By Jenna Ebener
I have been a school social worker for over a year at a school for children with a combination of medical, physical and cognitive impairments. I have quickly recognized the importance of patience in every aspect of my profession, relying on God to show me the way. Our complex students have a combination of disabilities that can make what is automatic for us a tremendous effort for them. I have learned that the time it takes to reach a goal does not matter as much as the baby steps to get there, and my perception of that progress.
I had a student who can walk with a walker and would often drop to the floor. During my first week at school, she dropped outside of my office and was terrified to enter. After consulting with her team, I realized this behavior was the result of a variety of factors. First, many of our students have specific places where they drop because it becomes a habit and more of a reflex than a conscious thought. Second, my office is in a dark hallway and at an angle, so she was not able to see where she was going. Third, she dropped for long periods of time the previous year, and the behavior was reinforced when she was brought directly back to her classroom. As a result, walking into my office seemed like a distant goal. So, I broke it down into baby steps without concern for how long the whole process would take.
To begin with, I looked at my office and realized it was not student friendly. There are a lot of shelves filled with materials, so I had some covers made to make it less visually distracting. To soften the ceiling lights, I put on some light covers. Then, I thought about what type of sensory experiences my student enjoyed. She loved light tactile experiences, such as rubbing beads against her fingers, the feel of water and the soft glow of colorful lights. I purchased some hanging beads for my doorway, and a fish tank and set a variety of lights around my room, such as Christmas lights covered in ping pong balls. Before each session, I set everything up and turned off my main lights.
Next, I lessened the challenges to get into my office. I brought her past my office daily, either on her bike or in her wheelchair to get her used to that route. I started bringing her through the room directly across from my office so she could see my office head on, along with the beads and fun lights. Each day, I would bring her a little closer to the threshold until she was able to enter with her wheelchair or on her bike. I kept the main lights off for the whole session and incorporated multiple preferred activities. After she had been entering calmly for a couple of weeks, I took the final step and had her walk down in her walker. I cannot describe the sense of accomplishment I felt when, without a second of hesitation, she walked directly into my office.
It may be shocking to learn that the whole process took over five months. What seems like such an inconsequential action, walking into a room, took time and patience to be possible for this student. God gave me the grace to not worry about when we would get to the end. Since I wanted to meet her where she was at and make sure she would be successful, I was overjoyed by each baby step of progress. I knew it would happen on God’s time, and I was simply rejoicing each step forward.
(Jenna Ebener graduated in 2015 with a Master of Social Work from St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)