From an early age, Samina Hadi-Tabassum, EdD, saw how a child’s experiences are shaped by culture. Born in Hyderabad, India, she and her family moved to the United States when she was five years old, first to a diverse Chicago neighborhood and then to a more culturally homogeneous suburb.
“We were the first non-white and the first non-English-speaking children in the school district,” she says. “I saw firsthand how children become racialized beings. I was placed in special education in third grade with children who had physical and cognitive disabilities. I was one of many immigrant children who are mislabeled and misdiagnosed.”
Those childhood experiences — combined with a passion for early childhood education and a background in science — continue to shape her work. As an Erikson Institute faculty member, she prepares our students to work with families that represent many different cultural traditions, stressing that approaching culture and language as strengths can help lead to better outcomes for children.
“We have a generation of children who are rapidly losing their linguistic and cultural identities,” she says. “Families assume they will do better if their children assimilate, but those who do best are the ones who hang onto traditions.”
Throughout her career, she has worked with teachers — many in the Chicago Public Schools — to improve their practice and better meet the needs of their students. Prior to joining Erikson, she focused on helping first-year teachers in CPS build a framework that would support both academic success and social and emotional development in their students.
Currently, Dr. Hadi-Tabassum teaches courses in cognitive and language development and directs two programs. Her areas of expertise include examining morphological awareness in children, how storytelling helps develop cognition, and the role of imagination and creativity in child development.
Dr. Hadi-Tabassum’s research focuses on the intersection of race, culture, and language. Her first book, “Language, Space, and Power: A Critical Look at Bilingual Education,” is an ethnographic study of dual-language classrooms at a New York City school. Currently, she is finishing a new book that examines race relations in a suburban Chicago school district that is undergoing a demographic shift.
“What I love about Erikson’s faculty and staff is that they are looking at the practical implications of their research in the schools,” she says. “All the faculty make a concerted effort to be on the ground, in the field — that’s really different from any other place.”
Outside of her academic work, Dr. Hadi-Tabassum pursues creative writing. She recently published her first book of poetry and is writing a short story collection.
While exploring graduate school programs, Cassandra McKay Jackson, PhD, LCSW, came to an important revelation: Families do not live in a vacuum. Communities, cultures, and governmental systems help shape them, and helping those families calls for a professional who is capable of thinking of their situations in this broader context.
It was this understanding that drew Dr. McKay Jackson to social work.
“The issues impacting an individual do not solely lie within the person — the role that the environment plays in his or her circumstances is also a factor,” she says. “That idea is threaded throughout social work. Social workers are trained to explore the interactions between the individual, family, community, and larger society and consider how to engage people in helping them change the situations in which they find themselves.”
As director of Erikson’s Master of Social Work program, she is looking toward the future, considering how the preparation students receive will serve them as professionals and allow them to respond to the changing needs of children and families.
“One of the things we need to be aware of is preparing a culturally diverse workforce that is capable of supporting and being representative of the communities in which we work,” she says.
Erikson’s MSW program, she says, is uniquely suited to prepare professionals to serve families because of a curriculum that is deeply informed by an understanding of child development. Social workers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to provide support to children at a young age in order to ensure better outcomes as they grow older.
“Research shows a focus on young children early — providing the resources they need and supporting their families — is critical to the beginning of life,” Dr. McKay-Jackson says. “For social workers, it’s important to be a source of support early on so families aren’t trying to make up for lost time as children get older. In that sense, Erikson’s MSW program is ahead of the curve.”
Because of the critical nature of the work they are pursuing, Dr. McKay-Jackson seeks to challenge students while also offering new opportunities for them to think deeper. One of the ways she strives to connect teaching with research and practice is by inviting students to write articles with her for publications.
“I expect more of my students and for them to expect more of the clients they serve,” she says.
In high school, Amanda Moreno, PhD, read a book called “Dibs in Search of Self” that influenced her entire career path. The story of a gifted child who has trouble expressing himself and how his interactions with the book’s author, clinical psychologist Virginia M. Axline, brought about remarkable changes, resonated with the young Dr. Moreno.
“After reading the book, I kept thinking, ‘If only all children had greater opportunities and resources to help them realize their full potential,’ ” she says. “That’s what holds people back — not their level of intelligence.”
Throughout her career, which has included direct service, research, and instructional roles, her focus has been on understanding the connections between children’s social-emotional well-being and learning. Of particular interest is the role adults play in providing children with conditions that foster positive development and the factors that impact the ability of adults to fulfill that role.
Her current research includes a federally funded, four-year study on mindfulness practices in Chicago Public Schools classrooms, the first one of its kind looking at a large sample of kindergarten through second grade students in high-poverty schools. She also has studied preschools and child care centers to understand how best to work with adults and provide resources to enhance their sensitivity to the interactions they have with children.
Students in both on-campus and online versions of Dr. Moreno’s courses can expect rigorous and lively discussions in which bold ideas, creativity, and applied thinking are valued over “correct” answers and statistics. With rigor also comes support, and she notes that students will find a network of faculty, staff, and peers more than willing to offer encouragement and assistance. “Children are serious business, so we consider it our job to help you succeed.”