PROFESSIONAL SOCIAL WORK literature has traditionally acknowledged
that practitioners' emotional reactions to practice situations are
an important dynamic in understanding and intervening effectively with
clients. More recently, all helping professions have increasingly
recognized the significant impact on practitioners of exposure to their
clients' accounts of trauma and of witnessing disturbing
situations. Indeed, an extensive body of theory and research elucidates
phenomena such as vicarious trauma (Bride, 2007; Bride & Figley,
2007; Iliffe & Steed, 2000; McCann & Pearlman, 1990; Pearlman
& Saakvitne, 1995), secondary trauma (Figley, 1995; Pearlman &
Saakvitne, 1995; Stamm, 1995), and compassion fatigue and burnout
This article examines the emotional reactions of social work
students to their experiences in the field placement. Social work field
education is credited by alumni and employers as having the most
significant impact on the preparation of social workers for practice
(Fortune & Abramson, 1993; Kadushin, 1991; Tolson & Kopp, 1988)
and is characterized as the signature pedagogy of social work education
in Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) by the Council
on Social Work Education (CSWE, 2008; Shulman, 2005). In field education
students are able to integrate theory and practice, gain mastery of
intervention skills, and learn to deal with ethically challenging
In addition, it is in the practicum where students experience and
explore how personal and professional aspects of self come together.
Social work field education literature has traditionally emphasized
developing, rather than obliterating, the identity of the learner
(Towle, 1954) and helping students to face emotions and personal value
judgments elicited in their practice (Younghusband, 1967). The aim is to
develop self-awareness to use in understanding and working with client
dynamics (Deal, 2000; Hensley, 2002; Saari, 1989). In this context,
students' reactions to clients and practicum experiences are
understood as by-products of the students' internal and subjective
meanings and responses. Field education literature proposes the trusting
and supportive field instructor-student relationship as the context for
conscious and systematic reflection about how personal reactions and
professional interventions merge in practice (Bogo, 1993; Bogo &
Vayda, 1998; Walter & Young, 1999), with attention to maintaining
boundaries between "treating and teaching" (Hendricks, Finch,
& Franks, 2005, p. 7).
Although professional growth and self-awareness developed in field
education is generally lauded, theorists such as Polson and Nida (1998)
caution that disciplines such as social work, psychology, and family
therapy, which require both a classroom and field training component,
can be more stressful than other more traditional graduate programs. In
academic courses and the field, learning new concepts and values can
challenge core personal and familial worldviews and beliefs, leading to
a sense of confusion and even disorientation. Self-concept is often
challenged as students struggle to master new skills. Teaching methods
that expect active participation through discussion, role-play, and
provision of service in the practicum can engender performance anxiety
and can differ from the experience of many students who were socialized
in an educational system that emphasized the student as passive
recipient of knowledge. Furthermore, Kamya (2000) notes that the social
work educational experience is fraught with role ambiguity, conflict,
stress, and strain, brought on by such factors as students' own
expectations of themselves, their perceptions of faculty and school
expectations, field instruction demands, and often conflicting familial
roles and work schedules.
The populations with whom students work are frequently vulnerable
and overwhelmed. Researchers have noted that clients present with
greater acuity and that governmental and managed care fiscal restraints
have led to fewer resources and services for clients (Bocage, Homonoff,
& Riley, 1995; Raskin & Bloome, 1998). Interaction with these
populations may place further stress on students and affect their
learning as well as their personal and professional development. Other
situations in the field can also adversely affect students'
learning. Settings may involve students working with clients who are
experiencing intense emotional pain. Students may be exposed to sights
and smells they find disagreeable. They may be involved with clients who
are dying, witness clients' death, or experience the distress of
bereaved families. Intervention with clients' traumatic stress
often involves assisting clients in working through the traumatic
experience, thus exposing the helper to the traumatic event through
vivid imagery (Bride, 2004). Students are expected to engage in these
situations through active listening and to remain empathically attuned
to the client, so they may feel overwhelmed. Moreover, exposure to such
suffering may trigger students' own personal, painful memories.
In the literature on practitioners' reactions to clients'
trauma, the terms vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, compassion
fatigue, and burnout are often used interchangeably. Vicarious trauma,
first described by McCann and Pearlman (1990), refers to a
transformation or disruption in cognitive schema and belief systems
resulting from engagement with client trauma. Secondary trauma refers to
symptoms that mirror those experienced by people experiencing
posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These symptoms may include a range
of adverse sequelae such as intrusive imagery, hypervigilance, sleep
disturbance, irritability, relational difficulties, and difficulty
concentrating (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Compassion
fatigue develops as a result of helpers' exposure to the
experiences of clients in tandem with the empathy they feel (Collins
& Long, 2003). Although there does not seem to be a standard
definition of burnout, there is agreement that it refers to a syndrome
of exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of reduced personal
accomplishment (Collins & Long, 2003; Maslach, Schaufeli, &
Novice practitioners may have not yet acquired mature coping
strategies to deal with a range of client situations that evoke strong
emotions, and they may have yet to learn how to negotiate organizational
demands that create stress. Similarly, practicum students are often
expected to become familiar with and negotiate complex organizational
structures, some aspects of which can be highly disturbing. In a review
of the empirical literature, Bride (2004) comments that younger
professionals may be at increased risk due to the lack of opportunity to
develop protective strategies. In a conceptual analysis of PTSD and the
stresses related to working with patients who have AIDS, Wade,
Beckerman, and Stein (1996) point out that young and inexperienced
social workers are highly susceptible to PTSD due to their novice
status. In fact, in 2007 the Clinical Social Work Journal dedicated an
issue to the topic of compassion fatigue. Bride and Figley (2007) argue
that it is incumbent on social work educators to prepare students to
work in highly stressful environments.
Although the previously noted research applies to novice
professionals, these observations may also apply to many social work
students who, in addition to sharing some characteristics of beginning
workers, must also cope with a range of stressors related to
students' role conflicts, expectations of field and academic
learning, the nature of the field setting, and the population served.
Although attention has been paid in the literature to the impact on
practitioners' exposure to trauma, there is a gap in the literature
regarding the impact on students who are exposed to these types of
stressors in the field practicum. Attention to the emotional impact of
field experiences has potential to strengthen the pedagogy of field
education (Barlow & Hall, 2007).
Anecdotal reports from field liaisons and classroom teachers
suggest a significant number of students experience a range of emotional
reactions to their field settings. Students may feel overwhelmed and
struggle with their reactions to some practice experiences. It is
possible that student distress is underreported, as students may not be
willing to share their uncertainties or distress with individuals in
authority, such as their field instructors. The lack of attention to
students' emotional reactions may reflect an unfortunate by-product
of the current emphasis on an educational model of field instruction,
rather than on a personal growth model.
In an effort to better understand the emotional reactions of
students to their field experiences, a qualitative exploratory study was
conducted to identify and describe the emotional reactions of social
work students to their experiences in the field placement. The
researchers were interested in determining what elements in the field
setting contribute to students' emotional reactions, both positive
and negative, and what supports or factors students identify as helpful
when they experience distress in the field. The goal of the study was to
contribute knowledge so that field instructors could more effectively
respond to the emotional reactions of students who are exposed to
traumatized, stressed, and at-risk populations.
Because there is a lack of literature on students' emotional
responses to the field practicum, qualitative methodology was chosen to
explore this topic in depth. The participants were from MSW programs in
two Canadian universities. Participants had recently successfully
completed all requirements for the MSW degree. One program is located in
a large urban center, and the other is located in a rural area. One
program uses regular on-site liaison visits, whereas the other uses a
troubleshooting model (Fortune et al., 1995). The study received
approval from the University of Toronto Research Ethics Board.
Recruitment and Sample
Graduating students from master's programs in two schools of
social work were invited to participate. Approximately 140 students in
each university received a study information letter. Eight students
volunteered from one university (one subsequently withdrew), and five
students volunteered from the second university. The letter explained
the study objectives and detailed the potential risks and benefits to
the participants. It was clearly stated that study participation was
voluntary. As the researchers are faculty members at one of the
participating universities and work directly with students, students
were informed that a research assistant, a doctoral student who was an
experienced social worker, would conduct all the interviews and that the
data would be transcribed and made anonymous before the researchers
could access the data.
The final sample included 12 graduating students of both MSW
programs. All participants were female. Eight participants were in the
age range of 24-29, one was in the range of 30-35, two were in the 40-45
age range, and one was in the range of 50-55. Eight participants had a
BA degree, two had BSW degrees, and two had degrees in other
disciplines. In comparison to available demographic information about
the student population of both programs, the sample was similar in age
distribution. There were no men in the sample, although the student
population includes approximately 15% male students.
Data Collection and Analysis
Individual interviews lasting approximately one and a half hours in
length were conducted following a semistructured interview guide. The
interview guide was developed based on a literature review and the
researchers' extensive experience in field education. Questions
were open-ended and focused on participants' field experience in
general, the organizational environment, their relationship with their
field instructor, work with clients, any events that had an emotional
impact on them, and any supports they had accessed in this regard.
Thirteen interviews were conducted and were digitally recorded. One
participant withdrew from the study after her interview. The remaining
12 interviews were professionally transcribed, and NVivo software was
used to organize the data (Richards, 1999). In analyzing the interviews
we identified categories and themes (Merriam, 2002), and constant
comparison led to groupings of similar concepts about participants'
emotional responses to their practicum settings. The researchers
developed narrative themes and moved from reading and memo writing to
describing, classifying, and interpreting (Cresswell, 1998). Consistent
and contradictory themes were identified and compared among the
participants. Axial coding procedures were used to explore the
interconnectedness among the emerging categories. Selective coding
procedures were employed to build a narrative that connected the themes
pertaining to participants' emotional reactions. Finally, memo
writing furthered our understanding of participants' emotional
reactions, their perceptions of educational supports in their field
placements, and of the nature of the practicum setting.
Four significant and interrelated themes emerged through analysis
of the interviews. First, there was great variation in the
identification and definition of emotionally charged events. Second, the
crucial nature of the student-field instructor relationship emerged as
both a major risk and a major protective factor. Third, the impact of
the organizational environment as a risk and as a protective factor was
similarly apparent. The theme of how, and from whom, participants sought
help and problem-solving support emerged as a fourth significant theme.
The following sections describe these themes in more detail.
Subjective Definitions of Emotionally Charged Events
A striking finding was the wide range of student responses that was
elicited. Analysis of the interviews revealed three distinct categories
of events that precipitated a strong emotional reaction among the
participants. These included a catastrophic event, organizational and
professional issues, and intra/interpersonal issues. All categories of
events were perceived by the participants as extremely intense and as
affecting the participants both in the field setting and in their
personal lives outside the field setting.
Only one student described an event that could objectively be
considered catastrophic: a client suicide. As would be expected, this
significantly affected the student and created considerable distress.
Although she appreciated the attempts of agency staff, faculty, and
peers to be supportive, the student felt they could not possibly
understand the devastating impact of this experience. Others'
attempts at consolation often resulted in this participant feeling that
her experience was minimized. Although she recognized that the suicide
was not her fault, she struggled with feeling that if she had done
something differently, she could have prevented this tragedy. She
believed that nothing in the academic program had prepared her to
emotionally handle this type of event.
The category of organizational/professional issues reflects some
participants' distress in response to various aspects of the
organization. The participants expressed negative reactions to factors
such as the physical setting, fear for their personal safety, feeling
marginalized and disrespected as a student, feeling humiliated, and
observing unethical staff behavior. These situations stirred up a range
of feelings, including disillusionment and disappointment with the
social work profession. Experiencing a stressful relationship with a
field instructor also had a major impact on participants and was
identified as a significant source of emotional distress.
The category of intra/interpersonal events refers to the
participants' individual emotional triggers and to stressors with
clients. For example, a crisis of confidence or fear of causing harm
created significant stress for some participants. Some participants
believed that clients were disadvantaged as a result of being assigned
to them and were concerned that they were potentially failing a client
who was in great need of competent professional assistance. Participants
were sensitive to clients' reactions to them, and those who
reported rejection by a client were strongly affected, unless this was
mitigated by a supportive field instructor. The requirement to report
suspected child abuse resulted in intense emotions for some students, as
this act felt like a betrayal of the client. Several participants feared
particular clients. Other participants recognized that their own past
emotional issues were triggered by client experiences. For example,
working with clients struggling with relationships triggered reactions
based on some participants' own relationship history, working with
child clients triggered childhood memories, and working with
disempowered clients triggered memories of times when they themselves
felt powerless. A number of participants described a cognitive process
through which they had to bring themselves back to the moment and remind
themselves that the client was separate from them. One student for
instance, described her experience as follows:
Some participants expressed the view that these experiences of
countertransference enabled them to relate more empathically to clients.
For example, one student commented, "I could relate in the sense
that my grandfather was in the hospital just this past winter and so
like seeing my family go through the same types of roles," and that
this enabled her to have a better understanding of the client's
The Student-Field Instructor Relationship
The student-field instructor relationship emerged as significant,
both as a crucial risk factor and as a crucial protective factor.
Participants who reported a positive relationship with their field
instructor generally weathered difficult challenges and setbacks well.
When the relationship was reported to be negative, minor challenges were
often described as overwhelming, and the relationship itself became a
Participants tended to describe their relationship with their
instructors in charged terms that were either positive and glowing or
highly negative. There seemed to be no middle ground; the instructor was
either "loved" or "hated." Of the 12 participants,
10 had two MSW field experiences during their program, and many of them
described their two field instructors in a polarized manner, as
opposites. For instance, when describing field instructors, it was
typical for a participant to depict "one that was great and one
that was horrible." They experienced strong personal reactions
early on. Comments such as "I instantly felt comfortable with
her" or "We just didn't click" reflected their quick
emotional reactions to their instructors.
Regardless of the strength of the relationship or of the
participant's personal characteristics, participants were acutely
aware of the power dynamic. Even participants who generally felt
confident and competent expressed a sense of vulnerability within the
student-instructor relationship. This sense of vulnerability emerged as
a significant stressor when the relationship was not considered solid.
Not only were field instructors responsible for the participants'
evaluations, but also participants were acutely aware that their
instructors might be called upon as a reference for future employment.
In addition, participants often hoped to find work in the geographic
area and practice specialization of their placement. They believed that
an instructor who spoke negatively about them could seriously impede
their career options. This possibility created an undercurrent of
tension for some participants and magnified what would otherwise likely
have been perceived as normal challenges.
Participants very clearly identified factors that contributed to
their positive or negative perceptions about their instructor. They were
acutely aware of instructors who appeared to feel burdened by the
responsibility of a student and who, according to the participants, gave
the message, in varying degrees of subtlety, that they did not want to
be bothered by the student. Participants were cognizant of instructors
who focused on their weaknesses and problems and who did not acknowledge
student strengths. Instructors who were described as crossing
boundaries, either by eliciting or sharing personal information, created
stressful situations for a number of participants. It was not uncommon
for some participants to feel they had to take care of and protect their
field instructor. Finally, participants were quite negatively affected
by instructors who were perceived as "disrespectful" and
On a positive note, many respondents identified field instructors
who truly mentored them by celebrating their strengths and
constructively acknowledging areas for improvement. They appreciated
instructors who were welcoming, accessible, and emotionally supportive
and who maintained friendly but professional boundaries. Moreover,
participants appreciated instructors who spoke positively about former
students. Instructors who were protective of students within the agency
context, normalized students' anxieties, acknowledged errors as a
learning experience, maintained a balance of structure and flexibility,
and gave explicit feedback created an atmosphere that not only enhanced
learning but also appeared to mitigate negative emotional responses to
client and organizational issues. Instructors who were open to
differences and gave the message that they cared about the student
seemed to create an emotional safety net. As an example, a student who
had experienced a public humiliation described how the negative impact
of the experience was mitigated by a supportive field instructor:
The organizational atmosphere was another factor that could
potentially mitigate or exacerbate participants' distress.
Participants proved to be very acute observers, ever watchful and
sensitive to organizational issues and patterns such as power dynamics,
meta-communications, "in groups," and "out groups."
The organizational environment and the relationship with the instructor
appear to be interrelated variables with the potential to enhance the
positive or mitigate or exacerbate the negative impact of the other. A
positive relationship with a field instructor often protected
participants from tense organizational issues. These students were able
to share observations with their field instructor who in turn supported
the student and often normalized the participant's reactions. At
times, the negative impact of a stressful relationship with a field
instructor was cushioned by others in the agency, who were supportive,
made themselves available for consultation, and provided a welcoming
atmosphere. The combination of a stressful relationship with the
instructor and a negative organizational environment appeared to result
in a toxic situation that affected on the participants' learning.
Participants were acutely aware of whether they were welcome and
valued by their organization. They indicated awareness of team dynamics
and recognized when they could, without hesitation, approach anyone on
the team for assistance. Comments such as "We never had to feel
that we had to flounder" or "They saw me not only as a student
but as someone who could give back to the organization" reflected
These observations are in contrast to other participants'
reflections of spending a great deal of emotional energy on such matters
as managing the agency politics, struggling with client issues on their
own, and nursing wounded self-esteem. Participants were aware of their
instructors' conflicts and status within the agency and had to
balance alliances. This dilemma was noted by one student who said:
Participants were cognizant of the care staff had taken to provide
a welcoming physical atmosphere, not only for the students but also for
clients. A number of participants expressed appreciation for the
opportunity to personalize their own physical space.
In general, participants proved to be particularly sensitive to
negative feedback when the general environment was perceived as
"critical" and "cold." For example, one student
described feeling extreme distress when a presentation she made was not
well received. Another student felt extremely humiliated when she
experienced a personally embarrassing incident in front of a group of
clients. When not mitigated by a protective and supportive instructor or
agency environment, these types of incidents contributed to battered
self-esteem and an intense emotional response that affected the
participants' personal lives.
Seeking Problem-Solving Assistance and Support
A number of clearly identifiable and significant patterns emerged
with respect to seeking problem-solving assistance and support. Similar
themes were found in the responses of participants from both schools
despite the two different faculty-field liaison protocols. Participants
were highly reluctant to share their feelings and concerns with either
designated faculty or with the field liaison, and did so only when they
saw no other option. Despite perceiving faculty and field liaison as
wanting to be helpful and as "nice," the participants did not
see them as generally trustworthy and were always wary of approaching
them with a problem. The recognition of a power imbalance strongly
influenced their willingness to display vulnerabilities and to take the
chance that they might be judged.
Friends and family were almost invariably the first people
participants approached for support and advice with respect to their
field placement. Fellow students were often a source of assistance
because they could generally be expected to understand the troubling
issue and to be empathic and nonjudgmental. Talking with friends who
were in the program was generally described as very productive, as the
experience was normalized when others expressed the same concerns and
feelings. As an example, one student noted:
Participants were most able to express shameful feelings to family
and friends. As the stressful issues sometimes affected their core
self-esteem, the context of these safe relationships enabled the
participants to expose their vulnerabilities. For example, they could
cry, act foolishly, disclose fears and, as one student aptly stated,
could admit that she felt like a "goof" without fear of
reprisal. Some participants regularly telephoned partners or friends
throughout the day, just to have them listen.
Although peer support was generally perceived as useful, there were
occasions when participants believed that their peers did not understand
their emotional reactions. At times, the issue seemed insignificant to
others, but due to interrelated factors such as an unsupportive
environment or the participant's individual personal
characteristics, was experienced as very significant to the participant.
When the relationship with the field instructor was strong,
participants would sometimes attempt to seek help from them. They could
also, in the context of a safe, secure relationship with an instructor,
disclose vulnerabilities. Similarly, if there was a positive
relationship, an agency staff member was at times called upon for
support or advice.
On the occasions when participants sought faculty assistance,
rather than approaching their assigned faculty adviser, they most
commonly approached a faculty member with whom they had a relationship.
Seeking help from the field liaison was even more daunting than
approaching a trusted faculty member and fraught with anticipated
difficulties. Regardless of the liaison structure, participants rarely
described a meaningful and trusting relationship with the liaison. They
were often concerned about what steps would be taken by the liaison if
the situation was considered truly problematic. Most commonly, their
expressed goal was to complete the program and obtain their degree.
Participants worried that if they asked for assistance they might be
risking their ability to complete the program successfully, a risk that
was unacceptable; rather, the participants chose to suffer in silence.
At times, participants struggled with the emotional impact of
potentially dangerous clients or client situations, field instructors
who abused their power, toxic agency politics, and woefully inadequate
supervision rather than seek help from their liaison.
The aim of this study was to elucidate the factors and dynamics
associated with students' emotional responses to their field
experiences. Drawing on the literature and anecdotal evidence from
faculty who provide consultation and support to students in the field
practicum, the expectation was that students would recount clinical
practice situations that were so difficult that they might feel
traumatized, resulting in strong reactions with adverse affects on their
learning and personal well-being. The study findings only partially
supported the observations of faculty that some students were
traumatized or experienced strong negative emotional reactions in
response to events in the practicum. The small sample size and the
nature of the sample may have contributed to these results. Following
conventional human subjects research ethics, the investigators could not
directly recruit students into the study who had self-identified to
faculty as having been adversely affected by practice events. Rather,
volunteers were sought and may not have represented the student body nor
included students who had traumatic and negative experiences. Students
may have volunteered who had either very strong positive or very strong
negative feelings about their field learning. Moreover, the findings are
based only on the perspectives of the participants and not those of
their field instructors. Hence, although the study findings provide
interesting insights, generalizations applied to student field education
should be made with caution. Despite these limitations, there is some
support in the literature for the findings of this study.
Emotionally upsetting experiences can be conceptualized as a
product of interrelated factors such as the actual practice event and
its subjective meaning for the student, the nature of the student and
field instructor relationship, and the student's comfort in the
organization. First, regarding the practice event, only one participant
experienced what in the literature would be described as an objective
catastrophic event: the suicide of a client. The participants, however,
spoke at length about subjective stress and strong emotional reactions
that spilled over into their everyday lives. It was apparent that
individual participants had highly individual definitions of what was
experienced as critical, humiliating, or upsetting. Events considered to
be extremely upsetting by a participant might not be perceived similarly
by other students, field instructors, or faculty. It is recognized in
the literature that when subjective experiences are not acknowledged or
validated, the effect on the individual can be quite devastating
(Stolorow & Atwood, 1992).
The second contributing factor to defining experiences as
distressing is the nature of the student-field instructor relationship.
Similar to the abundant empirical literature on the crucial nature of
this relationship to students' satisfaction and perception of
quality field experiences (Fortune & Abramson, 1993; Gray, Alperin,
& Wik, 1989; Knight, 2000; Strozier, Barnett-Queen, & Bennett,
2000), the student-field instructor relationship served as either a risk
or a protective factor. When students reacted negatively to field events
and sought the guidance of their field instructors, warm, supportive,
and interested field instructors made a difference in assisting students
to process the experience and move ahead in their learning. These
instructors appeared to acknowledge students' strengths in the face
of their fears and strong emotional reactions; they normalized student
anxieties, were attentive to student concerns, and maintained
appropriate boundaries with distressed students. Conversely, students
did not seek out field instructors who were seen as unavailable or
uninterested in teaching. The absence of a potentially helpful person
appeared to exacerbate students' negative reactions, whereas the
presence of a caring field instructor appeared to soften or diminish the
students' discomfort and distress. This finding is consistent with
Bennett and colleagues' (Bennett, Mohr, Szoc, & Saks, 2008;
Bennett & Saks, 2006) recent contributions in which the relationship
is viewed through the lens of attachment theory. These authors
underscore the importance of the field instructor providing a secure
base so that the student can return "to the safe haven of
supervision for repair of the inevitable ruptures that occur during the
field experience" (Bennett & Saks, 2006, p. 671). The field
instructor who is attuned to the student's cues can determine what
should be offered, when to provide encouragement to venture forth again
into the practice situation, and when to use the safe haven of the
relationship to examine the vulnerabilities and difficulties evoked in
learning. Additional study of the links among the nature of the
relationship, students' emotional reactions, and ability to learn
and master competencies is warranted.
Finally, with respect to the student-field instructor relationship,
there were examples in which the relationship itself was the source of
negativity and stress for the participants. In such relationships
students experienced the field instructor as misusing power, such as
behaving in authoritarian and punitive ways or inconsistently crossing
boundaries by sharing too much personal information and then avoiding
and retreating from the student. These dynamics created an undercurrent
of tension throughout the practicum for students and intensified
students' reactions to challenging practice events by operating as
a double burden, whereby the student was concerned about the event and
also concerned about how to relay their concerns to an instructor viewed
as unsupportive or punitive. This finding is consistent with results
from a national survey of critical incidents in field learning
(Giddings, Vodde, & Cleveland, 2003). Respondents identified as
negative a field instructor's harsh and unyielding style; being
rigid, authoritarian, overly challenging, or accusatory, and lacking
empathy and sensitivity to student needs. Also reported as critical was
unprofessional behavior with moderate ethical and boundary violations.
The third contributing factor to perceiving an experience as
stressful relates to the organizational context of the practicum. Agency
policies, observations of informal styles of communication, and staff
tensions all had the potential to affect the participants. Study
participants were acutely aware of organizational dynamics and their
field instructors' status in the setting and how they are perceived
by the team. Acutely attuned to the agency culture as it relates to
staff, students, and clients, participants recalled that the
environmental context affected them intensely. This variable interacted
in a synergistic manner with the effect of the student-field instructor
relationship. A positive experience with one lessened the negative
impact of the other. When both the relationship and the organizational
context were stressful, the total experience was perceived as highly
negative. Although there is considerable literature on the impact of
workplace stress on employees, there is virtually no literature on the
effect of the organizational context on social work students. Given that
the social work profession relies heavily on ecosystems theory, this is
a glaring gap.
When students experienced upsetting emotional reactions, they
turned to persons they felt they could trust to help them handle these
reactions. As noted, when field instructors were perceived as
supportive, students processed their experiences with them. Of interest
was the finding that participants did not go to the field liaison for
help. Different faculty field liaison models were offered by the two
schools in this sample: a traditional intensive model with regular
visits and a trouble-shooting model (Fortune et al., 1995) that does not
include field visits. Regardless of the practicum model, almost all the
participants viewed the liaisons as "nice" people who were not
very effective. They described a superficial relationship that was task
focused. They did not disclose problems because they feared that they
would not be supported, or worse still that they would be judged, and
that disclosing any vulnerability would jeopardize their future careers.
Participants' primary sources of support were family, friends, and,
most significant, student colleagues. When faculty input was truly
required they approached faculty members with whom they had
relationships rather than designated advisers or liaisons. Once again,
given the clinical literature on relationship and therapeutic alliance,
it is not surprising that when feeling vulnerable and in need of
support, students would turn to those they trust.
Implications for Practice and Research
The findings of this study have implications for faculty and field
instructors in understanding emotional reactions of students in field
placements. The themes that emerged highlight that the
participants' success in the field placement resulted from a number
of factors including their own abilities and characteristics and
variables related to the placement such as the nature of the
student-field instructor relationship and the organizational
environment. These findings correspond with the ecological
The significant variation in how participants identified and
defined emotionally charged events points to the importance of
validating a student's subjectivity rather than focusing on
"objective" facts. Clearly, events and situations in the
practicum that match events that according to the literature are
"objectively" considered traumatic were defined by
participants as emotionally charged and potentially distressing. Our
findings suggest that other events and situations, however, that do not
fit with the traditional notion of events that can be experienced as
traumatic, might also significantly affect and distress students. This
finding warrants further study to categorize events and their meanings
The findings highlight the potentially crucial nature of the
student-field instructor relationship for the student and suggest that
this relationship might serve as a significant risk or protective
factor. There is unequivocal evidence about the significance of the
worker-client relationship, which is considered fundamental to effective
social work practice (Hollis, 1970; Richmond, 1917). The importance of
the student-field instructor relationship has only recently been given
due attention (Bogo, 1993) and remains underestimated (Fox, 1998).
Increasingly, however, the student-field relationship has been
considered central to the process of learning clinical practice and
critical to the student's satisfaction with field education (Bogo,
1993; Fox, 1998). Further research is recommended to explore the impact
of the student-field instructor relationship.
Our results also point to the impact of the organizational
environment on students and its potential to serve as a risk or
protective factor. A hallmark of social work practice is the
person-in-environment or ecological framework. According to this
perspective, because individuals are embedded in social and
environmental contexts, multiple factors invariably contribute to
social, emotional, and behavioral patterns (Germain & Bloom, 1999).
Such factors include individual characteristics, social interactions,
and ecological and cultural conditions. This perspective suggests that
it may be important to take into account the effect of a
placement's organizational environment on a student's
emotional reactions and functioning.
A striking finding that emerged through analysis of the interviews
is that participants turned to their friends and family for support and
help in dealing with emotionally charged issues and stresses in the
practicum despite the presence of faculty field liaison models. The
field placement is an integral component of students' social work
education and requires further research. How effectively students manage
stresses in the placement can influence their strategies in dealing with
stressors that arise in their future social work practice. Research is
needed to examine the ways students cope with emotionally charged
events, including to whom they turn for help and the factors that
influence that choice. Such research will contribute to new faculty and
field models that promote student learning and development.
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University of Toronto
University of Toronto
University of Toronto
Andrea Litvack is senior lecturer and Marion Bogo is professor at
the University of Toronto. Faye Mishna holds the Margaret & Wallace
McCain Family Chair in Child & Family and is professor at the
University of Toronto.
This project was funded by an institutional grant from the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Address correspondence to Andrea Litvack, Factor-Inwentash Faculty
of Social Work, University of Toronto, 246 Bloor St. West, Toronto,
Ontario M5S 1V4, Canada; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There were moments where I think I
wasn't present. But then I'd get into
their story and then I'm not so conscious
of my story. So I mean I think
it's my strategy of saying yeah there's
your story and being aware of it and
not, like empathizing with the fact that
that's me versus them. I'd give myself
permission to have those feelings and
let it just go. And so I'm kind to myself
instead of struggling with it.
Afterward I found my supervisor and
we were in the cafeteria. And she was
asking me how it went and then I just
started to cry in the cafeteria. So that
was extremely emotional but yeah she
was very understanding and very supportive
in that respect and she gave me
time to kind of talk about it. She said "if
you don't feel like staying for the rest of
the day maybe you should go home."
So I thought that was handled really
well but yeah that was very emotional.
I didn't feel comfortable talking to a lot
of the team members because when I
would tell them something on behalf
of my instructor they would brush me
off and kind of say "oh yeah okay,"
and then continue on their way.
There was a huge relief when I talked
about it with friends who were in the
program too. It was just like "oh God
thank God you're going through this
too oh good, okay." So it became, it just
became like a stress relief.