Abstract: Identifying Key Educational Experiences That Prepare Social Work Students for the Personal and Professional Challenges of Child Welfare Work (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

All live presentations are in Eastern time zone.

200P Identifying Key Educational Experiences That Prepare Social Work Students for the Personal and Professional Challenges of Child Welfare Work

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Michael Henson, BA, MSW, PhD Candidate, Doctoral Candidate, Wayne State University, MI
Background and Purpose: Social work education programs for child welfare aim to prepare students to transition, stay, and succeed in child welfare work. However, little research examines the multiplicity of student experiences within such programs and how they prepare students for the personal and professional challenges that frontline workers face. This presentation explores the results of a 21-month ethnographic study documenting how social work students’ educational experiences in the Wayne Together Collaborative (WTC), a specialized social work education program aimed at preparing master’s students for child welfare work, informed, aligned, and conflicted with students’ transitions and experiences as child welfare professionals.

Methods: A 21-month ethnographic study was conducted following a cohort of WTC students enrolled in the 9-month program and up to 12 months after graduation. 22 in-depth semi-structured interviews with 11 of the 15 students were conducted beginning, during, and after the program to document and describe key educational experiences, how they informed student transition into the workforce, and aligned and/or conflicted with their experiences as frontline workers. Participant observation of WTC group meetings and required courses was used to discover and describe what types of student experiences emerged in day-to-day discussions and educational practices. 7 in-depth interviews with field liaisons (n=2) and course instructors (n=2) were conducted to further explore the structure and design of WTC educational and training practices. Interview transcripts and field notes from observations were coded thematically and cross-compared to identify how student experiences changed, aligned, and conflicted as they moved through key phases of becoming a child welfare worker.

Results: The WTC program provided students with personal, holistic, and locally situated experiences of doing child welfare work. Students described emotional and personal conflicts and challenges stemming from learning about and doing child welfare, such as arguments and strained relationships with family members about parenting practices. Students developed a complex understanding of how case management is contextualized within limited organizational capacity, resources, and workplace politics. This was accomplished through rooting classroom material and field experiences within the Wayne County child welfare system. After graduating, students applied to jobs based on rationales considering both on-the-job expectations and possible impacts on personal life, often recounting stories from field placements and classroom discussions. Many students discussed having difficulties with high caseloads, workplace politics, poor supervision, and conflicts between work and professional life within the first several months of employment. However, students were aware and prepared to varying degrees for these issues because of the WTC program, citing personal stories from the program, and were ultimately able to resolve or manage these difficulties. Students often discussed the same stories and experiences across interviews.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings highlight the importance of including the diverse experiences that define child welfare work, including those outside of formal duties, within education and training. Capitalizing on key features of ethnographic research design, such as prolonged engagement, diverse data sources, and participant observation, research helps to identify these experiences and develop social work education and training strategies that prepare students for child welfare practice.