News & Announcements

Pediatric occupational therapy provides outlet for creativity, compassion

Oct. 17, 2023

A woman smiles while speaking with two young children at a preschool.
While working toward her doctorate in occupational therapy at the University of Missouri, Daja Neal completed a practicum working with preschoolers at the Nora Stewart Early Learning Center. Photo by Abbie Nell Lankitus.

Story by Mia Hollander

When she first began her undergraduate studies, Daja Neal knew she wanted to pursue a career where she could help others reach their full potential.

While the destination was always within her sights, she initially wasn’t sure what sort of degree would bring her toward that goal.

“I always knew I excelled in biology and psychology,” she said. “It was just a matter of deciding where I wanted to go with these skills.”

As a first-generation college student, Neal had to blaze her own trail in many ways. But when she discovered pediatric occupational therapy, she knew it was the right path.

Branching out

Before she started working toward her doctorate in occupational therapy in 2022, Neal had worked at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment as a behavioral technician. Her time at the Thompson Center gave her a strong foundation for her practicum at a preschool in downtown Columbia, where she helped young learners work on their handwriting skills.

To ensure a well-rounded experience at Mizzou, Neal chose to explore the equipment side of occupational therapy through an internship with Services for Independent Living (SIL). The nonprofit center provides independent living skills, advocacy, information, transition services and support for people with disabilities, seniors and veterans.

At SIL, Neal oversaw equipment stock and assessed wheelchairs, walkers and canes to ensure they were free from damage and in proper condition. She also helped individuals with disabilities determine what adaptive equipment would best meet their needs.

Occasionally, Neal observed home evaluations or helped pick up or drop off equipment at clients’ residences. During those interactions, Neal was able to work directly with clients and explain how they might benefit from various services. By providing this clarity to her clients, Neal said she’s able to see her knowledge in action.

Individualized solutions

Neal’s internships have provided her with numerous opportunities to apply knowledge from the classroom to real-world scenarios. They also helped her realize the joy of finding creative solutions when working with children, which steered her toward a career in pediatric OT.

A young woman works with a patient in a clinical setting
At Services for Independent Living, Daja Neal oversaw equipment stock and assessed wheelchairs, walkers and canes to ensure they were free from damage and in proper condition. Photo by Sam O’Keefe.

“What I love the most about working with kids is thinking about how to incorporate play into their treatments,” Neal said. “It allows me to be creative when making treatment plans and gets me excited to be a part of the amusing activities planned for the day.”

During her time at Mizzou, Neal has realized occupational therapy is not solely about helping patients develop the same skills as everyone else — the true magic of OT lies in personalizing treatment to help her young patients learn to perform day-to-day tasks in a fulfilling manner that coincides with the life they want to lead.

Tiffany Bolton, an associate clinical professor with Mizzou’s Department of Occupational Therapy, describes Neal as a unique and attentive student who is full of creativity. Dr. Bolton said Neal has shown tremendous growth in her ability to meet her young clients at their individual developmental levels while using vital OT skills to keep them on track.

“Daja pays close attention to what the kids like and makes sure to weave that in,” Bolton said. “One recent example was her ‘goodbye’ activity to end her time at the preschool: She went and found Crayola-shaped popsicles as a treat since we’ve been working on writing this semester with the preschoolers.”

This fall, Neal has been working with adults as part of the second level of her practicum. This practicum has been both nerve-wracking and exciting for Neal, as she said it will prepare her for level II fieldwork placements beginning in January. Neal is also a trainee with the TIPS for Kids program at the Thompson Center, which enables her to explore collaborations with other disciplines and work with children with autism.

After completing her doctoral capstone in May 2025, Neal intends to study for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy to become a registered occupational therapist. As for future career plans, Neal is keeping her options open: She could become a traveling occupational therapist and explore the world, or she could work with adults who have neurological issues. In the meantime, she intends to return to her roots in the Kansas City area for a few years to gain more experience working with children with different conditions.

Featured in this post

Tiffany Bolton

Tiffany Bolton

Associate Clinical Professor