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Education

Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Analytic Hierarchy

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Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) is mathematical thinking about decision analysis based on linear algebra. It is useful when the elements included in the decision are subjective, such as is all human decisions. AHP holds that individual perception, relevant facts, and interrelationships among inputs and agents must be considered in order to predict outcomes. AHP allows for the non-logical, seemingly unpredictable nature of human interaction. The process includes three steps similar to operational modeling in form and function. Step one identifies the decision objectives, criteria, constraints, and alternatives into a hierarchy. Step two evaluates comparisons of options two-by-two at each level of the hierarchy. Step three synthesizes the results of the comparisons utilizing a solution algorithm. Saaty (1988) suggests that “the algorithm result gives the relative importance of alternative courses of action” (Saaty, 1988, p110).

Let us use AHP in a decision about ice cream. Step one: We determine that Polly, our client wants to eat some ice cream. Her favorite flavor is chocolate. She is driving. So, she needs two have a delivery method that only requires one hand. She does not want to wait to eat the ice cream. Step two: We outline the options, and determine predictions.
AHP In Step three, we begin to recognize a pattern of conditionals on which Polly’s choices are based. We construct an algorithm—a set of steps based on her preferences, the options available, and the situation in which she finds herself. We use this algorithm to determine the potential for alternatives. For example, if her options of a place to stop only included burger diners. Our algorithm suggests that Polly would choose the diner that has a drive-thru and sells chocolate ice cream in a cone.

Of course, other client choices involve seemingly more complex decisions. But, recognize that complexity rests with the client preferences, options perceived, and the situation. The analytic hierarchy process helps to manage this complexity.

I have advanced a new model, Perception of Self in Environment-Reality (POSE-R) to encapsulate the theoretical constructs of ecological systems and the presuppositions of AHP. This chapter discusses your ability to influence human systems outcomes through analysis of complexity. Each level in our system (individual, institution, and environment) has questions that assist your analysis. Even before you get to the mathematics and the specific solution algorithm, you are able to outline the ecological construct of human decision making—choice!

It should be noted here that the full AHP that attends the POSE-R model includes WILL as a prerequisite to CHOICE. The full AHP includes will, choice, consciousness, self-efficacy, institution, and movement. I will not discuss the full AHP because that discussion moves beyond the constructs of ecological systems theory and practice (EST&P) toward an integral theoretical construct, AQAL Cube, which allows us to discuss quantum consciousness and non-local, non-linear realities (Neale, 2013). Basically, utilizing the AQAL Cube and integral theory, we are not bound by the 4 dimensions that can be represented in a flat graphic. Integral theory allows us to conceptualize multiple chessboards, interrelated, operating all at the same time.

After reading this section, you will be able to:

  1. Construct an assessment that extends from the precipitating event to provide predictive information in preparation for intervention.
  2. Conduct an ecological assessment including environmental, institutional, and individual elements in a description of Perception of Self in Environment – Reality (POSER).
  3. Articulate the questions and inferential value of context, control, and choice.

Precipitating Events and Presenting Problems
As we have discussed in our review of ecological systems theory and practice, our basic hierarchy includes the individual, the institution, and the environment in an interrelated fashion. We have explored mapping and lexicon meant to conceptualize an understanding of the basic complexity of human systems. Our goal all along was to utilize the model of ecological systems theory and practice to predict outcomes. If we are able to PREDICT outcomes based on systems and inputs, we can conceivably intervene in those systems and INFLUENCE outcomes.

This is the justification for efficacy in social work assessment. Prior events shape the client’s perception of the current event. I propose that your assessment of the current event, the presenting problem, is not just as assessment of the problem, but an attempt to map both the influence of prior events AND the impact of current events. This assessment of BOTH can be termed the client’s Perception of Self in Environment – Reality (POSE-R).

Based in the construct of ecological systems theory and practice as we have discussed it, your task is to answer three general questions. These questions indicate other questions that expand our assessment into POSE-R context, control and choice, which directly connect to environmental practice sociocybernetics, institutional control systems, and individual agents.

General Questions in Ecological Assessment
• What are the social contracts supported by the economic, political, technological, and social environment?
• What are the interactive effects of the intersection of person, environment, and institutional exposure?
• What is the assessed profile and goal of the individual?

A Matter of Context: Environment Questions
Environmental practice Sociocybernetics provide a context for the review of the presenting problem. This analysis sets the stage for your engagement in social change. With this framework, you can suggest interaction schedules or lifestyle changes, financial services and literacy, innovations and technological tools, and social policies that alleviate the problem, support coping, and promote sustainable adaptation.

• What were the exposure, experiences, circumstances, and expectations prior to the choice?
• What were the financial circumstances and expectations central to the choice?
• What technologies enhanced or hindered capabilities?
• What policies are pertinent to the execution of the choice?

A Matter of Control: Institution Questions
Institutional control systems are a practical way of defining and reviewing institutions. Institutions are not buildings. They are constructs that suggest normative behavior. With this definition, consider that the major institutions in civil life are Marriage, Family, Education, Business, Faith & Volunteerism, and Health Care.

With this framework, you are able to model the structural influences on individual choice and group dynamic. This is especially useful when you need to cognitively restructure understanding or re-educate clients. Instead of conceptualizing the need for education as central to the intervention, this framework suggests that you recognize the influence of institutions (the control systems) as central to the intervention.
• What are the individual needs and expected behaviors as the client enters the control system?
• What routines and values are communicated through the control system?
• What are the controls implemented during execution of the control system?
• What is the expected outcome of the control system?
• How is feedback used after exit from the control system?

A Matter of Choice: Individual Questions
The individual agent conception offers a view of the client as both unique and active. Your task is to compose a profile of the individual agent that accounts for the complexities inherent in behavior, cognition, and meaning. Behavior is the result of choices. Cognition is the knowledge brought to bear in the decision making process. Meaning included the interactive effects of environment, institution, and individual uniqueness to produce the individual REALITY.

You are practiced in offering services and increasing options. Consider that some clients were NEVER in a position REALISTICALLY to perceive the services and options as viable for their situation. Efficacious practice means that you include this awareness in your treatment planning. Competence demands that you have a theoretical framework that offers some certainty in assessing and intervening in these situations.

With this individual agent framework, you are able to model the choice architecture of the individual agent. You can predict what options the client will see as possible. You can intervene intentionally to expand meaning and expand what is REALISTIC to the client. The foundational constructs for individual agent profile are Biology, Psychology, Sociology, Spirituality, and Meaning producing the following questions:

• Is the choice age appropriate and not the result of disease?
• Is the choice informed from multiple and competing sources?
• Is the choice free from undue influence except that it maintains the culture of the in-group?
• Is the choice based on factors that are not readily observed or are unique only to the client?
• What is the impact of OUR interaction on cognition, meaning, and potential behaviors?

Conclusion: The Root of the Problem
And here it is. My grand contribution to the knowledge base concerning ecological systems theory and practice: THE ROOT OF ALL HUMAN STRUGGLE IS CHOICE. This individual choice is confounded in institutional system structures. We seemingly lose the ability to identify the origin, to re-educate, and to introduce new options because, in institutions, the individual identity gives way to the collective identity. Once the norms and values become widespread influencing the creation of new infrastructure, problematic, unsustainable behaviors become the context from which all behaviors are judged. This is how unsustainable choices become reasonable to many. It is how culture becomes reprobate.

The solution begins at the root. Yet, the solution must address each level in the hierarchy: context, control and choice. Though the individual identity seems lost in the institution, it still maintains the predictive nature of its identity. It still responds predictably to transactions, environment, and culture based on individual choice. Social workers are uniquely trained to assess and intervene at each of these levels. The choice rests with you. The control system of social work education must integrate this knowledge. Social workers must be agents of sustainability and culture change.

Reading this series was a good start. My hope is that you see the both the immediate use of EST&P as well as the limitations of the model. Linear, system-bounded representations of human behavior are useful because they provide a construct for our beginning questions. They can even provide a foundation for simple predictions. Yet, in order to explore more complex predictions, we must employ a more robust, multidimensional model as our foundation. The mathematics of the model are useful in calculating probability, but you will be much more interested in the behaviors they present as most probable. Trained practitioners make these calculations intuitively. I offer this advancement for those who want to understand and more intentionally implement their intuition.

Bibliographic Notes
Neal, L. (June 2013). The AQAL cube for dummies. Intergral Leadership Review. [Retrieved from http://integralleadershipreview.com/9013-the-aqal-cube-for-dummies/ August 14, 2013].

Saaty, T.L. (1988). What is the analytic hierarchy process? Mathematical Models for Decision Support, 48. Springer. 109-121.

Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers his expertise as an career coach, serial entrepreneur, and publisher through MAWMedia Group, LLC. Wright has maintained this macro practice consultancy since 1997. Wright lives in Reno, NV.

          
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Education

How to Provide the Full-Service Community-Supported Public Schools We Need

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All students have potential, but access to support and opportunity is not equally distributed. As a high school principal for 10 years, I encountered well-intentioned teachers and students racing toward adulthood with an endless variety of needs: students struggling with poverty; transience; family changes; immigration; addiction; the negative effects of trauma; and emotional, physical, and social health.

In most cases, these challenges directly affect a student’s ability to thrive in the classroom, and schools struggle because there is no prescribed or easy solution. The response to the academic struggles of our students has traditionally included longer days and school years, improved instructional strategies, targeted remediation, and focused test preparation. But schools have rarely attempted to combat the non-academic root causes which are negatively affecting the achievement of our students.

Simply put, not enough is being done to address the lack of equity experienced by students and their families. So we must ask ourselves a few questions: How can I ensure my students have the access and opportunity to fully realize their potential? How do we help each student understand his or her personal aptitudes and assets? How do we instill within a student a sense of optimism and a sense of purpose?

A Comprehensive School Offering Wraparound Support

To really help students succeed, schools need to implement a holistic approach by supplementing our extensive instructional efforts and becoming “full service” schools. With embedded essential community services such as basic needs provision, mental and physical health services, hard and soft skill development, and workforce exploration, students have their best chance at a successful start following graduation.

A comprehensive wraparound school is a place of hope, connection, and opportunity — a school that’s actively striving to make equity and future success attainable for its students. This means monitoring student setbacks and successes, providing academic and behavioral interventions in a timely manner, connecting students and families with support services, and offering high-quality aptitude-based career and college transition counseling.

“Whole child” schooling, paired with collaborative community partnerships, is a cornerstone in the common-sense revisioning of public education and a powerful solution we need now. Here are some tips to improve a school’s ability to provide comprehensive, wraparound community services and partnerships to ensure all students have the support they need and an equitable opportunity for success:

1. Evaluate Students’ Needs

A comprehensive full-service school is designed to meet the needs of its students by working with local individuals, agencies, and businesses to strengthen the community. First, schools must identify needs and establish priorities. Schools uncover specific barriers and concerns students are facing by speaking in depth with students, parents, and community members. High-quality needs assessments provide data that schools and communities use to prioritize the most pressing needs and opportunities for support and partnership.

2. Give Students Hope, Purpose, and Relevance

For struggling students, some of the most powerful interventions regarding post-high school planning lie in the realm of social and emotional learning — the development of a student’s self-discovery and aspiration leading to optimism, self-worth, and purpose. Aptitude-based assessments are capable of helping educators and parents learn much more about our teens than what is typically gleaned through traditional academic testing.

While I was a principal at Marietta High School, we partnered as a pilot school with YouScience, an aptitude assessment tool. YouScience uncovers students’ natural talents and matches them to careers in which their abilities add value to the workforce. Too often, we point students in directions or make course recommendations for them based on what we have available for scheduling, what we can gather from their academic test results, and our own personal hunches about what they might be good at or interested in. Typically, educators have little information which is relevant to whether the direction recommended is the best fit for the individual student. YouScience equips schools to engage in individualized goal-setting with students and parents through a process that is informative and inspires hope.

3. Compile Resources

With students’ needs in mind, schools must search the community to identify local resources, partners, service providers, and funding sources. Consider looking beyond the local community for resources if need be, and then connect students and families with the available services. Some schools might want to start small, with partnerships providing care closets, apprenticeships, job placement assistance, mediation services, or wellness coaching, and then gradually grow the number of services offered over time. Other schools might have the resources to introduce multiple community partners to work with students and their families on a regular basis. The important thing is that students are connected with community resources providing the support they need.

4. Commit to the Long Term

It’s important to remember that developing a school which provides comprehensive support is a process that takes intentionality, time, and patience. School districts must commit to discovery, innovation, and collaboration, and they must focus on a long-term goal of community improvement. It’s deep work that’s dependent upon trust and building relationships with students and community members. Start small and commit to the long haul.

Schools are microcosms of their communities. The time and energy invested in this process will benefit not only students and their families but also the community as a whole. Creating a “one-stop shop” of support and coordination of essential community services is the best way to address the most significant barriers our students face today, as well as set them up for success for years to come.

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Diversity

Is It More Than Just A Shooting?

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Several articles in response to the shootings in Minnesota, New Orleans, and Dallas point fingers at racists, PTSD, and mental illness. Although these issues are valid, there is a multitude of factors making this issue far more complex than a singular culprit like mental illness.

Underneath all these shootings and acts of violence is fear, an emotion we don’t often factor in when discussing shootings. Fear causes fight or flight reactions in humans, a strong, protective instinct which can, at times, cause reactions that aren’t typical of our normal behaviors. When we experience fear, whether real or perceived, our adrenaline increases and as an act of self-preservation. Our reactions to fear may cause us to act in ways our “normal” brain might not have. Unfortunately, it can also cause us to react in a way which can take the life of someone in the name of self-protection or justice.

So, imagine the stress of living in a neighborhood where people are killed, gunshots are heard regularly, and those around you are involved in nefarious activities. Long-term stress can have severe consequences – such as physical health issues and problems with cognitive thinking. For children, toxic stress results in behavioral and development issues. Living in a state of constant fear never allows an individual to care for themselves, always on the alert for potentially dangerous situations. Living in fearful conditions where a community’s needs aren’t met and their safety is questionable, a physically and mentally harmful lifestyle is already enough to deal with. Now, factor in racial profiling, police bias and brutality, and classist targeting.

In low-income neighborhoods, police are not always responsive. The police don’t often know you or your family and tend to approach certain neighborhoods with harmful preconceived ideas. Whether it’s internalized hate, racial profiling and learned bias, classism or just plain ignorance, many police officers are not educated about communities different from their own and only have reference points from television and media, which reinforce harmful stereotypes. If this is the basis from which police are viewing the public, it’s highly likely police will target certain groups out of fear.

It is important as a society, we do not downplay the personal responsibility we have for our actions nor the sheer horror of violence. But we are not born disliking people of color, women, immigrants or cultures different from our own. Through our learned experiences with family, school, media, or religious institutions, we learn to be separate and fear groups who are not like us. We look around and see people who only look like us and learn to live in a comfortableness rather than question the status quo which oppresses certain groups more than others.

So, how do we get past this fear? Education, compassion, and empathy are key. As a community, we need to be more responsible to one another and have difficult conversations about race, gender, and class while challenging our own internalized biases. Speaking to our legislators, media representatives, friends, and family is a power to hold ourselves and others accountable for racial profiling, classism, abuse of power, and internalized fears. We need to put our foot down and refuse to settle for superficial conversations or answers to large, complex problems.

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Education

Procrastination: Why We Do It and How to Combat It

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Consistently, procrastination creates a snowball effect, in which anxiety or stress further compounds the need for the task avoidance. In basic terms, the more a student puts off a task or assignment, the greater the stress of the impending due date or need for completion. We all know this and can relate to that instinct — we then put it off even further because it has become such a monster, we must avoid it or ignore it at all costs.  

The other issue surrounding procrastination is we often procrastinate with the tasks or responsibilities which matter most or have the highest stakes. Whether we do this out of fear, denial, indifference, or laziness, the end result is typically the same: we experience a sort of self-destruction by missing an important deadline, or we cave in and begrudgingly and reluctantly complete the task in hurry. Either outcome is less than ideal, especially when grades are involved. Because of procrastination, students dig themselves into a hole, lose motivation, and therefore put forth even less effort with their school work.

The solutions   

Awareness is key to combating the instinct to put off undesirable tasks. Once students realize how they procrastinate, they can begin to alter those behaviors. For example, a student completing research for a paper will find ways to distract himself from the assignment while working. They may check social media, text friends, pause to watch a show, listen to music, or simply scroll through random websites — anything becomes more enticing than the actual research.

Instead:

  • Encourage students to limit distractions by keeping the phone offlimits during work sessions.
  • Complete work in an area away from television, music, friends, and other distractions.
  • Set a timer for 20-30 minutes of solid, uninterrupted work time. Then allow yourself to take a 3-5 minute break, but then get right back to work.
  • Keep light snacks and water at hand while working to stave off hunger and the unnecessary urge to graze to avoid the assignment.
  • Construct a checklist for a multi-step task and prioritize the tasks in order of difficulty. As students work, they should monitor the checklist and stick to the order of steps as necessary. Again, the urge to complete the easiest or most interesting steps is another procrastination tactic — instead, encourage students to tackle the challenging steps first. This will boost motivation and confidence while working.
  • Organize to-do lists with tasks requiring the most time or focus at the top. These are typically the first things that students will avoid completing.
  • Ask students to write down three things they have accomplished at the end of a work session. The successes, no matter how small, show students a strong work ethic and focus does help them to chip away at a daunting task they may have vehemently avoided in the past.  

Procrastination is an all too familiar practice for many of us. While certain people are more likely to put off all tasks until later, we have all experienced the desire to push off occasional duties, errands, chores, or responsibilities. For students, no matter their age or academic aptitude, procrastinating can become an alluring yet problematic habit. Pushing off tasks can become a major pitfall for several different reasons, but there are methods to combat this bad habit — and they begin with awareness.

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Disability

Four Ways Neurodiversity Holds the Key to the Future of Special Education

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For ages, special education has been developing on its own, together with the development of ordinary education. It emphasizes disorders and the ways special education students are lacking compared to an average student. Those who have a noticeable dysfunction have even been mocked for their lack of focus or skill to learn something – sometimes by teachers too.

And even though the history of the special education has been filled with inappropriate names and terms, the future is bright. More and more scientists and educators are turning to the better ways of conducting special education – and one of those ways is related to neurodiversity.

This term was first used by journalist Harvey Blume in the early 1990s and means that autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other special-needs conditions are the part of normal variations in the human population. And here is how neurodiversity changes the entire special education system.

1. In theory.

Special education as it is at the moment regards disability categories as something originated from biology, genetics, and neurology. Neurodiversity, on the other hand, focuses on the advantages these disabilities have to offer – they use this to explain why these genes are still here today and why people are still born with disabilities.

This new concept examines how a person with a disability can be lacking in some aspects but even more advanced than regular people in some. During the past decade, university programs such as London School of Economics’ Dyslexia and Neurodiversity program, or the College of William & Mary’s Neurodiversity Initiative are aimed to support neurodiverse students and create positive acceptance and niches for them.

Annabel Gray, neurodiversity specialist and educator at Origin Writings states, “Regarding a person as completely disabled is fundamentally wrong. Whereas a person with, for example, autism can be lacking in some areas of life, on a job which requires focus and attention to detail, this same person would do outstandingly well.”

2. The focus.

The focus of special education so far has been solely on assessing deficits and how to go about educating students based on these deficits. However, neurodiversity relies more on assessing the strengths, talents, abilities, and interests of disabled students. It is a strength-based approach where an educator would use a series of tests to discover the student’s abilities and teach them how to use them to tackle their everyday and educational challenges.

What is so great about neurodiversity approach is it gives the students all the necessary tools to cope with their day to day life by focusing on what they do best. This way the students are not feeling left out and they know there are some things where they can thrive in.

3. Workarounds.

Workarounds are another way the neurodiversity improves the disabled students’ lives. What it essentially means is the educators are supposed to find ways for students to experience and learn which does not include their disabilities. For example, students with ADHD could be allowed to use special tools like stability balls or standing desks in order to focus on studying.

This could be expanded to create an individual education plan for each student based on what they need and in which environment they thrive the most. Placing those students in the traditional learning environment will help them to feel “lesser human being” or a burden.

Lila Christie, an educator at 1Day2Write and WriteMyX confirms: “Workarounds are some of the best ways of teaching the disabled students. We implement this strategy of putting each student in an environment that will allow them to learn without anything in the way. It not only works but also gives students the satisfaction and comfort.”

4. How to communicate with students.

While most special education programs still teach children about their disabilities, neurodiversity teaches them about the value of variation and being different. It teaches them how their brain works and how the environment affects it, how to use their skills to the maximum etc. This kind of mindset can help them realize the growth mindset can improve their performance.

To get the brain to its full potential it is important to get the students exercising in various ways, each suited to their own abilities – writing exercises are excellent ways to improve brain power and it can be easily accessible to students through tools such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Windows Speech Recognition, etc.

Conclusion

Neurodiversity is a great new approach to special education. It gives students opportunities and new ways of understanding themselves. This is a fresh take on educating those with disabilities – in fact, it relies more on their abilities and strengths. It can give students confidence and tools to be successful and do more later in their lives.

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Education

Note-taking November: For the Elementary Classroom

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For elementary schoolers, note taking as a reading or comprehension strategy is likely unfamiliar, and for a legitimate reason many younger learners are just beginning to get comfortable in their reading abilities at this stage. Many children view reading as a mundane task; but, if students begin to look at the reading material as a vessel for knowledge, they may change how they read for such information. Reading skills, particularly the ability to extract, analyze, and interpret relevant material, can be improved as students learn proper note-taking practices.

For elementary-age learners, taking notes while reading probably seems like an added burden on an already difficult task. Therefore, when introducing the concept, be sure to frame the instruction with expectations, benefits, and models of how the note taking should look.

Note-taking Takes Practice

Explain that note taking while reading is a practice which will take time elementary schoolers should expect to practice this skill consistently before it becomes second nature. They should also expect their notes to be messy, which is why a pencil is a must. Begin the note-taking process by simply recording a stream of thought while reading.

Encourage students to mark up words and phrases which are:

  • unfamiliar or confusing
  • bolded, italicized, or repeated
  • indicate the author’s purpose
  • signify an important moment or realization
  • present an interesting fact or take-away

Use these opportunities as a means of teaching context clues — if the term is unfamiliar, ask students if anything around the word or phrase provides insight into the unknown word’s meaning. Encourage them to brainstorm and experiment with possible word meanings until they land on something that makes logical, grammatical sense.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask, “Why?”

Elementary schoolers should also feel comfortable asking “why?” while reading. Encourage them to add question marks to areas of text they don’t understand or don’t see the relevance.

Model the Practice of Close Reading and Active Note-taking with Students Regularly

For the most part, note taking is an unfamiliar skill for elementary-age kids. When modeling the process, start small. Perhaps you begin by using a text that students have read before. This sense of familiarity will promote risk-taking and allow students to feel more comfortable tackling the text with their thoughts and observations. As you move through the text together, show them how to refer back to earlier notes if they have made connections or discovered an answer to a previous notation or question.

Inform Students of the Benefits of Note-taking

They will be surprised to know that notes can mean an easier time when rereading or skimming while studying. If students get in the habit of taking copious notes, most of the studying “legwork” will be done ahead of time. Their notes should also act as place markers, meaning any content which struck them as important or especially tricky should be highlighted to indicate that it is vital to review. Also, let young readers know that note taking is a deliberate practice ensuring focus, comprehension, and other active reading skills on behalf of the reader. If your mind is disengaged or drifting, there is no way you will be able to maintain substantial notes or annotations.

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Education

What is Social Emotional Learning?

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The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social and emotional learning (SEL) as “The process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Within the context of schools, SEL can be easily understood as the study of soft skills. SEL is where students learn how to treat others and how to treat themselves in a responsible, caring, and compassionate way.

Why do Social Workers Work as SEL Coordinators?

Oftentimes, schools rely heavily on teachers to provide SEL instruction and planning. While many teachers deeply value SEL learning, sometimes the pressure for students to perform well academically leads teachers to prioritize content lessons over life skills. When schools hire a specific person to coordinate and teach SEL, it sets aside time specifically for SEL and creates accountability for SEL practices within the school. Social workers are the right person for this job for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, social workers are highly qualified to teach the content. The core values of social work align perfectly with the learning goals of SEL. The social work profession is grounded in the values of social justice, the importance of human relationships, competence, integrity, service, and the dignity and worth of the person.

These values are aligned with the five competencies of social and emotional learning: self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and self-management. For instance, social workers value relationships and learn explicitly in school how to develop authentic relationships with clients. Therefore, social workers are equipped to break down and model what it looks like to have relationship skills. Further, CASEL teaches that effective SEL programming is SAFE: sequenced, active, focused, and explicit.

Social workers have training in explicitly teaching social skills through explicit and focused role-plays. This skill can be easily modified and applied to the whole-class setting, seamlessly integrating social work therapeutic techniques with direct instruction. Additionally, social workers know how to respond in the moment. Due to the reflective and process-oriented nature of SEL lessons, students may sometimes disclose personal information, such as experiencing abuse, death in the family, thoughts of suicide, bullying, and more.

Not only do school social workers know the correct protocols for handling high-risk situations, such as suicide ideation or abuse, but social workers can provide therapeutic services in the school or refer students to effective mental health providers in the community. Social workers have training in both responding in the moment with empathy and also caring for themselves as practitioners later through explicit self-care to prevent burn-out. Teachers may not always feel comfortable and prepared to respond to difficult disclosures such as these.

Benefits to the Mental Health Staff

The social worker providing direct SEL instruction builds a reciprocal nature, benefiting all mental health staff at the school. With effective SEL services, the number of students needing more intensive services may decrease as students learn adaptive coping skills, healthy relationships, and effective conflict resolution within the classroom setting. When students are equipped with these proactive skills for addressing common problems which emerge in school, maladaptive responses that require the assistance of mental health professionals become less common.

Further, students who do need additional social work services benefit from a renewed sense of anonymity and decreased shame. When all students in the school are accustomed to interacting weekly with the school social worker, it becomes less obvious which students are receiving intensive services. Young students do not assume when a social worker walks into a classroom they are there for one specific student and therefore, privacy is restored.

Additionally, by offering ways for all students to see the social worker through self-referrals and lunch bunch services, almost all students trickle in and out of the social work office at one point or another. With this volume of foot traffic, students are much less likely to be concerned a peer may notice them coming or going from the office. Talking to the social worker about problems and issues becomes the norm, effectively alleviating mental health stigmas which often permeate through schools and the larger community.

Lastly, when the social worker takes such an active role in the classroom setting, they are better equipped to effectively respond to students with high needs when crises happen. Oftentimes in large school settings, student to social worker ratios can be extremely high. This presents challenges to building authentic relationships with all students at the school as social workers may be meeting students for the first time during a crisis. When the social worker provides direct SEL instruction, it is almost guaranteed the student and social worker have interacted positively during class previous to the incident. A level of trust is built faster and with more authenticity during the most difficult situations.

How the SEL Coordinator Position Works

Social workers are ideal providers of SEL instruction and support in schools. The social work mission requires practitioners to enhance well-being and empower those who are most vulnerable (NASW, 2008). By supporting students with SEL development in school, social workers equip students with valuable life skills that not only enhance their well-being, but may in the long-term serve as a protective factor for many inequitable outcomes.

Presently, I work in partnership with our school counselor in a school of approximately 600 students pre-kindergarten through fifth grade to provide wellness services. Our school counselor provides tier two and three services while I primarily provide tier one and two. This arrangement allows me to be available for predictable and scheduled classes in a way school social workers are typically not, as I am not pulled out for crisis response. I provide SEL lessons through direct instruction in all 19 of our elementary homerooms bi-weekly.

On the weeks I do not provide direct instruction, I prepare lesson plans and materials for homeroom teachers to implement the lessons on their own. To support the SEL curriculum, I also provide ongoing training to staff and family roundtables for parents/guardians. Additionally, I provide social skills and therapeutic services for students through individual and group services outside of regularly scheduled lessons.

All students are given the opportunity to meet with me through lunch bunches, where students sign up to eat lunch in my office. Through self-referral services, students request to discuss mental health-related concerns with a member of the wellness team. Overall, my week is split halfway between direct instruction in the classroom and more typical school social work services.

Closing Thoughts

When I enter the school building, I hear echoes of “Good morning Ms. Knipp!” as I make my way to my office. One elementary student holds up two fingers when he sees me, to indicate he has put two drops in classmate’s buckets (our way of measuring kind acts) so far this week. When I arrive at my office and open my calendar, I see today I have four lessons, a lunch session, two therapeutic groups, and a parent learning event after school.

I have the best job in the world. I am a social worker, but my official job title is “Social and Emotional Learning Coordinator.” My main responsibility is proactive, preventive work through direct instruction of social and emotional learning.

Empowering students with tools for SEL development at a young age promotes social justice in the long run. Social workers have the training and values necessary to implement these lessons in schools now. SEL instruction implemented by social workers not only improves the school, but it also improves social work practices within educational environments.

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