Today's school social worker challenge: Students living with trauma

Mary Abbott, lead social worker at Abbott Middle School in Elgin, was among three people recognized by the state social workers organization.

The words “typical” or “normal” do not exist in a school social worker's day.

Our days are unpredictable, chaotic, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants roller coaster rides. We try to keep to a schedule yet must find time to address all the “unscheduled” demands of the day.

Crises occur multiple times a day and vary in intensity. Imagine having a list with many to-do items, but none is checked off by the end of the day. It has nothing to do with working an eight-hour day with no lunch and never sitting down — but everything to do with all the crises that needed full attention.

Unfortunately, students today present educators with really challenging behaviors and multifaceted, complex concerns. So many students have experienced multiple traumas, which in large numbers can significantly impact children's brain development and their ability to cope and manage their feelings. They stay in a state of fight, flight or freeze, and are in a constant state of anxiety and heightened alert.

As clinically trained professionals, we understand how trauma affects children, and often their behavior in school is a manifestation of something going on emotionally. We understand that discovering information about a child's world can paint a full picture that allows us to more accurately build an effective treatment plan.

Take “Johnny.” He is a 13-year-old seventh grader who stopped turning in his work, withdrew from his friends, and easily became irritated and moody when others tried to interact with him. He began missing school frequently. His teacher attempted to talk to Johnny and unsuccessfully reached out to his parents. After that failed, his teacher approached the school social worker for assistance and guidance.

The social worker focused on connecting with Johnny and building a trusting relationship. Often, students demonstrating similar behaviors have things going on outside of school that are very challenging and traumatic. Taking time to build rapport allows the student to be vulnerable and open about the challenges they face.

Johnny eventually disclosed domestic violence was happening in his home and that his mother had to get a job to help support the family. She was working the 3-11 shift, which meant Johnny was supervising his three younger siblings every night. As a result, he had been subjected to emotional and sometimes physical abuse from his father while his mother was at work. He felt angry, hopeless, helpless, scared and anxious.

Johnny also was having difficulty sleeping because he was waiting until his mom got home. Frequently, she and his dad got into fights when she came home at midnight and Johnny couldn't fall asleep out of worry for what might happen to his mother or his siblings. He felt an immense burden to protect them from his father.

Sometimes, when Johnny's mom wouldn't get up in the morning, he had to get his siblings off to school. Then Johnny went back to bed and stayed home from school. Johnny assured the social worker that his mother loves him and his siblings dearly and is doing the best she can do under the circumstances; she is a good, loving mother doing her best to pay to bills and provide food for the family.

It's obvious Johnny loves his mother and siblings and is doing his best to meet all the demands that have been placed on him. It's also obvious he was struggling with some big emotions due to witnessing and experiencing emotional and physical abuse.

So how does a school social worker help a student like Johnny?

There is incredible power in showing care, empathy and acknowledgment. When children feel they've been heard, that someone understands their pain and shows genuine concern, many good things can happen. Social workers are taught to adhere to six core values: service, social justice, dignity of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.

There's more. To be an effective social worker you must possess and demonstrate patience, flexibility, empathy, warmth, honestly, integrity, strength, love, concern, understanding, and passion. We believe that all people, adults and children, do the best they can do with what they have and know. We believe you start where your client (student) is, not where you want or need them to be.

We do not judge others, because we never know what they are going or have gone through. Social workers are crisis interventionists, change agents, injustice fighters, mediators, data collectors, report writers, advocates, teachers, facilitators, listeners, rights protectors, supporters, helpers and leaders.

We try to help a student like Johnny by applying all of the above. Most of all, we try to connect with him and connect him and his family to all the available resources, such as financial assistance and mental health support.

The reality of school social work is that there is never enough time or manpower to meet the overwhelming abundance of student needs. As a result, we stretch ourselves too thin, multi-task like wild, and take on more than we can effectively manage. But what choice do we have? We see the hurt, pain and struggles of our students, and we are driven to help.

As a result, many of us are subject to burn out or compassion fatigue. Being exposed to others' pain and injustice on a regular basis takes its toll. It can leave you feeling hopeless and overwhelmed. Self-care is essential for survival, but it takes time and devotion to make that a reality.

When I am processing a difficult case, I find myself saying, “I just can't make this stuff up.” A part of me just can't believe what I have heard, even though I know it's true. After 25 years in social services, I still hear of something more horrendous than I have heard before. I no longer bother saying “I have heard it all,” because I am reminded quite often that I, unfortunately, have not.

I've seen a steady increase each year in the number of students who are hospitalized for threatening to harm themselves or someone else. Ten years ago, I would see maybe one student per month, or every other month, for this type of concern. Now it is weekly. Also, the issues and stories students have today are so complex and intense, and, again, at an ever-increasing frequency each year. Social workers now do crisis triage instead of prevention.

My opinion is there is a correlation with the downturn of the economy: Households fall apart, parents lose their jobs or both parents are working two jobs, homelessness increases, and families have to double up in living quarters. All of this stresses out parents, and their kids see and feel it, too. Parental substance abuse also increases. Stress results in parents who are overworked, tired, worried about how to provide — they lash out emotionally or are just plain not available to be parents.

Being one school social worker to 800 students leaves you feeling ineffective, at best. So, what makes the work we do worthwhile?

When we make a difference. When we are the only one there to listen and tell a student we care and that we are going to help. When what we did keeps a child safe. When a student says thank you for caring. When you see a child learn to be resilient. When a child's life gets better because you got involved.

Social work is one of the toughest jobs on the planet and requires the tenacity of a fighter and a heart big enough to carry the weight of the world. But it is also the most rewarding.

At the end of the day, I would never choose a different path than the one I'm on. And I am a better, stronger person because of it.

Straight From the Source: Chicago violence follows student to Elgin

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