Four Indispensable Qualities of Effective Social Work Practice

By Valtreasa Tolliver-Cook, Ed.D, ACSW, MSW

“Sometimes all a person wants is an empathetic ear; all he or she needs is to talk it out. Just offering a listening ear and an understanding heart for his or her suffering can be a big comfort.”

~~Roy T. Bennett

I can’t image my life without social work. I had my first experience with a social worker, when I was only 14 years old. During this time my mother was hospitalized due to renal kidney failure and placed on dialysis. At the time, my mother was a 31 year old unemployed, single mother of four children, ages 14, 12, 8, and 3, one with a disability. It was a difficult time for my family, but it was a social worker who helped my family during this crisis. This outstanding social worker, whom I am proud to say was a young male social worker, was one of the best things that happen to my family (of course in addition to supportive family, friends, and neighbors). I feel that it is equally important to acknowledge that he was of a different ethnic background from my family. He genuinely cared about my family. He was patient and nonjudgmental.  He treated my mother with the utmost positive regard. He was empathetic. He listened and took the time to understand the needs of my mother and my entire family. He accurately facilitated cultural awareness and sensitivity. We trusted him and he trusted us. He empowered my mother and he empowered me. In fact, his professionalism had a profound impact on my decision to adhere to my calling to practice social work. I am proud to say that 31 years later, this social worker and I are now colleagues in the field of social work, but most importantly my mother is still on dialysis and living well. In addition to raising her own 4 children, she has also actively participated in rearing 5 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren.

The truth is, not everyone is cut out to be a social worker. Social work is both a rewarding and challenging profession and requires far more than just a desire to help. A desire to help is a good place to start, but social work is more than a desire, it’s a calling. Frederic Reamer (2012) in his article entitled, “Why Our World Needs Social Work” stated, “social work must be as much a calling as a career, characterized by a commitment to altruism, social justice, and service to the commonweal.” In fact, the primary mission of social work is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty (Preamble, Code of Ethics, National Association of Social Workers, 1996, revised by the 2008 NASW Delegate Assembly).

As social workers work with client systems of different sizes at various phases or stages of practice, it is imperative that social workers are: Empathetic, Active Listeners, Culturally Competent, and Authentic.

Empathetic. It’s okay to feel sorry for the problems that clients experience; however, social worker is not about feeling sympathetic, it’s about expressing empathy.  Empathy is very significant for effective social work practice. Without empathy, it is almost impossible to help clients. In fact, empathy is a key factor in all helping professional relationships. Empathy is a learned skill that is used by social workers and other helping professionals in an attempt to relate to, communicate with and understand what a client is experiencing from the client’s perspective. It also requires the social worker’s ability to communicate that understanding back to the client both verbally and nonverbally.

Active Listeners. Communication plays a major role in the effectiveness of social work practice, and this effectiveness begins with active listening.  In the article entitled “What is Active Listening?” Arlin Cuncis (2016), suggests that, “Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone else speaks, paraphrasing and reflecting back what is said, and withholding judgement and advice.” According to Patricia Smith (2017) in her article entitled, “Active Listening in Social Work: The Value and Rewards”, she stated that active listening “connects people, helps people get to know one another, challenges preconceived perceptions, breaks down barriers of stereotypes, gives insight into how individuals view and cope with their experiences.”

Culturally Competent. The ability to provide effective social work practice is maximized when social workers demonstrate cultural awareness, sensitivity, and have specific culture knowledge about the clients they serve. Effective practice requires social workers to view each client as unique and inherently valuable regardless of racial or ethnic background, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, or circumstances. According to Amy Seipel and Ineke Way (2006) in their article entitled, “Culturally Competent Social Work Practice with Latino Clients” they emphasized that, “without cultural awareness, social workers contribute to oppression when working with clients from other cultures.” In addition, cultural sensitivity affords social workers the opportunity to respond to clients in a respectful and appropriate manner that recognizes and affirms their worth, regardless of their culture background. Effective social work practice also requires that social workers are cognizant of their own culture, beliefs, and values in order to minimize and/or eliminate the possibility of stereotyping, becoming judgmental, and imposing their values on their clients.

Authentic. Authenticity in effective social work practice refers to the realness and earnestness of a social worker’s manner of relating to his or her client. It is important for social workers to live and work authentically as much as possible. Social worker’s awareness of who they are personally and professionally has a profound effect on their ability to be effective social work practitioners.  Social workers must be sure that their expressions do not appear rehearsed or manufactured. An authentic social worker openly shares his or her thoughts and feelings.  In fact Barry R. Cournoyer (2014) author of “The Social Work Skills Workbook” suggests that “a social worker’s presentation be congruent, so that verbal, nonverbal, and behavioral expressions reflect synchronicity. Authenticity encourages clients to be open and honest thus enhancing the client-social work relationship.”  Kristin Battista-Frazee (2015) in her article entitled, “Authenticity and Your Brand, suggests that “by offering a more genuine self, we elicit better engagement and sharing from clients, colleagues, and advocates.”

In conclusion, not everyone has the skills, knowledge and values required for effective social work practice. However, there are many who are well qualified because they are committed to the calling. Those who have accepted the calling exemplify the mission of the profession because they possess the indispensable qualities of empathy, active listening, cultural competence, and authenticity.

Who Cares about Our Children?

By: Gary L. Cates, Ph.D., BCBA, NCSP

Who Cares?

I have the luxury of working with some of the most important people in the world. These people however don’t always seemingly get along because they often operate under a different set of rules despite having the same common goals. Parents, teachers, and other school personnel such as school psychologists, principals, social workers, speech language pathologists, are in the world of individual students on a daily basis and share the common goal and responsibility of ensuring student success. It is critical that parents and school personnel often consider the perspectives, strengths, constraints, and issues facing one another when going about their respective routines.

Today’s parents are faced with a multitude of daily activities including getting their children to t-ball practice, making sure there is money in the lunch account, checking homework assignments online, having sensitive discussions about things like wearing deodorant and not giving into peer pressure, and sometime in addition to attending emotionally taxing individualized education program meetings with well-versed school personnel. Some parents have additional challenges like not having the money for the lunch accounts, not living in a community where quality extracurricular activities such as t-ball are offered, not having internet access to check homework assignments online, and finding transportation to and from the IEP meeting. It is precisely these additional challenges that may impede parent-school relationships. It is therefore critical for teachers to consider the unique challenges that each parent faces on a daily basis and help them work around these challenges to better foster the success of the child.  Parents care.

Like individual parents, various school personnel also face many challenges. Today’s school personnel are required to demonstrate progress with all students, be versed in the latest research based assessment and interventions for academic and social emotional functioning, deal with well-intentioned parents emailing them about their students grades, keep the online homework assignments and grades up to date, learn about and show interest in each child’s stories about their t-ball team, have sensitive discussions about wearing deodorant and not giving into peer pressure, and sometimes attend emotionally taxing IEP meetings. School personnel care.

Based on my work with both parents and school personnel, I have developed a website based on 3 strong beliefs.

  • First, I firmly believe that parents and school personnel want what is best for each child they encounter.
  • Second, I believe parents and teachers both sacrifice their own personal time, energy, and resources to help children succeed despite those efforts not always being recognized.
  • Third, I believe that if equipped with the right resources and training, parents and school personnel can be better equipped to facilitate success with all students. Everyone cares.

The website, was simply started as a central location for parents and school personnel to obtain access to information and resources. Although the focus is primarily revolves around the assessment and treatment of academic skills deficits, the information and resources also are heavily focused on the implementation of multi-tiered system of supports/Response to Intervention (MTSS/RTI). In addition, I provide links to some of my invited presentations, tools that have been constructed out of necessity when working with parents and school personnel, and a few of my “go to” websites.

I have discovered that many parents and school personnel want to do what is best, but often don’t have the tools or resources to help them be successful. Some may even have the knowledge but lack the additional time in their daily lives to locate the resources, construct their own tools, or to stay abreast of the rapidly increasing research base of assessment, intervention, and implementation science. I try to facilitate this by providing a place for them to access the things I learn through my work with other parents and school personnel like them in addition to the websites I discover and the literature I read.

My perspective is one of optimism. I believe that there are not many parents or teachers who wake in the morning, sip their coffee, and contemplate how they can impede a child from succeeding. It is this perspective that has taken me beyond attempting to link assessment to intervention, but to move toward linking assessment and intervention to parents and school personnel. By equipping all stake holders with resources and helping everyone to consider the individual strengths and challenges that each bring to the table we can better ensure the success of all children. I challenge each parent and school personnel to confront one another with one basic premise: The person in front of you cares just as much as you do about the success of children in our schools.

Come check out my website and all the free tools and resources @

FAMILY PRESERVATION: Essential Strategies for Preserving the Family Unit


By Valtreasa Tolliver-Cook, Ed.D, ACSW, MSW, LSW


“The family unit plays a critical role in our society and in the training of the generation to come.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

We all live in a family. It has been said by many that, “The family is the basic social unit around which everything in society revolves.” Consequently, preserving the family unit is critical, especially during these times. The truth is, the family unit is under attack. All over the world families are falling apart. Preserving the family unit does not come naturally, nor does it happen overnight and it is most definitely not easy. Families are faced with uncertainties, crises, hardships, and challenges every day.  Therefore, we must become creative, proactive, and consistent when it comes to preserving the family unit. Here are some essential strategies that have proven to be helpful:


Communicating effectively, listen, and show respect

Effective communication is key to preserving the family unit. However, we must remember that communication is a two-way process. According to The Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service, “Family communication is much more than just the exchange of words between family members. It is what we say, how we say it, why we say it, when we say it, and what we neglect to say. It is our facial expressions, our gestures, our posture, and our vocal tones”. Perhaps the most important communication skill is listening. It is important that we attentively and actively listen to each other and communicate with openness and honesty. We must also remember that effective communication in the family must include all family members and should be conveyed in a respectful and caring manner.


Make family a priority, spend quality time together

Many of us lead very busy lives and have lots of responsibilities. I know I do, but it is important that we separate work and family life. This can be extremely challenging, at least it is for me. But spending time with my family is near and dear to my heart. It is important that we are fully present when we are with our family. Time is the most precious gift we can give to our family. Zig Zigler stated, “Spend time with those you love. One of these days you will say either, I wish I had or I’m glad I did.” When possible sit down for family dinner and talk, create family rituals, or spend recreational time together doing family activities that each of your family members enjoy. Remember that quality family time results from making family a priority.

Provide support and share resources with each other

It is important to offer support as well as ask for support. All families experience hardships or crises at one time or another; whether it be a broken relationship, loss of a job or income, death, homelessness, sickness, disease, or a fire. Though every situation is unique, all families need support. It is important that we let family members know that we are there to help, provide comfort, love, and care in times of need. We should also be willing, when possible to share what we have. Sharing what we have with family is profitable to the entire family unit.


Deal with conflict, practice love, forgiveness, and show appreciation

Family conflict is a normal and healthy part of family life. Conflict occurs in ALL families. Conflict can occur at any time so it is important for families to have effective ways of handling it. Conflict itself is not a problem, but the way it is handled might be. When conflict is managed in a positive way, families are strengthen and the family unit can be preserved. When conflict is not managed effectively, it causes stress and damage to the family unit. However, the first thing to remember is that we are all human, no one is perfect and from time to time, we get on each other’s nerves. The truth is sometimes, we offend each other, misunderstand each other, fail each other and disappoint each other. Consequently, in order to preserve the family unit, we must practice love and forgiveness. This is true for all relationships. According to the website Grace to You, “Forgiveness is a marvelous, virtuous, liberating, loving attitude and act.  It makes sense to forgive.  It is healthy, wholesome, liberating, and sensible.  It relieves tension, brings peace, and solicits love. Love should be the center of everything we do in our family. It is the family’s source of strength. We should often tell our family members that we love them and mean it. Most importantly, love should be expressed and demonstrated.

Finally, “Think of your family today and everyday thereafter, don’t let the busy world of today, keep you from showing how much you love and appreciate your family.” (Author Unknown)

Doing Math Assessment and Intervention Smarter: Why Spring Math

By Dr. Amanda VanDerHeyden

Why Spring Math?

Teachers often express less enthusiasm for teaching math compared to teaching other topics like language arts. Schools often have not allocated systematic supports for math achievement schoolwide. And there are not many evidence-based tools that teachers can use to help students who struggle in math. It turns out math proficiency is one of the best gifts you can give your student, whatever your student’s future career might be. Early numeracy skills predict a child’s academic success not just in math, but also in reading and other areas (Duncan et al., 2007). Math proficiency during K-12 forecasts not only enrollment in, but also completion of, a 2- or 4-year college degree in any academic major (Lee, 2012; Porter & Polikoff, 2012). Teaching students to think mathematically is a skill that benefits them throughout life and the stark line between reading success and math success is artificial.


Reading/writing proficiency and mathematical proficiency are integrated life skills. The mathematical counterparts to reading fluency, text analysis, vocabulary acquisition, and writing include understanding the four basic operations, mathematical laws, quantity representations and conversions, and understanding linear relationships. Mathematics is just another language by which students can characterize relationships between observed or hypothetical events, summarize findings, and pose new questions. Making a logical argument with words is very similar to making a logical argument with numbers. When you make sure your student is proficient in math, you open doors for your student for the rest of his or her life.


However, growing math proficiency is not easy. For example, existing standards, such as the Common Core State Standards, offer a clear sequence of expected learning outcomes from kindergarten through grade 8 that represent useful assessment targets by which teachers can verify that students are mastering key concepts and skills as instruction unfolds. Embedding skill assessments into the lesson plan to inform instruction (commonly called “formative assessment) is a logical part of effective mathematics instruction for all students, is commonly recommended in policy documents concerning evidence-based mathematics instruction (National Math Panel, 2008; VanDerHeyden & Allsopp, 2014), and garners one of the strongest effect sizes on student achievement among the variables considered by Hattie (2009) (d = .90). Formative assessment is effective because it allows the teacher to make mid-stream adjustments to instructional strategy and task difficulty as student learning progresses. However, formative assessment requires resources of teacher time, teacher skill in conducting the “right” assessment and correctly interpreting the data, and locating the necessary materials to assess and organize the data. Thus, as a matter of practicality, high-quality formative assessment often does not occur routinely in classrooms.


Technological tools in education have created opportunities for rapid integration of assessments of student learning with instructional programming and delivery (Twyman & Sota, 2016). Examples of web-based student assessment systems abound and are commonplace in most schools (e.g., Aimsweb, iSteep). These tools reduce the burden on the teacher in locating the assessments and organizing/interpreting data from screening. What existing screening tools do not provide is the direct link to intervention tactic and implementation materials based upon student assessment. Similarly, online and print-based math intervention tools (e.g., ixl, Accelerated Math) provide excellent skill practice, but no real link to student skill and capacity to benefit from practicing a particular skill. Spring Math provides both, linking student assessment data directly to the right intervention tactic and providing all needed materials to use the intervention for maximal gains.


What is Spring Math and how does it work?

Spring Math is a web-based comprehensive response to intervention system for mathematics for students in grades K-8. It can be used to direct remedial instruction for students in grades 9-12. Spring Math guides the teacher through screening, intervention, progress monitoring, and data interpretation.


 Screening. Screening assessments within Spring Math require less than five-minutes and are group administered. Spring Math summarizes the results of screening in a dashboard format unique to the teacher, principal and/or coach. Spring Math tells the teacher which students are on track, which students are potentially at risk, and whether there is a need for classwide intervention. Assessments were built using the science of curriculum-based assessment. Measures were constructed to sample specific skills, yield reliable (r = .67 to above r = .90; Foegen, Jiban, & Deno, 2007) and valid scores (r = .3 to r = .6; Foegen et al., 2007), and to allow for brief, repeated assessment to model progress over time and in response to instructional changes. Three to five screening measures are provided at fall, winter, and spring at each grade level. Screenings are group administered and timed to minimize loss of instructional time. Screening requires less than 20 minutes and meets the highest standards for screening adequacy.


Data summary and interpretation. Following screening, Spring Math graphs and interprets data by classroom within the teacher dashboard. The teacher can see which students are on track and which students are at risk. Spring Math indicates whether the class as a whole needs classwide intervention. If no classwide intervention is needed, Spring Math indicates which students need intervention and prompts the teacher to select 1-2 students to get started. At each “decision point,” a help section of the site is available to explain the decision rules if the teacher desires more information. When individual intervention is needed, Spring Math’s decision trees will provide the follow-up assessment and data interpretation to select the right intervention for the student. Once intervention is underway, Spring Math tracks the student’s progress and adjusts the intervention weekly, providing summary reports that the teacher can use to communicate and share progress with data teams, parents, and students.


Intervention. When classwide intervention is needed, Spring Math delivers all materials needed to use the intervention each week, summarizes student and classwide intervention progress, adjusts the skill difficulty, and shares progress with the school’s coach or principal. Classwide intervention requires 12-15 minutes per day and is one of the most powerful math improvement tactics a teacher can use. In one randomized controlled trial, researchers found that providing classwide math intervention prevented math failure for one of every two at-risk children who were exposed to classwide math intervention (VanDerHeyden & Codding, 2015).


Individual intervention is recommended when there is not a classwide problem at screening or after four weeks of classwide intervention has occurred and a decision rule can be applied to identify individual students who are not benefiting from classwide intervention. Individual intervention is more intensive. It provides skill acquisition and fluency building support along with scripted explicit instruction guides to build conceptual understanding related to the target skill. Individual intervention requires 15-20 minutes each day.

When individual children need intervention, Spring Math directs the follow-up assessment providing each assessment to identify the right intervention for the student. Spring Math delivers the right intervention packet for the student(s). Each packet contains scripted instructions for the intervention. The words in bold-faced print are the words that the teacher can say when delivering the intervention, offered as a guide to simplify intervention delivery. The packet also includes a troubleshooting section, and scripted, specific activities to build conceptual understanding for the particular skill. These activities connect the skill performance to the “big ideas,” past understandings and future understandings in math using explicit instruction techniques that are scripted for the teacher for ease of use. Next, the packet contains the actual practice materials that the student will use each day during the intervention. The packet ends with two brief timed assessments, administered at the end of the week: a target skill assessment and a generalization skill assessment. At the end of the week, the teacher enters the assessment scores and Spring Math summarizes weekly progress and adjusts the intervention each week (increasing difficulty or changing intervention tactic) based on student performance.

Importantly, Spring Math assessment and intervention materials are generated on demand when needed and the content is controlled to provide technically equivalent (but not identical) assessment forms and to provide the right practice opportunities within intervention sessions that differ across days (so the child can’t just memorize the answers).

Intervention features have been designed based upon best-available research evidence from the research community and these include: aligning intervention tactic and skill difficulty with student proficiency via assessment, decision rules to determine intervention tactic that will produce maximal growth, the sequence of intervention moving from prerequisite to goal skills, specific intervention tactics including modeling, guided practice, immediate versus delayed corrective feedback, verbal rehearsal strategies and “think aloud” problem solving, and scripted conceptual understanding tactics specific to each skill. All interventions were designed to maximize probability of correct use including: minimizing intervention complexity, providing all materials needed to implement the intervention, and a state-of-the-art user interface that prompts, supports, and rewards teacher use of the intervention over time.

 Implementation support. The principal and coach dashboard does the work of supporting screening completion; interpreting screening data at the school, grade, and class level; tracking risk reduction over time for the school; tracking the growth of students receiving classwide and individual intervention; and directing attention to students who could benefit from additional support to improve growth. Guided by implementation science (Fixsen & Blasé, 1993) Spring Math measures intervention consistency within and across classrooms, rate of improvement for at-risk students, and recommends specific actions to improve student growth each week.

Spring Math decision rules are grounded in the instructional hierarchy and learning trajectories theories (Harniss, Stein, & Carnine, 2002) and are designed to increase alignment between learner proficiencies, task content, and instructional strategy. The theory of change is that the automated use of student assessment data to select the intervention skill and instructional strategy and generate the intervention packet as occurs within Spring Math will (1) Increase alignment between student proficiency, task, and instructional strategy; (2) Increase correct intervention use, and that these effects will increase mathematics achievement. Intervention and generalization skill assessments are embedded to reflect learning gains each week. The model has been tested with especially promising results for students who were at risk for mathematics failure (e.g., effect size = .66 for students performing in the risk range on the preceding year’s state test; VanDerHeyden, McLauglin, Algina, & Snyder, 2012). A randomized controlled pilot study of Spring Math (formally referred to as Intervention Advisor) has also been conducted in the Boston public schools to examine the effect of Spring Math on intervention skill and strategy alignment, intervention use, and mathematics learning gains. At-risk students in grades 1-5 (N = 39) were randomly assigned to the web-based intervention system or a teacher-selected intervention for four weeks. Brief skill assessments were administered each week following standard curriculum-based measurement procedures to track growth of students assigned to each group. Growth was computed as answers correct per two minutes per week on the intervention skill and the generalization skill. Integrity was estimated by permanent product as days per week of intervention use. Intervention skill and strategy alignment were superior in the web-based intervention condition with alignment approximating the base rate (or accuracy based upon chance alone) in the Teacher Choice condition. Statistically significant differences were detected on all outcome measures with effect sizes partial η2 ranging from .14 to .67 for integrity, partial η2 = .13 for intervention skill gains.


Spring Math provides a comprehensive Response to Intervention (RtI) that helps teachers by providing screening, interventions and progress monitoring for individuals or classrooms. Spring Math is unique in how it uses individual student data to create customized class-wide and individual intervention plans that are delivered by teachers to students. Implementation is simple and aided through the use of clear intervention plans, easy to understand graphs and reports back to teachers through a user-friendly dashboard.


Come check us out!

Altruism: What are you doing for others?

By Dr. Valtreasa Tolliver-Cook

In his speech entitled, “Conquering Self-Centeredness” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stated, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” It is believed by many that helping others should come natural. This may be true for some, but not so true for all. The truth is altruism, the unselfish concern for people’s happiness and welfare has its pros and cons. The focus of this blog post is to discuss the pros and cons of helping others and identify ways we, as every day citizens, educators, and human service providers can help others.

What are you doing for others?

As a social worker and an educator, I am constantly asking myself this question amongst many more, such as:

  • What more can I do?
  • How can I understand people and their needs better?
  • How can I serve my clients or students in a better way?
  • What extraordinary things could I do to help others?
  • Have I given my very best?
  • Am I really making a difference in the lives of others?

I have always believed that my life’s purpose was to help others. My passion for helping others is what lead me to become a social worker and an educator. Despite the many trials and tribulations that I have experienced along the way, I am blessed that I have accomplished much in life and it is my desire to help others to accomplish their dreams as well. My answer to the question, what am I doing for others? A lot!!!

Pros of Helping Others

Helping others can be an opulent experience. Not only does it provide support to those on the receiving end, it makes you, the helper, feel better too. In fact, Val Halamandaris, President of the National Association for Home Care & Hospice and leader of the Last Great Civil Right Movement stated, “The true value of human life is determined by the extent to which it is used to help others.” In addition, Mahatma Gandhi once said that “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Helping others has personal, professional, and health benefits. To name a few:

  • Helping others gives you a sense of pride and accomplishment, you feel good about yourself and grateful for what you have, and increases your level of self-esteem and self-confidence;
  • Helping others allows you to gain valuable life experiences, acquire new skills and can put you on a path to your future career; and
  • Research suggests that there are mental health and physical benefits to helping others, for example it lessens stress, anxiety and depression, lowers blood pressure and improves overall physical well-being.

Cons of Helping Others

Unfortunately, helping others does not come as easy as you may think. Helping others can be overwhelming, demanding, and quite frustrating. Those of us in various helping professions, may experience burnout, compassion fatigue, or vicarious trauma. Life can be very complicated and chaotic; therefore, helping others isn’t always easy. It can sometimes interfere your schedule and cost you time, energy, money, your health and other resources. All too often, we get too caught up in our own problems to give people the help they need. Sad, but true a lot of the help we provide is unappreciated. However, it is important to remember that these consequences of helping others happen because we care, because we empathize with those who are hurting or in need, and because we feel committed or responsible to help.

How We Can Help Others

Here are a few ways we can helping others, whether big or small; whether public or private; whether friends, family, or strangers: How can we help others?

1) Treat others how we want to be treated

This is the “Golden Rule.” I believe that what goes around comes around. I believe if you do good deeds to others, the same will be done to you. For example: When you are feeling down, you want others to be compassionate; you want to be treated with love and respect; when you make a mistake, you want to be forgiven and given the benefit of the doubt, a second chance.

2) Share your knowledge

Every day there is an opportunity to share your knowledge. It is one of the easiest ways to help others. You don’t even have to be an expert. We all have wisdom to share. We can share knowledge simply by communicating with others. As a social worker, educator, a wife (a preacher’s wife), a daughter, and friend, I share my knowledge with others on a daily basis, my knowledge about helping others, available resources and opportunities, and words of wisdom for living a good life. The key is to keep educating yourself so you can stay current and you can have something to share.

3) Share your resources

Sharing is a good thing. One of the first things, we teach our children is to share. Brian Tracy, Chairman and CEO of Brian Tracy International said, “Love only grows by sharing. You can only have more for yourself by giving it away to others.” Author Ursula K. LeGuin conveyed that “Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.” Share within reason. Don’t overdo it, keep it balanced! Your resources may include your time, money, food, living space, books, etc.

In addition, Michael Angier (2016) in his article entitled, “Top Ten Ways to Help People Realize their Potential”, provides the following as ways we can help others:

4) Be a good role model

According to Angier (2016):

“One of the best ways we influence is by our own actions. Who we are speaks much more loudly than what we say. Don’t think that people aren’t watching you. They are. And they’re registering everything about you consciously and unconsciously. We automatically emulate our role models. And we’re ALL role models to someone so let’s be good ones.”

5) Believe in them
According to Angier (2016):

“We all have self-doubts from time to time. Our confidence is shaken. We lack the faith in our talents and skills to go after our dreams. Having someone believe in you is priceless. The stories of great men and women are saturated with examples of someone who believed in them even when they didn’t fully believe in themselves.”

6) Encourage them
According to Angier (2016):

“You can do it.” “I know you can.” These are words that are all-too-infrequently voiced. Sincere encouragement can go a long way in helping someone stay the course. The more specific you are, the better the results.

Finally, no matter how hard the sacrifice, at the end of the day, the pros of helping others outweigh the cons and the challenges that we face when trying to help someone. Remember that helping others allows you to connect to one another and your community, ultimately making it a better place. We all want the world to be a better place. So in the words of John Wesley, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

Tis the Season to be Social

December Social Skills Blog: Tis the Season to be Social
By Kate Helbig

Kate Helbig

Kate Helbig

It’s the most wonderful time of the year and it is finally here! We all survived the copious amounts of food, pie, and football on Thanksgiving. Now we are in full preparation (or panic if you have procrastinated as long as I have) for the upcoming holiday extravaganzas. This blog edition will be somewhat of a continuation of the previous post in that it will review and expand upon holiday related social skills.

To begin our discussion about social skills, we will start with one of the most prominent part of winter holidays, gift exchanges. Gift exchanges, though wonderful and fun, can be stressful leading up to the actual event, and take a lot of planning and thought. Now imagine someone with ASD, who already have a social skill deficit, therefore making the process that much more difficult. Prior to the event, it would likely be beneficial to sit down with your student and provide them a rationale of why it is important to give during the holiday season and how it makes others feel. It also may be beneficial to have your child brainstorm a list of items that others like and that could be potential gifts. If your child or student is having difficulty generating their own ideas, you can provide them with various exemplars and help steer them in the right direction by having them list things that they would like as a gift. Then have the child extend and generalize this concept to members in their family like their mom, dad, siblings, etc. Though this seems like a simple task, it can be difficult for a child with ASD to generate their own ideas regarding other peoples’ preferences, thus it is important to provide praise for the child participating and developing their own ideas.

Now, for the actual event itself, the social interaction of the gift exchange! I will provide a general task analysis of discrete steps on receiving gifts and then highlight some additional points that will be helpful during this interaction.

Receiving Gifts:
1. Open the present
2. Look at the person (orient head and shoulders towards person)
3. Make eye contact (maintain for at least three seconds)
4. Say thank you

Like every other skill, train and practice this interaction prior to the actual gift exchange event. Implement behavioral skills training and provide some type of reinforcer contingent upon the child’s accurate demonstration of skill. Practice this skill until you see mastery (100% accuracy) of the skill.

Potential sticky situations:
So there is the inevitable situation your child or student may not like (or even hate) the gift that they were given. To account for this during skills training, point out to the child that the only appropriate response is to thank the person for giving them a gift. Specifically target this by presenting something the child does not prefer (i.e. some type of food item) as the gift and have them practice responding until they demonstrate mastery.

This also goes back to the white lie portion of last month’s blog posting. Explain to the child or student that it is important to always say thank you even if they did not like the gift. This is because the person that gave the gift went out of their way and spent time, money, or both on trying to do something nice for them, and these efforts should be acknowledged. Also explain that if they were to say something along the lines of ‘I don’t like this present’, it can be considered rude or make someone else feel sad or mad. Additionally, explain that if they treat someone rudely, it is less likely that the person that gave the gift will want to do something nice or get a gift for your child or student in the future. You can explain that in general, it is just good manners and social skills to always thank people that do or give something to you.

Another lesson that is related to gift exchanges (though not required) but may be a good idea to teach, is writing thank you notes. Though this is not a physical social interaction, it is still within the social skill domain, as it is a written form of communication. Explain that it is just like being the skill of verbally saying thank you but you are writing it in a few sentences instead. Explain the appropriate times to write a thank you note and why people like receiving thank you notes.

Lastly, holiday family gatherings are a great opportunity for your child to practice all of the previously discussed social skills, such as maintaining a conversation, responding to questions, initiating a conversation, and of course gift giving. During these events, though they may be hectic, make sure to provide praise for your child engaging in any accurate demonstration of these various or skills or any appropriate social interaction in general.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and take the time to relax and enjoy it with your friends and families! Happy holidays!

Children are our Future: 5 Strategies for Developing Emotionally Healthy Children



Valtreasa Tolliver-Cook, Ed.D, ACSW, MSW, LSW

One of my favorite songs of the 1980’s is “The Greatest Love of All” popularized by Whitney Houston. What I like most about the song is the beginning lyrics: “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride to make it easier.” If the lyrics to this song are true, then: Who is responsible for teaching them well? Who is responsible for helping them find their way? Who is responsible for showing them all the beauty they possess inside? Who is responsible for giving them a sense of pride? The answer is quite simple, we are!! By we, I am referring to families (parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, fictive kin, and extended family members), educators (teachers, administrators, assistant teachers, counselors, social workers, and other school staff), and community members and leaders.

In the words of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “We may not be able to prepare the future for our children, but we can at least prepare our children for the future.” In addition, former President John F. Kennedy stated, “Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” Therefore, it is imperative that we work together to prepare children for the future. In fact, increasing amounts of research supports the value of families, educators, and communities’ working together to support student learning and development. Children benefit when all of the adults who care for them work together, simply because it is our responsibility to guide and direct children the way they need to go.

The children who you see, care for, and work with today, will eventually become the doctors, lawyers, preachers, teachers, leaders, and caretakers of tomorrow. What can we do to prepare them for the future? What can we do to be sure they are equipped with the skill sets and the mindset they need to take on the many challenges and opportunities that the future will bring? Life today is exponentially more complicated and challenging than it was 50 years ago, 30 years ago, and even 20 or 10 years ago. I can’t begin to imagine how complicate and challenging the future will be.

Here are a few things that we can do as families, educators, and community members and leaders to prepare children for the future:

  1. Help children develop a healthy sense of self-esteem. According to the website, self-esteem is shaped not only by a child’s own perceptions and expectations, but also by the perceptions and expectations of significant people in the child’s life — how the child is thought of and treated by his/her family, educators, and community members and leaders and most importantly their peers. For healthy self-esteem, children must feel secure about themselves and their future. When children feel good about themselves, it sets them up for success. Positive feelings like self-acceptance, self-love and self-confidence help children try new challenges, face difficult life challenges, cope with mistakes, and never give up. To help children develop a sense of healthy self-esteem, families, educators, and community members and leaders can do the following:
    1. Show them love. Let them know that they are loved, not just for what they do, but for who they are. Make it a habit to show love every day, consistently. Remember love is an action verb!!
    2. Talk to them and most importantly listen to them. Sometimes, we are so busy giving directives and talking at them that we fail to talk to them and listen to what they have to say. Children have a lot to say and it’s important to them and it should be important to us, too.
    3. Let them know that they are special. It is not to say that they are more special than anyone else. It simply means teach them that they are unique and they should embrace their uniqueness. Being different is a good thing. It’s about loving who they are.
  2. Encourage life-long learning. Learning is a great activity. Learning is an important part of living. It helps children expand their viewpoint. Life-long learning opens the mind, increases wisdom and creativity. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life and impact the lives of other. Henry Ford once said “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” To encourage life-long learning families, educators, and community members and leaders can do the following:
    1. Inspire them to read, read, and read. Reading teaches children about the world around them. Through reading, they learn about people, places and events outside their own experience. They are exposed to ways of life, ideas and beliefs about the world, and they learn how the past and the present influences the future. Motivate them to ask questions. Operative learning requires active participation. Children are curious human beings. Asking questions motivate children to seek out knowledge that aligns with their interests and can therefore foster a lifelong love of learning.
  3. Help them discover and explore their talents and abilities. According to the website, all children have special talents and abilities that need to be noticed and nurtured. Children’s talents should be developed as early as possible so they can achieve their full potential. Taking pride in their talents and abilities helps children do their best. To help children discover and explore their talents and abilities, families, educators, and community members and leaders can do the following:
    1. Have high expectations, but make them realistic.
    2. Find out what they want to do and encourage them to do it. Teach children to trust their intuition and believe in their capabilities.
    3. Create and expose them to a wide range of experiences. Perhaps, these experiences may trigger interests, hidden talents, and abilities. Help them find healthy outlets for their talents.
  4. Help children recognize and develop their strengths. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. All too often, we spend too much time and energy thinking about and trying to fix what we are not so good at. We concentration on the weaknesses rather than accentuate the strengths. More time and energy should be spent recognizing and developing strengths. All children have strengths that need to be discovered, valued and used. When children use their strengths, they develop into adults who are not only respectful, but are also respected for who they truly are. As families, educators, and community members and leaders, we have a powerful tool to help children lead happier, healthier, more fulfilling and successful lives. We must talk to children about their strengths. Talking to children about their strengths will help to build their confidence and help them to flourish, ultimately prepare them for what lies ahead. Tell them what they are doing well.
  5. Last but not least, perhaps the most important thing that we can do to prepare children for the future is teach, demonstrate, and praise respectful behavior. The best way to teach and demonstrate respect is to give respect. Respect children, they are human beings with feelings and emotions, just like you and I. Children learn from their environments. We must be good role models, set good examples. Teach them to say, please, thank you and excuse me. Trust me good manner and good character will open doors for you in life. I’m a witness!! Teach them to apologize when they are wrong and when possible correct their mistakes. There’s a big world out there just waiting for our children, we must prepare them for what lies ahead. Remember it is what we do right now that makes a difference in the future!! So, let’s all do our part and “Teach them well, show them all the beauty they possess inside, and give them a sense of pride to make it easier.”


Social Skills: Compliments to the Chef

As we all know, preparing a thanksgiving meal takes a great deal of time and effort, and every chef welcomes a compliment regarding their food they prepared. This is whyit is important to practice the skill of giving compliments in relation to the thanksgiving meal. This is trained very similarly to responding to questions, however instead of generating a response to a question, the child is responsible for initiating and/or generating a compliment. The discrete skill steps for this skill include

  1. Face the person

  2. Make eye contact (within 3 seconds)

  3. Provide a compliment (i.e. this meal is delicious)

  4. Listen and respond with a relevant statement (maintain eye contact and respond)

Again, train this skill as you would any other skill and go over approximately three different responses (or compliments) that your child or student can use during dinner. An interesting point that may come up is that your child or student may not actually like the food items. In this case, it is okay to explain the child that they have two choices. One choice being that even though they don’t actually like the food it is still okay to give a general compliment on the meal being fantastic, because the individual did put a lot of time and effort into preparing the meal. The other option is to just not say anything at all. It is important to go over that they should not say anything negative about the meal. Remember to go over that this is a ‘special’ occasion in which they can tell a white lie, and that these occasions rarely happen and that they should typically always tell the truth. Also, depending on the child’s level of functioning, this skill may or may not be appropriate to even go over. I do believe it is important to outline the rationale of why they need to provide a compliment on a day like Thanksgiving. Remember, that if you do see your child engage in any of these skills to praise them immediately for doing so, (even if it is just a whisper during dinner).

I hope these skills are useful to you and your children or students and that you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. I know that I am thankful for some time off to go back home and visit friends and family! I hope you all have a wonderful day filled with delicious food, relaxation, and football. Happy thanksgiving everyone!

School Social Workers: Vital Link in the Transition Process for Students with Disabilities


Valtreasa Tolliver-Cook, Ed.D, ACSW, MSW, LSW

Assistant Professor of Social Work

13681030_1383403881674147_8804509587077298520_nMy name is Valtreasa Tolliver-Cook and I AM A SOCIAL WORKER and an Educator. Social work is my calling! Social workers are servants and being a servant is the purpose of my existence. Helping people, serving others, authentically, is not just what I do, it is who I am! Most importantly, it brings glory and honor to THE ONE I love the most; and the gratitude from and success of those who reap the benefits is pretty satisfying as well. It is an exciting experience practicing, writing and teaching about social work.

“They” say no one professional can be all things to all people; that may be true, but I believe that social workers come very close. Social work is both an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary profession, which simply means it draws from and relates to a number of other professions such as, but not limited to: psychology, sociology, criminology, health, law, anthropology and education. Quite frankly, we are just “know-it-alls” in a positive way. This wealth of knowledge, coupled with skills, values, love for people, and compassion are the keys to effective and efficient social work practice. Social work has an extensive history in collaborating and consulting with other disciplines. Social workers have worked with colleagues from other disciplines since the early days of the profession and they practice in a variety of setting such as hospitals, human service agencies, law enforcement agencies, mental health facilities, and schools.

The focus of this blog is to discuss how social workers who provide services in schools are a vital link in the transition process for students with disabilities.

The three key concepts here are school social workers, the transition process, and students with disabilities. I will briefly discuss all three concepts and then connect them to give you a vivid picture.

Social workers are academic and professionally trained practitioners who help people in need; challenge social injustices; respect the dignity and worth of people; give importance to human relationships; behave in a professional and trustworthy manner; and practice with competence. School social workers are specialized practitioners within the broad field of social work who bring the knowledge, skills, values, experience and expertise of social work practice to the school setting. According to the School Social Work Association of America ( school social workers serve as a link between the home, the school and the community providing both direct and indirect services to students, families and school personnel to promote and support students’ academic and social success. School social workers work with both general and special education students and they play an important role in service provision for students with disabilities and/or special needs. In fact, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004) recognizes the role of school social worker services as a related service for students with disabilities.

What is the transition process? The transition process as defined by IDEA (2004) is designed to be a result-driven process. Transition services refer to a coordinated set of activities that prepare students with disabilities to move from school to post-school life. These activities must be individualized based on the student’s needs, preferences, and interests. The transition process is more than a mandate; it’s an experience with demands, challenges, and opportunities. It is a process that requires time, planning, commitment and patience. Successful transition also requires involvement and contribution from all parties. IDEA (2004) requires that the transition process begins before or when a student reaches the age of 16 years old.

Last, but definitely not least, let’s discuss students with the disabilities. There are multiple types of disabilities and IDEA (2004) mandates that children and youth between the ages of 3-21 with disabilities be provided a free and appropriate public school education. Disability is an impairment that may be physical, cognitive, intellectual, mental, sensory, developmental, or some combination of these that results in restrictions on an individual’s ability to participate in their everyday life. When a student presents with a disability, it is the school’s responsibility to provide appropriate accommodations for the student set forth in the law.

Now let’s bring it all together. How are school social workers the vital link in the the transition process for students with disabilities? It’s quite simple; we are the “glue.” We help to connect the dots; we make things happen; we bring the knowledge-based of our own profession and all the professions involved in the process; we help prepare the way, we make a way out of no way. IDEA refers to us as related services, but I know that we are the star players. We are the profession with the specialized knowledge that addresses the whole student and consider all facets of the student’s life, home, school, and community. We are very instrumental in opening doors to school and post-school success for students and their families. We not only provide services and linkage to students and their families, we also provide services to the teachers and the school administrators. We help them understand what it means to “start where the client is.” We help them understand how to view the “person in the environment” and how the environment impacts the educational and transitional process. We also create services when they do not exist. We are not confined to the school setting; we also work in the home, the community, and alternative settings, when necessary. We help the community to understand the needs of its children and families and advocate that provisions are made to address those needs. We are educators, consultants, counselors, coordinators, and the list goes on. Now, it should be pretty clear why we are the vital link to the transition process for students with disabilities.

Social Skills Blog- Trick or Treat Edition

Leaves are changing, temperatures are dropping, and bonfires are burning. Fall is in full swing and with that, so are all of the fantastic fall activities! Whether you are going to apple orchards, finding your way through corn mazes, or picking the perfect pumpkin out at the pumpkin patch, the season change has approached us, and thus so have the fall holidays! Halloween is right around the corner along with Halloweencomes classroom parties, costume parades, and of course, trick or treating! These various social engagements are the hub for millions of social interactions and opportunities to utilize social skills. The purpose of this blog is to talk about various social skills that children with autism can utilize that are specific to Halloween associated activities.

Classroom Parties

  • Though this is still within the students ‘everyday environment’, there are different contingencies at play during ‘party days’, and therefore opportunities for different social skills that may not be used frequently.
    • An example of one of these skills is ‘turn taking’. Think of all of the fun games that are played during classroom parties, students are very excited to participate in these activities and may very easily forget about waiting their turn.
    • Turn taking is an important skill because it can prevent many undesired social interactions. Specifically, if a student fails to wait their turn, other students will likely get angry or upset, thus potentially creating conflicts for everyone involved.
  • In order to help and teach the student to appropriately engage in turn taking, I will break the skill into simple discrete steps.
  1. Face the person (or people) you are playing the game with.
  2. Make eye contact with other game players.
  3. Decide the order of the players or who will go first.
    • When teaching this step to a student with autism, I usually explicitly point out that we cannot just grab the game materials and start playing (as I have seen that is usually an issue).
  4. Follow the established order and waiting for your turn (not playing when it’s someone else’s’ turn).
  5. Play and participate in the game and continuation of following the correct order.
    • Again, as a reminder when teaching this skill offer corrective feedback for incorrect demonstration of the step and praise for correct skill demonstration.

Costume Parades

  • The next social engagementthat will be discussed are costume parades! One of the best parts about Halloween is dressing up in a fun costume and being allowed to wear it outside of the house.
  • The skill that popped into my head when thinking about this particular activity was ‘receiving compliments’. Often times one of the most common things heard on Halloween night include ‘wow what a scary costume’, ‘you are such a pretty princess’, ‘what a cute little cat!’.
  • Sometimes these compliments do not appear in the typical presentation (think about it- what day other than Halloween is it considered a compliment when someone tells you ‘wow look how scary you are’).
  • You may need to sit down with your child or student and go over some of these different compliments prior to him or her dressing up. This will also provide an opportunity for your child to practice responding appropriately.
  • The discrete steps for this skill are very simple.
  1. The first two steps include facing the person and making eye contact.
  2. After the compliment is provided, that is then when you would teach your child to respond with ‘thank you’.
  3. If you are feeling extra ambitious, you can go the extra step and teach your student or child to give his or her own compliment (something as easy as ‘I like your costume too’).

Trick or Treating

The last social engagement activity we will talk about in this post is (drum roll please…) TRICK OR TREATING! I purposefully saved the best activity for last, partly because trick or treating is the most fun, but also because there is a_lot_ that goes along with this section.

  • First, this whole business of trick or treating involves a ton of different social skills (including turn taking and receiving compliments!). Once you have accomplished getting up to someone’s door, there are a lot of skills involved,from initiating conversation to responding to questions. I will go through each of these skills as well as a general recommendation at the end.

Initiating conversations

  • Beginning with initiating conversation, it is actually easier on Halloween, as they are provided with a general conversation starter (i.e. Trick or Treat!).
  • Just provide the child with the reminder to wait until the door is opened, then face the person, make eye contact, and say ‘trick or treat’.
  • The next part of this interaction involves responding to questions (i.e. what are you dressed up as?).
  • Explain to your child that they should listen (by maintaining eye contact and nodding head) to what the person at the door asks and respond to their question. The rationale for doing this is to be nice and that it will make the person at the door feel happy.
  • An important skill step to remember throughout this processis to tell the child to WAIT for the person’s response before reaching their hand into the candy bowl. Once the bowlis presented in front of the child, then is the appropriate time to reach for a piece of candy.
  • Lastly, just provide that friendly reminder for your child to thank the person that provided them with a treat.

If you are concerned about the entire process of trick or treating or your child/student’s reaction to this activity, there are some things you can do to help the process go smoother. One of these things is a ‘mock trick or treat’. This involves setting up the trick or treating process at your house to provide some exposure of the process to your child/student.

  • Have your child/student practice this process by actually knocking on the front door and going through each of the steps of trick or treating.
  • Just like any other social skill training procedure, start by modeling an accurate trick or treating interaction.
  • Next, have your child or student practice trick or treating.
  • Provide them with corrective feedback for inaccurate skill demonstration and praise for correct skill demonstration.
  • If you are close with or have a good relationship with your neighbors, ask if your child or student can practice trick or treating at their house. This can help promote generalization for the trick or treating social skill across both people and settings. It will also provide your child or student with additional practice demonstrating the skill.

Last but not least, sit down and go over safety rules. It is especially important to go over the ‘don’t’ talk to stranger’s rule’. This is important because on this night, they are allowed to talk to neighbors and people they may not know when they are trick or treating, but make it clear that the child or student are only allowed to do that under the supervision of a parent. Re-iterate the rule of not getting into the car with strangers and to also be under the supervision of a trusted adult the entire evening.

That wraps up this Halloween related social skills blog, I hope that you all enjoy your Halloween night and have a blast dressing up and trick or treating with your families. Please share your Halloween photos and experiences! Happy Halloween everyone!