Get the Details on Child Development for the LCSW & MFT Exam

By Bethany Vanderbilt on May 30, 2012

A child being taught to walkAfter completing a graduate degree in social work and a post-graduate certificate program in Infant-Parent Mental Health, I like to think I know a thing or two about child development...but the truth is that I need reminders. Reminders of what is typical at each age and stage, reminders of what is cause for concern. The test makers and licensing bodies want to ensure both that you won't pathologize normal child behavior and that you won't normalize behavior that is a sign of a problem. Here's a example of a test item that incorporates this topic:


A woman self-refers to a social worker at a family agency for difficulties with her daughter. She tells the social worker that despite her best efforts, her 3 year old daughter is tantrumming "constantly". When the social worker asks for additional information, the woman says that the girl throws herself on the floor, cries uncontrollably, and tries to bite family members and classmates several times per day. What should the social worker do NEXT?

A. Provide psychoeducation around normal child development

B. Initiate individual therapy with the child

C. Provide the mother with a referral for parenting classes

D. Assess for stressors in the child's environment

Let's think for a minute about "normal" behavior for toddlers. Is it normal for a three year-old to have temper tantrums? Absolutely. Is it within the range of normal for a three year-old to bite another child or caregiver? Maybe. Biting can happen for a whole host of reasons, one of which includes the toddler's struggle to contain and express strong emotions -- having language helps, but even verbal children can go through periods of biting. Often, the combination of behavior, frequency, and setting is what pushes what might be considered a typical behavior into the realm of a problem requiring intervention or treatment. Normal child development may be something that you want to review periodically over the course of your exam prep because it involves memorization of factual information and application of interventions based on those facts.


The best answer to the question above is D. The stem gives us several clues that the child's behavior is beyond typical. As a clinician, I would initially want to know what else was going on in the child's environment: have there been any changes?  How much stress is the child/family subject to?  What kind of expectations are placed on the child?  A, B, and C may all be reasonable interventions, but not until the therapist understands the context in which the behavior is occurring.

Coming up next week: Adolescent Issues

Think our straightforward, sensible approach could help you PASS your social work or MFT exam? If you're preparing for a social work exam, check out our Social Work Study Materials. If you're preparing for an MFT exam, check out our MFT Study Materials. Learn more about our offerings at The Therapist Development Center.

Looking for more practice questions and some study tips? Check out our new Social Work Exam Study Guide:

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