Her approach to research: Represent the underrepresented

Erikson Institute professor Tonya Bibbs, M.S.W., Ph.D., was drawn to social work as much by what the field didn’t offer as what it did.

“In my clinical practice, I found little research that spoke to the children and families I worked with, who were often people of color, recent immigrants, and individuals whose first language wasn’t English,” she says. “I wanted to contribute to that body of knowledge.”

Multiple perspectives

Through her teaching, she encourages students to take an interdisciplinary approach to social work, applying knowledge about child development as well as socioeconomic, cultural, and institutional factors that impact children and families, an approach that is unique to Erikson’s M.S.W. program.

“A good social worker also understands himself or herself, both emotionally and within the context of society,” she says. “Students in Erikson’s program are exposed to this concept from day one. In our Introduction to Developmentally-Informed Social Work class, I ask them to both work as a group to establish a developmental social worker’s perspective on social problems and reflect on their own contributions to the group.”

Students in her courses engage in deep discussions about cultural variation, factors such as ethnicity, class, and immigration status that play a role in how children develop — the same factors that drive her research. One of her research goals is to establish knowledge about normative development in minority children, particularly African-Americans. Currently, she is studying children’s developmental outcomes in socioeconomically mixed communities and how adults in these environments approach aspects of their relationships with children, such as discipline.

Community-minded approach

She also has worked on Erikson’s Austin Community Early Learning Partnership Needs Assessment, an examination of early childhood services in a Chicago neighborhood affected by poverty and violence. Through the study, she and the research team identified many informal child care and health care resources but also deficiencies in formal institutions, such as a lack of mental health resources in schools. The findings contributed to the establishment of new services in the community, including a satellite therapy office for Erikson’s Center for Children and Families.

Dr. Bibbs wants her students to approach social work in a way that allows them to understand how it fits into a broader community context and how factors such as a lack of jobs and under-resourced schools impact families’ ability to access the resources they need.

“As a social worker, you are the person who explains to parents and colleagues what is going on with children, and it’s important to be able to interpret children’s activity to offer the best plan for helping them learn and develop.”

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