Four years ago, Jennifer Rice became a full-time mental health provider with Aurora Public Schools in Colorado. With 15 years of experience in child welfare, she was ready to put her skills and knowledge to use in a school. This is what you need to know about the role of school social workers as it relates to the foster care system.
Roles and Responsibilities
“The role of a school social worker is to put on their cape,” Jennifer Rice says with a laugh. After a moment, she adds more seriously, “We are the tear wipers and the nose wipers. We are the huggers and the high fivers. We are the way finders and the rule benders.” In her opinion, school social workers are the people who see the whole kid and the whole situation. Then, taking everything into consideration, they find a way to see that the child succeeds.
The day-to-day tasks of a school social worker are numerous. School social workers may spend the day providing individual and/or group mental health services – since it can be beneficial for a child or teen to practice their learned skills in relationships with others. Many school social workers will go into classrooms to teach children how to self-regulate emotions and how to advocate for their needs. School social workers emphasize relationship building. When needed, they encourage physical movement to help promote emotional relief. They might teach self-care and hygiene as it pertains to the student’s mental health needs. School social workers provide the necessary lessons and tools needed to support students in gaining problem-solving skills.
School social workers may sit in on several meetings, such as curriculum building or policymaking. They come with a unique lens focused on the mental health and wellbeing of each student. Their perspective helps to ensure that curriculum and rules are appropriate and fair for all students.
These cape wearers partner with more than just students. Additionally, they work with biological families – if they have retained educational rights – to mend broken situations and past harms. Some school social workers write Individual Education Plans (IEPs) so that a child’s educator(s) and family can know how to meet the child’s specific needs. Foster and adoptive families are also involved in the child’s education plan.
How School Social Workers Approach Children in Foster Care
As a school social worker, Jennifer Rice does not treat children in foster care any differently than other students. “They all need to be loved,” she says. “They all need support.” From her perspective, there’s no room to differentiate. Children in foster care deserve a complete education and the same opportunities any other student would have.
When school social workers set their expectations for children in foster care at the same level as any other student, it honors the child. “We are telling them that we have faith in them,” Jennifer states. It conveys the school social worker’s belief that the child can succeed.
Interactions with Biological and Foster Parents
Jennifer Rice works with several students in foster care or who are emancipating from care who need help with their academic plans. Her role as a school social worker is to assist them in navigating their education plan. Her experience in child welfare comes in handy because she knows their needs and challenges. Jennifer also works hard to make sure foster parents or a group home are involved at the highest level. She wants to make sure they work in collaboration with the school district to understand the student’s abilities, areas of need, and how to support their overall educational plans.
If biological parents have educational rights, school can be one of the best places to mend broken relationships. Jennifer has seen this in her work as a school social worker. When biological parents get involved, their children can view them in a collaborative and supportive light. It is reassuring to children when they see their parents invested in what matters to them.
School Social Workers Are Part of the Team of Foster Care
School social workers are part of a large team that partners with the foster care system. They work alongside foster families, community services, court appointed special advocates (CASAs), and others. Jennifer Rice believes it is vital for each role to have a humble approach.
“When we can all come to the table with a collaborative, supportive mindset, we can be more successful,” she emphasizes. As a school social worker with a background in child welfare, Jennifer has been on both sides of the table. She knows that this is the best approach for children and teens in foster care.
Challenges and Rewards as a School Social Worker
Jennifer Rice will be the first to tell you that her job as a school social worker is filled with countless victories, but she also faces many challenges. Unfortunately, many educators do not see the value of a mental health service provider or school social worker until it is almost too late. Jennifer is often called in to address a situation once a family or student is already in crisis. She feels that as a school social worker, she has to justify the need for her role more often than most people. However, the importance of her services has never been more apparent.
Successful students and families are a testament to the important work Jennifer does as a school social worker. “The biggest victory in this work is providing students, families, and educators with the necessary tools to regulate and subsequently navigate their social and emotional lives,” she declares. When she supports students in a way that leads to progress, she knows she is using her God-given talents to impact them positively. That might look like a student being able to sit through an hour-long class when they used to only last 15 minutes. It might look like a family utilizing the resources that Jennifer provides.
How Christian Faith Equips School Social Workers
Jennifer Rice knows that her faith equips her to overcome the challenges and barriers of her job. She incorporates her faith when relating with students. “My light can’t afford to be dim,” she says. “These kids are watching me in a different capacity.” Jennifer understands that she sets an example for students, families, and other educators. For students from tough situations, a school social worker’s kindness might be the thing that gets them through the day.
Jennifer’s Christian faith also allows her to leave room for mistakes. As a result, she can show the grace and mercy she receives from God to others. She can remind students that their situation does not define them. Ultimately, Jennifer recognizes that God has given her skills to benefit students and families who need her.