Social Work Found Me

Senior Social Worker Alex Amzallag has worked for Norwood for 19 years, supporting children, families and young people in Redbridge and the surrounding areas. Here she explains the issues that young people are dealing with, the kind of direct therapeutic work they receive, and the challenges the team faces in these times of austerity.

Alex estimates that she’s worked with hundreds of children and families, and young people during her time with Norwood. As one of five staff members in Redbridge’s Family Support team, based at Wohl Ilford Jewish Primary School (WIJPS), Alex works out of Norwood’s therapy rooms in the three Jewish schools in the area – WIJPS, Clore Tikva Primary School and Kantor King Solomon High School.

The issues vary among the children and young people she sees

Alex explains: “At primary school, they may be about bullying, bereavement, anxiety, depression, parental mental health issues or their own, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence, sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, being a young carer or the child of a sibling with special needs; or having a learning disability, ADHD, autism, or difficulties with social skills. I’ve also seen children subjected to Child Protection plans, in foster care, and who aren’t achieving age-related milestones. Many have also experienced family breakdown. In high school, we deal with all these things, but see more mental health issues, self-harm, suicidal ideation, gender identity and sexuality issues, as well as gang violence, sexting and child-parent violence.”

Alex continues: “Anything can come our way now. Nineteen years ago, it was a different story. The types of referrals we got were more preventative in nature and less complex. However, the rising threshold for CAMHS (Child and Mental Heath Service) and budget cuts to statutory services means we’re now dealing with more complex cases than ever before – and we’re constantly firefighting. Nevertheless, we treat each child as an individual and assess how many sessions they require to meet their needs. Sometimes we’ll see them for a whole academic year; sometimes longer.”

Alex pauses to reflect “I’d rather focus on preventative work because the more you’re able to intervene at an early stage, the fewer issues you have to deal with later on. But Norwood needs more money to employ more staff to do this kind of work, so we’re forced to make a choice between running a group to improve young people’s self-esteem, for example, or a parenting group.” She declares: “Some of the problems we’re tackling now are a whole new world to us, especially knife crime, gang violence and the digital world.”

Norwood isn’t battling these modern-day ills alone

“Working in partnership with other organisations and local authorities is a fundamental part of our work,” says Alex. “And we recognise the importance of building on these relationships to further reinforce the benefits of our support.”

This support is offered in Norwood’s own therapy rooms at each school, where the team carries out direct therapeutic work with children aged 5–18. The team is highly skilled and diverse, comprising social workers, psychotherapists, play therapists, dance and movement therapists, and counsellors.

Alex explains: “Each of us receives our own case supervision from our manager and regular training. Because we do direct therapeutic work, we also get clinical supervision and unpick cases to see how they impact on us because the problems we hear could trigger issues in our own lives.”

The team uses a wide range of resources in their sessions, including sand, arts and crafts, board games, musical instruments, puppets and worksheets. Alex says: “Getting a child to remove themselves from their own situation can encourage them to open up more, so I may introduce little figurines to represent people in their family and encourage them to show me what has happened to them. We also read books that focus on certain feelings, such as anger and rejection, and I’ll ask the child if they can relate to the story.

All the sessions are child led

“They decide what they’d like to do, but we always have a back-up plan,” she says. “The team is always on the lookout for new and different things that we can use, and we’ll often pick up bits and pieces from charity shops because there isn’t the money to get the kind of stuff we really want.”

She continues: “If a young person has anger or anxiety, we may work on specific strategies to deal with this, such as worksheets asking them how they feel on a scale of 1 to 10. When one boy lost his grandfather, he made up a rap because it was easier than talking therapy.” Alex says: “It’s really about meeting their needs and connecting with them through what they enjoy doing.”

The team also uses Mindfulness techniques – the practice of being aware of your body, mind, and feelings – as a strategy to support some young people.

Alex explains: “We may teach a strategy such as ‘3, 2, 1’ where we get the young person to tell us three things they can see, hear and feel; then two; and then one. By the time they’ve reached one, they usually feel calmer. Mindfulness works really well with teenagers who are anxious or have exam stress, as well as with ‘big feelings’, such as anger and fear.”

Because this is proving so successful, the team teaches it in schools and when giving talks in the community

Alex explains that most direct therapeutic work focuses on freeing up young people to express themselves in whatever way they choose. She says: “A lot of children struggle because emotionally they’re full up. Once you build a relationship with a child or young person, you can often connect with them. With those you do connect with, you’re going to do the very best for them. It’s a big responsibility. You’ve got their life in your hands. And when they let you in, you feel honoured. Some of the relationships you have will stick in your mind and some will touch your soul. Some young people will frustrate the hell out of you, and others will inspire you with their strength and resilience.”

While Norwood’s parenting programme is helping to improve relationships between many children and their parents, Alex acknowledges that for some families, this isn’t always possible. She says: “I worked with a girl for years and I couldn’t make her home situation any better, but sometimes just the fact that you’re caring, consistent and approachable can show young people that there is hope. I believe that treating them as individuals and listening to them can, on their own, be therapeutic.”

Talking with passion about her role, Alex says: “I stuck with social work because I believe you can make a difference. Knowing you can’t change things for everyone can be hard to accept, but when you hear you’ve made even a millionth of a change to a young person’s life, that’s worth everything. I still hear from some, who look me up years later. When one girl got in touch a few years after I’d stopped working with her to say she’d been made head girl at her school, it touched my heart.”

Alex recognises that when a young person does explore their issues, learns strategies to cope better or comes to terms with their situation, this is down to them. “I’m not in it to take credit,” she says modestly. “These young people allow me to go on the journey with them. I just give them my hand and say: ‘Take it now or later – or not at all.’ As a social worker, you need to remember that young people are letting you into their lives, so you need to respect them and follow their lead.”