The Graduate: Termination and Social Work School

A picture of the alma mater. Fordham University Lincoln Center. Copyright: Writer of blog, 2015.
A picture of the alma mater. Fordham University Lincoln Center. Copyright: Writer of blog, 2015.

The end of May is here, and with it, many newly minted social workers will have already walked down the aisle to join the ranks of the profession (unless, like some of us, you owed the registrar money, or in my case, library books –but the affordability of a graduate school education is a story for another day–).

Graduation from social work school is a termination of many sorts: termination with some of your classmates, your professors, and more formally, with your internship clients.

If there’s any way we can frame termination, it may be arguably similar to the way we frame engagement or assessment: not as a finite event, but as an ongoing process.

“Hello, I Must Be Going.”

Termination is especially a process for social work students, who receive our first lesson in ethics when we disclose to agency clients that we’re leaving in nine months, but that we want to work with them. Good set-up, bro.

In retrospect, it shows the bravery and vulnerability of clients, because who would easily enter into a relationship (especially one where you’re the vulnerable party) with an already-stamped end date?

This is why knowing early on and processing it through the work can be therapeutic for clients:

  1. It helps us set expectations.
    A nun I once worked with during an undergrad internship once told us, “If you’re not sure about what you can give them, give them your complete presence.”In the engagement phase, we learn about creating realistic expectations. Even if the client comes up with a partialized goal or even just the beginning of a hope by the end of the work, this can be many times the momentum that will help the client “continue the work beyond the work.”

    It is also helpful for the student who, barely starting out in the field, may often fall into the temptation of feeling he or she is responsible for dramatic results in the short nine months a field work placement lasts.

    [Example:

    Frazzled Student: “OMG)$@@/ I NEED TO FIND THE CURE FOR PTSD IN A COUPLE OF MONTHS, GET STRAIGHT A’s, AND SAVE THE RAINFOREST.

    vs.

    Balanced Student: “I wonder what’s one thing you would like to see change or work on in the next couple of months of our time together.”]

  1. Even if termination is an ending (and we do have negative associations with that word), it can be a therapeutic intervention unto itself. Because of trauma, loss, or abandonment, many clients and many of us don’t often get the opportunity to have “proper endings” in our life, and a termination process in the work can be a healing event.
  1. Boundaries. Termination separates the “I” from “you” and “them.” Ultimately, the work and its gains rest on our clients. While we ethically ensure their continuity of care (someone else to work with, resources, and referrals), our ability to healthily attach and detach is what allows us to be connected yet self-determining.

Like the toddler who is starting to explore the world but still looks back to the security of his parents, healthy attachment and detachment can also be an area where termination helps us grow.

The Upshot: What do you need to know for the exam? Vignettes will often draw from ethical scenarios when it comes to termination: assuring clients have follow-up care, avoiding double-relationships/conflicts of interest (no, you can’t go start that artisanal cupcake shop with your Brooklyn baker client if social work doesn’t pan out), and full disclosure (i.e., your work together’s time limits and your areas of competence).

Happy Graduation to the MSW class of 2015!

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