Amy Colver, LCSW
Melody Griffith, MSW, LMSW, OSW-C
AOSW Communications Director
Jeanice Hansen, LCSW, OSW-C
To submit a story or information for inclusion in a future issue of AOSW Newsletter, contact Amy Colver or Melody Griffith on the list above.
It’s Not About Toys: Tips From Pediatrics
Recently, I made the transition from pediatric social work to adult oncology social work. When I tell people that I used to work in pediatrics they raise their eyebrows and smile indulgently, as if a pediatric hospital is a magical land of brightly colored walls and stuffed animals. While pediatrics and adult medicine differ, I feel that adult medicine can take a few tips from the realm of pediatrics.
First, a basic understanding of developmental stages is helpful for working with people of any age. In pediatrics, it was drilled into me to ask, “Is this normal for a person of this age with this condition?” I was also fortunate to work at a large hospital where Child Life Specialists and Educators (people who networked with schools) were a part of a child’s team. These services helped ensure that pediatric patients would continue to work toward age-appropriate milestones. In adult oncology, it often falls to the social worker to help patients navigate academics, career development, and integration of recreation into their lives. Understanding human developmental stages helps me clue in on normalization for certain behaviors, as well as highlight areas where fears and needs might be expected to arise. These skills are also useful when supporting family members of differing ages.
Secondly, asking patients and caregivers about their learning styles was a standard part of my department’s assessment in pediatrics. My experience in the adult world seems to overflow with handouts, webinars and fancy folders that aim to be helpful. But what if that isn’t the way my patient learns? What if they like hands-on demonstrations? What if they need to practice something a few times, both supervised and independently? Perhaps they prefer to seek out resources and then ask questions. Or maybe they need pictures to accompany a checklist to help prompt them. Presuming to know how my patient or caregiver prefers to receive information is like pretending I could order coffee for everyone in my office (lots of variation there). Asking a patient how they prefer to learn and offering to help problem solve when these preferences aren’t available not only cuts down on frantic phone calls but also empowers the patient in becoming a self-sufficient learner.
Finally, my experience in pediatrics taught me that celebrating life with our patients is one of the most supportive measures we can offer. It can be a slippery slope to celebrate a patient’s birthday, because then every patient’s birthday has to be celebrated. In pediatrics, we were fortunate to have the resources to provide each child with a birthday present. I am not suggesting, however, that we advocate for our clinics or hospitals to set aside funds for birthday gifts. While kids were always thrilled to get a present, the meaningful interaction came from acknowledging that life outside of their medical condition continued. What I learned from this experience is to ask the patient or family member about celebrations or milestones coming up in their life and how they like to honor these events. Being aware of what a patient is looking forward to or normally celebrates gives us clues about their hopes for the future, or their frustrations about how cancer has altered their life. Expressing a desire to find ways to celebrate these events, albeit a little differently at times, can go a long way toward building rapport.
While I miss working with kids, some days I sense that we are all just big kids, playing the parts of patient or caregiver or professional as we have seen them played out for us. This current professional transition continues to offer new experiences every day. That is part of what draws me to social work—understanding intellectually that I will never know all there is to know about something, and being able to take previous experiences and apply them to current circumstances.