Defining a Trauma-Informed Approach to Social Work Field Education

A Path Forward for the Profession


  • Laura Lewis
  • Kathryn McClain-Meeder University at Buffalo School of Social Work
  • Michael Lynch
  • Marjorie Quartley



Field education, trauma-informed, social work education, MSW students, supervision


Despite the recognized importance of social work field education, concerns about its dependence on already strained service delivery systems for student learning persist. The growing complexity of student needs, and the deleterious effects of COVID-19 on service systems adds to the problematic landscape. A trauma-informed approach, because it applies to individuals and environments, presents a useful framework for exploring these concerns. A trauma-informed framework to field education, once defined, could edify the profession's response to these challenges. A qualitative survey (n=103) was developed to aid in understanding trauma-informed practices that support student learning. Key findings are that a trauma-informed approach to field education entails creating safe environments where expectations and boundaries are clear, supporting students by processing and validating emotional responses, and utilizing relational, collaborative approaches to supervision. Strategies for each area are delineated. Barriers to promoting trauma-informed field education include lack of time, and lack of organizational support. Authors recommend the adoption of trauma-informed field as a universal precaution approach, ensuring that students experience the principles and atmosphere of a trauma-informed field setting, enabling them to translate these into practice. Social work programs are called upon to better support placement agencies and assume more responsibility for training.

Author Biographies

Laura Lewis

Laura A. Lewis, PhD, LCSW, ACSW Director of Field Education University at Buffalo, School of Social Work

Kathryn McClain-Meeder, University at Buffalo School of Social Work

Kathryn McClain-Meeder is a Clincial Assistant Professor at University at Buffalo school of Social Work.

Michael Lynch

Michael Lynch is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Field Education at University at Buffalo School of Social Work. 

Marjorie Quartley

Marjorie Quartley, LCSW-R, is the Assistant Director of Field Education at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work.


Auerbach, R. P., Mortier, P., Bruffaerts, R., Alonso, J., Benjet, C., Cuijpers, P., Demyttenaere, K., Ebert, D. D., Green, J. G., Hasking, P., Murray, E., Nock, M. K., Pinder-Amaker, S., Sampson, N. A., Stein, D. J., Vilagut, G., Zaslavsky, A. M., Kessler, R. C., & WHO WMH-ICS Collaborators. (2018). WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project: Prevalence and distribution of mental disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 127(7), 623-638.

Bennett, S., Mohr, J., BrintzenhofeSzoc, K., & Saks, L. V. (2008). General and supervision- specific attachment styles: Relations to student perceptions of field supervisor. Journal of Social Work Education, 44(2), 75-94.

Berger, R., & Quiros, L. (2016). Best practices for training trauma-informed practitioners: Supervisors' voice. Traumatology, 22(2), 145-154.

Bogo, M. (2015). Field education for clinical social work practice: Best practices and contemporary challenges. Clinical Social Work Journal, 43(3), 317-324.

Bogo, M., & McKnight, K. (2006). Clinical supervision in social work: A review of the research literature. The Clinical Supervisor, 24(1-2), 49-67.

Butler, L. D., Carello, J., & Maguin, E. (2016). Trauma, stress, and self-care in clinical training: Predictors of burnout, decline in health status, secondary traumatic stress symptoms, and compassion satisfaction. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(4), 416-424.

Candid, & Center for Disaster Philanthropy. (2021). Philanthropy and COVID-19.

Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2015). Practicing what we teach: Trauma-informed educational practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(3), 262-278.

Cohen-Serrins, J. (2021). How COVID-19 exposed an inadequate approach to burnout: Moving beyond self-care. In C. Tosone (Ed.), Shared trauma, shared resilience during a pandemic (pp. 259-268). Springer International Publishing. 3-030-61442-3_27

Didham, S., Dromgole, L., Csiernik, R., Karley, M. L., & Hurley, D. (2011). Trauma exposure and social work practicum. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 31, 523-537.

Fortune, A. E., & Abramson, J. S. (1993). Predictors of satisfaction with field practicum among social work students. The Clinical Supervisor, 11(1), 95-110.

Gelman, C. R. (2004). Anxiety experienced by foundation-year MSW students entering field placement: Implications for admissions, curriculum, and field education. Journal of Social Work Education, 40(1), 39-54.

Gelman, C. R., & Lloyd, C. M. (2008). Field Notes: Pre-placement anxiety among foundation- year MSW students: A follow-up study. Journal of Social Work Education, 44(1), 173- 183.

George, P., Siver, S., & Preston, S. (2013). Reimagining field education in social work: The promise unveiled. Advances in Social Work, 14(2), 642-657.

Gruttadaro, D., & Crudo, D. (2012). College students speak a survey on mental health (pp. 1- 24). National Alliance on Mental Health.

Harris, M., & Fallot, R. D. (2001). Envisioning a trauma-informed service system: A vital paradigm shift. New Directions for Mental Health Services, 2001(89), 3-22.

Hill, C. E., Knox, S., Thompson, B. J., Williams, E. N., Hess, S. A., & Ladany, N. (2005). Consensual qualitative research: An update. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(2), 196-205.

Hrywna, M. (2021, March 15). Nonprofit jobs down 7.4% in year since pandemic. The NonProfit Times.,out%20of%20five%2%200job%20losses

Knight, C. (2010). Indirect trauma in the field practicum: Secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue among social work students and their field instructors. Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work, 15(1), 31-52.

Knight, C. (2013). Indirect trauma: Implications for self-care, supervision, the organization, and the academic institution. The Clinical Supervisor, 32(2), 224-243.

Knight, C. (2018). Trauma-informed supervision: Historical antecedents, current practice, and future directions. The Clinical Supervisor, 37(1), 7-37.

Knight, C. (2019). Trauma informed practice and care: Implications for field instruction. Clinical Social Work Journal, 47(1), 79-89.

Litvack, A., Mishna, F., & Bogo, M. (2010). Emotional reactions of students in field education: An exploratory study. Journal of Social Work Education, 46(2), 227-243.

Morse, G., & Dell, N. A. (2021). The well-being and perspectives of community-based behavioral health staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social Work in Health Care, 60(2), 117-130.

Morse, G., Salyers, M. P., Rollins, A. L., Monroe-DeVita, M., & Pfahler, C. (2012). Burnout in mental health services: A review of the problem and its remediation. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 39(5), 341-352.

Negrete, M. (2020). Adverse childhood experiences of social work students and implications for field specialization and practice (Masters thesis). California State University.

Raja, S., Hasnain, M., Gove-Yin, S., & Rajagopalan, C. (2015). Trauma informed care in medicine: Current knowledge and future research directions. Family Community Health, 38(3), 216-226.

Reeves, E. (2015). A synthesis of the literature on trauma-informed care. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 36(9), 698-709.

Tarshis, S., & Baird, S. L. (2019). Addressing the indirect trauma of social work students in Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) field placements: A framework for supervision. Clinical Social Work Journal, 47(1), 90-102.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014, October). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884).