The task of practicing basic social competences often goes beyond what can be managed in regular lessons. The heterogeneity of classes in on the increase. Furthermore, a greater need for social education can be noticed in many children. At the same time children find it increasingly difficult to integrate into the social happening in the class.
The less children are part of a stable family system, the more school grows in importance as a place where values are communicated, as a community which strengthens the life forces and cultivates relationships, and as a place of socialisation. While a growing number of children can be classified as highly sensitive, the ability of other children to control their impulses and to concentrate is decreasing. Teachers are hardly able to cope any longer with the tasks arising as a result.
In response to these problems, the Berner Oberland Rudolf Steiner School (RSS BO) introduced school social work. At the start of the 2012 school year, two social workers, job-sharing a full-time post between them, began work in accordance with a concept worked out by the college of teachers with many goals, the necessary enthusiasm but also a number of open questions.
Start-up financing for two years by the Working Group of Rudolf Steiner Schools in Switzerland (Arge) helped with the implementation of the project.
These are its tasks and goals:
• School social work is based on the understanding of the human being as set out in Waldorf education.
• It is a voluntary, supplementary provision. Its focus is on contributing to the healthy development of the children in its care.
• It offers on-site help and advice regarding social and personal problems of the children and young people (for example in the form of class interventions).
• It is a trust and mediation centre for conflicts between pupils, parents – children – teachers in tensions across classes.
• It promotes and maintains the cooperation with specialist offices and authorities.
• Its ideal is to further the development of the social competence of all those involved. That includes the ability to deal with conflict, a willingness to cooperate and a conscious practicing of communication.
Neutral contact point
In practice it soon became clear that the relationship of trust with the teaching staff is crucial. It required particular sensitivity to reconcile the claim of transparency towards all those involved with the intent to maintain the duty of confidentiality as a neutral contact point.
In conflicts between teachers and parents it often already helps to address the sometimes strongly contradictory perceptions of the child. Criticism expressed as part of a moderated discussion between the people concerned should contribute to further development instead of having a negative effect.
The integrity of the pupils is guaranteed
The cooperation with the school management turned out to be important from the beginning, for example in order to be able to initiate rapid action in risk situations in which the wellbeing of the children does not appear assured, be it on suspicion of assault or being witness to an assault, of sexual assault or neglect. In Switzerland teachers have been obliged since January 2013 to inform the child protection authorities if they suspect assault or violation of sexual integrity. If schools fail to comply with this obligation they make themselves criminally liable. That gives rise to requirements which must be professionally met. The Rudolf Steiner schools have additionally entered into a commitment to be accountable to the “Office for Reporting Special Cases of Conflict “ of the Working Group.
The tasks of school social workers include introducing and keeping up-to-date an internal preventative concept for the school to maintain the physical, psychological and sexual integrity of the pupils. Guidelines from the Canton as well as suggestions from the Office of the Working Group have been adapted for the school. The college of teachers is included in dealing with the subject of “Violence, Boundary violation, Sexuality” in the educational conference in order to build awareness among everyone.
Establishing an “Office for Ideas”
Additional areas in which school social workers could be deployed quickly opened up. Thus they took over the “Office for Ideas” which was set up five years previously in the school, an instrument for pupil participation practiced across Switzerland, extended it and adapted it to the needs and possibilities of the school. It has a firm place in the weekly timetable. Ideas coming from the school community are implemented with class 9 pupils, it helps to organise the festivals of the year, assistance with homework is offered, fundraising is undertaken and a school snack bar was set up. These tasks meet the pupils’ wish for self-efficacy and community, they are willing to work and are happy to put their time and ideas at the disposal of the school.
The social workers were involved in several classes at the request of teachers or pupils. The subjects ranged from “Exclusion and courage”, “Rules of play, rules of conflict” to “Boys–Girls”. Work is done with elements of subject-centred theatre, conflict resolution or, with the upper school classes, methods from group-dynamics process control. The subject “School for life”, which was introduced this year on an experimental basis, offers a forum for these social questions. It is integrated into the upper school curriculum with a weekly class. The feedback from pupils was thoroughly positive.
Child case discussions and parent meetings
We have drawn up an action plan together with the college of teachers which we use for particular children who are mostly reported by teachers. After the child case discussion, something which has long been practiced in Waldorf education, meetings are held with the parents and the situation of the child is clarified. If further investigation is necessary, the children are referred to the corresponding authorities or doctors and accompanied as necessary. This results in target agreements and concrete support both from the school and family. These procedures are minuted and communicated between the teachers, parents, therapists and authorities. Good intercommunication is essential, particularly in serious crisis situations, if a child becomes psychiatrically ill or a parent with custody of the child has a breakdown. The cooperation with specialist services such as the drugs advisory service, the youth officer of the Cantonal police, the education advisory service, the child and adult protection office, the social welfare departments, therapists and doctors was intensively cultivated and turned out to be very useful in numerous cases.
We regularly undertake further training and participate in specialist networks. At the end of the phase which was financed by the Working Group, the first two years were evaluated and a report was drawn up. Our experiences will be made available to all Rudolf Steiner schools.
We can conclude that school social work has become a firm part of the school. The school management observes that it has been relieved of a great burden and uses the opportunity to delegate matters.
Teachers use the social workers to varying degrees. There is scepticism among some colleagues who maintain the traditional role of the teacher as someone who alone is in charge, others use the support on offer on a regular basis. Many cite the main cause of the enormous stress they are under not so much as the teaching itself but as the numerous conflicts with parents, colleagues and pupils as well as the unsatisfactory realisation that they cannot meet the needs of some children with special needs despite their best intentions.
Here school social workers could act preventively in many cases, offer concrete help, deescalate, act as the contact point for specialist services, or when separation becomes inevitable perform moderator functions to minimise disappointment, hurt and accusations and allow the parties in conflict to put their point of view according to the rules of mediation. Individual pupils regularly come to the surgery, although in most cases so far the initiative came not directly from the children but from parents, teachers or fellow pupils.
The office of the school social workers is located on the top floor of the school. With a green sofa and a kettle for making tea it always offers a place for time out in the everyday life of the school. Pupils come for the greatest variety of reasons, as a rule directly out of class having been told to do so by the teacher, and make use of such a supervised break.
Many parents are grateful. They say that they experience the contact point as a support. There has been disappointment when the school social workers were not able to carry out parental requests as expected and took a neutral position. The meetings serve to clarify things and for mediation and are structured using methods from systemic counselling and mediation.
Therapeutic treatment is not included in the tasks of the school social workers but they have a network of contacts to therapists and can help families find the appropriate support they need. Community building is a fundamental part of the profile of Waldorf schools. School social work can build on that and take its place in the community of the school.
About the authors: Rebecca Romano is a primary school teacher, lecturer at the Bern teacher training college and heads the Taskforce for Prevention and Intervention in Schools. Verena Gantner is a social therapist, business administrator for organisation & management/social services and systemic family counsellor.