This article appeared in the Winter 2013–14 issue of Erikson on Children under the headline “Reimagining the M.S.W.” More from this issue

To thrive, vulnerable children and families need social workers who understand their unique needs. But until now, social workers had nowhere to go for the depth of preparation required.

Erikson is poised to fill that gap — and in so doing, transform social work education. Beginning in fall 2014, Erikson will offer the first Master of Social Work program that enriches the social work curriculum with a fully integrated child development perspective. In comparison, the typical M.S.W. degree program offers only a few discrete classes on working with children and families.

“By uniting the best of social work and child development knowledge and practice, we are creating a new kind of social worker,” says M.S.W. director Susan Knight, LCSW. “The program will help students develop a comprehensive toolkit — containing knowledge, values, and skills — for working with children and families in the context of their culture and communities.”

Erikson’s M.S.W. program launches as demand is increasing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the need for social workers who work with children and families will grow 20% between 2010 and 2020. And infants, young children, and their families are the fastest growing populations in the child welfare and mental health systems.

“We are positioned to prepare the next generation of leaders in this burgeoning field,” says Knight. “Leaders who understand that simple social justice demands system-level change for children and families.”

Social work from the beginning

Erikson and social work have been connected since Erikson’s founding. Social worker Lorraine Wallach, along with Maria Piers, Barbara T. Bowman, and Irving B. Harris, established the Institute in 1966.

Since 2001, Erikson has offered a dual degree program in partnership with Loyola University Chicago, enabling students to earn a Master of Science in Child Development from Erikson and an M.S.W. degree from Loyola. Because Erikson’s new M.S.W. program combines both degrees into one program, the partnership with Loyola will end in 2015 when current dual degree students graduate from Erikson.

Alumna Robin Rios, M.S. ’09, M.S.W. (Loyola) ’10, considers the dual degree program to be one of the best investments she ever made.

“I could not have made a better decision for myself personally or professionally,” says Rios, a child therapist and social worker at the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago.

Because of the program’s integration of child development and social work, she has the skills to work with a range of clients, including parents of young children, children with special needs, mothers struggling with postpartum depression, and adolescents on probation.

“Even in my work with adolescents, I always turn to my Erikson education to think about how their childhood has influenced and affected their behavior as 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds,” says Rios.

When she heard about Erikson’s new M.S.W. program, Rios couldn’t help being excited.

“All I could say was ‘Wow.’ My child development degree was top-notch. I can only imagine how amazing Erikson’s social work program will be.”

One-of-a-kind program

Through Erikson’s M.S.W. program, students will gain an understanding of the breadth of social work and the depth of child development.

“Our students will approach all of their social work with a developmental lens,” says Knight. “By considering the child’s development from every perspective — cultural, physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and language — our students will be able to craft interventions that are effective and take into account the complexity of children, families, and communities.”

This complexity presents itself in every interaction. A five-year-old who is disruptive in the classroom might be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). An Erikson-educated social worker will move beyond the immediate problem and consider the whole child: Has the child developed the ability to regulate emotion? What is the family’s culture? Does the family expect the child to be quiet at home, or is assertiveness valued? Is there a new stress at home that may be contributing to the disruptive behavior?

Armed with this holistic view of the child, the social worker can partner with the teacher, family, health care providers, and others to create an appropriate intervention.

The M.S.W. program features comprehensive course work and field work, but the heart of the program is an intensive two-year supervision seminar, in which students will integrate theory and research from the classroom with their practice in the field. This transformative experience will help students hone their professional identity as advanced social workers.

Classes will be taught by top social work and child development faculty and will bring social work students together with students in Erikson’s child development and teacher education programs. Students and faculty will create a highly collaborative learning community that fosters teamwork and working across disciplines — two skills essential for effective leaders in the social work field.

Full accreditation in 2016

Students are being recruited now for the M.S.W. cohort that begins in fall 2014. The program is expected to be fully accredited in time for the first class of graduates in 2016.

“At the end of the two-year program, our students will be able to immediately contribute to the lives of children and families,” says M.S.W. director of field instruction Maggie Brett, LCSW. “The stakes are too high for social workers to be unprepared to deal with the complexities.”