Back to school next week and I am gearing up for another invigorating school year.
Those of us who work in a school setting have the ultimate perk of a luxurious 10 week summer break to re-charge our batteries and come up with new ways to engage our students. Unfortunately the job market does not appear to have re-charged during the summer so we will again be faced with the gargantuan task of finding jobs for student workers with special needs who will compete with increasing numbers of people who have lost their jobs and are now looking for anything to get back to work. While my students are often hard workers who try their best they have a wide array of challenges that can put them at a disadvantage when compared with other job seekers.
Ok...so the dismal job market is a fact that we can not control but what can we DO to increase our student's chances of working? Well, I have had the opportunity to see many programmatic innovations and individual changes that go a long way even in a tough job market.
First, while our students are still in school we need to raise the bar of expectations that more closely match a job's demands. For example, students should be required to call in an absence to school on their own...not have their parent do it for them. The parent may need to assist with this process but ..."no show - no call" is one of the best ways to get fired in a job...so learning to do that while you are still a student even when you don't feel good and even when you are too tired and maybe especially when it is hard to do...SHOULD BE REQUIRED!
Second, students need to learn to follow a schedule...not just as part of a crowd but a truly individual schedule. Last year an innovative teacher reviewed break time procedures with her class IE everyone gets a 10 minute break; each worker takes break by him or herself (just as it will be on a real job...since most of our students work in retail environments it is important for them to learn to do things on their own...stores don't close for lunch breaks!) When the students arrived at the worksite the teacher told each of them what time their break would be. She did NOT remind them again! The first day many of the students did not take their break at the right time but asked to go on break when they noticed a peer was going. They were reminded of their break time and if they'd missed it they'd have to wait till their shift ended.
When they returned to the classroom they discussed what had happened and many of the students said they couldn't remember their break time. The teacher offered them a reasonable accommodation that she would write down their break time and give it to them if that would help. Some students were concerned that even with it written down they still wouldn't know when to go...although all of these students could tell time estimating time passing was a skill they didn't need in a school setting driven by bells and teacher directed changes. Those students were asked to get a watch that they could program to ring at a certain time so they would know when to take their break. Another simple accommodation that could mean the difference between keeping a job and being fired.
A third innovation that we successfully piloted last year is that each student was given a self-evaluation check list upon returning from a work site. They were asked to rate their own job performance, preparation for work and attitude on the job while the teacher completed the same job performance checklist. Then each student was asked to sit down with the teacher and discuss their performance review. This occurred every time they went to a worksite! In many cases the teacher and student agreed and at times students were harder on them self than the teacher but it was the times when they didn't agree that the opportunity for growth was greatest. During the course of the school year these students learned to accept constructive criticism; negotiate with a superior; and self-evaluate their work. These are critical skills for success in any job!
So armed with these new skills many of our special needs students are stand outs in the job market. We often receive feed back from employers that our students are better prepared than the general public for interviews and in many cases become more reliable and dedicated workers. As a job developer I need to remember that I am looking for one job at a time for each student. Despite the challenges of the job market last year, we successfully placed 4 of the 5 students we worked with before they graduated! We were also successful in placing two other students who will be returning to school this fall and we assisted with job retention for one other student who held a job for 2 years by time he graduated.
Although this blog is primarily school focused there are many ways parents need to step up and support their young adults emerging independence. It can be quite difficult for parents to step back and watch their teen struggle to make that, I'm sick, phone call BUT in the long run that skill will be invaluable. If parents give in to the teens requests to do it for them in the long run we are hurting their opportunities as adults and even in the short run we are preventing them to face and succeed at a new challenge. When adults do things for us we learn that we are NOT capable people and our self esteem suffers. So parents let me urge a little "tough love" on those mornings when your teen is ill and can't go to school require more of them and they will learn that they are capable people!