Actors Help Social Workers Learn the Ropes

Mom, called Sarah, was not happy. Her body language oozed displeasure, and she seethed with barely controlled hostility.

The social worker tried to keep her voice steady and her demeanor calm.

Stacey Pangcatz Chastity Washington

“You don’t know me; you don’t know my son. How can you come in here and tell me what to do?” Sarah said, with more than an edge in her voice.

“You seem frustrated, and those feelings are normal,” the social worker replied, adding that the goal was to have her out of Sarah’s life, with her son safe and no longer harming himself.

The conversation went on, with Sarah’s belligerence gradually mellowing, and the social worker’s control of the situation slowly gaining.

What sounds like something an ongoing case manager may routinely confront was not real, however. It was meant to mimic real life, as part of safety intervention training through the Milwaukee Child Welfare Training Partnership for Professional Development. The three-month training academy that all ongoing case managers at Integrated Family Services must attend uses actors to portray clients, with social workers practicing their skills on real-life scenarios with the names changed.

In this training, Stacey Pangratz, one of six new IFS case managers who were participating, squared off with Chastity Washington, an experienced actor with In Tandem Theater who, ironically, is a comedienne.

Pat Parker, curriculum and Instruction manager at the partnership said that years ago, she tried using graduate students in the trainings, but that didn’t work out. They didn’t know how to switch gears quickly and respond in a real way, visually and verbally, to how they were being talked to.

Stacey Pangcatz

And not just any actor will do, she said. The partnership employs ones such as Chastity, who are skilled at improvisation. They need to know how to flow with a conversation and respond appropriately as things change in the moment.

The feedback they provide must be genuine, Pat said, appropriate to the scenario – which participants get well ahead of time — but also true to the emotions the situation probably would elicit. They have had actors who didn’t work out because they got stuck playing a role and didn’t ebb and flow appropriately.

“It’s not about them getting a job, it’s about helping the trainees,” Pat said. “I’ve been dong trainings longer than some of these participants have been alive. And next to seeing themselves on camera, using actors is great.”

The actors on occasion will burst into tears. And once an actor got up and left in the middle of the scenario, Pat said. The social worker was shocked and rattled, but the actor then explained that he wasn’t offended, but what was said would have offended a real parent.

“The actors tell them how things look from the inside, and because they’re theater people, they can articulate that,” Pat said. And to mix things up, sometimes an actor will play a given scenario differently in different sessions. “And that’s a reality; from visit to visit a client can change.”

After the 20-minute scenes are finished, the social workers are evaluated by fellow participants, supervisors from their agency and Josh Vollendorf, IFS training coordinator. Josh also occasionally gives suggestions during the scenario if a social worker gets stuck and looks to him for help. The actors share input at the end of each scene, and the social workers say how they thought they did.

Chastity Washington

“Stacie’s very good at this,” Josh said about her session with Chastity. “She’s a recent graduate with limited experience, but she has a calming presence and is not a threatening individual… Our goal is to identify people’s strengths and build on them.”

In general, fellow trainees are supportive of each other, but they’re not afraid to share negative observations. For instance, Melanie Figueroa of IFS started her scene with Chastity with some small talk at the “door,” but then walked in without an invitation. “You didn’t notice her face, with that ‘Oh no! You just walked right into my house!’ look,” a trainee commented. Everyone laughed, and Melanie agreed that was a big mistake, adding she knows not to do that in real life.

“This is really helpful,” Stacie said. “It lays the foundation, and acting out helps you see how you’re going to be working with your clients.”

“Case management is an art and a science,” Pat said. “As a science, you need to learn how to assess a client according to safety standards, and how to move a case plan along. But the art is learning how to integrate safety standards into your practice with the people you serve. And that’s where these trainings come in.”

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