Social Work With Young Children

On February 18 the NYU Silver Alumni Panel Series presented its latest installment, focusing on social work with young children. Moderated by Jason Olsen, MSW ’14, the event featured four alumni whose distinctly diverse careers are tied together by a shared passion for advocating for young children.

Olsen began by asking the panelists to reflect on the surprises and challenges they have encountered working with this population. James Wells, MSW ’11, a relationship abuse prevention program coordinator at a Brooklyn middle school, reflected on the resilience of children. He has been amazed at the impact of his work in a short period of time, but also frustrated at how much children’s environments and influences (parents, schools, etc) play into the work he does.

Yehudis Fromowitz, MSW ’08, a school social worker and play therapist for the Kiryas Joel School District (in Orange County, NY), echoed Wells’ sentiment: “Kids don’t live in a vacuum,” she said. “But this is also a hopeful thing, because it means that along the way a kid might bump into a charismatic adult who could be ‘that person’ for them.” Fromowitz also noted the difference in power dynamics in work with children. “As a child therapist, you wear washable clothes. I’m covered in glitter, paint… It’s a very different dynamic.” Amy Morik, MSW ’95, an LCSW for a sensory gym on the Upper East Side, laughingly agreed: “You’re right, I’m on the floor all the time!”

While many of this work’s challenges arise from the rapid developmental shifts children undergo, these stages can be therapeutic assets to a well-versed clinician. Morik explained: “They [children] are not guarded. Once they trust you, it all comes out, and you can really assist them in processing and overcoming their fears.”

The panelists commiserated on the challenge of communicating with a population who has nonverbal primary modes of expression. They also spoke of the intense feelings of transference that can arise in work with children. Wells shared, “In the beginning I was taking a lot of my work home with me.” Fromowitz seconded: “When things happen to little kids, it hurts you more. But kids are more resilient than we give them credit for, and more insightful, too. I worked with a client who once said to me, ‘I’ve been living with this my whole life, so it’s not that big a deal to me.’”

Beyond the challenges that arise in therapeutic sessions, the panelists shared several obstacles for which prospective clinicians should be prepared. Caleigh Vickar, MSW ’12, a health care integrator at New Alternatives for Children, spoke of the challenges social workers face in their supervisory sessions. “The challenge of supervision often comes with age differences, as it can create an unintended hierarchy [when your supervisor is older than you] or a tough balance between friends and a professional level [when your supervisor is close to you in age]. Sometimes the lines get blurred.” For Framowitz, who is passionate about the modality of play therapy, challenges arose when she began to pursue certification as a registered play therapist, and found her options limited. “There was not a lot of play therapy on the East Coast when I was training,” she explained. “So I traveled to get the training I needed, did a lot of reading on my own, and took online courses.” She urged students interested in the field to look into the Association for Play Therapists International and the Play Therapy Training Institute.

Asked to share their advice on career trajectories for new graduates, the panelists encouraged students to sit for their licensing exams as soon as possible. As Vickar stated, “The job opportunities become a lot more expansive after obtaining your LMSW.” Morik encouraged students to consider post-graduate certificate programs like the one she took at NYU Silver. Wells re-emphasized the importance of finding good supervision, and suggested that in the absence of sufficient supervision in the work place, students seek out a supervisory group, and use their classmates as resources for jobs and guidance. Vickar agreed: “NYU really encourages networking.”

For those concerned that their field placements haven’t given them ample hands-on experience with young populations, Morik counseled: “Get a job, any job, and use that to gain experience with kids, wherever the job may be. In graduate school, I spent my summers working as a camp counselor for children with cancer.” And Vickar reassured: “Social work skills are transferable. Compassion is compassion. But don’t pigeonhole yourself: make sure you have a tremendous amount of patience and a lot of energy.” Fromowitz seconded: “You need to really love and enjoy children because they’ll know if you don’t!”