Hi! It’s Haley again, from Teaching with Haley. I’m so excited to share a bit more about our job skills program at the doggie daycare my family owns. Right now, Annie, comes to our facility every week to work on job and social skills. We are excited to give her more responsibility, and potentially give the opportunity to more students.
In my last post, I shared how we set up the space at our doggie daycare for a job skills program.
Today I want to share some tips I have learned over this process! Because I’ve never run a small business, OR a job program, OR worked with high schoolers…there was definitely a learning curve. I hope I can share my mistakes so that you don’t have to make the same ones. I’m sharing these tips as the business owner, but they are easily adaptable for the teacher or parent.
Get To Know Your Employee
The number one tip I have for setting up any sort of work program is get to know the employee. I thought I knew exactly what she needed, and could do independently. However, I had to change a lot once we spent our first shift together. In the future, I would make our first shift just a “get to know” you shift. Then after spending some time with them (at least 30 minutes), and their teacher, I would come up with jobs that are appropriate.
For example, I planned to have Annie prep dinner for the dogs that were staying in boarding. However, we realized she would need so much support to do this it would be frustrating and she couldn’t do it independently.
Focus on the Relationship
If you follow me on social media, or have read any of my blog posts, you know this is my #1 tip for anything! Parents, general ed teachers, school counselors…put the relationship and connection first. In a job skills program, the safer your employee feels with you, the more successful they will be. Of course, we want to prepare them for their next job/stage of independence. I’m not encouraging you to become their best friend or cross boundaries into their personal life. I AM saying prioritize a relationship, making them feel safe, and building time to strengthen your connection.
Some easy ways I’ve found to strengthen my relationship with Annie include:
- We spend time together. After she completes her job, she earns a can of Coca Cola. My daugther and I sit with her while she drinks it and we just spend time laughing, chatting, or having a snack.
- We invite Annie to employee events. For example, we had a Trunk or Treat, and Annie came to see us. She could have “worked it” if she wanted, but she chose to just come by and say hi and get candy. We also invited her to our Christmas Party so she could spend time with our other employees.
- I only speak about her when she can’t hear. It’s really easy to ask questions about their skills, strengths, etc. in front of them. You might only have a few minutes to chat with their teacher or parent, before or after a shift. I really encourage you to save those conversations for a later phone call or set aside a few minutes while they are occupied on a task. If they hear you asking critical questions or speaking about them negatively, it will really hurt the relationship you worked so hard to build.
- We learn about her interests. Annie’s dog, Hunter, is the thing she loves the most. I be sure to ask about her every time she comes to work. She also LOVES to talk about birthdays, and I knew Hunter’s birthday was coming up. My daughter and I picked out a cheap dog toy and bag of treats for him. It showed Annie how much we value and care about her…and the things she cares about!
- We make time for fun. After Thanksgiving, during her shift, we decorated for Christmas. I made a quick little job card with a Christmas tree so she could still follow the same routine. But we had so much fun decorating the space, and she got to take ownership over that.
Be a Safe Space for ALL Employees
Depending on your staff, you might have a lot of employees who have never spent time with someone with disabilities or learning differences. They might have questions, or even concerns. Instead of asking them to ignore their concerns, I encourage you to have an “open door” policy. Explain that they can ask YOU any questions they have.
When we introduced Annie and shared she would be working with us, I shared a message like this with our staff:
“Hi team! We are so excited about a new opportunity that has come up. We are going to be working with the (insert school or school district) to support some of their students with job, social and life skills. Their student, Annie, will be joining our team next week.
We are thrilled to be working with Annie and supporting her goals towards independence. Annie has (insert diagnosis.) Some of her behaviors you might notice include yelling when she is scared, talking very loudly, and flapping her hands when she is excited. I am happy to answer any questions you have about why she does these things, or share some ideas for you can interact with her in a way that feels comfortable for both of you. Please do not comment or ask questions while she is in the building.
She will be here every Thursday from 1-2, and she will mostly help with cleaning, sorting, and organizing. If you have any ideas for working with her, we would love to hear them! I’d also love to know if you feel comfortable helping her with tasks, or if you would prefer to get to know her a little more. We would ask that all employees make a point to say hi to her each shift. If you’re looking for things to talk to her about, she really loves to talk about her dog, Hunter, Taylor Swift, and learn our dogs’ names and birthdays.
Please remember, I am a safe space for you and always here for your concerns, suggestions and feedback! Thanks for being the best team ever! “
If you don’t provide that safe space, you might fin that they accidentally say something hurtful offensive in front of the employee. Having a safe workspace isn’t something you can just do with one conversation. But, over time, you can respond to employees in a way that they know they can trust you with their questions and concerns.
We also met individually with each manager and introduced them to Annie and her teacher. Because I go up to during her shift every week, our staff isn’t responsible for any of her tasks, communication, etc. I would not assign this to anyone. Her teacher is there for support, and if I can’t be there, they work together. I don’t feel like our staff has been trained enough that I should ask them to “manage” her or her jobs. However, we do ask them to interact with her as much as possible, encourage her, and just be a good person.
Keep a Consistent Routine and Setup
A fun fact about me is I have ADHD. Routines are HARD for me. I like to do things in a new way just because I want to. I like to move things around, and try new set ups constantly. However, It is SO important for Callie’s success that I have to resist ALL of my ADHD urges. We have ONE place where we keep the water for her to stock. She knows exactly where the towels get put up. Her job cards never move, and her Coca Cola is always in the same spot in the refrigerator door.
I do think it’s important that Annie learns flexibility, and that’s the beauty of her coming to a doggie daycare. Every time she comes we have new dogs, possibly a new employee, etc. I also try to switch a few jobs up each week.
However, the actual set up and routine never changes for her. Of course, if something wasn’t working, we would discuss it with her teacher and come up with a new routine. But I really try to limit that.
Annie has been working with us for about 6 months. Her confidence has grown SO much, and she could probably do most of the jobs completely on her own at this point. I attribute this mostly to the fact that she always knows where things are, and what she should do next. This has been hard for me at times, but it has been so worth it.
A Few Other Ideas
- Make sure they “look the part.” If the other staff wears something specific, provide it for them. It will emphasize you value them and see them as part of your team! You might find that they have sensory sensitivites, etc. and I encourage you to work with their teacher/family to come up with a solution. Their needs should come first! But do everything you can to make it available.
- Make sure they are being rewarded or paid in some way. Like I said in my previous post, we aren’t allowed to pay Annie because it’s part of her curriculum. However, her parents ARE. So we always take money before her shift so we can give it to her. She also earns a coke each shift. We want her to know we value her time, and want her to feel appreciated.
- Keep an open line of communication with teachers and family members. The more communication there is, the more successful everyone will be! Annie’s parents and her teachers have my personal number, and they know they can communicate with me at anytime.
I hope these tips were helpful to you! If you start a job program, or begin working with one, I would love to hear about it! You can always find me at TeachingWithHaley.com or email me at [email protected] Good luck!
Need more real world ideas for your life skills classroom? Check out Kate’s post on her classroom food pantry here.