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School-based family worker gives practical tips for using cards

Posted: 17/11/2020

Recently we were contacted by Penny, a highly respected and experienced child, youth and family worker, about the various ways she is using Innovative Resources’ cards and tactile resources with children in a school setting during COVID-19. She generously agreed to share some of her experiences and tips.

‘I currently work as a school family support worker at a Victorian primary school. The school is in an area that had a COVID-19 outbreak, and consequently, I’m seeing a lot of students experiencing anxiety, stress and worry.

‘I’ve been using both the Anxiety Solutions for Kids cards and Body Signals cards (with the older kids mostly. I use The Koalas and others with the little folk). The Body Signals cards have been great to help students identify where they feel things in their body, how it might look to others and make the link between body sensations and feelings. I had one student yesterday reflect that she felt reassured when she looked at the picture of the meerkat feeling waves of nausea as it represented exactly how she feels before school each day. She particularly liked the illustration of the wave in the tummy.

‘The Anxiety Solutions for Kids have been great too. I often say, “Let’s pop them in piles, a pile for the options you currently use or would like to practise, then maybe an I’ll try pile and the No thanks, that’s not for me pile (with a bupbaaaarm sound).” I love how each student connects with different ideas and we talk about trying some strategies to see how they fit. Could we use it at home? At school? In the car? On the loo? We then write them up, make a little book and take them off to practise.’

Penny said that during the pandemic, she had to adjust how she was working with the cards and resources because she has to wipe everything down between conversations. This meant that she ended up using a lot of different resources in the same day.

‘I was thinking that some days, I can story my whole work day by Innovative Resources’ cards and tools. An intro meeting with a student and parent with The Koalas; Can-Do Dinosaurs with the 8-year-old who struggles to get motivated; a five-column approach for the maths teacher who is working with a student who worries about getting the answers wrong; a scaling tool for the mum who finds it hard to get through another bloody Zoom meeting, trying to work while wrangling a toddler and a school-refusing preppy; Body signals and Anxiety Solutions for the 12-year-old who hasn’t been able to eat or sleep properly since COVID started; Strength Cards to celebrate the strengths and capacities of the student and mum who are finishing up the service; and a reflective letter with a few stickers to summarise the amazing work everyone is doing from week to week.’

Using the cards with adults

While Penny now works primarily with children in a school setting, she has also worked with the resources in various roles and has found that different ones work better in different settings.

‘When I was working with men’s groups, I found that they really liked the Cars ’R’ Us cards, Ups and Downs and Funky Fish Feelings. They didn’t seem to respond to the photo-based cards as much.

‘I also worked with groups of women in their 50s and 60s around grief, loss and change, and I found that the most profound shift for them came in around week six when I used the Strengths Cards. Everyone in the group knew each other pretty well by then, so I would ask them to turn to the person next to them and name a strength they had seen in that person over the past six weeks. For some of the women, it was the first time anyone had noticed or named something they were good at or a quality they had. It was really powerful.

‘For people experiencing big emotions around change, life can feel problem-saturated at times. It can be really hard for them to get their head around the idea that they have strengths. The cards can be a really great tool for “concretising” what a strengths is.’

How do you use the cards with kids the first time you meet them?

‘I never assume that kids understand what feelings are or that they can name different feelings. Emotional intelligence is a skill you learn and not everyone, kids or adults, has had a chance to learn that skill. So when I meet kids for the first time, I start by asking them to pick out cards for the more obvious emotions—happy, sad, angry—then I get the kids to describe how they know the koala is sad. What does the koala’s face look like? What are their eyebrows doing? What are the clues in their body?

‘When we are talking about goal setting, I usually use a sport analogy. I talk about how in some sports, the whole team works together to reach the goal, like netball and footy. Like in sport, a goal in life is also something that you want to achieve. They get to decide who is on their team to work with them to practise their skills to achieve their goals—their family, teacher, whoever else is important to them. They seem to understand the idea of goals better when I talk about it in that way.

‘Another great way to use the cards is to get kids to use them to story their day. If you just ask them how they are feeling right now, they will probably be feeling ok if they are sitting with you in your office—they might have gotten out of maths or sport, and they are feeling pretty good! What you really want to find out is how they felt when Mum dropped them off at the school gate that morning or what was going on when their friends wouldn’t play with them in the playground. In other words, when were they feeling worried, angry or scared.

‘I use the The Koalas or The Bears and ask the kids to pick out different cards that show how they were feeling at different moments in their day or week. The older kids like the round Koala Company cards because there are some crazy characters in there with nose rings and wild hairdos. They like the green koala—lots of kids pick that one.’

The benefits of using visual and tactile resources with kids

Penny says she likes to use the cards without words with younger children and generally introduces cards with words on them for kids who are at least eight or nine years old. She said that kids this age enjoy reading the words on cards like the Can-Do Dinosaurs and Strengths Cards for Kids.

‘The Can-Do Dinosaurs are great to use with kids because they often get stuck on what they can’t do rather than what they can. Even when I ask them directly to name something they can do or things they like, they often still name things can’t do or don’t like.

‘It can feel like a pretty big shift in thinking for some kids (and adults!) to start to focus on what they can do, so using cards can give them something to focus on. Instead of naming something, they might point to a picture they like or choose a couple of cards. Or they might choose cards that describe things they would like to be able to do. Sometimes it can be hard to put words to what you are feeling so the cards take the pressure off by allowing them to respond in non-verbal ways.

‘I also like having tactile tools like the Mood Dudes or the Pocket of Stones for the kids to play with as it can help them to have something to do with their hands; it’s something else to focus on and it makes the conversation less intense and more like a game.

‘When kids do finally name some things they can do or some strengths they have, you can see a change in them. They feel more confident to try other things.’

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