Job coaches are professionals who not only support an individual with a disability in a community setting, but also teach skills to help them be ready for future employment. I have two perspectives, that of a person who had a coach and being the coach myself. Back in my secondary school days, I had some job coaches who taught me various skills that enabled me to be independent at the workplace. The coach was not only chatty, but effective in their teaching. These elements gave me a visual cue when I actually became a job coach years ago. It was one of my first major roles in my work in special education and I looked forward to building up new skills. I worked for Plainville Community Schools from 2018 to 2020 where I was able to work with about three autistic young adults. Each student gave me ideas on how to interact with people and methods to help them along the way. I had a wonderful supervisor who taught me various job coaching concepts, and they still serve me to this day. Today, I work for a private school, FOCUS Center for Autism, where some job coaching is involved, and it has helped me realize how I missed it. In honor of re-discovering one of my past roles, I want to offer future job coaches lessons I learned over time.
Listening to Your Students
This is a no brainer, but it is super important to know. When you are out there working with a student, you are creating a rapport between yourself and the student. If you do not develop rapport, it will be harder to teach skills. You must interact and learn more about your student to get something going. What you want to know is their likes and dislikes – not just of school but hobbies too. I still remember meeting two students for the first time, and they were not sure how to react to me. I noticed this and asked about their hobbies. One student brought up anime and gaming and the moment I mentioned those same hobbies, the student lightened up. This interaction improved the rapport for that school year, and I was able to obtain their employment preferences; for example, their preferred job field and position. This helps the special education team come up with ideas and experiences that can empower students.
Knowing and Respecting the Gray Line
While it is good to interact with the student, it is important to know and respect the gray line. It is between yourself and your student. The gray line is an abstract concept where you have to remind yourself that your role is a professional one. It is good to chat with your student and interact with others at the jobsite, but remember that you are there for one purpose. You must display professional values and focus on creating a good environment for your student to succeed. Focus on the student above the customers and jobsite workers present. At times, it may be okay to help but it depends on the circumstances. Usually, most job coaches try to hold off from helping to let the student engage in the task. Sometimes when a store gets chaotic, you may have to step in to help with store flow.
Accepting Unexpected Tasks
While there are assigned routine tasks each day at job sites, sometimes you may have an unexpected new task. Do not dismiss it as it may introduce new experiences to your students. I recall in one of my past experiences, I had someone who started to face items in a store, meaning needing to make it noticeable and place it directly at the front of the shelf (facing is the term used to describe the arrangement of items on the shelf). I remember not expecting it and was not sure whether or not to encourage it. It was something this one student started on their own. It did not click with me until I heard positive feedback from the jobsite staff. I realized that these unexpected tasks could add to job coaching and encourage students to take the initiative with tasks without prompting. Since then, I have always kept on the lookout. I was able to encourage another student to open the store door first thing in the morning because they wanted to do it and the staff was fine with it. Whenever you are out job coaching, keep an eye out for these random tasks.
Working with Multiple Students
Sometimes, depending on your workplace, you may have to work with multiple students. There was one year where I worked with two students at the same time. Both had differing needs, meaning it was a challenge at first to work on them. Once I got to know them as a result of creating rapport, I was able to include some universal concepts, including doing a five-minute break in a certain timeframe to let my students have some breathing room. During some work tasks, I was able to schedule the breaks so that each took a turn, so both students would be productive. Basically, I made a balance of working for their needs and I was able to make it a successful year for them. Of course, job coaching may have you work with a group of students with multiple staff members. For that, you should separate the roles to have one-to-one staff be with their students, and remaining staff members help with the moment to ensure workflow.
All in all, job coaching can use quite a bit of energy, but it can be rewarding because of the interactions with students and creating those moments where they can celebrate their achievements. I learned a lot during my initial job coaching years, and coming back to my roots reminded me of how important a job coach can be. It is entirely up to you to make a direct impact on the populations you work with.
Andrew Arboe is a self-advocate who is currently employed at FOCUS Center for Autism. He can be contacted by emailing email@example.com. For more information, please visit andrewarboe.weebly.com.