One important goal of social work education is to help students obtain the professional core values necessary to become a social worker. However, substantial family or personal trauma may cause distress and negatively impact students’ development of professional perceptions (Thomas & Beecher, 2018). Field practice, the signature pedagogy of social work education, is often the first indicator of issues in students’ ability to perform professionally. Therefore, it is essential for social work programs to assist students in identifying potential obstacles that impair the students’ ability to perform and help them address identified concerns prior to entering field. This study examined how personal negative (traumatic) experiences impact BSW students’ subjective professional perceptions and attitudes towards social work as a career.
Data was collected from BSW students (N=85) at three different points in the curriculum. A cross-sectional survey collected demographic information, traumatic experiences, coping strategies and resilience. Q methodology was used to analyze students' subjective perceptions of their traumatic or personal negative experiences’ impact on their professional perceptions and attitudes towards social work as a career. Participants are involved in the data collection (called Q sorting) process, constructing a set of pre-defined items in a normally distributed grid by ranking the Q set based on their perspectives and experiences. Sorted data were analyzed by KenQ software program, using correlation and factor analysis of subjective sorts and generalized patterns of a phenomenon (Brown, 1980).
All three groups have had traumatic experiences in their life. Out of 14 different types of experiences, mental health and financial difficulties are the top two common experiences from which majority of participants struggled. Factor interpretation and data analyses showed different professional perceptions and attitudes within groups and between groups. Among students newly admitted to the program, the group loaded on the Factor 1 prioritized family impact on world view, positive coping skills, and ability to learn, while the other group loaded on the Factor 2 emphasized family impact on mental health, negative coping skills and traumatic experiences. For the students beginning practice courses and students preparing to enter field, they loaded on the Factor 1 pointed out social work ethics/values, supportive family, and ability to learn, while the other loaded on the Factor 2 stressed traumatic experiences, social work as career, and positive coping, even though there are some variations in rank orders of statements between groups. In addition, there were consensus statements (p<.01) and disagreeing ones (p<.01) for the factors in each group.
Findings highlight the importance of family/personal traumatic experiences on students’ perceptions and attitudes on social work as a career. The study suggests that closer cooperation among faculty and students is needed to help students identify potential obstacles or trauma which may impair the students’ ability in developing their professional perceptions and attitudes prior to entering field. Additionally, specific topics like stress and positive coping skills, self-care, and post-traumatic growth (PTG) should be infused in the social work curriculum.