School social worker in place

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By TRACEY ROXBURGH

In a first for the Wakatipu, a fully-funded social worker’s been put into all Queenstown primary schools.

Central Lakes Family Services social worker in schools — or SWIS — Fiona Stephenson started in the full-time, permanent position — funded in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Central Lakes Trust — at the end of last term.

She’ll spend time at all of the Wakatipu’s seven primary schools, including Glenorchy, working with kids who are starting to experience ‘‘wobbles’’ resulting from the Covid-19 fallout.

Stephenson, who was a primary school teacher for nine years, five of them at Queenstown Primary, and a mum herself, says the schools and Central Lakes Family Services were stating to see a ‘‘real spike’’ in referrals and needs of children — something the ministry recognised.

‘‘There are a lot of little people who would be coping quite well normally and there are just some little worries and things that have started to bubble, and they’re just needing a little bit more positive support.

‘‘The schools and the ministry are all tracking the progress and seeing what’s coming, but there’s a lot of anxiety, children whose behaviour’s always been grand but their emotions are getting really big, so that’s coming out as anger — they’re starting to fight with their friends when they never used to, or their concentration’s really off at school.’’

Stephenson says some children are presenting with grief, as well, due to family upheaval.

‘‘As a community we’re amazing and we do all pull together, but a lot of families have had changes and pressures put on them and if your family unit is under a bit of pressure then everyone’s going to feel it in a different way.

‘‘Everyone’s basic coping skills have taken a bit of a punch [through Covid].’’

The SWIS position’s been around for a long time in New Zealand, but historically targeted at low-decile schools, something Stephenson thinks is ‘‘ridiculous’’.

‘‘It just seems mad you’d go, ‘these children come from a mountainous, beautiful area,
they don’t need help’.

‘‘Everyone needs and everyone deserves the same amount of opportunity, or access, to a social worker and I think it can be a real stigma that it’s only low-income families, or we’re not in a ‘deprived’ area of NZ, therefore we don’t need it.

‘‘People are people and people are always going to have lows and highs in their life.

‘‘It’s got nothing to do with financial stability.’’

Stephenson’s working largely on referrals from teachers in schools, but can also speak
directly to parents if they want a bit more information, or are trying to work out if their child needs some extra support.

She’s also working with teachers to give them advice and strategies, if required.

St Joseph’s principal Trisch Inder says the scheme’s a positive from Covid — not only will it normalise having social worker support in schools, it’ll also help identify early when kids need a bit of extra support.

‘‘I think there have been increased incidents [at schools] and I think that’s around
pressure that people are under — and kids experience that, too.

‘‘The greatest thing is that if we can get in really early when things are going wrong for kids, and if we can provide the support they need, then that’s a fantastic thing for our
community.’’

Inder’s also hoping it’s the first step in a bigger school support system she’d like to see
in the Wakatipu, modelled off the Ministry of Education’s philosophy in Finland.

Visiting there in 2016, Inder observed each of the large schools had a social worker, psychologist and special ed teacher and a ‘‘shared resource’’ in the smaller ones.

‘‘At the time I was really excited by that — when you have kids and you’re doing everything you know of, as an educator, and sometimes you need increased specialisation, you have that resource immediately there.

‘‘This [the SWIS] is a small thing we’ve got, but we’ve got to build on this.’’

tracey.roxburgh@scene.co.nz