School Social Workers: Building Bridges for Collective Progress During a Pandemic
Authors: Lisa Baker, Carlos A. Evans Jr., Laura Montiel, Nancy Watson
Serving as a school social worker during a pandemic is not an easy task. What makes it more challenging is trying to serve on an island or without peer support. Not a literal island, of course, but rather in a circumstance where you have limited peers to learn from and to share ideas. As school social workers and members of the school social work network (SSWN), we chose to work collaboratively to lead a Professional Learning Community (PLC) throughout the summer.
Getting Acquainted and Charting the PLC Focus
Our PLC was organized as a closed group that met virtually once a month using Zoom. Members of the PLC were recruited by Dr. Michael Kelly, professor of social work at Loyola University, through the school social work network platform. Dr. Kelly provided three prompts to address over the course of our (3) PLC meetings. The PLC experience was incredibly useful, and the topics we focused on are related to key issues school social workers across the nation are facing. The three prompts were:
● As a school social worker/counselor how did you cope during this crisis (learning others’ self-care strategies)
● What is a new technique/tool/skill you learned as a result of practicing during this crisis?
● What are you doing with your school team to get your school “ready” to re-open (specifically looking at infusing SEL and trauma-informed practices into your school’s re-opening strategy, whenever that is)
Throughout this piece, we will share key takeaways from each PLC meeting. We will also share the results of a four-question survey that we sent to all 13 PLC participants. The purpose of the survey was to gain feedback from PLC attendees so that as leaders, we understand what was successful and how we can improve the overall experience in the future. We will conclude with a message encouraging more collaboration among school social workers as we navigate this ‘new normal’ of providing education and services to students and their families from hybrid and/or digital platforms.
Adjusting Professionally and Personally Through Covid-19
The initial PLC session centered on how school clinicians were coping during the COVID-19 crisis. Subsequently, we reviewed different e-learning mandates, self-care strategies, and exchanged resources. The opportunity to connect and collaborate with colleagues in our field during this uncertain and ever-evolving time was beyond affirming. Everyone who attended actively participated, and willingly shared the resources they found most useful in navigating new professional terrain.
We discussed how to effectively support students and families experiencing trauma and grief remotely while maintaining confidentiality, leaning on resources like Trauma-informed teaching during COVID. Our discussion about how to support students who could not or would not participate in e-learning solicited resources to facilitate students becoming more engaged, including Flipgrid, screencast-o-matic, Padlet and Classroom Champions.
A running theme throughout our time together was working to strike a balance between our professional responsibilities and work from home personal wellness. Self-care and coping/calming strategies shared by the group included: exercising, writing (Self-care article), or creating a Youtube channel related to self-care (Self-care Staffing). That first meeting brought the sense of community and connection we had been searching for in a time when we were all feeling a bit frazzled and isolated.
New Tools For an Old Job
The PLC broadened the spectrum of tools, techniques, and skills to use during the pandemic. It was great to engage in conversation and learn what group members were doing within their own school districts to effectively reach families and students. One skill discussed was how to navigate the web and find evidenced-based SEL material that engages students. There was an overwhelming amount of organizations offering free resources or free trials for SEL curriculum which made it difficult to decide which curriculum to chose. It was essential to have the opinions and feedback of the group members. During the collaboration, we were able to give each other advice to find out what SEL curriculums we would take a closer look at.
For example, one group member introduced to us the re-opening surveys by Panorama that were being offered to schools free of charge. Other group members shared the Classroom Champions 30-day free trial, and 6-minute SEL lessons. One of our members also shared her Virtual Google Classroom that inspired some of us to go ahead, get out of our comfort zones, and try out that platform.
One thing that we all agreed upon, families and students were suffering just as much as we were with this sudden change when the pandemic hit.
It was apparent that we should focus on meeting family and student needs. Families were dealing with many crises which included sickness, stress, loss of employment, homelessness, among others. As social workers out empathy levels were at an all-time high and we had to meet families with encouragement and resources even if we ourselves were dealing with the same emotions. We all agreed that finding a space within our own homes to deliver services was essential for us to deliver quality care to our students and their families. Supporting others was important, however, nurturing ourselves had to be equally important.
Honoring SEL When School Is “Back”
The collaboration and sharing of ideas among PLC members informed how we would conceptualize what it might look like to best support all of our stakeholders upon our return to school.
Despite our diverse school settings and populations, our PLC group members agreed that connection and adaptability would be essential to focus on as pillars of support upon our return.
We also determined that developing needs assessments would put us in a position to proactively address concerns and allow for safety nets to be set up before the start of school. in the same way, offering trauma-informed education to faculty and equipping students, with strategies to build emotional literacy and manage stress would serve as protective factors. Finally, as school-based clinicians, our familiarity with a multitiered framework to organize our approaches and mechanisms to support faculty, students, and parents were highlighted.
In order to create responsive environments and mitigate stress, we concluded that leveraging the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) approaches we currently utilize to activate the five core competencies of SEL: self-awareness, social awareness, self-regulation, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills would be essential.
Building on and adapting our current curricula, systems, and structures to actively support issues related to COVID-19 and build distress tolerance was a common priority and theme.
Our Professional Learning Community understood that our various SEL curricula and delivery systems would lend themselves to creating opportunities for students to improve self-awareness, which would ultimately lead them to the understanding that they have the capacity to shape and direct their path during this uncertain time. Similarly, these same approaches and mechanisms would support and empower our faculty and parents as they forged their way towards self-care and modeling emotional regulation and problem-solving.
At the conclusion of the last meeting of the Middle School PLC, we developed a simple four question survey for the attendees. To summarize the survey results, 100% of those who took the survey believed that the PLC experience met their expectations.
Survey participants shared that collaboration with school social workers, non-judgmental interaction, new ideas, resource sharing, and overall mutual support were valuable aspects of meeting as a PLC.
PLC Exit Survey and Results
PLC members who participated in the survey also shared additional topics that they are interested in exploring and learning about such as Trauma-Informed Practices, Assessment, and Self-Care. The leadership team enjoyed the experience and look forward to supporting one another throughout this school year. We invite you all to create your own PLC with school social workers or other education professionals. These are a couple of steps we suggest you take to get the process started.
● Determine the topics you would like to explore
● Set meeting frequency and platform (ex. Zoom, Google Meets)
This is the general structure that we utilized, and we believe that everyone had take away’s and enjoyed collaborating to push and support each other to be better clinicians. One PLC team member was so inspired by the process that she started her own Facebook group for Middle School Social Workers that already has 300+ participants. PLCs can foster so many positive and valuable benefits, and it doesn’t cost anything but time and goodwill.
Coming together to tackle shared challenges we face as school social workers operating during a pandemic was a worthwhile and enriching experience. We hope you gained useful insight from this article and will consider participating in or leading your own PLC this school year!