My first year as a school social worker was less like wading into a gently flowing stream as it was diving head-first into a deep pool of water. A little over a year
ago as I prepared to graduate with my Master of Social Work from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, I knew I did not want to work in a typical elementary school. Rather, I wanted to work with a population of students with severe needs, although I was not quite sure what type of school I was searching for. God led the way to a school that I fell in love with. I spent my first year as a school social worker in a school with 94 students and 90 staff. We serve students from preschool through transition age of 21, all of whom have a cognitive disability. In addition, 95 percent are medically fragile and nonverbal. Put simply, it is a complex and intense environment. I instantly knew it was the school for me.
One of the greatest barriers and challenges I noted as early as the first week of school was related to communication. Working in a school where most of the students are nonverbal enabled me to grow quickly in my creativity and problem-solving. I work with students who exhibit maladaptive behaviors; for me, the hardest ones to see are the self-injurious behaviors. During those occurrences, I feel helpless because the students are trying to communicate with us that something is wrong in the only way they know how at that moment. As heartbreaking as those situations are, they instill in me even more determination to help these students. As a team, we attempt to determine what these students are trying to tell us, how we can help and, most importantly, what supports we can put in place so these students do not need to communicate in that way in the future to get their needs met.
Especially during these situations I relied on God and, through him, the numerous professionals in the school to take comfort in the knowledge that I was doing my best to reach out to those students. As a result of each student having a variety of therapeutic services (e.g. mental health, speech, occupational therapy), I was able to collaborate and co-treat with the large team of therapists and draw on their vast experience. Together, we were able to brainstorm visuals and other supports that would be helpful for the students in addition to looking at how staff behavior and/or reactions may be impacting the students’ behavior. Each intervention was individualized to each student, which made it that much more effective.
This year I gained an invaluable amount of experience — from learning how to communicate with students who are nonverbal to engineering behavior interventions to assessing my own skill set. While social work can be a lonely profession, due to my reliance on God and the incredible staff support, I always had people to turn to so that I could utilize their expertise. This camaraderie, coupled with the pure joy I attained from my students — regardless of the day they were having — tells me that I am in the place God means for me to be right now. I cannot wait to continue to grow with them.
(Jenna Ebener graduated in 2015 with a Master of Social Work from St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)