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Blugolds learn to help children with trauma return to the classroom

| Judy Berthiaume

Blugolds Nicole Fox and Emma Nickerson are pursuing different majors, but a UW-Eau Claire summer immersion program that took them to a children’s hospital in California helped them discover how closely their paths may interact in the future.

“I realized that social work and education aren’t that different after all — our main goal is to always put our kids’ best interest as a priority,” says Fox, a junior social work major. “I learned that skills such as adaptability and accountability, and the ability to be empathetic vs. sympathetic are very similar in the education world and the social work field.”

That understanding will be important should she someday be part of a team charged with helping a child who has suffered a trauma transition back into their school and classroom, Fox says.

Fox, Nickerson and eight other Blugolds were part of the Shriners Children’s Hospital-Northern California immersion program that gave the students hands-on experiences working with diverse youth who had a significant burn or orthopedic trauma.

“This experience allowed them to understand the purpose of 504 plans and how to develop a trauma-sensitive classroom,” says Dr. Janine Fisk, assistant professor of education studies, explaining that a 504 plan ensures a child with a disability receives accommodations at school that gives them access and allows them to succeed in their classroom.

In California, the students worked with a schoolteacher and child life therapist to teach and interact with the patients at the Shriners hospital, says Fisk, the faculty lead during the immersion experience.

The work these professionals do with the children in the hospital is an important part of the children’s healing, as burn patients need "normalization" after a trauma and before re-entry to society, Fisk says.

These are lessons, Fisk says, she learned firsthand.

Nine years ago, her daughter spent a month living at Shriners Children’s Hospital-Northern California after she suffered serious burns.

“It completely changed my perspective as an educator, being immersed in that setting,” Fisk says of her experience at Shriners. “Northern California Shriners is the largest burn center in the world. It was where I had contacts, but I also knew the diversity would be a new experience for our students.”

During the immersion, the Blugolds met with a variety of people, including a nurse, teacher, child life therapist, adult burn survivor and the head of the national burn association.

“I think each brought a different perspective on how to bring sensitivity to your students,” Fisk says. “I hope they will carry this experience with them into their profession. I think they all learned a lot of compassion, empathy, positive mindset and inner beauty.”

The Blugolds had plenty of opportunities for hands-on learning while interacting with the young patients, Fisk says.

“I was so impressed and proud of our students,” Fisk says. “They got right in there and didn't let the disfigurement or language barriers get in the way of developing positive relationships.”

The students say interacting with both the professionals and the children at Shriners were meaningful experiences that will help shape their future work.

While she has observed teachers in traditional classrooms, seeing a teacher in a hospital setting was a new experience, Nickerson says.

“We spent a lot of time discussing and researching the importance of a child patient’s reintroduction into a traditional school setting after having experienced trauma, specifically a burn injury, and the teacher plays a big role in that reintroduction of the student,” Nickerson says. “As a prospective teacher, I hope that this new knowledge can help me in my future career as a teacher to help create a positive transition and be an advocate for my students who have experienced trauma in their lives.”

The immersion experience has reaffirmed her commitment to pursuing a career in teaching, says Nickerson, a junior from Stevens Point.

“It was interesting to observe the nontraditional classroom setting at Shriners and to interact with the students/patients,” Nickerson says. “I gained new perspective on teaching students who have had a serious injury or a chronic illness that affects their time at school.”

She also gained a lot of inspiration, she says.

“Shriners works with not only the medical needs of the children, but also their emotional needs,” says Nickerson. “We volunteered in a specific area of the hospital that is designated for the children to play and have fun, which is very influential in their healing process.

"Seeing the children with their traumatic injuries and chronic illnesses, one might assume that they can't play or have fun in the way that a typical child would. However, I found the children full of life, humor and wonder."

Among the program highlights was when the child life specialists planned a medical play day, allowing the children to play with medical equipment, such as gowns, gloves and empty syringes, Nickerson says.

By playing with the equipment, the children could better understand their own treatments, she says, adding that she was surprised by how knowledgeable the children already were about the equipment.

Like Nickerson, Fox says the immersion also reaffirmed her career goals.

“Little did I know that it was going to make me even more excited about the social work field I am going into, and the work I will be doing with my future clients and patients,” she says.

During the immersion, the students worked through various challenges, including language barriers, technology issues and scheduling changes.

Working through those issues in a real-world setting helped her see how the ability to adapt to changing circumstances will make her a better social worker, Fox says.

“Being adaptive to our students or clients’ needs will be crucial in their recovery process, both physically and mentally,” Fox says.

Also valuable was an assignment that required students to work together to create a resource packet for parents and teachers to help ease a child’s transition from the hospital to their school.

“From this experience, I learned a lot about taking others' ideas and strategies into consideration when working on my portion of the packet,” Fox says. “It definitely wasn’t easy getting 10 minds to agree on something regarding certain portions of the packet, but we all were respectful of each others' opinions and all realized that we were working toward the same end goal.”

Discussions around the idea of empathy vs. sympathy has her thinking a bit differently about her future work as a social worker, Fox says.

“We discussed how feeling empathy is more beneficial than feeling sympathy toward someone because it creates a more positive dynamic for all individuals involved,” Fox says. “Empathy is more geared toward the ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, where sympathy is strictly feeling sorrow or pity for the individual.

“Personally, learning the difference between these two was one of the most beneficial things I learned because it is something I will use every day in my future career. I learned that my clients could be more empowered to create positive change in their lives if I, as their mentor and counselor, share their emotions but still advocate for them to create the change themselves instead of me ‘babying’ them through it. It will give them lifelong skills and reassure them that they are able to accomplish anything if they put their minds to it.”

When Fisk approached Shriners two years ago with her idea of bringing students there for an immersion experience, they were receptive though they had never done this sort of program with education students before.

It was such a success that they now hope UW-Eau Claire will offer the immersion program annually, Fisk says.

That, students say, would be a great idea because there is so much to gain from it.

“These opportunities add to my academic experiences at UWEC in a way that a class never could,” Nickerson says. “My time at Shriners gave me real-life experience in this field and also a new awareness of teaching children.

“With this awareness, I can think beyond the children that I met at Shriners and apply this new knowledge to teaching any child who is experiencing a major life event.”

Photo caption: Emma Nickerson works with a young girl at a California hospital during a summer immersion program.