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2006 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 11, No. 4
September 2006

What Child Welfare Workers Need to Know to Work Effectively with Schools

by Aileen Hays, MSW, School Social Worker, Asheville City School System

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, producing really great results for everyone involved. Other times it has felt more like the clashing of two huge systems that do not understand each other and cannot get along.

If you’re an experienced child welfare worker, I bet you’ve had similar experiences. After all, nearly all child welfare workers eventually come in contact with public schools and the many people who work there. 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. In that spirit—and in an effort to increase the number of effective, mutually productive partnerships we can form on behalf of children and families—I would like to share the following thoughts and suggestions with you.

How Teachers Think
School personnel come from a child-centered approach, not a family-centered approach. Although many school reform efforts include looking at the “whole child” and making schools more family friendly by providing family resource centers, student health centers, etc., the fact remains that schools focus on children, not families. It is important to understand this fundamental difference between teachers and child welfare workers.

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 that 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 is important to remember that both viewpoints are valid, and that both are the reality of the child’s life.

No Child Left Behind
To understand schools today, one must understand the newest educational mandate, “No Child Left Behind.” This law, which came into effect in January 2002, strives to close achievement gaps between various groups of students, including students with disabilities, limited English language proficiency, and children of poverty.

The goals of the Act are laudable; however, the high stakes testing that is part of No Child Left Behind has significantly affected the atmosphere in public schools. (To learn more about No Child Left Behind go to <www.ncpublicschools.org/nclb>. You can also read the National Association of Social Worker’s views concerning this legislation at <www.sswaa.org/Joint_Statement_on_ NCLB_306.pdf>.)

As you work with school personnel, you need to know that stress and anxiety among adults in public schools is at an all-time high. Teachers and administrators feel a huge amount of pressure to ensure students perform well on end-of-grade tests. Life circumstances or disabilities of students are not taken into account when teachers, administrators, and schools are judged by their test scores. Chances are you will encounter this stress and anxiety when you interact with teachers and administrators. Don’t take it personally. Schools are becoming increasingly difficult places to work, and sometimes it shows.

Suggestions for Success

  • Seek to understand. Just as understanding families helps us serve them better, understanding teachers’ point of view will help you to work more effectively together.

  • Educate the educators. Take time to educate relevant school personnel concerning your role with a family, your goals, the Multiple Response System, 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 are 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 that you play by, and 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.

Don’t overlook schools or write them off in frustration—reach out to us. One of the very best ways to help a child who is in foster care or involved with CPS is to create a strong partnership between our two systems. In fact, it is one of the only ways to ensure that child’s success and well-being both today and on into the future.

References for this and other articles in this issue