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Building Rapport, Ensuring Privacy Are Challenges For School Social Workers Offering Remote Therapy

Tierra Rushing
Courtesy of Tierra Rushing
Social workers like Tierra Rushing have to connect with students via screens and laptops this school year.

When Tierra Rushing arrived at school at about 7:30 a.m., some students were usually already waiting for her outside her office.

That was during a typical school year. Rushing is a social worker based at Atlantic Community High School in Delray Beach, and she relished those moments when students would pop by just to chat about their days.

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With school buildings closed since March to stop the spread of COVID-19, and the School District of Palm Beach County planning a virtual start to this school year, Rushing will have to go without those encounters for a while longer.

“I miss the face-to-face interactions,” Rushing said. “There's nothing that can compare to actually sitting in an office and having these hard conversations, these hard talks with the students. … It's not the same virtually — whether you do FaceTime, phone call. It's not the same.”

Learning isn’t the only thing that happens in a school. Students also get access to counseling and mental health care on campus. That’s more complicated when kids are learning virtually.

WLRN recently spoke with Rushing about how she's approaching counseling her clients from afar. Here’s an excerpt of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity:

WLRN: When you first learned that schools were closing to slow the spread of COVID-19, what were your initial concerns?

RUSHING: My initial concerns were losing the face time between myself and the students. A lot of the times when you're doing therapy, you pick up on a lot of non-verbal communication: gestures, facial expressions. Especially with kids, they may say one thing, but you can tell in their body language that they mean another or something else is going on.

Was that as challenging as you anticipated it would be?

I mostly had a rapport with the majority of the students that I had. So some of them I can tell when, you know, there's more that they want to talk about just by the tone of their voice or certain keywords that they say. With some of my newer clients, it was a little bit more difficult because we haven’t built that rapport as of yet.

A few of them, we FaceTimed to kind of help with that. But again, you know, over technology — it's still not the same as sitting face-to-face in a room with your client.

What was a typical day like for you at your school in Palm Beach County before the closures? And then what did that look like during the pandemic?

I'd get in and around 7:30. I'd probably already have kids walking by my office, to be honest, waiting for me. Sometimes just to say hi, sometimes, it’s, “Oh, let me tell you what happened last night.” But a typical day, usually, I have set appointments for certain students and then I do have the occasional walk-ins when they [say]: “Listen, I really need someone to talk to. Can you call me out of this period if you can't see me, you know, right away? Can you call me out of this class?” and I check with their schedule to make sure it's not like a core class or a class that they're struggling in. And I'll pull them out of class to talk. I usually see about five to six students a day.

And then how that kind of differed from being in school to working remotely — I don't get to see their smiling faces walking by my office. It’s appointment only, because I can't have them calling me while I'm on the phone with another student.

What are the things that students are typically coming to you to talk about?

So some things are, “Let me tell you about … I spoke to my crush last night,” or, “Let me tell you about how this girl got me in drama with this....” So it ranges from that to, “Oh, I got into a big fight with my mom last night about my parents getting a divorce,” or “I got into an argument with my grandparents about custody of me.”

Has it been difficult for students to find privacy at home so that they can speak to you candidly about what's going on?

Yes and no. I've had students where it was difficult for them to even have that conversation with their parents that they want to seek therapy. They want to seek counseling. I'm assisting the child to have that conversation, so that they don't feel alone in making that conversation with their parents.

But then I do have some parents who are like, “I need your help. I don't know what else to do.” So I've had parents come to me.

And I wonder if you've had to talk with parents about respecting their children's privacy when it comes to their interactions with you, as a school social worker. Like maybe to say, you know, when I'm speaking with your child, it needs to be one-on-one. You know, maybe you can leave the room or something like that.

Yes. Yes, I do have to have those types of conversations with them. In the beginning, we always talk about confidentiality. That's one of the big things. Working with students — yes, I do need adult permission. But the things that me and your child discuss are confidential between me and the child, because if they don't feel like they can trust me, then they can't work through whatever it is that they need to work through.

And I let them know when confidentiality can be broken. If the child is a danger to themselves or other people or if they're doing any type of illegal activity, those things I have to break confidentiality for because I have to report them.

You know, I will talk to the child and explain what I can and cannot tell mom and dad. And sometimes children are open to me sharing some of the things, versus them having to talk to their parents directly.

Going into a new school year at a high school, you'll have a whole new freshman class. And, you know, obviously there are transfer students and other situations where there might be new students coming into the school. And in those cases, maybe they've never seen you. They've never gotten a chance to walk by your office and know that you're there, you know. So I guess how do you kind of let students know you're available, introduce yourself to them and, you know, get them to reach out if they need you?

Well, last year, in the beginning of the year, we did assemblies for each grade. So I'm sure they'll probably do something on the lines of having us do introduction videos so that it can be something that can be sent out via email, letting them know that we're here and we're ready to help.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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