GREENFIELD — Every kindergartner who has passed through Weston Elementary School in the past 27 years has talked with Terry Miller about the difference between sandpaper and velvet.
It’s her annual lesson in kind and unkind words. She passes around a sheet of sandpaper and lets the school’s youngest students run their tiny hands over the abrasive front. The sandpaper is like a mean word, she tells them, and it can be hurtful, even destructive.
She then hands out a little square of velvet to each child. She points out how it is different: soft, smooth, even safe. The velvet is like a nice word, and they should keep this little square of it as a reminder.
And they do.
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Miller has often run into these youngsters years later, when their faces are much older, their hands much larger than before, and they still have that little piece of velvet she gave them when they were 5 or 6.
Miller is Weston Elementary’s social worker. She is one of a handful of social workers stationed in school buildings around the county; four are employed by Greenfield-Central Community Schools and four more work within the Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation.
While the duties of school social workers vary from district to district or even from county to county, Miller said their goals are always the same: to help address any barriers to a child’s education.
“Anxiety or problems at home can be seen as barriers to learning,” Miller said. “Students become distressed by those things, and because they are thinking about what’s happening at home or other fears, they can’t concentrate on the academic things. We can help them get over those humps so that their success in school can be increased.”
This month, National Social Work Month, social workers across the country, in and out of schools, are being honored for their work to help others.
A trend in Hancock County is to place social workers at the elementary and middle school levels, to “plant seeds,” Miller said, of positive social, emotional and mental health as children develop.
At the high school level, local corporations rely on guidance counselors to help students find their path into higher education or a career field.
School social workers work to build a foundation so children will succeed in later years when they connect with their guidance counselor.
Social workers, however, serve as the link during those formative years between the child’s school, their home and community resources. Social workers often have information about a student that teachers do not, allowing them to better identify whether a student’s misbehavior is due to anxiety about a big test or their parents getting divorced.
Allison Stiffney, school social worker at Mt. Comfort Elementary, said classrooms often provide a fun and safe environment to meet with students to discuss issues or conduct interventions.
When she isn’t working one on one with children, she holds group sessions that usually target common behaviors or issues within the school, such as bullying.
Christy Harpold puts on similar programs at J.B. Stephens Elementary.
Friendship skills, she explained, are important to develop early. Harpold spends a lot of time in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms teaching students how to interact in a safe and healthy way with one another.
These lessons are better absorbed when taught by someone other than the children’s everyday classroom teacher, and Harpold tries to include fun activities whenever possible, which also help children retain the message.
These classroom interactions also help social workers develop relationships with the students they serve and open an avenue for continuing to observe them throughout their school career.
“If I know a student in kindergarten, and once we start seeing issues in them when they get to third grade, I have that background that their third-grade teachers might not have because they’ve only known that student for one year,” Harpold said.
Social workers also are connected to the resources a community can offer a family going through a difficult time.
Whether it’s putting families in touch with a counseling agency, helping them sign up for food stamps or getting them information on a food pantry or homeless shelter, the resources school social workers provide can be essential to a student’s life outside of school, Miller said.
“Every work and life experience helps you in this profession because you gain a different viewpoint with every person you come across,” she said.