One of the keys to becoming a successful social worker is learning to navigate the complexities of human behavior and interpersonal relationships. Having a strong foundation built upon the mastery of interpersonal skills is a critical part of social work education. That’s why Rutgers School of Social Work created the Direct Practice Immersion Sequence, a series of two courses that every MSW student is required to take during their first year of study. Using a social justice lens informed by Barbara Love’s liberatory consciousness framework, the sequence enhances students’ interpersonal and listening skills, capacity for empathic understanding, professional use of self, and ability to recognize their positionality. Complementing knowledge and skill development in practicum sites, the sequence emphasizes (a) the importance of the relationship between the client and social worker in facilitating change, and (b) the links between micro-and macro-level interventions.

“We have developed a unique approach to teaching students key interpersonal skills and processes that provide the foundation for all types of social work interventions—clinical, programmatic, and policy level,” said Edward Alessi, Associate Professor and MSW Program Director. “Our mission is to equip students with the tools they need to be successful in their practicum learning and when they graduate. The Direct Practice Immersion Series provides students with the interpersonal skills needed to listen closely and understand the challenges our clients and communities face, as well as the resilience that they possess. This is essential for promoting social-justice oriented direct practice.”

The sequence comprises two courses: Practicum Learning Seminar: Developing Engagement and Assessment Skills and Reflective Practice Seminar. Both classes were created collaboratively by faculty experts in the direct practice of social work. Mark Lamar (Associate Professor of Professional Practice & Executive Director, Office of Practicum Learning), Bernardo Hiraldo (Assistant Professor of Teaching & Associate Director of Practicum Learning), Trinay Thomas (Assistant Professor of Teaching & Associate Director of Practicum Learning), Nancy Schley (Assistant Professor of Teaching and Associate Director of Practicum Learning), Mary Beth Ali (Teaching Instructor and Coordinator of Practicum Learning), and members of Academic Affairs conceived the initial seminar course, and Douglas Behan (Associate Professor of Professional Practice & Director of Continuing Education), Tawanda Hubbard (Associate Professor of Professional Practice), Nancy Schley (Assistant Professor of Teaching & Associate Director of Practicum Learning), and Mary Beth Ali (Teaching Instructor & Coordinator of Practicum Learning) created the five-week reflective practice course.

Students participating in the foundation level of the Direct Practice Immersion Sequence concurrently take Practice with Individuals, Families, and Groups and Practice with Organizations and Communities. Then, in their advanced year of study, students build upon the foundations and develop a specialization in either clinical social work or management and policy (MAP).

Practicum Learning Seminar: Developing Engagement and Assessment Skills
The course introduces students to the interpersonal communication skills necessary to engage and assess clients and client systems as they enter practicum learning. Topics covered include understanding the importance of the professional use of self, developing an empathetic relationship, creating a therapeutic alliance, and applying counseling skills while considering the client’s larger social environment. The course also introduces students to expectations associated with a generalist practicum. The classroom becomes an experiential learning lab environment that involves a significant use of exercises, role-plays, written analysis and reflections about these, and client simulations to practice the concepts and skills learned.

Upon completion of this course, students can:

  • Identify and understand expectations associated with a generalist field education practicum
  • Explore the meaning of social work professionalism and practice associated professional behaviors
  • Increase and apply skills related to the professional use of self, including self-awareness, personal boundaries, and self-reflection
  • Gain and apply beginning engagement and assessment skills

“The faculty teaching team for this class is composed of licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) that have or are currently practicing clinically,” said Lamar. “We teach, coach and lead students in how to engage and assess clients, essentially, in how to start building the therapeutic alliance. This is largely early-stage work for future social workers, without which the later, additionally developed interventions, could not occur. Students take on the roles of interviewer, client, and observer, for a 360-degree experience of the therapeutic process.”

Reflective Practice Seminar
This seminar integrates students’ practicum experience with knowledge, values, and skills acquired in the classroom. With a focus on self-in-practice, the seminar provides students with an opportunity to engage in discussion, reflection, and critical thinking about their positionality and evolving professional identity as it relates to all areas of social work practice. Using the classroom as an experiential learning lab environment, students learn through classroom discussion, exercises, role-plays, simulations, written analysis, and reflection.

“Students learn about the therapeutic process and develop professional humility through shared immersion in structured, experiential learning exercises,” said Schley. “Students find their own unique voice and begin to develop a professional identity. Theoretical concepts come alive and pave the way for reflective practice, now and in the future.”

Upon completion of this course, students can:

  • Effectively employ the use of reflexive thinking to examine their own practice and inform their work with individuals, groups, communities, and larger systems.
  • Demonstrate awareness of their positionality when they engage in social work practice – particularly when working with oppressed populations.
  • Demonstrate understanding of their social work role and responsibilities when working in interprofessional settings.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of elements of effective supervision.
  • Demonstrate increased awareness of the importance to reflexively engage in social work practice across the micro-macro continuum.

“Professionals who reflect on their work, including how they are personally interacting with it, are better situated to provide quality social work services,” said Behan. “The MSW curriculum exposes students to a vast amount of practicum experiences and academic material. This seminar provides students the opportunity, both individually and as a group, to step back and explore their evolving social work journey. We encourage students to stop and reflect on their learning experiences and how those experiences interact with their own ideas, values, and history.”

Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly noting the value of the simulation and role plays on their training and education.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the simulated clinical interviews that we spent a lot of time on,” said MSW student Jamie Cowperthwait about the practicum learning seminar. “They were extremely helpful learning experiences. Observing others as they practiced opened up whole new possibilities for how to relate to clients. It really helped me begin to build my ‘toolkit’ for working with a diverse clientele.”

“The reflective practice seems like more of what I liked about the practicum learning seminar. I just think you learn so much from observing and simulating clinical scenarios. The more the better,” said Cowperthwait.

“The Practicum Learning Seminar was a class I did not know what to expect from but had turned out to be one of my most enjoyable, worthwhile, and beneficial classes of the semester,” said MSW student Manasa Magesh.

“The seminar was an experience that was a starting point, especially for those on a clinical track, to see what it is like to have direct client interaction without the pressure of sitting in front of a real client. It set all the concepts that were being taught both in this class as well as in other classes and allowed students to apply them. I enjoyed the various situations and roles each student was able to play, enhancing our understanding as future social workers. The feedback that was given was also very constructive and allowed me to reflect on my strengths and areas of work, which I see as a great baseline. I am excited to be able to delve deeper into these concepts for the reflective practice course, get hands-on experience working with clients, and learn a lot more about myself in that process."