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Social work project conforms to COVID-19: NMU professor making adaptations

This is Northern Michigan University social work professor Sarah Carlson’s a screen shot of a virtual treatment group of student participants. Carlson’s clinical practice methods class is part of NMU’s Master of Social Work program. (Photo courtesy of NMU)

MARQUETTE — Northern Michigan University social work professor Sarah Carlson has found that being nimble and adaptable are essential traits for educators contending with COVID-19.

Carlson’s initial plan was to end a master’s-level class by recording face-to-face treatment group sessions in a campus lab, with students taking turns in the role of facilitator. That was disrupted by stay-home orders. So she planned to format the exercise for remote learning via Zoom.

But when an experienced local therapist volunteered to facilitate a virtual treatment group of student participants for the remainder of the semester, with a focus on processing stress related to the pandemic, she eagerly shifted gears again to embrace his timely and relevant offer.

Carlson’s clinical practice methods class is part of the Master of Social Work program. Even though she had incorporated synchronous online instruction before COVID-19 for a few students who participate via Northern’s Global Campus, Carlson said in-person instruction is ideal for students new to the group facilitation process.

“I thought it would be very hard for them to learn skills virtually without the ability to connect with nonverbal cues such as body language,” she said. “I’m not as strong in group therapy as individual, but I appreciate its value. Nathan Michels is an experienced group facilitator and was going to do a demonstration in class as a kickoff to our project. When we connected about that and I shared my concerns about the students facilitating through Zoom, he offered to run a virtual group with them for the last six weeks. It’s been going very well.”

Each week, eight students have the option of participating in the “working” group, while the remaining students observe the process. Michels is training them in the integrative approach to counseling.

“This approach is not merely problem-focused but is more exploratory,” he wrote in an agreement signed by students in advance. “In other words, in addition to discussing the issues/problems you may be facing, we may identify what is beneath those problems. So in these sessions, I’ll not be giving you advice or telling you what or how to change. Instead, I will try to assist you in a process of self-discovery so that you will know yourself more deeply and have clear direction should you ever decide to go into counseling in the future.”

According to Michel’s description, a typical session opening involves him inviting a participant to address a specific problem or situation being confronted at the time, while the group listens carefully. Michel interjects occasionally and “holds the cognitive and emotional boundaries of the group.” He may interrupt at times to be sure that he understands the participant correctly and does not miss important information.

Students such as Kimberly Kruhlik have reported that they are learning a lot from a seasoned professional.

“Yesterday was a great learning experience,” she wrote in a recent email to Carlson. “I finally had that ‘aha’ moment in understanding how group therapy works emotionally.”

Student Ethan Chapman is a participant.

“It’s been really interesting navigating the space between therapy and learning because most people could use some therapy right now,” Chapman said. “I’ve never done a systems-centered group process before. It seemed very different when I read about it, but by actually being in it, I’ve realized it focuses on interactions between people and relating to everybody else. It’s been comforting.”

He said this experience has solidified cohort’s bond, along with its desire to help the community.

“For the first few weeks after classes went online, I wasn’t doing anything really and my biggest enemies were boredom and laziness,” Chapman said. “I’ve since started a new job. In the meantime, others in class have kids home from school and they’re working more because mental health is going off the chain right now. There’s a weird imbalance in everyone’s lives as routines are being disrupted.”

Because trauma response is Carlson’s “trade,” she said she has been concerned about not adding to the amount or intensity of students’ workloads during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I found that it was harder for me to organize and use my executive functioning skills at first, so I assumed students were experiencing something similar, and they’ve confirmed that,” she said. “What’s going on worldwide is a lot to process. My intent was to reduce the amount of work they needed to do while also meeting class objectives.”

The first group sessions went great, she said.

“The students are experiencing the first year of the program together and they’ve become a real cohesive group,” Carlson said.

Northern Michigan University social work professor Sarah Carlson has found that being nimble and adaptable are essential traits for educators contending with COVID-19.

Carlson’s initial plan was to end a master’s-level class by recording face-to-face treatment group sessions in a campus lab, with students taking turns in the role of facilitator. That was disrupted by stay-home orders. So she planned to format the exercise for remote learning via Zoom.

But when an experienced local therapist volunteered to facilitate a virtual treatment group of student participants for the remainder of the semester, with a focus on processing stress related to the pandemic, she eagerly shifted gears again to embrace his timely and relevant offer.

Carlson’s clinical practice methods class is part of the Master of Social Work program. Even though she had incorporated synchronous online instruction before COVID-19 for a few students who participate via Northern’s Global Campus, Carlson said in-person instruction is ideal for students new to the group facilitation process.

“I thought it would be very hard for them to learn skills virtually without the ability to connect with nonverbal cues such as body language,” she said. “I’m not as strong in group therapy as individual, but I appreciate its value. Nathan Michels is an experienced group facilitator and was going to do a demonstration in class as a kickoff to our project. When we connected about that and I shared my concerns about the students facilitating through Zoom, he offered to run a virtual group with them for the last six weeks. It’s been going very well.”

Each week, eight students have the option of participating in the “working” group, while the remaining students observe the process. Michels is training them in the integrative approach to counseling.

“This approach is not merely problem-focused but is more exploratory,” he wrote in an agreement signed by students in advance. “In other words, in addition to discussing the issues/problems you may be facing, we may identify what is beneath those problems. So in these sessions, I’ll not be giving you advice or telling you what or how to change. Instead, I will try to assist you in a process of self-discovery so that you will know yourself more deeply and have clear direction should you ever decide to go into counseling in the future.”

According to Michel’s description, a typical session opening involves him inviting a participant to address a specific problem or situation being confronted at the time, while the group listens carefully. Michel interjects occasionally and “holds the cognitive and emotional boundaries of the group.” He may interrupt at times to be sure that he understands the participant correctly and does not miss important information.

Students such as Kimberly Kruhlik have reported that they are learning a lot from a seasoned professional.

“Yesterday was a great learning experience,” she wrote in a recent email to Carlson. “I finally had that ‘aha’ moment in understanding how group therapy works emotionally.”

Student Ethan Chapman is a participant.

“It’s been really interesting navigating the space between therapy and learning because most people could use some therapy right now,” Chapman said. “I’ve never done a systems-centered group process before. It seemed very different when I read about it, but by actually being in it, I’ve realized it focuses on interactions between people and relating to everybody else. It’s been comforting.”

He said this experience has solidified cohort’s bond, along with its desire to help the community.

“For the first few weeks after classes went online, I wasn’t doing anything really and my biggest enemies were boredom and laziness,” Chapman said. “I’ve since started a new job. In the meantime, others in class have kids home from school and they’re working more because mental health is going off the chain right now. There’s a weird imbalance in everyone’s lives as routines are being disrupted.”

Because trauma response is Carlson’s “trade,” she said she has been concerned about not adding to the amount or intensity of students’ workloads during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I found that it was harder for me to organize and use my executive functioning skills at first, so I assumed students were experiencing something similar, and they’ve confirmed that,” she said. “What’s going on worldwide is a lot to process. My intent was to reduce the amount of work they needed to do while also meeting class objectives.”

The first group sessions went great, she said.

“The students are experiencing the first year of the program together and they’ve become a real cohesive group,” Carlson said.

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