Meet the Skills Team: Bonnie Meeks, Behavior Support Specialist

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Above:  Bonnie Meeks with Sam, one of the many people she supports. Sam says he likes spending time with Bonnie “because she’s a good listener.” 

People living with intellectual or developmental disabilities sometimes have challenges communicating information verbally. Instead, communication often happens through behavior. For many of the people we support, behavior is communication. Fortunately, Skills employs a Behavior Supports team. Trained specialists on the team can help people we support, their family members, and other members of the team understand how to translate behaviors that may not be easily understood. Behavior Supports Services are available for people living with family members or in our community homes. These supports can also help address behaviors that occur in day programs, in vocational training settings, or while working at a job. We recently interviewed Bonnie Meeks, one of Skills’ Behavior Support Specialists to learn about her work.

Please tell us about the work you do as a Behavior Support Specialist.
I always joke with people that my job is a big mixture of things. I’m a detective, an analyst, a teacher, a trainer, a friend, and a supporter. At a basic level, I work with other members of the Skills team and people’s family members to help them figure out and understand why a person is displaying some sort of behavior. Once we understand that, we can support the person to decrease a challenging behavior or learn new skills to offset it so they can live the best life possible. It’s really a varied role, but I’m always working as part of a team.

My work begins with an initial assessment of someone’s behavior. I rely heavily on other team members for information, especially medical professionals, because we always try to rule out medical issues—infections or early onset dementia, for example—that may be causing certain behaviors. I provide tools and strategies for the team specific to the person’s needs. I may teach mindfulness or relaxation exercises to the person supported and their team. We use different tools, depending upon which behavior we’re working on. For example, the strategy we use if someone is hitting will be very different from the strategy we use with someone who is working at a job and needs to learn socially acceptable ways to interact with others.

What types of behavior do you typically address?
When we mention behavior, people often think immediately of negative behavior—things like hitting biting, kicking, etc. But behavior is really anything we do. Behaviors are how we communicate. ​We will address any behavior that appears to be causing that individual difficulty in having a good quality of life.

Tell us about one of the people you work with.
Sam is one of the people I work with. He loves to talk, and he will tell you all about his day and what’s been going on. So, I have him tell me about situations that he’s experienced, and then we talk about scenarios that might happen and options to address them.

Sam’s got lots of connections on social media. He also has a big heart, which means that he has a hard time believing that people might do something bad, so we’ve been working on learning about “stranger danger.” Sam also finds it hard to believe that someone would try to take advantage of him. For example, someone that he knows kept calling him and asked him for money. So, we worked on learning about how to set boundaries. Sam was able to tell the person that he wouldn’t be able to give him any money, but he was happy to remain friends.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sam used to be out in community independently nine hours a day. Church is very important to him. He also spent time with his friends and held a job for more than twenty-five years. COVID has changed a lot of that, so we work on learning how to get along with his housemates and how to set boundaries. He really wants help finding a job as a dishwasher. He’s good at it, and he wants to contribute and have some place to go during the day, so we’ve been working on learning how to stay safe when he goes back out in the community.

Sam is also an exercise fanatic, so he’s been working out a lot. ​This is one of his positive coping skills that he has been using to deal with the stress of the pandemic. He has a collection of equipment like kettle bells and resistance bands, ​but his favorite exercise equipment is his ab chair and ab roller. He’s definitely bulked up since we started working together. 

Do you also work with the families of the people you support?
Yes, I rely on family members a lot, both initially and throughout the entire process, since they generally know the person the best and can provide information on the person’s history, what they need help with, and who their various supports are.

How would someone know if their family/loved one could benefit from Behavior Support Services?
Really any concerns related to behavior. For example, maybe their family member is withdrawing from activities they used to take part in, or maybe they are having trouble at work or at their day program. Or perhaps they are concerned about their family member maintaining healthy relationships. Those are all areas where we can help.

How long have you worked at Skills?
I’ve only worked at Skills since December of 2019, so most of my work has been post-pandemic, which is quite different from how things were before.

Have you noticed a difference in your work as a result of COVID-19?
Yes, we are seeing a lot more referrals for behavioral support services since the pandemic started. I think it’s related to people not being able to do what they used to do. They haven’t been able to go to their jobs or their day programs. They haven’t been able to go to church, or out in the community, or visit their family in person. The people we support often lack positive coping strategies to deal with anxiety or depression or feelings of hopelessness and despair. They don’t know what to do to deal with this big change in their life.

What led you to a career in Behavior Support Services?
I’ve always loved helping people, and I’ve also been fascinated with how the brain works and why we do the things we do. Plus, I’ve always had a job where I was teaching or providing support. I’ve worked with both adults and children living with various types of disabilities.

What are some challenges you experience in your work?
COVID-19 was one of the biggest challenges because of the lack of face-to-face interaction. We had to figure out new ways to support people and the team to help them access what they need. We’ve provided a lot of services using video conferencing or over the phone for people who can communicate verbally. Everyone has been so busy adjusting to things due to COVID. We work hard to make sure everyone is trained and on ​the same page. I always remind people that seeing behavioral change will take time. It’s not an overnight thing. Change takes place over time.

What do you like about your work?
I enjoy it all so much. The people I support, the team. I love everybody I work with. It’s never boring, which I appreciate because I don’t do well with down time. There’s always a challenge to work through, which I also enjoy. I like to figure things out, and I like knowing that I’m helping people learn new things and helping them live the best life they can. It’s very rewarding.

Need Help for a Loved One?
Do you have concerns about a family member’s behavior? If so, contact us today for more information about how to access Skills’ Behavior Support Services.

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