And you do…what, exactly?

17 03 2011

Social work can be a hard field to describe. Not to sound like Forrest Gump (SocialJerk fact: I’m one of six Americans who does not like that movie) but you never know what you’re going to get. Every day is different. Sometimes you’re doing therapy, sometimes you’re advocating, sometimes you seem to be babysitting.

People tend to have very specific ideas about what “social work” entails. We’re either therapists, baby snatchers, or bureaucrats.

The truth is we do some of everything. That’s what I love so much about this job. Part of “starting where the client is,” one of the core values of the profession, is doing what they need, at that moment.

Within reason, of course. I was once asked, by an overwhelmed mother, to take her hyperactive eight year old son for the weekend because she needed a break. I admit, I was tempted. This kid was hilarious, an awesome freestyle rapper, and he had sweet video games. I think that would have been a bit unethical, though, so instead we arranged for the kid to stay with his uncle.

I was also once asked to take a fifteen year old girl back to school shopping, because the mother thought they would fight if they went together, and that the daughter would pick inappropriate clothes if she went by herself. It was a bit awkward to explain that I am not, in fact, a personal shopper, and would not be able to do this. But I put my foot down nonetheless.

Most of the time, though, I try to be where I’m needed. Often that involves keeping someone company as they wait…and wait…and wait for their public assistance or housing appointment. Today it included having breakfast with a four year old in pre-school. (Apple slices? Yes please!) And last week, it was homework help.

I was doing a home visit with a particularly overwhelmed mother of three. The dad is around, but is usually at work, and therefore not much help with chaotic afternoons. And that’s exactly when I was doing this visit.

Mom and I hustled the three kids, ages eight, five, and eighteen months, up to the fifth floor walk up. (Ask me about the home visit diet and exercise plan! Elevators are broken, but my butt has never looked so good!) The kids got changed while mom and I talked. She’s really trying to implement a regular routine with them, and is doing a pretty good job. The eight year old boy has been diagnosed with ADHD, though, and really struggles with homework time.

So I’d heard. This was my first time seeing it.

Mom sat each of the kids down at the table to do their homework, and tried to keep the eighteen month old entertained with blocks.

The five year old wanted us to look at her coloring. Then she wanted to narrate her every move for us, and to get approval for it. The eight year old wanted to eat his chips. Mom said he could have chips when he finished his homework. He got a little wobbly, saying he was hungry. Mom said if he finished faster, he could eat sooner. He sniffled but got back to his work.

Mom and I started to talk, about parenting, politics, something like that, when the kids were distracted by “CAAAAAWWWW!” The family has a pet bird, which the eighteen month old has taken to imitating.

I don’t see why this would present a problem for an eight year old with ADHD, trying to get his science homework done.

Said eight year old ran over to look at the bird with his baby sister. The five year old, naturally, felt left out, and ran over as well. Mom wrangled both kids back into their seats, sat the eighteen month old in her high chair, and gave her a snack.

The eight year old started crying over how easy his five year old sister’s homework was. Mom and I explained that he had easy homework when he was in kindergarten, and she’ll have hard homework when she was in third grade. (Honestly, though, the five year old had coloring for homework. That is totally easy. I would have been done in like, five minutes.)

The eighteen month old started to make her great escape, wriggling out of the high chair, and her older brother came to the rescue. Mom took the baby out of the high chair, chased the eight year old back to his seat, and was immediately asked for help by the five year old. (Um, like I said, she just had to color. Get it together, kid.)

Watching this made my head spin. This lady does this, in a one bedroom apartment, five days a week. Her eight year old son needs someone to stand over him while he does his work. He’s very intelligent and perfectly capable of the work, he just gets way too distracted. Add in no space, an eighteen month old getting into everything, and a five year old asking if she should make the girl’s hair green or pink (green, obviously)…how are we getting anything done?

SocialJerk to the rescue. Or, SocialJerk being mildly helpful. While mom helped the five year old, and the eighteen month old was temporarily entertained by crayons, I worked on third grade science homework. I was able to stand at the table with this kid, point to a question, listen to him read it, and work through it with him. I told him we were going to finish the packet he was assigned together, and we did. No more tears, even.

By the time I left, homework time was done. Mom still had play time and bed time to look forward to, but she was grateful that her afternoon was a little bit easier. It was nice to actually leave knowing that I had made a concrete improvement, however small.

Even though “tutor” is outside of my job description.

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7 responses

17 03 2011
jontybabe

Yes social work is different every day. One day saw me teaching a young teen mum how to make stew one day to putting 3 kids up for adoption the next! I’ve put together furniture for people right before addressing serious domestic violence with another! It’s mad!

20 03 2011
socialjerk

Oh, I hope I never have to teach anyone to make stew, I would fail that day!

I love that so many social workers are willing to do those things to make people’s lives easier–putting together furniture is a great example, and I’ve been there myself. (Or helping to lay out roach bombs…that was fun.) It can be hard to find the balance between, OK, I’m helping out, and OK, I’m not a servant.

17 03 2011
Social over worker

This is so true. I fed a baby & did a girls hair today. Plus kept the dog busy and tried to get a 4 year old to put her clothes back on.

Then I went back to the office and found a placement for a non-English speaking toddler til she can go back to her home country.

It’s varied every day ! 🙂

20 03 2011
socialjerk

Getting to play with dogs is one of my favorite parts of home visits. I mean, when it’s not a very large dog that is trying to eat me.

That’s a post in and of itself.

19 03 2011
cb

Agreed. I do some very surprising things in my day to day work and it is the diversity that makes me love the work.

20 03 2011
socialjerk

I never thought social work would be a boring job, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for how…not-boring, it really is.

20 03 2011
Weekly Social Work Links 10 | Fighting Monsters

[…] SocialJerk explains some of the variety of roles that social workers take. […]

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