By Jenna Ebener
(Editor’s note: Jenna Ebener, a graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, is a social worker at a school in Colorado for students with a combination of medical, cognitive and behavioral disabilities. She relies on God every day to aid her on this wonderful, yet intense journey.)
This school year I have recognized the value of optimism. I have always been a very positive, joyful person and think that attitude is one of my main characteristics that stand out to people. It is natural for me to look at the bright side of trying situations, but I really reflected on the importance of that attitude during my recent Christmas break.
I have been faced with a variety of challenges this school year that have weighed heavily on my mind and my body. A large component of this added stress has included spending countless hours a week with one student for the past few months. Due to a combination of factors, including her age and strength, her maladaptive behaviors dramatically increased this school year in ways that were threatening to the well-being of herself, her peers and staff. As a result, I have spent hours working with her and her team to figure out the most effective interventions. It has been a long process, one that is not quite over, and it has been heartbreaking to watch at times.
As I was sharing some pieces of this whirlwind semester, a friend made an observation that really struck me. She said something along the lines of, “I don’t know how you can do what you do and stay so positive about it.” As similar observations were repeated throughout my break, I reflected on how I shared my stories. Although the semester had been very trying, with numerous rough patches, I tend to share my experiences in a way that ends on a positive note. It is second nature for me to always end a story with something that did go right or how I hope that things will improve in the future.
My family and friends’ statements helped me realize the value of maintaining that positive mindset. I could very easily get bogged down by the stress of my job. Social work is a rigorous profession, but I am also in an intense environment. I am constantly surrounded by students who are medically fragile; some have seizures, some are hospitalized, have a degenerative illness, or pass away prematurely.
My students who are not medically fragile have maladaptive behaviors that can be difficult to watch, such as headbanging and biting themselves. If their behaviors are not self-abusive, they can be so aggressive toward staff that we need to wear protective gear. Finally, our students’ growth is different than that of their typical peers. It is a celebration when our students reach baby steps of progress, such as using their communication system appropriately to say “more” or “all done,” or correctly identifying an emotion. If I look only at those intense experiences or how little overall progress my students are making, I could easily see why people wonder how I work in my environment. However, there is so much more to what I do, and it is based on perspective.
By having the mindset of what my students can do, rather than what they cannot, I have hope for what they can someday achieve. By focusing on the positive, I can see that I am making a difference and can witness the amazing things occurring in our school. I see the passion of our staff, the love of our parents and the joy in our students. I see God working in the tiniest of ways, yet in ways that make a world of difference. I see that no matter how difficult the journey may be at times, I always have God by my side to help me focus on what truly matters.