Calling All Social Workers!

Schools are dynamic and increasingly complex spaces.  The need for “all hands on deck” is apparent yet not always provided, supported, funded, or valued.  For learners who receive special education supports as well as social work services, the collaboration is critical but, honestly, rare and difficult.  School-based social workers (some schools do still have this role!!) are limited in their ability to support the whole child through family and community involvement, primarily focused on the child’s engagement at and with school.  Community social workers are limited in their ability to support the whole child through school involvement, primarily focused on the child’s safety and well-being at home.  Therefore, we have a wide gap in communication, collaboration, and supports for learners and their families between school and home.

That said, I would argue that bridging this gap has never been more critical.  Special educators need you!  They want you!  Check out the hashtag #armmewith on social media and you will see teachers literally begging for your expertise and collaboration! They know they are not adequately trained or prepared for the complicated and intense needs of their learners and their learner’s families.  They know that families cannot attend to the daily demands of their child’s school, (i.e. back pack mail, library books due, lunch money) if they are focused on safety and basic needs. But they do not have the family systems knowledge or skills to support families in the ways you can.

I have a teacher right now who has a learner in her self-contained special education classroom who sleeps all day.  A lot of people live in his house, from very young babies to elderly grandparents.  He isn’t coming to school ready to learn because he isn’t able to get sleep at home.  His teachers are frustrated and blaming the family because the child is too sleepy to learn.  They complain that they’ve called social services to no avail.  The school does not have a social worker.  Could collaboration with a social worker benefit the child, the family, and the teachers?  The teachers say yes.  They feel powerless to provide a meaningful education to this little guy and they want help.  What do you say?  Can you envision ways of supporting this learner, his family, his teachers?

When I asked teachers what they want social workers to know about collaborating with special educators, they resoundingly said they crave your expertise in families and services.  They feel ill equipped to serve in that role and are desperate for your partnership.  One said, “I wish schools would take the money they spend on security guards and spend it on social workers.”  Let’s push to make that reality.

We also need to create a unified system so that school personnel and social workers and other community supports can communicate regularly and meaningfully in developing and providing services to learners and their families.  If a community social worker could attend the IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting of a child they are supporting, it could make a world of difference in how that plan is presented to meet the educational needs of the learner in a way that builds up the family as a whole.

My first job in my field after graduating with a Masters of Education in Early Childhood Special Education was as an Infant-Toddler Specialist serving young children and their families with developmental delays or disabilities in their homes.  Of my caseload of around 20 families, about half were in the custody of the Department of Social Services.  I knew next to nothing about all of the resources and supports provided by social workers initially but I learned quickly that my previous beliefs and expectations were way off.  I’d long been told that DSS does nothing with reports of abuse or neglect, that they’re paper pushers, overworked, underresourced, lacking empathy.  I experienced none of that.  I collaborated with amazing social workers who focused entirely on creating safe environments for kids and supporting families in getting the services they needed to become adequate parents.

Then I moved into a public school setting and while my students were the same population I had been serving in home based services, the collaboration with social services completely ended.  I never saw another social worker or had any opportunity to collaborate with families in their involvement with social services.  Special educators want and need to work with you but they need to understand that your responsibility and priority is in strengthening families, rather than removing children and penalizing families.

We have a long way to go in understanding each other but we have to get at the same table, in the same room, same building to begin meaningfully providing learners with the best both of our field’s have to offer.

WE NEED YOU!!

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

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