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Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Complexity Lexicon

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by Dr. Michael Wright

As part of my ongoing series on ecological systems theory and practice, this week I will be discussing complexity lexicons. Complexity grows exponentially due to interactivity, and interactive effects are present at each level and every context of assessment and intervention. In the sociological context, interactive effects mean that individuals in groups often influence one another toward homeostasis. In environmental practice, interactive effects result in ability of systems to predict choice behavior by intentionally structuring the choice calculus—increasing or decreasing options by managing awareness and expectation of role, culture, access, and capacity.

After reading this section, you will be able to:

  1. Utilize a new lexicon for discussing change in human systems.
  2. Articulate how purpose and rules impact perception, construction, and mechanism in human systems.
  3. Articulate operational methods to structure human systems to predict outcomes and control outputs.

The Short Version: Perception, Construct, and Mechanism

As a blog post, this post is rather lengthy. I emphasize the most important points in bold, but I did not want to short change the curious. For my other friends, the whole post in a nutshell: Whether you are working with an individual client, a community change effort, research or consulting 1) all these activities are related through ecological systems theory and practice; 2) begin your work with a consideration of agents, institutions, and environment that impact the choice behavior of your clients.

In order to set the lexicon for prediction of choice behavior, we must move from “individuals” to “agents,” from “groups” to “institutions,” from “environment” to, well, “environment.” We also introduce Sociocybernetics. Sociocybernetics is the study of the social contracts that result from the interaction of institutions, agents, and environments.

What do we call an individual that operates within a system for a specific purpose based on rules of engagement? AGENTS. Agents are both intentional and unintentional.

What do we call a collection of individuals who convene for a purpose and produce a charter and standard rules of behavior? INSTITUTIONS. Institutions include social constructions like marriage or volunteerism.

What do we call that convening space that influences social roles by virtue of its own rule that either highlights the strength of the individual or exposes the weaknesses of the person? ENVIRONMENT. Environments are physical and metaphysical. The physical we call the environment. The metaphysical we call culture.

Agent Complexity

Agent complexity is focused on the agent profile as well as the agent perception. Agent profile includes the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual characteristics of the individual. Agent perception recognizes that these characteristics influence a construction of meaning within the client that either highlights or obscures options. The combination of biopsychosocial-spiritual characteristics also means that each client has constructions and distortions that impact meaning and behavior choice. The job of the worker is to manage both the constructions and the distortions to increase the sustainable options perceived by the agent. The point here is that these complexities in the agent are useful. They are not simply annoyances that presuppose dishonesty, they are powerful tools toward creating a new reality that supports sustainable choice behavior even in the absence of a complete comprehension of the theoretical frame. Once a habit of sustainable choice is practiced, the work of increased comprehension can proceed in earnest. The worker must support empowerment of the agent to intentionally select sustainable choices. The agent is made more complex in that the examination of complexity must account for both constructions and distortions. Said another way, the prediction must incorporate ways that clients lie to themselves.


106567388Constructions

A number of theorists and scholars have contributed to our understanding of constructions. Among them Carter and McGoldrick (1999) informs family contexts, Greene (2012) informs resilience, Erickson (1980) remains a seminal work on identity and social perception, Bandura (2001) informs social agency toward action, and Rollo May (1975) must be included for his work on creativity.

Each of these has in common the concept of the “lifespan.” Santrock (1999) presented the constructs of the lifespan approach. You need to know them because the lifespan approach allows social scientists and practitioners to understand and apply stage theories and structural conceptions in a review and modeling of individual choice. In one way, the lifespan concept is the “it depends” answer to a question of individual complexity. We can model this complexity because we can identify the variables upon which the answer depends.

Behavior, cognition, and meaning are the three domains of assessment. In the spaces between those three, we find more nuanced or complexity-producing concepts. These introduce time, the chronology to events, into the discussion of individual agency. In other words, clients make choices (behavior) based on what they think (cognition), and expectations (meaning), but these result from history/experience, perception/awareness, and meaning/sense-making.

History/Experience. Each individual experiences life events, and those experiences shape future behaviors. That much is common knowledge. But, the social scientist must add that the individual constructs schema for choosing how to apply the knowledge gained from experience. That is, whether it is conscious to the individual or not, behavior has a mechanism. This is useful because we can discuss the prediction of behavior as a function of the mechanism of choice rather than attempting to discern the intention of the individual. Work toward behavior change begins with this foundational exploration of the patterns that make up a profile of the individual.

Perception/Awareness. Each individual attends to life events in ways that are specific to that individual. This may seem to introduce a level of complexity that cannot be overcome. But, conscious or not, each individual approaches events with discernible logic and observable methods that provide a window into perception and add predictability to what she will have the capacity to be aware. This is useful because we can use the typical intervention of psychoeducation, but also, discerning the logic (or dismissal of logic) we may introduce the intervention of cognitive restructuring. A common example of cognitive restructuring is when you ask a client to begin to use positive self-talk. Instead of referring to himself as “idiot,” you may ask him to speak of himself as a “learner.”

Meaning/Sense-Making. Humans choose to do what they expect will give them what they want. This is why despair is so dangerous. Not because it signals a metaphysical dearth of hope, but because it signals a lack of predictability. Sense-making also points to variability in the conclusions drawn from observing the same event. Meaning is not only a function of historical prediction and perception, but humans make sense of events in comparison with what they expected prior and what they are motivated to continue to believe and expect later. This is useful because we can use it to facilitate new realities demonstrated in new behaviors the client could not make sense of prior and therefore could not, in his mind, achieve.

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Distortions

Theorists and scholars also exist to inform our discussion of distortions. Among them Brené Brown (2012) informs vulnerability and shame. A host of seminal authors like Freud, Rogers, and Bateson who describe ego defenses. Logic is considered one of the ancient arts. As such check Aristotle for original quotes Socrates. Fowler (1981) adds faith. These highlight the ability of the human mind to disregard evidence and context and create a new reality. It is important to realize that this function of the human mind is useful when all evidence suggests failure. To believe in something unseen and illogical is sometimes needed to overcome the fear and trepidation toward learning and acting to overcome a seemingly impossible challenge.

I divide Ego Defenses into three categories. I tend to focus on the grouping of defense mechanism that Vaillant (1977) calls Neurotic, but it would be interesting to expand my categorization with listings from other authors.

Consider my categories, whatever the actual ego defense, as characteristic ways to distort reality to your needs. AVOIDANT (Resistance) Characterized by a subconscious (non-aware) resistance to the anxiety producing stimulus. “I will not believe it. I have not seen it. It is not true.” REACTIVE (Decoupling) Characterized by action to decouple evidence in behavior from labels and meaning when faced with the anxiety producing stimuli. “Look at my actions. That PROVES that I am what I say I am.” PROACTIVE (Restructuring) Characterized by an intentional or unintentional activity aimed at restructuring the meaning implied by behavior in response to the anxiety producing stimuli. “You are mistaken. To be like this means to act like this.”

Ego defenses can be useful, for example, in a situation of client self-doubt by trading on Proactive Ego Defense. We cognitive restructure client meaning by pointing out that the client has made positive progress. We encourage, “You are making progress, more successful days than challenging days. Progress IS success.”

Logical Fallacies are seemingly systematic ways of “making it up” as you go along. They are often presented in the form of substantive arguments, but any review of the structure of the argument reveals flaws. The fallacies also do not hold true to transfer.

For example:

  1. I like red cars.
  2. I have seen many red cars today. (Implying that others also like red cars.)
  3. Everyone is buying red cars.

This can be useful because logical fallacies suspend logic and the requirement for things to “add up.” It can be especially useful when a system of self-defeating logic has been employed by the client. The client says:

  1. I have not been able to find employment.
  2. The economy is depressed.
  3. I will never find a job.

The worker rebuts:

  1. You have employable skills.
  2. Our community is recovering economically.
  3. You will find employment with help.

The work here uses faulty logic to move the client’s focus away from the economy, which he cannot control to encouragement and help, which the agency can provide. Again, logical fallacies are not sustainable in the long-term, but they can move a client out of a rut of despair.

Faith is my favorite of distortions. Faith confidently states, “I believe even if I cannot see any evidence. Further, my hope is all the evidence I need.” Faith is a powerful tool to be shared with clients.

For example, a client who feels some anxiety about her performance in a job interview speaks with a worker at an employment services agency. She has practiced with the worker and at home, but she has never been in a real interview situation. The worker counsels, “Trust me. You have prepared. You’ll be amazing.” The client calms and performs well in the interview.

Institutional Complexity

Humans when in groups exhibit behaviors that are not necessarily expected from any one of the individuals in the group TOWARD stability, purpose and order. These types of systems are termed Complex Adaptive Systems. They are driven by heterogeneity: the more different the individuals, the greater the impetus for change toward homeostasis.

Institutions have specific processes for transmittal of environmentally supported culture and enforcement of rules. The resultant culture and rules are expressed in values, beliefs, and expectations linked to environment and events over time.

This means that hierarchies naturally form as the goals, standards and norms are agreed upon implicitly or explicitly. The leadership and culture that results is primarily dependent upon individual expertise. It is not necessarily competence for the tasks at hand. Without clear qualifications for leadership or evaluation of fit with goals, leaders will hold operational expertise or political advantage. It is always true that individual expertise is most important to leadership and culture change in institutions. The question is does the group have the structural policies in place to support sustainable change? It is not enough to answer this question with a Yes or No. Examining the complexity asks HOW the structural policies influence choice behavior.

Quick Thought on Choice

The primary motivation of all individuals is toward purpose and order, predictability and homeostasis. But, agency is a complex choice (Bandura, 2001; Bertalanffy, 1969; Csikszentmihalyi, 1998; Miller & Page, 2007). Humans are not unique in their ability to both make decisions and articulate their process as a pattern for observers. Other animals can teach and learn. But, humans (other than marketers and salepeople) seem unaware or at least passive toward their ability to create physical embodiments of expected choice behavior. Creating institutions is about INFLUENCE through the physical space and culture—reinforced behaviors, norms and beliefs about the knowledge, relationships, and social roles.

Environmental Complexity

Environmental complexity is our entry into the emerging science surrounding behavior, mental health, well-being and their connection with the physical brain, neurology, and the fundamental mechanisms underlying “humanness.” What may surprise you is that the social work profession has advanced models beyond the diagnostic statistical manual (DSM). What I hope excites you is that application of these models within the context of statistical/mathematical models combined with neuroscience portend an expansion of our understanding of choice behavior and monumental improvement in service to clients.

128074523The Sociocybernetics of Culture and Contracts

Person-In-Environment was presented by Karls & Wandrei as an alternative model of client profiling (as opposed to diagnosis). The framework is supported with evidence and implementation history as far back as 1983. At its core, the detailed taxonomy provides a basis for contextualizing the interactive effects of social role, environmental factors, and strengths of the individual (See Karls & Wandrei, 1994;1983).

Ecological Perspective of Gitterman & Germain, not to be confused with the ecological systems theory of Bronfenbrenner, was presented as early as 1973. The framework describes how transactions with Environment and Culture impact behavior (See Gitterman & Germain, 2008;1973).

These add to Agent and Institutional complexity another variable. Humans make “deals” or contracts functionally with the environment. More specifically, humans perform based on role perception and adoption specific to culture outside the individual or the institution, and resulting from the interactive effects of person-to-institution and person-to-institution in the environmental context.  This means that examining complexity must include a careful articulation of the physical environment and metaphysical culture. This is not just a description. Careful articulation suggests a connection between agent, institution, and environment-culture. The agent perceives a contract. The institution supports a contract. Both contracts operate within a larger structural context that impacts whether any certain real outcome is possible.

A simple example. An annual race is organized with a reported $500 prize. Individuals train all year for the event. The town gears up with industry supporting the annual race. The agents are ready to run. The institutions are supportive. What no one counted on was the flood that would envelope 75% of the town under 3 feet of water. It is impossible to run the race in these conditions. Though this example illustrates an act of nature, consider that other environmental (and even acts of nature: meteorology anyone?) are predictable if we account for them in our examination of complexity. To simply abdicate predictive capability is at least ignorant of available technology. At most it is negligent of due diligence. Neither are good looks for a social worker.

Using ABM to Handle Complexity

Group behaviors are unexpected but predictable if characteristics are known: Agent profiles, Institutional Structure and Policies, Cultural Environment, and Interactive effects. The outcomes of systems can be modeled through a process called Agent-Based Modeling (ABM). Control systems provide the structural policies that influence agent choice. A well-formed control system can provide a predictable output each time it is executed. Though human inputs are more complex, a well-formed control system will account for the variability with new operations that adjust to the needs of the agent perception, the institutional construct, and the Sociocybernetic mechanism—the environment control system in execution.

Consider that the combination of agents and institutions in action, constrained by culture is a control system: inputs, system activities, outputs, and feedback. Consider what could be done if you exercised a level of influence within that system. This is what social work has that no other profession has in the combined mandate of individual, social, and environmental practice…the scientific and ethically-grounded framework to utilize sociocybernetic constructs to promote sustainable gains in health and well-being. What did you think you were learning?

Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers his expertise as an career coach, serial entrepreneur, and publisher through MAWMedia Group, LLC. Wright has maintained this macro practice consultancy since 1997. Wright lives in Reno, NV.

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Education

Discussing Current Events with Students and Children: If, When, and How?

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Photo Credit: @Reuters

The unfortunate reality for children growing up right now is the prevalence of senseless tragedies. I myself, even as a grown adult, struggle time and time again to make sense of the catastrophic violence that pervades our day-to-day. For my students, I cannot fathom the panicked bewilderment and anxious uncertainties that events such as the Las Vegas attack bring to their frightened, yet curious, minds.

During these formative years, how can we mediate the thin line between informing and frightening our students and children? If we decide that information is power, how do we present such heart-rending topics to young people in a way that equips them to do better for the world? Conversely, if we instead choose to shelter our innocent young people by preserving their naïveté, how can we expect to bring up the next generation to be culturally responsive and informed citizens?

When considering conversations with young people involving tragic current events, such as this week’s Las Vegas mass shooting, adults must be extremely cautious. From the educator’s perspective, I am personally conflicted about my exact role as the adult in the classroom when it comes to conversations of a sensitive nature. Even as a middle school teacher, where my students assert themselves as “informed” or “aware” community members, I find it irresponsible of me to take on the role of informant for other people’s children.

Yes, our students are privy to infinite amounts of and avenues for any and all information, thanks in great part to the 1:1 ratio of school-aged children to smartphones. However, I firmly believe that the family (parents and guardians) know that child best. Therefore, as a teacher, my obligation begins and ends with parental consent. I can, and have, encouraged curious students to speak specifically with their parents about current events and the questions they have regarding those events.

Additionally, as an English teacher, I have provided students with criteria for credible sources, smart searches, and strategies to detect bias and objectivity. But that is where my responsibility ends. This is not because I don’t want to hear their opinions or thoughts on the world’s happenings, but rather because it is not my place to open such an emotional or sensitive topic up to discussion.

Suggestions for parents regarding if, when, and how to broach these types of discussions with your children vary from family to family. Obviously, you know your children better than anyone else. Parents are also in control of the extent of info to which children are exposed. Parents are the gatekeepers of information, charged with filtering, limiting, and explaining the events that you deem appropriate for your children.

If families decide to discuss emotionally-charged current events, such as terrorism or mass acts of violence with their school-aged children, parents should consider multiple factors, including age, social and emotional maturity, and peer influence. Let your children do the talking first. Take the temperature of their background knowledge on the topic before you begin.

Ask if they have heard or seen anything about the specific news story. It is likely that, if your child has a smartphone, she has some level of prior knowledge. Between social media and other communicative platforms, preteens and teenagers are presented with a deluge of news stories, photos, and videos.

Once you’ve gauged their level of prior knowledge, plan to direct the conversation with the goal to inform on a broad scope—do not necessarily delve into specific details, as details rarely serve to comfort or answer questions. A curious teen will inevitably stumble upon more details, but remind your teen to check the validity of the source before forming opinions or drawing conclusions.

Furthermore, be prepared to some answer questions, while leaving other questions unanswered. Especially with unanswerable questions like “how?” it is more than okay to respond with “I don’t know” or “we may never know.” Find some security in the fact that a senseless act will never make sense—and share that important realization with your teen.

Finally, encourage your teen to focus on the heroic deeds of bystanders, first responders, survivors, etc. Tragedies cannot be explained or reconciled, but the focus of the aftermath should always center on taking measures to lift up, help out, and affect change for the better. Always!

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UMSSW’s Financial Social Work Initiative Celebrates 10 Years

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The University of Maryland School of Social Work (UMSSW) is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its Financial Social Work Initiative (FSWI) during the 2017-2018 academic year with a new Financial Social Work (FSW) Certification Program and numerous activities that honor its achievements over the past 10 years and lay the groundwork for ongoing work in this important, emerging area within social work.

In celebration of this milestone, the FSWI received a leadership grant of $100,000 from The Woodside Foundation, whose trustee, Meg Woodside, MBA, MSW, UMSSW alumna, is a co-founder of the FSWI. The Woodside Foundation is a private family foundation focusing on program development, outreach, and advocacy in the areas of family financial security and asset building in Maryland. “Social workers have been on the front lines of stabilizing vulnerable families and communities for decades,” notes Woodside. “Today’s challenges necessitate integrating new tools, skills, and evidence-based practices to strengthen the profession’s ability to address financial stressors and economic disparities. As FSWI’s 10th anniversary unfolds, we will be able to offer several new opportunities to engage even more social workers in financial social work.”

This generous grant will underwrite several planned educational and community events during the anniversary year. In the spring of 2018, a new Financial Social Work (FSW) Certificate Program will be launched, which in addition to financial support from the Woodside Foundation, has received a notable $23,600 grant from the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation, Inc.

“For more than 60 years, the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation has provided economics and personal-finance education to various audiences, most particularly to teachers,” says Michael MacDowell, the foundation’s managing director. “We are now also investing in social service providers. We see social workers as having an immediate impact on improving the financial well-being of their clients. The foundation applauds the work at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work and its innovative new certificate program. We are pleased to be part of this important undertaking.” OneMain Financial also contributed $3,000 toward the certificate program, and it has sponsored other programming offered through UMSSW; OneMain Financial provides support and sponsorship of community financial education programs and activities, in addition to offering financial services to individuals nationwide.

FSWI will offer the certificate program through UMSSW’s Continuing Professional Education (CPE) Office. The Certificate Program will run from April to December 2018 and will meet an identified need for greater knowledge and skills in financial capability, stability, and empowerment on the part of social workers who practice in nonprofit and other social service agencies, as well as in schools, medical settings, and justice and court settings. This is especially critical for social workers who work with individuals, families, and communities facing complex financial and psychosocial issues.

In large part due to the efforts of the FSWI and its partners over the last 10 years, social workers and human service organizations are seeking additional FSW education and training, in addition to skill-building strategies to enable them to intervene more effectively with financially distressed individuals, families, and communities. Beyond providing resources, social workers must have sophisticated knowledge about issues in typical daily financial life, such as credit, debt, budgeting, financial struggles, and how these intersect with other stressors, and they must be knowledgeable about and familiar with financial issues and barriers, and feel comfortable in addressing such issues directly and effectively with people and communities they serve. Also, social workers who work in FSW must be well-versed in historical and current policy issues that influence and affect people’s paths toward greater financial stability, as well as those policies that hinder financial stability or perpetuate economic injustice.

More information about the FSW Certificate Program is available online at www.ssw.umaryland.edu/fsw/education. It will span seven full-day sessions from April to December 2018. The in-person classroom style of the FSW Certificate Program will enable rich class discussion and learning through interaction among the macro and clinical practitioners.

FSWI’s 10th anniversary year officially kicked off with the 2017 Daniel Thursz Social Justice Lecture in April, featuring noted economist, author, and commentator Julianne Malveaux, PhD, who provided incisive commentary on the topic of “Economics, Race, and Justice in the 21st Century: Perspective on Our Nation’s Future.”

In addition to the FSW Certificate Program, the FSWI will host the following:

  • The third Financial Capability and Asset Building (FCAB) Convening on Jan. 10-11, 2018, to be held just prior to the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) annual conference (Jan. 10-14, 2018, in Washington, D.C.). The third convening is titled “Using Evidence to Influence Policy and Practice” and will feature managers of widely used databases in FCAB work, along with social work researchers who are using these sources to further the FCAB research agenda.
  • UMSSW’s Homecoming 2018, slated for March 9, 2018, will focus on family financial stability and  feature influential advocate Jonathan Mintz, executive director of the New York City-based Cities for Financial Empowerment, who will speak on “Strengthening Family Health: Advancing Economic Stability.”
  • Increased infusion of FSW and its role within psychosocial assessment in the Practice 1 courses offered in the MSW curricula.
  • Development of an FSW alumni network at UMSSW.
  • Increased financial support through scholarship opportunities to support MSW students who have an interest in financial social work: The Woodside Foundation Scholarship Endowment in Financial Social Work is available to all MSW students who would like to apply, and The SunTrust Foundation Scholarship Endowment in Financial Social Work is available to incoming first-year students.

“It is hoped that through these events and offerings, and especially with the launch of our FSW Certificate Program, the UMSSW FSWI will continue to advance and lead the field as financial stability plays an increasingly important role in social work education, research, and practice,” states FSWI Chair Jodi Frey, PhD, LCSW-C, CEAP.

UMSSW Dean Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW, lauds the efforts of the Financial Social Work Initiative. “I am thrilled by the rapid development of the FSWI from a kernel of an idea and a few active participants to a wide array of services and educational programs that now appear destined to become central to much of what social work accomplishes.”

For information on these and other FSWI activities, visit www.ssw.umaryland.edu/fsw.

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Education

The Best Arizona Social Work Degree Programs

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The state of Arizona offers several social work programs. Arizona students may study for the BSW, MSW or Ph.D. Arizona State University and the University of Northern Arizona are among the two top schools for social work degree programs in Arizona. Read on for information concerning degree program requirements.

Arizona State University

Arizona State University is a research university with over 50,000 students on several campuses. Because of the school’s size, reputation and resources, ASU is able to offer the bachelor of social work (BSW), the master of social work (MSW) and the Ph.D. degree. These degree programs are offered in Phoenix and Tucson.

The BSW at ASU requires students to complete courses in government and politics, economics, philosophy and ethics. The BSW prepares students to work with underserved and at-risk communities. For instance, upon graduation students may eventually work in the areas of adoption, HIV/AIDS services, child welfare, mental health and/or substance abuse services. ASU also prepares students to work for practical solutions to problems commonly seen in the American southwest. For instance, some graduates choose to work as advocates for immigrant rights.

Most ASU students receive some form of financial aid. Many scholarships are offered based on academic performance and degree program. For students who would like to live in Phoenix or Tucson a Phoenix moving company might be your best bet. Living in a metro area could also provide students with social work internship opportunities.

ASU Advanced Degree Programs

ASU offers several MSW programs, one of which can be completed online. Each of the master’s degree programs requires 60 hours of coursework as well as a fieldwork component. The university’s field education office helps place students in an internship where the student completes over 900 hours of work in at least one area of social services. For instance, a student might complete their fieldwork in disability services if it’s an area in which he or she is interested.

University Northern Arizona

The Department of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Northern Arizona offers a bachelor’s degree program in social work. The BSW degree prepares students to:

  • Help victims of domestic violence, child abuse and/or homelessness
  • Assist people with substance abuse problems
  • Provide support to those struggling with disabilities, mental problems and behavioral problems
  • Advocate for social change
  • Become a licensed generalist social worker

Graduates of the program work as case managers, victim advocates, disability services workers, family support services workers and child and youth services workers. In these fields, UNA graduates advocate for underserved groups and even become involved with politics and policy.

At the University of Northern Arizona, students first complete their core courses, and afterwards, they must apply separately to the social work program. Once accepted into the BSW program, a student must successfully complete courses in human behavior, crisis intervention and research. Students complete at least 120 coursework hours for the degree, which typically takes about four years.

In addition to classroom work, the BSW program also has a fieldwork requirement, which allows students to get work experience by completing an internship. Students may intern in the public or private sector. In the past, students have worked for both the state and federal government. Students may dedicate several months of full-time work to satisfy their field placement requirement, or they may work part-time while completing coursework. The university has a field placement director to assist students with selecting a suitable position.

The social work programs at Arizona State and Northern Arizona offer some of the best social work degree programs in the state. Students can earn a bachelor’s or advanced degree in 2-4 years, depending on the program of study. The field placement requirements also allow students the opportunity to gain practical experience and networking opportunities.

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