Principles of neurobiology play a central role in our understanding of the profound impact that early complex traumatic exposure can have on children’s brain development and functioning. While scholars of social work education have called for the integration of neurodevelopment in trauma-informed practice instruction, there is an absence of pedagogical research on the best strategies for doing so. Following implementation of the pilot program “Trauma & the Brain”—a case-based “book club” training series—this study seeks to determine the program’s effectiveness in achieving the following aims: 1) Increase master’s-level social work students’ knowledge about the neurobiology of complex traumatic exposure, 2) Determine if, and how, participants apply content in their social work field placements, and 3) Evaluate effectiveness of the instructional delivery format.
An 8-month training series was created using an innovative book club format with Dr. Bruce Perry’s clinical casebook The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. Master’s-level Social Work students were recruited from a mid-western social work program (N = 25). Paired sample t-tests were used to assess change in student knowledge on surveys administered at baseline and program completion. Focus groups were conducted to explore participants’ application of key concepts in field placement and their perceptions of the program (e.g., pace, content, instructional format). Focus groups were audiotaped, transcribed verbatim, and qualitatively analyzed using ATLAS.ti software and a constant comparative inductive coding process.
Paired sample t-tests revealed significant gains in participant knowledge about the neurobiology of trauma between baseline and program completion (t(11) = -5.99, p < .001). Mean score on the knowledge assessment increased by 29%. Focus group data indicated substantial application of content across a variety of field placement settings. Key themes in content application included:
- “Regulate, Relate...then Reason”: Using activities and connection-building experiences to help clients self-regulate before engaging in therapeutic exercises that require cognitive reasoning, and understanding the neurobiological reasoning for this sequence.
- Communication skills: Improved confidence in communicating with colleagues and other professionals about behaviors, symptoms, and treatment for trauma-exposed populations.
- “Therapeutic Web”: Implementing creative strategies to help trauma-exposed children build a network of supportive adult connections.
- Enhanced empathy: Feeling a higher degree of empathy for trauma-exposed youth and their caregivers.
DISCUSSION & IMPLICATIONS
Findings from this pilot program deepen our understanding of effective and creative methods for teaching about the neurobiology of child trauma to graduate-level social work students. The “Trauma & the Brain” program demonstrated significant gains in participant knowledge on the neurobiology of child trauma, and yielded extensive participant examples of content application in diverse field placements. Attendees attributed the high rate of participant retention to their enthusiasm for the book club format, their interest in the monthly case studies, and the experiential, interactive nature of each session. Findings point to the potential of the book club format as a unique teaching strategy in social work education; future research is needed to evaluate this program’s effectiveness for practitioners in multidisciplinary community/agency settings that serve children exposed to trauma.