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Creating a Space Where Students Feel Safe

28 March 2023

By Ms. Heather Collins, School Social Worker at Cook Elementary School

Ms. Collins

I started as a school social worker for Chicago Public Schools back in 2019. Little did I know that an incredibly challenging year was ahead of me. Despite the challenges, I knew that I could not judge my job based on a pandemic that none of us had control over. So, instead, I focused on building good relationships with other members of my school community and giving my work my best shot. 

Now, several years later, I can see that my efforts are paying off. I feel like some of my younger students would describe me as their favorite person in the school building. And while my older students might act a little too cool for school sometimes, I think they still see me as someone they can talk to easily and feel comfortable around. 

Developing these strong relationships with students has been the foundation of working toward my goals to help them grow their academic and social-emotional skill sets. While it is still a work in progress, I have been trying to create a restorative classroom in my school. This would be a space for students who are struggling with behavior or connecting with their peers to reflect and develop new skills that will increase their sense of belonging within the school community. 

I’ve also worked to turn the room I work in into a calming space that my students can use. I received some funding to purchase rugs, bean bag chairs, and posters that make my room a space where students want to be. They know they can take their shoes off, relax, and talk to me about what they are dealing with. I also purchased some books and games that will further integrate social-emotional learning into the school day. 


mindfulness chalkboard


As a social worker, it’s important that you push past the assumptions you have about what your school needs. I am extremely confident that the strategies I am prioritizing will be effective because I took the time to survey the needs of my school community to ensure that they would be eager to buy into the supports I was providing. And I didn’t just stop there. I completed additional surveying to make sure my efforts were working as intended. 

Beyond my work to create safe spaces within my school, I’ve been extremely proud of some of the student groups I’ve spearheaded. Last year, I developed a student council, and it was very rewarding to be able to empower the students to advocate for themselves. 

And, this year, I’ve created a new group called Growing Gentleman, also known as G3, to develop self-management skills and social awareness within my young men. I’ve been able to see them hold themselves to high standards and hold themselves accountable. We even created a creed and have weekly leaders who set a good example for their peers. I’ve loved seeing the students be excited to come and encouraging other students to be a part of it. 

Through all of these experiences, I’ve learned that every school has unique needs that a social worker can fill, giving us a strong sense of purpose. If you can find your niche, you’ll be good to go even on the bad days. When you find your groove within your school’s culture, you learn not to take things personally and not to criticize yourself too harshly. 

There are so many amazing social workers in Chicago, and connecting yourself to other social workers really does set yourself up for success. I joined CPS during a challenging time, and I’ve learned that every school year will have its own challenges. The camaraderie is what helps me know that I got this! 

Happy Social Work Month! Interested in learning more about social work in CPS? Click here for more information.

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