By Jenna Ebener
I have been a school social worker for more than a year at a school for students with medical and cognitive impairments, and I rely on God every day to aid me on this wonderful, yet intense journey. One of the greatest challenges of working with a population with such complex needs, including limited communication, is finding curricula that fit their needs.
I hold a weekly social group in our high school and transition-age behavior program that is divided into two groups of five students each. One of my focal points this year is to help them understand the concept of feelings, and that we do not feel the same way every day. I knew what I wanted to teach, but the conundrum came with figuring out how to teach it in a way that allowed my students to grasp the concepts at their individual level and pace.
After researching curricula, I came across one that started with a lesson that outlined the meaning of thoughts and feelings. I realized that instead of focusing on getting through the whole curriculum and setting a time schedule, my students would be most successful if I took it week by week. As a result, weeks later, we are still focusing on the first lesson.
However, each week we are adding in a new component to build on their knowledge. First, we focused on thoughts, where they come from, and what they are. Then we discussed where feelings come from and what they tell us. As we got further into the lesson, I realized the largest gap was in understanding the body language that accompanies different feelings. So each week I made more visual materials and activities to help them understand. We have used a “build-a-face” prop to focus on what our specific body parts look like when we are feeling different emotions, symbols with different body parts to remind us what we are looking for, mirrors so we can see what our faces look like, and role playing to put it all together.
I will admit it has been frustrating at times, and those are the times when I need to reorient with God and remind myself I am doing the best I can, and God is with me. It is then that I look back to a year ago and realize that although we may have had a week where we hit a plateau and I am seemingly out of ideas, my students have come a long way from last year.
My most difficult sessions this year still have a structure and stronger focus that I lacked at the start of last year. I can look at my data and see how much progress each student has made from last year and over the course of the last few weeks. I look back at my students and see how much more engaged they are. I look back at the many times I laughed and smiled because they made amazing connections and were having fun.
I remember that God has placed me with this amazing population for a reason, and any discouragement I may feel in one moment can be instantly erased when I focus on my students, their individual needs, and how far they have come. I am reminded to set aside my worries about not being able to assist them to the degree that I desire, but to instead focus on how much we are accomplishing in each moment. After all, what better way to show my passion for my students and profession than by continually striving to improve?