“Is this normal?” an anxious parent asks as she sits down in my office. It’s a common question that many parents ask a school social worker. Fortunately, most of the time, the answer is “Yes, most kids that age struggle with…” As a school social worker in a suburban Chicago school, I reserved the first half-hour and/or last half-hour of each school day for parent consultation. It was a convenient time for them to stop in since they were either dropping their children off or picking them up from school.
First-time parents don’t have the experience of having a previous child hit developmental milestones. They worry that their child is late to talk, to be potty trained, ready to walk to school on their own, adjust to a new classroom, or experiment with alcohol. School social workers are experts in normal child development. We know that it’s normal for 1st graders to wiggle a loose tooth, for 6th graders to form cliques, or for teens to rebel against adult authority. Sometimes, we’ll ask a parent if they can remember what they were going through at the same age as their child only to discover that the issues really don’t change much.
We also know when things are amiss. One mother of a kindergartner was shocked that her daughter tried to French kiss her father goodnight. I had to tell the parent that this wasn’t normal and it would be best if I could interview her daughter. She gave her consent and I learned that the girl’s 14-year-old male cousin had been “teaching” her how big kids kissed. “We were lucky to have caught this behavior early,” I reassured the mother, “before it turned into something worse.”
Sometimes, school social workers enlist other members of the family to help a child. A third grader had lost her maternal grandmother and had become excessively clingy with her mom to the extent that it interfered with school attendance. At a meeting with the mother, I asked if her father could be the one to drop her off at school instead. The mother agreed and the school attendance problem was solved. Once the girl was convinced that nothing bad was going to happen to her mother while they were apart, the mother could resume her regular routine.
School social workers also work alongside teachers, helping to remove barriers to learning that get in the way of academic success. Sometimes children are so pre-occupied with concerns outside of the classroom that they have trouble paying attention to school work. Family disruptions, such as parental divorce or domestic violence, are very upsetting to kids. Many school social workers will run a short-term group for kids experiencing a divorce. While it may seem counter-intuitive to pull a child out of class to attend such a group, it is important to remember that classwork has already lost its importance in the child’s mind.
School social workers also work with parent groups. At least twice a year, I would speak to the school’s Parent-Teacher Association about an important issue such as peer-to-peer bullying. Most parents didn’t realize that there are really three participants in this problem: the bully, the bullied, and the bystander. School social workers will commonly use an evidence-based program, such as Second Step, to address this problem on a school-wide basis. Educating all parents about such problems helps them contribute to the solution by reinforcing the lessons at home.
School social workers can also help parents cope with a child whose differences make school success hard. For example, by third grade most children should be reading pretty well, but there are a large number of children who don’t reach grade-level norms. In these situations, a social worker may suggest an evaluation by the school’s interdisciplinary team that would include the child’s regular classroom teacher, the school psychologist, a special education teacher, and the school social worker. This can be a worrisome time for a parent. The most important thing for parents to know is that they are also part of this team. The team cannot do an evaluation without parental consent, the team will include the parent in all of its meetings, and the team will ask for parental consent again before providing any services as part of the child’s Individualized Educational Program.
So how can you best utilize your school social worker? First, introduce yourself the next time you’re at your child’s school. Having a preliminary introduction will make it easier for both of you to address parenting or child development issues later on. Second, don’t be shy about asking “stupid” questions – there are NO stupid questions. – just common questions that parents need to ask. If this is your only or oldest child, it is perfectly normal to have questions about what is normal at each age. Third, if your intuition is telling you that something is off, trust your instincts. Ask your school social worker for a private meeting to discuss your concerns. You may learn that other parents have already come forward with similar worries. Finally, be an advocate for your child. As your child changes grades or schools, you are the one constant in their life to want what’s best for them. A personal story will illustrate what I mean.
My oldest child was born two months premature with a congenital heart defect that we didn’t diagnose until his kindergarten checkup. After his second open heart surgery when he was turning 11, he simply couldn’t carry a heavy backpack at school because the shoulder straps would pull against the sutures that held his ribcage together. Unfortunately, his intermediate school had a rule against backpacks with wheels. I went to the principal’s office and asked for a 504-plan based on the Rehabilitation Act. That act requires that schools provide accommodations for both permanent and temporary limitations that interfere with a child’s life activities. We set up a meeting with the interdisciplinary team, including a school social worker, and drafted some simple adjustments to improve his ability to get from one class to another that included extra time between classes and the use of a wheeled backpack. My son is 25 now and gave the commencement address at his own college graduation. He still knows his parents will be his strongest advocates!