Addressing SEL and Trauma, Social Work Interns

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In the hallway of The FAIR School in downtown Minneapolis, a student and a graduate-level social work intern (SWI) are sitting at a high-top table, deep in conversation. They are discussing the loss of the student’s close family member and how she is managing the tough balance of keeping up with schoolwork, the raw emotions of her loss, and the impact they have had on her ability to focus. The biweekly, individualized support the student has received from the SWI has helped her stay on track and learn strategies to manage her emotions.

In the social work office, a student with a 504 plan is greeted by licensed school social worker Kayci Rush. The student signs in to take a mindfulness break in the Serenity Corner.

While he is meditating, Rush takes a quick check on his grades and attendance to assess his progress and monitor his accommodations. She briefly visits with his assigned SWI, who connects with him and chats on the way back to class.

[tweetshare tweet=”1 in 5 teens lives with a mental health condition, and an additional 10 percent live with high levels of anxiety. #mentalhealth #whateverittakes” username=”PrincipalTribe”]

Advancing SEL

These are just two examples of how our innovative and replicable school Social Work Intern Program serves more than 40 percent of our students each year, providing support to build students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) skills and management strategies.

The FAIR School’s on-site mental health program, which consists of social work interns, is staffed by eight to 10 graduate-level social work students each year. A competitive recruiting process garners more than 60 applications from graduate-level students seeking an internship at The FAIR School.

Interns are interviewed and selected based on their background, academic record, and ability to connect with youth. They remain at FAIR for the school year, are mentored by a licensed school social worker, and are assigned a caseload of students to work with and serve.

The FAIR School’s complement of wraparound services encompasses not only academics but a network of resources designed to address the social-emotional needs of students in the adolescent years.

We know that our community is strengthened when we combine efforts to support students and empower parents. Since 2009, graduate students throughout 10 Minnesota colleges and universities earning a Master of Social Work degree now participate in The FAIR School Internship program. These graduate students have the unique opportunity to work with high school students, providing a rich experience as they develop their social work practice.

Social-emotional learning and support is critical to the academic success of today’s high school students. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 teens lives with a mental health condition, and an additional 10 percent live with high levels of anxiety.

[tweetshare tweet=”More than 25 percent of American youth experience a serious traumatic event by their 16th birthday, and many children suffer multiple and repeated traumas. #mentalhealth #whateverittakes” username=”PrincipalTribe”]

Addressing Childhood Trauma

Ever since the economic crisis of 2008, increasing numbers of students attend school having suffered or witnessed childhood trauma.

The effects were an increase in students seeking SEL supports at school and often manifested as difficulty concentrating or regulating behavior. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “More than 25 percent of American youth experience a serious traumatic event by their 16th birthday, and many children suffer multiple and repeated traumas.” The number is even higher for African-American and Native American youth.

These young people experience repeated incidents of race-related trauma as a result of institutional and systemic racism—a fact that’s directly linked to higher rates of school dropouts among teens of color.

Repeated exposure to trauma among all youth shows up in higher rates of behavior issues, poor attendance, and inability to concentrate and learn. The FAIR School Social Work interns provide more than 100 students (40 percent of the student population) with a dedicated individual to support their social-emotional needs.

Social work interns at The FAIR School provide interventions that address SEL and behavior issues by teaching new coping skills, seeking to mediate poor attendance by building strong school connections, and providing academic coaching to encourage learning. In addition to 1:1 support, students have the opportunity to join social-emotional groups for skill building around topics of stress and anxiety. All work supports the goal of graduation.

Using this model, FAIR has eliminated the graduation gap between white students and students of color. The FAIR School also boasts the highest graduation rate (89 percent) of Minneapolis Public Schools.

Overcoming Challenges

While the program has been a resounding success, there have been challenges. When faced with the high needs of students, our social work interns and administration created the intern program to provide additional adult supports with minimal cost.

We started out by contacting local colleges and universities with Master of Social Work programs and notified them of internship opportunities. This grew over the years to us fielding inquiries from out-of-state programs and undergraduate field experiences.

Currently, the program provides a total of 4,700 hours of social work support to students, corresponding to 3.9 full-time equivalent staff positions that would cost more than $450,000.

Family communication and connection is essential in building trust in the work of the social work interns and the provision of mental health services at The FAIR School. Prior to working with any student, parents or guardians are contacted and the scope of the services is discussed.

Parents and students have the right to decline an intern; however, this rarely occurs.

Over the years, families have sought enrollment at FAIR because of the seamless transitions between mental health treatment programs and returning to school. We send a strong message to students and families experiencing mental illness that a diagnosis and treatment does not mean they will not graduate. Instead, we provide the hope and guidance to get students back on track and create pathways for success.

We believe our program can be easily replicated in middle level and high schools that leverage community connections and are located near colleges and universities with a social work graduate program.

Higher education is constantly looking for placement opportunities for undergraduate or graduate programming. Schools and principals that are committed to ensuring that students have access to the mental health supports that will increase engagement, as well as academic and social-emotional success, should consider social work programs.

We welcome inquiries and visitors interested in establishing a similar program in their school. Contact me at or the FAIR school social worker Kayci Rush at

Mary Pat Cumming is the principal of The FAIR School in the Minneapolis Public Schools in Minnesota. She has served on the board of directors for NASSP and was Minnesota Assistant Principal of the Year in 2005.

Want to chat with Mary Pat Cumming about the social work program? Tweet her @marypatcumming.

Sidebar: Implementing a Social Work Program at Your School

Follow these key steps:

  • Step 1: Gain support of your superintendent or high-level administration.
  • Step 2: Identify a “champion” who will spearhead the program and SEL strategies you will use.
  • Step 3: Include your whole faculty in the formation of the program.
  • Step 4: Identify and connect with area colleges or universities that offer social work degree programs, and inquire about internship requirements. Offer your school site for internships with mentor support.
  • Step 5: Start small—begin with one to two interns as you build the program.
  • Step 6: Connect with your school community and families about the program.
  • Step 7: Identify and serve students.
  • Step 8: Gather feedback and data on program effectiveness.
  • Step 9: Monitor student success and celebrate!

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