Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Baseline of Trust

You’re looking into the face of a thirteen year old girl. She’s avoiding making eye contact and is staring at the floor with her arms crossed. She failed the last school year, and is now repeating eighth grade. Last week, her older brother was shot in a gang fight. She started skipping classes again, and is on probation. If you don’t intercede, she will most likely drop out of school.

It is just the two of you in the counseling session. How do you create a baseline of trust so that she’ll open up to you? This is a typical scenario that my social worker interns will face in their first one-on-one counseling sessions. Creating trust with our students - or “clients” as we refer to them - is the main objective in the first session.

The kids we work with have tumultuous lives and few people they feel they can trust. How do you connect with a child or adolescent who is experiencing severe emotional turmoil due issues like poverty, neglect, violence and/or is the victim of drug and alcohol abuse at home?

It sounds strange, but, it’s the small things that work best. For instance, always be on time for meetings you set up with a student. If you’re late, our kids will discredit you immediately. You said you would do something, and you didn’t do it, and now you are crossed off their list of people they will respect and open up to.

Then, there are trust-building games. I trained my social workers in this one called The Feeling/Talking/Doing Game. Sounds corny but, it sets up a framework for both the social worker and the child to talk about their feelings and experiences in different types of situations. The students are given 10 tokens to start off with, and those tokens can be used to buy items in the school bookstore or for snacks. There is a stack of cards and a board. Each card states something you must either say or do. For instance, a card could say “name a time when you felt frustrated”, or “sing your favorite song”. Essentially the actions are meant to put the children a little bit outside of their comfort zone in order to get them to start opening up emotionally.

Of course, they have the right not to do whatever is requested on the card they pick up. But, if they refuse, they lose one of their 10 tokens. It is up to them, but the incentive is obviously there for them to participate. The game helps social workers identify students’ vocabulary of feelings. Students may only be able to identify a few basic ones, like anger, happiness, and sadness. Throughout the game, the social workers try to discover the feelings that children most commonly experience. But we also help them develop an understanding of many others types of emotions, like ambivalence, exhaustion, contentedness, etc. Students may never have heard of these types of emotions before, so we are helping them to understand themselves and their many different emotions in a more complex way.

In turn, the social workers can use game-playing as an opportunity to find ways to relate back to the child, to show that they have shared certain experiences and feelings. After, I regroup with the interns and we talk about the feelings that the students identified. If they are seeing that certain students are predominantly feeling anger for example, then we devise means for working on anger management with the student. And, with our kids, anger is the predominant emotion.

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