As I have mentioned I have begun studying for my master’s degree in social work. I will nonchalantly remind everyone that I am pursuing this degree at Columbia University. Do pride and arrogance really have to look that much alike? Since October 2007 I had been working at the Boulder County Juvenile Assessment Center. Nice name yet somewhat inadequate description for the multi-faceted juvenile detention facility where I worked up until the end of July 2010.
Now I must state that the facility where I worked was very progressive and not nearly as punitive as most detention facilities. That said it was still detention, a locked facility staffed ‘round the clock. Juveniles wore detention scrubs and were transported in shackles and handcuffs (do not be shocked, when you are arrested you are put in handcuffs).
Now I am entering into a very therapeutic atmosphere. Social work school talks a lot about collaboration, self-awareness, and openness. All of this is very important however I have not seen a lot of discussion regarding assertiveness yet. It has been all of three weeks so who am I to complain. I have heard mention about difficult field placements toughening a student and growing a thicker skin but it tends to be discussed as more of a negative; a “this is what has to happen” sort of dynamic rather than elaborating on the benefit that can be gained by ensuring you maintain a balance between being smooth and being firm. I am a very strong believer and supporter of the search for balance.
We are taught about boundaries though the topic usually comes up when prompted by nervous questions regarding how much personal information a social worker should reveal to a client or whether it is okay to hug a student and similar queries.
I think one reason that I have begun to contemplate this is because I am noticing the influence of my detention work. While I have and continue to view myself as a non-confrontational individual who leans toward collaboration rather than authoritarian methods I do believe the latter has its place.
My first year field placement is at a middle school in the south Bronx. I believe it is safe to say that the majority of schools in New York City retain a harsher atmosphere than Oslo Middle School in Vero Beach, FL. I was ready to be shocked and taken aback and wildly nervous. I believe I am all of those things but not nearly to the level that I thought. I have been in the field all of two days so my views and understandings could and will change.
I do however notice that I do not gravitate toward the softer attitude or approach in the school. When discussing what to do with a student who is disruptive during a group session my first thought is of the various consequences: send back to class, send to dean, inform parent, and deprive of certain privileges. My supervisor’s response was to simply send them back to class and inform her if it continues and we would take it from there. My fellow interns, the different past experiences of whom I greatly admire, seemed unsure of a course of action though this could have just been my perception.
When a student came to the office and sat down with no explanation I remembered our supervisor telling us that students could not just spend time in the office as a way of avoiding something else. They needed an appointment, to be scheduled in a group or have a pass to set up an appointment. I engaged the girl, asked what class she had, what she needed and why she was not on her way to class. After her various vague answers I politely yet firmly told her she needed to go to class, that she could not hang out but to return if she needed to when she was not in class. This impressed a fellow intern yet seemed simply appropriate to me.
There were numerous other smaller examples (supporting a dean for having a student leave the assembly for speaking after being warned that if he spoke he would have to leave). I believe, especially with adolescents, that being open and available is just as important as being firm and steadfast. Follow through is very important and if a consequence is associated with a particular behavior not applying that consequence sends the wrong message.
I do not believe that “punitive” is the way to go. I believe in collaboration especially the collaboration between being firm and being open, between being conservative and liberal if you will allow me to make such a comparison. If I am willing to follow through on a reward I better be willing to follow through on a consequence and the other way around.
P.S. I must also note for my former co-workers that for someone who does not like and seeks to avoid confrontation I had to hold myself back from stepping in when students were being rowdy, this is no longer a part of my job…unless their rowdiness happens during something I am running. I also picked up a bent paperclip and threw it out…I cannot let contraband sit…even if I am in a place where it is not contraband.