In this file photo, a BCSSW student works with a child at Camp Harbor View.

In this file photo, a BCSSW student works with a child at Camp Harbor View, which partners with Boston kids and their families on year-round programs that inspire creativity, build community, and champion young leaders.

As the need for child and family social workers continues to grow, the Boston College School of Social Work is preparing students to improve the health and resilience of families and their communities.

The Children, Youth, and Families field of practice—one of six academic pathways that include specialized coursework and field placements—trains future practitioners to address issues such as trauma, material hardship, and behavioral health.

Whether students choose the clinical or macro track, this specialized program prepares them to assess the mental health of individuals and families while implementing evidence-based interventions that improve the well-being of some of the most vulnerable people in Boston and beyond. 

We asked Jessica Black, an associate professor who chairs the Children, Youth, and Families field of practice, to discuss the biggest challenges facing families today, how BCSSW is preparing students to solve these issues, and where newly-minted social workers who specialize in this field of practice typically go on to work after they graduate.

First of all, what are some of the biggest social issues facing families today?

This is a multifaceted answer with critical proximal and distal systems issues such as housing insecurity, economic instability, food insecurity, healthcare disparities, discrimination, systemic obstacles, and the mental health of our youth.

Levels of mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression, are high for children. In particular, the mental health crisis facing children and adolescents is a large issue that has been a concern for many years and has increased precipitously in recent times.

There is a large uptick in numbers of individuals and families needing therapy post COVID. Children may be on waitlists for months to attain a therapist, and many are in an acute state.

How does the Children, Youth, and Families field of practice prepare students to address these challenges?

The courses in the program help students understand the proximal and distal supports, challenges, and systemic barriers that either foster or hinder children and families from accessing and using services. Students apply what they learn in class to their field placements, where they gain real-world experience with organizations that complement their goals and passions. Our pedagogy, which melds the person-in-environment and strengths-based approaches, are paramount to student learning and the profession of social work.

The clinical track aims to provide students with the skills to conduct and provide culturally competent assessments and treatment to children and adolescents. Emphasis is on assessment of an individual to include family and social context that surrounds them. Students learn to effectively engage and build rapport with families of the youth they serve as they are the clients’ primary context.

The macro track aims to provide students with practice skills that focus on the wider and interactive systems that impact the development and opportunities of young people and their families. Skills center on advocacy, leadership and administration, financial management and resource development, and novel approaches to drive social change.

Clinical students who choose this field of practice are required to take “Advanced Clinical Interventions with Children, Youth, and Families.” What will students learn from this course?

This course equips students with the ability to work with children, adolescents, and their families both clinically and in roles of advocacy. The course emphasizes the practice and integration of skills, making skills labs the bedrock of the course design.

The course covers a variety of evidence-based practices and interventions, including trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, solution-focused therapy, narrative therapy, SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions), PCIT (Parent-Child Interaction Therapy), and family sculpting.

The course also looks at roles in multidisciplinary teams and how to participate in and facilitate effective meetings, which allow students the opportunity to sharpen their advocacy skills.

Additionally, students examine how local and federal legislation influence the systems of care that impact our clients—including the Massachusetts Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative—so they are better able to help them access care.

Macro students who choose this field of practice are required to take “Management of Organizations Serving Children, Youth, and Families.” What will students learn from this course?

This course equips students with the knowledge and skills to manage organizations that serve children, youth, and families. Among other topics, it focuses on ethical leadership; organizational design; human resources; governance; and strategic planning and growth.

Students will explore the differences between management and leadership, and gain insight into their respective styles as both managers and leaders. Upon the conclusion of the course, they will understand the path to becoming a manager and leader in the field of social work.

BCSSW students in the CYF field of practice often earn certificates in child welfare, school social work, and neuroscience and social work by taking a series of specific courses. How do these certificates fit into the curriculum for the Children, Youth, and Families field of practice?

Child Welfare
This certificate program prepares students to support the health and well-being of children. As part of the program, students will learn how to advocate for policies that improve the lives of children and families; explore issues such as adoption, foster care, and family reunification; and examine a range of modalities for assessing and treating youth who have experienced trauma.

School Social Work
This certificate program prepares students to practice social work in school-based settings. As part of the program, students receive a comprehensive overview of education policy while developing the skills to effectively communicate with teachers, school personnel, and diverse families.

(This certificate is for clinical students only. It does not alone meet the requirements for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education School Social Worker licensure.)

Neuroscience and Social Work
This certificate program prepares students to understand the biological processes of human development throughout the lifespan, with a primary focus on neuroscience and an introduction to genetics. Through coursework, students learn how to read and comprehend neuroscience research and methodologies; build a rich vocabulary in biology; understand how to appropriately include neuroscientific findings in practice such as psychoeducation; and more deeply understand the human experience through the lens of the brain. Students gain an understanding of how the brain builds and changes over time, while considering contexts relevant to social work such as caregiving, material hardship, loneliness, love, and toxic stress. During the program, they select a topic of interest, such as mood disorder or sleep, and delve into examining its neurobiological underpinnings in a final project that is meaningful for society and that illustrates the importance of factoring biological perspectives into understanding the human experience in context.

Jessica Black

Jessica Black, an associate professor who chairs the Children, Youth, and Families field of practice.

Students in the Children, Youth, and Families field of practice gain real-world experience through field practicums at schools, nonprofits, community health centers, and organizations that address issues related to trauma, material hardship, and immigrant integration. Where, specifically, are students in the program doing their fieldwork now and what are they working on?  

Students are providing a wide range of micro, mezzo, and macro interventions in settings that span the sectors responsible for children’s development. We offer placements with childcare and early intervention programs, supporting parents with infants and toddlers. In school-based settings, students provide individual counseling for children with social and emotional needs while engaging parents and other care providers to create a circle of care.  

BC M.S.W. interns train as part of in-home therapy teams through the Massachusetts Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative, using evidence-based modalities to bring stabilization and consistency. We have strong partnerships with agencies that provide respite and long-term residential care for children with behavioral and psychological concerns; we have learning opportunities in settings that serve LGBTQ+ youth; and we have practica with agencies that advocate for children’s needs in the state legislatures, at the federal level, and with international organizations. 

Macro experiences include settings that build partnerships between agencies, foster innovation, and design initiatives to improve the status of children and families.

What are some potential career paths for students who specialize in working with children, youth, and families?

The career pathways are widely varied and ever changing. As the behavioral health and social and emotional needs of children become better understood, social workers can continue to innovate and design care in many settings—including schools, community health care centers, and sports and adventure-based organizations. Other social workers are providing home-based family therapy and using technology in the form of games or virtual reality to improve the lives of children and their families. 

Some of our recent graduates are now working in settings as diverse as Boston Public Schools, McLean Hospital, and The Home for Little Wanderers. 

Faculty in the CYF program include scholars, clinicians, scientists, and leaders from a variety of industries—all dedicated to improving the lives of the most vulnerable. What are some areas of their specific areas of expertise?

Jessica M. Black:

Neuroscience; child and adolescent mental health; peer, teacher, and family relationships; neurodiversity; developmental dyslexia; sleep; play; positive emotion; and spirituality

Kristen Davison:

Parenting and children’s lifestyle behaviors (e.g., diet, physical activity, and sleep); family interventions to prevent child obesity; physical activity and child mental health; development and validation of conceptual frameworks and parent-report surveys; community-based participatory research; and implementation science

Vincent Fusaro:

Material hardship; low-wage work; federalism and social welfare; and effects of policies and programs on well-being

Shanta Pandey:

Women’s empowerment; gender equity; maternal and child health; and social welfare policy

Maggi Price:

Gender diversity; stigma; discrimination; identity-based bullying; evidence-based interventions; psychotherapy; Posttraumatic sequalae; trauma-related outcomes in youth; trauma treatment; child abuse and neglect; culturally-responsive mental health treatment; and school-based mental healthcare

Carolyn Romano:

Solution Focused Therapy; adventure therapy; and experiential therapy 

Christopher Salas-Wright:

Stress and resilience among immigrants; substance use epidemiology; and prevention of adolescent problem behavior

Catherine Taylor:

Preventing and reducing childhood trauma and exposure to violence; promoting children's health and health equity; and social norms and evidence-based interventions  

Ed-Dee Williams:

Black/African American adolescents; mental health and depression; Autism Spectrum Disorder; and help-seeking and service utilization

In addition to courses and field placements, the CYF field of practice keeps students engaged in the program by hosting events throughout the academic year. What are some of the most recent events that the program has hosted?

We’ve hosted more than half a dozen events already this spring semester and have more events coming up with emphasis on macro practice over the next couple of months. In February, Professor Romano hosted an interactive workshop focused on pairing mental health theory with experiential activities. I hosted a lecture on the intersection of neurodiversity and spiritual and religious needs and experiences of young people and their families. Later this month, BCSSW alumma Julie Barbick, the first social worker for the Hampstead School District in New Hampshire, will host an interactive workshop focused on the role of a school social worker. As part of the workshop, students will brainstorm ways to engage in collaborative work with local schools in their current field placements. 

We also routinely host informal events for students to get to know faculty and their peers. In February, we held a luncheon for students to meet Professor Romano, Professor Price, and Professor Williams. We also host “Pizza and Play” social events where students and faculty play board games, draw, and connect informally while unwinding with some food and games. We find it important to provide students with opportunities to get to know one another, and who doesn’t like to play? 

Jessica Black received input from Susan Coleman, assistant dean of field education and co-chair of the Trauma Integration Initiative; Sarah Hood, assistant director of field education; Carolyn Romano, assistant professor of practice; and Cindy Snell, director of Career Services and Alumni Relations.