21, No. 1
What You Need to Know to Work Effectively with Schools
by Aileen Hays, LCSW
In my work as a school social worker and counselor here in North Carolina I have had lots of contact with child welfare workers. Sometimes this contact has been positive and collaborative. Other times it has felt more like the clashing of two huge systems that do not understand each other and cannot get along.
In my opinion a lot of the friction that arises when our two systems meet could be avoided if we understood a few basic things about each other. Accordingly, I'd like to share the following thoughts and suggestions.
How Teachers Think
When working with a child's school, remember that the teacher sees the child in the context of the classroom. Every day the teacher observes how that child compares with her peer group. This perspective shows very clearly how the child's life circumstances affect her chances for success in school and, by extension, in life. This is why teachers are so frustrated with truancy, untreated ADHD, lice, and other issues the child welfare system may see as minor concerns that simply do not rise to the legal definition of neglect. Teachers often try many times to contact the child's family, without success. Imagine their frustration and growing concern as they watch the child fall further and further behind his or her peer group.
Teachers do not see children in the context of their family or their community--that's what you see. It's important to remember that both viewpoints are valid, and that both are the reality of the child's life.
Stress and Testing
Chances are you will encounter this stress and anxiety when you interact with teachers and administrators. Don't take it personally.
Suggestions for Success
Educate the educators. Take time to educate relevant school personnel concerning your role with a family, your goals, and whatever information you can share in good faith and within the bounds of confidentiality.
Prepare us. Let school personnel know what you need of them. If you're inviting them to a child and family team meeting, tell them ahead of time exactly what will be expected of them.
Partner with school social workers and counselors. Get to know the social workers and counselors in the schools that serve your families. Developing a good relationship with them will foster productive school/child welfare communication. School social workers and school counselors have their feet in both the school and social work worlds. They play by many of the same rules you play by; they can be a valuable ally.
Learn the rules. Just like law enforcement, the courts, and the other professionals you interact with, schools have certain rules they must follow. If you're exceptionally frustrated by a situation, try to learn the rules. For example, what exactly is the school district's lice policy? What is its truancy policy? Learn about services available for your families and their children through programs such as Title I, Exceptional Children, English as a Second Language, and the McKinney Act for Homeless children. Knowing about these policies and programs will help you advocate successfully for your families.
Never underestimate the importance of school success. Children spend 8 hours a day, 180 days a year in school. They learn to read, write, calculate, explore, question, and get along with others. School success is a primary predictor of life success.
This article is reprinted from Children's Services Practice Notes, Vol. 11, No. 4 (September 2006). Today Aileen Hays is in private practice outside Austin, Texas, providing parent coaching and individual counseling for children, teens, and adults.