Professional relationship boundaries : a social work teaching module

Davidson, Jennifer C. (2005) Professional relationship boundaries : a social work teaching module. Social Work Education, 24 (5). pp. 511-533. ISSN 0261-5479 (

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Social workers are often challenged by the complex and ever-changing dynamics within their relationships with clients, and struggle to find ethical responses within professional boundary grey-zones where boundaries with clients can be difficult to identify, yet easy to cross. Social work educators attempt to prepare students for these complex situations, yet in the United States research reveals rates of social work boundary violations that lead one to question the efficacy of social work ethics education. This article describes the educational competencies and instructional strategies that comprise an adaptable course module which was developed in response to this challenge, intended to increase students’ self-awareness, motivation and professional judgment-making abilities related to their professional boundaries. The educational competencies for this course include the abilities to: identify boundary violations, apply critical thinking skills to complex professional relationship contexts, increase awareness of self and other, and initiate prevention strategies. In contrast to traditional approaches to education, this article describes instructional strategies that are based on adult-learning principles, which purpose to effectively and creatively teach topic areas in such a way as to produce behavioural change. These course topic areas include a ‘Professional Relationship Boundaries Continuum’ conceptual framework, boundary violation impacts, personal boundary vulnerabilities, blurring boundary indicators, and risk-minimizing strategies.