School Social Work in a Pandemic: Finding Our Way
Meg Smith, MSW, LICSW, ACSW
Workforce Development Coordinator, Center for Trauma Care in Schools
with guest contributors
Lucy Lang & Madeleine Manders
Interns from Boston College's Masters of Social Work program
We asked a group of social work interns from Alliance for Inclusion and Prevention’s Trauma-Focused Intern Training (T-FIT) program, who worked together at a middle school in Boston, to write down some thoughts on what they learned this year in placement. Their school operated with a mix of hybrid and in person instruction.
Working as clinical interns in a school placement during a pandemic challenged us to find creative ways to connect with our clients. We had to learn how to engage online for many of our meetings with students, teachers, parents, and clinical supervisors. The natural flow of face-to-face conversations was replaced by tightly scheduled Zoom conversations with abrupt beginnings and endings. Students and parents often missed online sessions, and our job involved a lot of detective work to track down our students. But a trademark of social work is collaboration in finding resources and solving problems. Making our way through this year taught us the importance of supporting each other and being creative when even those with much more experience were often unsure how to navigate this new reality..
We were a team of interns from the School of Social Work at Boston College, placed in a middle school in a suburb of Boston. There was no roadmap for this work, so we needed to rely on supervision, our own research, and collaboration within our intern cohort in the T-FIT program, to link what we were learning in our graduate classes with the unprecedented practical challenges to school-based social work in the pandemic. We shared resources on icebreakers, check-ins, goal setting and treatment, student and family engagement, and countless other strategies. We shared as a team the emotional weight of the pandemic - all happening in the midst of social, economic, and racial injustices experienced this year by our students and the nation as a whole.
Below are some of the lessons from this year’s internship that we will bring with us in our social work careers:
Communication and Listening: It is only when we engage key stakeholders, primarily the students, but also their guardians and teachers are we able to be of effective help. Listening in order to get the full picture of each student’s strengths and needs is necessary before we can advocate for them in their home, school, and peer settings.
System Knowledge: It is vitally important to learn early on about the various student support systems your placement school has. Learning about Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), special education, school improvement planning, scheduling, etc. was necessary to effectively advocate and connect students with needed resources both in school and the community.
Adopting a Growth Mindset: Curiosity leads to continuous learning, and radical acceptance. Like most first year clinical interns, there were many times when we felt like imposters, filled with self-doubt about our ability to improve the lives of our students. We were learning as we went along, and learned to accept that like our students we are continually learning and we will therefore make mistakes. This underlines the importance of good supervision and being able to get support from our fellow interns. We had to learn to accept this discomfort and recognize that being uncomfortable was part of what helps us grow in our own journey as social workers.
Despite this year’s extraordinary challenges, the lessons above are also best practices for school social work even in normal times. If the post-pandemic world moves toward increased virtual engagement in all aspects of life, this year’s internship taught us important lessons about the need to adapt professional principles to unforeseen circumstances. A difficult but worthwhile lesson.