How Data Became An Essential Part Of My SSW Self-Care Plan
Editor’s Note: for the first time here at SSWN we’re presenting an article that is by “Anonymous” due to their not wanting to identify themselves or their district. The sentiments expressed in this piece are arguably universal ones to the school social workers and other school clinicians I know–the feeling of being overwhelmed by caseload and crisis, and wanting to find a solution to be able to do one’s job more effectively. This school social worker found a solution through collecting data on what they were dealing with and using it to advocate for their work. We love it here when SSW stand up for themselves and use data to do it–enjoy!
6.2 hours per day.
That was the daily average I was working with a student in crisis as a school social worker. To clarify, we aren’t talking about the kind of crisis where Johnny and Bobby aren’t getting along at recess. This crisis looks like hitting, biting, destroying classrooms, ripping up classwork, running out of the building, cussing out peers, calling crisis teams and child protective services, and all the things that can happen in high-intensity self-contained special education classrooms.
Having worked in a therapeutic day school for several years and typical public education school social work roles, this role felt like something different altogether. The therapeutic day school experience was an intense mind-bending encounter with a severe diagnosis. The frequency of trips to the hospital for students or clinics for yourself was much higher than a public school experience. A public school social worker’s role changes per state, district, and building but there are some commonalities. One distinct difference between therapeutic day and public education is the building schedule. A school social worker has to learn how to work inside that framework and this can be incredibly tricky in the public school domain; not just for the social worker but for the students. Another common difference between therapeutic day and public school is teacher/building expectations. Building/classroom expectations can be an unofficial litmus test of what kinds of kids should be in the building. These factors result in jobs looking moderately different across settings. But this new role felt like the combination of therapeutic day intensity mixed with the complexities of the public school setting.
This particular job included the responsibilities of a building school social worker with the addition of the self-contained emotional disability program for the entire district. The combination of high-intensity crisis mixed with the high expectations of the general education setting led to a new type of challenge. Add to the self-contained numbers a caseload of 15 sped students (elementary non-self-contained), a few 504 students, and 12ish MTSS students and we had a potent recipe for a school social worker mental health breakdown.
How can one meet all the minutes? Collect all the data? Consult with teachers/related service/admin? Build relationships? Pre-teach necessary concepts to implement BIPs? Write legally compliant reports? Keep a legally compliant practice? Engage best practice documentation? Session plan? Give time to MTSS/504 students? Eat lunch? Or even sit? The truth is that the volume of the crisis was removing my ability to do other necessary components of my job.
The days were long and my head felt like it was on fire as I was walked to my car in a bitter winter.
I would just sit in my energy-drained body and contemplate a nap before the reprise of my role as a parent.
I would think about the days I worked construction in high school and ask, “Was I ever this tired?” At no point in my life had I ever felt this spent, ineffective and numb. Under the exterior of numbness was a quiet rage that was leading me to isolate myself. I didn’t want to be around people who didn’t understand and I didn’t want to explain my mood. Cleary, this was having a negative impact personally and professionally and was starting to have many of the markers of professional burnout.
The emotional and mental energy was eating away at my daily functioning as a school social worker, partner, friend, and parent.
One day, I woke up and really felt like I had enough. I stormed into our school psychologist’s office to game plan our way out of this mess. She was in over her head as well. She had evaluations stacking up, missed observations, and times she couldn’t help with crisis due her to scheduled testing. She had teachers and parents upset at her for missing testing sessions or not getting back to that follow-up phone call. Both of us were missing out on our contributions to serving on district committees. Each day that had gone by we were losing track of just how much we were falling behind.
We looked around at all the possibilities of how to reallocate resources in every shape, way, or form. But the fact was that we needed another person- several even. We understood that requesting another person to our building was not a possibility. As a matter of fact, it’s pure taboo in most districts. Automated district leadership responses like “we will not staff our way out of our issues” surfaced in large meetings. We’d experienced the rejection ourselves by requesting additional social work support only to be turned away because there aren’t enough “finite resources”. Finally, the school psychologist made a suggestion that made me want to scream. She said, “Our only option is data collection”.
I can’t repeat all of the negative thoughts I had about this solution but I was so desperate that we began the process of meticulously breaking down our days. It was the kind of extra work that pissed you off as you were doing it. Like a beautifully constructed meal that none of your family would dare eat, it felt like a waste of time and resources. But we didn’t just monitor our minutes in crisis. We monitored missed sessions due to crisis. We monitored missed meetings due to crisis. We monitored monthly totals of missed minutes and the results were staggering.
When we presented to our district leadership, our data showed that we were not in compliance with the allotted social work session minutes and it changed the upper administrative algorithm that typically shuts down requests for support. Magically, there were finite resources to avoid eventual due processes and litigation. The volume of missed special education minutes had grown from a leak to a lake of unattainable makeup sessions. To several district member’s surprises, we started hiring more school social workers.
Data did that. It wasn’t politicking, petitions, or a serious legal issue that moved the hand of the district- it was data. Using a well thought-data collection system that was matched by the visual representations extracted-turned advocacy into action, and eventually results.
The story doesn’t end there, though. Once we hired an additional social worker and eventually other support staff, our students started to improve! We had time to actually focus on each student, session plan, consult and teach those vital coping skills in real-time. Our student’s target behaviors began to reduce and even in some cases, be extinguished. The staff in our building also reported feeling a reduction in tension and our camaraderie increased. The positive impacts of a well-staffed building/program can’t be overstated.
Further, I was feeling fulfilled. The impact of being proactive versus reactive helped change my mood at work and at home. The professional relationships in my building felt smoother and more trusting. When you’re averaging six hours of crisis a day, it makes it difficult to fulfill your responsibilities to your building. Over the past few years, I had missed sessions, meetings, and consultations due to crises. This doesn’t foster a relationship of trust in you as a person or in the information, you’re delivering in training/consultations.
With the added time and flexibility, I was able to prove myself to my building in a way that helped my overall dynamic. That dynamic shift helped improve my relationships with teachers, students, administration and not to be forgotten-parents. In the same way, that crisis can impact your responsibilities to students/teachers, it can also impact your relationships with parents. By improving those relationships, we began mending our ‘IEP’ team; which gave way to better partnership across the home and school systems.
With support in the building, I finally had time to keep my appointments and build parent trust. I had time to do my job and I have data collection to thank.
From SSWN: An Easy Way To Get Started With Data Collection
SSW Tools is a free online web application that lets you easily record work tasks and generate reports to help you reflect on your practice and advocate for your workload and role. Go here to get the app: https://sswtools.schoolsocialwork.net/