The sooner the better in school social work

A school social worker is a special breed of professional — part trained expert and partly equipped by nature with a patient, kind personality and a rare degree of perceptiveness.

It is heartening to know that boards of education, including several in eastern Connecticut, are making it a priority to find budget dollars to increase their social work and counseling staffs and to make more assistance available to students. Some, including the state-designated Alliance Districts, get federal Title 1 and state grants to help. Others, like Montville, have managed to find the wherewithal, a testament to their farsightedness.

The ultimate return on the investment, studies show, is that school works best for students if there is an adult whom they and their parents can consult when school, home life, health or other issues are making it hard to focus on studies — starting in elementary school.

An article last week by Day Staff Writer Ben Kail noted the welcome trend, which is backed up by research conducted by the American School Counselor Association. As a professional group, the association wants others to see the evidence that more social workers, psychologists and counselors can improve school for individual students and the whole school community. In advocating for counseling services in elementary schools — not just upper grades — they offer metrics: higher graduation rates, higher college entrance and persistence rates, lower chronic absenteeism and fewer out-of-school suspensions. The key is to have counselors available K-12, which, the association says, makes a school system far more likely to have 9 out of 10 students graduate.

That is a goal that takes years to come true, but it makes sense, common sense. We know that self-esteem, self-image, confidence and the willingness to trust others begin in early childhood and, if damaged or undeveloped, are hard to repair later in life.

By serving as a bridge between home and school, a social worker may uncover the hard-to-find reason why a child hates or does poorly in school, thus giving the parents, the child and the teachers a way toward solutions. The counselor or social worker relieves the teacher of having to solely figure out the problem while not neglecting the rest of the class and also provides guidance on how to handle the situations. Some children act out in ways that used to be lumped together as disciplinary matters, but in fact may include mental health problems, bullying — in person or on social media — and issues at home or in the neighborhood.

It's a given in teaching or counseling young children that the results won't be known for years, maybe even a decade or more. But it's also come to be understood that what deeply affects the wellbeing of a young child can cause wounds that don't heal. A hurting child may become a hurtful teenager or adult, or worse.

While it's not the primary mission of elementary school counselors or faculty to prevent future episodes of school violence, it's a fact that some of the worst incidents, including Sandy Hook, Columbine and Parkland, were perpetrated by students and former students. In their minds, if not in reality, school was connected to what was wrong in their lives.

By addressing problems early in life, school counselors and social workers primarily help individual students in real time. They may also spot one who is unusually troubled. By intervening now they could prevent the student from hurting themselves or others far in the future.

School boards have nothing but good reasons to employ sufficient social workers, counselors and psychologists, but that does not mean they will find it affordable. Montville, Groton, Norwich and other districts that have made it a priority are on the right track. Parents, children and everyone in the community will benefit.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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