physical therapists can also provide insight into students’ medical diagnoses to better understand their strengths and limitations.
Describe the impact being a physical therapist has on your life. What is your favorite part of your career and why?
VN: Over the last 20 years, I’ve had the privilege to work with children and families who inspire and strengthen me to be a better person. This job allows me to prioritize a healthy balance between a fulfilling career and being an active wife and mom of four. My favorite part of being a physical therapist is meeting my students at the start of every school year, helping them achieve milestones, and improving their quality of life and education. I hope my students gain strength and confidence in our lessons, feel loved, and know they can always count on me for support. My HCDE co-workers have also become my friends and extended family, which not everyone can say. This division has created an environment where I feel professionally and personally supported. Throughout the years, I’ve grown with my co-workers, celebrated, laughed, and mourned with them, and I’m genuinely grateful for this experience.
To learn more about HCDE School-Based Therapy Services, visit hcde-texas.org/school-therapy.