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Feb 7, 2012

Helping Children in Abusive Families: An Innovative Approach to Engaging Psychology Students in Service Learning

The University of Maryland’s Department of Psychology is committed to providing its undergraduates with opportunities to develop not just as students, but also as aspiring  young professionals.  To do so, we must take their learning beyond the classroom and challenge them to integrate knowledge with meaningful experience in their field.  A remarkable example of such a holistic approach to education is Dr. Karen O’Brien’s service learning course series on domestic violence and community intervention.

Students in PSYC 318D spend the semester learning about the complexities of addressing the epidemic of domestic violence.  The following semester, students who successfully complete the first course have the opportunity to enroll in PSYC 319D, the service learning experience where they put their learning into practice by facilitating support groups for children at the Family Crisis Center of Prince George’s County.  Since the year 2000, over 80 students in this course have donated over 4,000 hours to their local community in service that helps those at the shelter, but mostly changes the students’ lives and perspectives.

An Innovative Model of Service Learning

Central to the success and impact of this course is its integrative design that provides students with a strong foundation in research and theory in the first semester and close supervision while they work with abused children. The two-semester course sequence begins with advancing understanding about abusive relationship where students think critically about the research findings and consider ethical dilemmas and practical challenges that society faces in addressing domestic violence in a truly multicultural world.  They learn to think beyond our instinctual tendency to dictate actions to victims (e.g., “Just leave!”) and develop a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of the causes and consequences of violence.

Students that enroll in the service learning semester meet in a small group twice a week with the professor, individually volunteer four hours each week at the shelter and write weekly reflection papers.  The class meetings focus on the fundamentals of group counseling and the application of core helping skills, though the sessions are focused on providing intensive supervision and an opportunity for collective reflection on the experience.  In doing so, students also learn more about counseling-related career paths and develop very marketable skills for related fields.
“Ironically, I came into the class expecting to change other people’s lives, but instead, they changed mine. I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Service Learning in Action

At the shelter, the students’ primary responsibilities are to spend “special friend time” with the children and facilitate group sessions that foster self-esteem, healthy expression of feelings and healthy life habits.

Each student is assigned to several children in shelter for “Special Friend Time.” During this time, students meet in small groups and may assist their special friends with homework, talk, or play games. The goal of these interactions is to develop a caring relationship with the children, provide support to the children, and give the mothers time to pursue their goals.

The groups that students facilitate (under supervision) use creative and fun interventions to help children learn more about their strengths, to aid them in expressing their feelings in a safe and caring environment, and to teach them strategies for eating healthy, exercising regularly, using relaxation strategies, and choosing healthy friendships.
"The collaborative relationship between our program and the University of Maryland students is the best thing that happened to our shelter." - Ms. Malinda Miles, ED, Family Crisis Center
Research Findings
An early study conducted to evaluate the impact of this service learning course found increases in multicultural awareness and in the understanding of how values and biases affect helping relationships (O’Brien, Patel, Hensler-McGinnis, & Kaplan, 2005).  A more recent study (O’Brien & Castro, 2010) found similar increases in the students’ general knowledge of intimate partner violence and the role of an advocate in helping relationships.  Students also improved in their use of basic helping skills to listen, empathize, and intervene with people experiencing domestic violence. More telling, however, are quotes from students in the course.

On the increased awareness and understanding of violence:
“First, I will take with me the importance of attending and active listening, which will help me if I pursue a career that involves counseling, but also in my relationships with friends, family and romantic partner. Second, I will use my knowledge to be an effective advocate for women…I feel much more prepared. Lastly, I now know extensively about the signs of abuse in romantic relationships…I will ensure that I am in healthy and positive relationships with friends and romantic partners. I will make it a top priority to become an economically self-sufficient woman.”
On the importance of multicultural awareness:
“I realize now that it’s important to learn and talk about racial differences, rather than denying their existence. Previous to the class, I came in believing that everyone is really the same, and that the world would be a better place if we were all colorblind. I know now that this is naive, and that I only thought this way because I never really had to think about my own race before. I don’t think of myself as a White woman, but an independent woman, or an athletic woman. But through this class, I’ve learned that race definitely matters, and that for some, it’s a huge part of their cultural identity. I’ve learned to acknowledge and discuss racial differences.”
On the impact of poverty:
“I realized how much of my privilege I take for granted… on a day when we were playing outside and some of the children’s clothing got muddy. There were two new boys at shelter who had no other pants. The realization that these children had no change of clothes really put my five pairs of pants, folded in my dorm closet, into perspective.”
Developing Professional

Students leave the course series with an understanding of empirically-based interventions, practice using helping skills and a meaningful experience that for many solidifies their passion to pursue careers and academic positions in this field.  More importantly, they leave with an empathetic bond and the knowledge they helped better someone's life.
"Thinking back to freshman year, I can't really remember what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do with my life. But now, I can't think of anything else but working against domestic violence. I'm amazed, and extremely grateful, that one class could change my life so dramatically. It really has opened up so many opportunities, and given me some direction in both my future academic and professional careers."
How do I get involved?

Students interested in learning more should enroll in PSYC 318D, currently offered each fall at the University of Maryland.  The Department of Psychology is currently seeking funding to expand the offering to year round.  Consult the Schedule of Classes for course offerings.

Photography at the FCC by Scott Roberts