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What's the Plus?

As a Teacher, I Rely on the Help And Support of Our School’s Social Workers

By Mallory Lawler

“I hate my life. I don’t want to live anymore!” Danny slid under my table and cowered around the leg post to look up at me. As I caught his eye, I could see tears welling up ready to burst. “Danny, I would be so sad if you weren’t here anymore! I love having you in my class and I care about you!” I said in a panic, second guessing every word immediately as it left my mouth and hoping I was saying the right things. Instructional strategies, differentiation, group work, testing — these things I could handle. I’ve been trained. But this? An 8-year-old who hated his life and wanted to end it? I was not prepared for that.

A third grader, Danny often came to school without having eaten and often in unwashed clothes. He lashed out in anger or burst into tears regularly. Every morning, Danny and I had a one-to-one meeting outside the classroom door. He picked his greeting for the day and then we waited. During this morning routine, Danny would tell me how he was feeling that day, whether he had had anything to eat and if he took his ADHD medication. He would tell me if he slept at night or if his baby brother kept him up with his cries. I coached and walked Danny through our day, comforted him, and assured him that he was safe and loved within the walls of my classroom.

Danny’s social and emotional challenges had a drastic effect on his academic success and his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and social work minutes were put in place to help Danny’s social worker set goals for developing his social skills, such as learning how to participate in a group and how to raise his self-esteem. Danny clung to these precious minutes with his social worker. Even with these supports, he continued to struggle.

Unfortunately, I’ve had more than one Danny in my career and with each child, I relied on the help and support of our school’s social workers. Social workers, unlike teachers, are extensively trained to deal with crises and are equipped to assist school administrators and teachers in these moments. They have expertise in delivering social emotional instruction, supports and resources in a well-informed, age-appropriate, and culturally sensitive manner. The many roles that a social worker plays within a school can only be implemented by an expert. Especially during COVID, we need many more social workers, not less.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recommends one social worker for every 150 students, and one social worker for every 50 students in schools with high-level trauma. However, schools very rarely can abide by these recommendations and often overload social workers with caseloads. President Biden has committed to implementing best practices that meet the needs of the whole child in his plan to safely reopen schools, which includes providing “… services like health and nutrition, mental health, and adult education — services that are especially critical during and after COVID-19 to address the social, emotional, academic, and health needs of students in a comprehensive way.”

Teachers like me are facing unprecedented student trauma as a result of the COVID health crisis and the other social and political events that have shaped our society in the last year alone. We need the federal government’s support to staff our schools with social workers who can help students like Danny heal from these traumas.

Danny continues to receive his social work minutes and he still checks in with me from time to time. Some days I am grateful that he is one of the fortunate ones to have the support he receives, but most days, I just worry that it is not enough. I can only hope that Congress will prioritize mental health in schools and will put policies in place that afford districts the opportunity to staff their schools appropriately. I can only hope that all children who are just like Danny can get the support they need so they can thrive despite the challenges they have faced.

Mallory Lawler teaches 3rd grade at Lincoln Elementary School in Bellwood, Illinois. She is a 2020–2021 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.

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