“Social workers are knowledgeable about and apply the principles of critical thinking and reasoned discernment. They identify, distinguish, evaluate and integrate multiple sources of knowledge and evidence. These include practice evidence, their own practice experience, service user and carer experience together with research-based, organisational, policy and legal knowledge. They use critical thinking augmented by creativity and curiosity.”
I will critically examine this extract based on my own practice experience and evaluate the use of theories, tools and techniques of reflective practice to see if it supports the statement. I will begin by providing a description of a case study drawn from my previous placement to draw on the practice experience gained and how this may illustrate my learning so far.
It is based on a 14 year old young girl who has been attending a horse-riding charity to help promote her well-being, self-esteem and social skills. For the purpose of this assignment she will be referred to as A. In this particular example, it is A and myself who have met as I have been given the task by my manager to talk to her about her personal hygiene. My manager felt this would also help in meeting the criteria required to handle complex situations (National Occupational Standards, Key role 6). Other young girls in her group have been seen talking behind A’s back about her and have not wanted to participate in group work with her because of this.
I felt apprehensive about the meeting as I had not yet encountered anything like this previously. Though I was reassured by my manager that I would have the opportunity to go through the best approach with her before I met with A. Unfortunately due to time constraints and my manager having to deal with a crisis she was unable to assist me. Prior to the initial meeting with A I began to research on how best to deal with the situation and plan ahead on how best to communicate with her. I wanted to do this without hurting her feelings as she was a young and impressionable young person. This is also known as second order skills when employing planning strategies in what I as a worker am doing, being aware and observing interactions, being able to feedback what has happened (Kaprowska, 2005).
Still feeling unsure on how to lead onto this particular topic due to my lack of experience, I realised that if my nervousness is apparent to A this may only escalate her worries as well. As a result I tried to keep my anxiety at bay. I asked if she had access to shower/bath facilities as a lot of the children who attended the organisation came from areas of deprivation. At this point I realised I felt out of my depth in having this conversation, and on reflection later felt it conflicted with my own personal beliefs. I did not believe her to have any hygiene issues when I had worked with A in the past. This may have shown when I eventually got to the topic at hand and told her the truth. She may have observed that I did not feel happy explaining why I am asking these questions when I myself did not share the same view as my colleagues and others. I came away from the meeting with my confidence shaken, it was made worse when I learned from my manager that A was upset and her mother had in fact complained about me the next day.
I felt a great deal of empathy for this young girl, as a professional I had made a commitment to ensure her well-being. I was trying to achieve a fine balance between trying to support her whilst also trying to bring about social change. A reason for this I realised was that A and I had a few similarities which may have affected how I worked with her, the way I perceived her and also in the way I related to her. I recognised that we both had experienced bullying at similar ages. Upon reflection I realised I had assumed her to be more vulnerable in my eyes because of my own experiences which may have impacted on the working relationship I had built with her (Ojala and Nesdale, 2004). Both A and her mother were disappointed in me and felt strongly enough to complain. I felt terrible that I had caused A such distress.
Trust is a primary feature in conducting person-centred work. Originally developed in the field of psychology by Carl Rogers (1951) where he outlined the person centred therapy. If I was disclosing information to A about her poor hygiene which was not something I wholly agreed with, then being transparent and honest became difficult. A may have observed my unease with her in the meeting, and may have lost faith in me and my work. I realise afterwards that I wanted this to change, and so actively researched how I could engage in positive work with A.
Person centred work also involves being able to discover the client’s wishes and feelings and taking this forward in a positive manner. The theory proposes that both the worker and the client are equal, it also challenges the notion of the worker being seen as an expert of knowledge, and that the ‘expert knows best.’ In the meeting with A I had not really questioned her thoughts and feelings on the situation, and therefore had made the power dynamics between A and myself unbalanced and less in her favour. I had not taken her identity as a service user into full account and consequently may have oppressed her unknowingly by not trying to understand her views and opinions.
In the next meeting with A, I actively researched and utilised the person centred approach to help her feel valued and considered in the process. In achieving this I had learnt the gaps in my learning experience and attempted to further my knowledge to benefit my work with A. This can be seen that I am applying the key elements of critical thinking as mentioned in Domain 6 of the Professional Capabilties Framework (2012).
When talking with A about her riding ability and work with the group, I realised that her wishes, thoughts and feelings had perhaps been neglected when providing this service. Once I reached this conclusion I also began to see that the organisation that I was based in, it may have been the case that a person centred approach was taken initially to begin with. However, when trying to implement the approach fully into practice it seemed as if the people working with A may have forgotten that the planning is not fixed and irreversible. Mansell and Beadle-Brown (2004a) have stated that this is may be the reason why there is a decrease and collapse in being able to take plans forward.
Furthermore similar to Carl Rogers (1951) and his humanistic view for individualism within person centred practice, Yelloly and Henkel (1995) suggested uniqueness as central for effective social work practice. With reference to A’s identity which I had not originally considered, I had come to understand that I needed to make some self-disclosures about my understanding of how I viewed her. I achieved this by communicating honestly my thoughts on how I had assumed that she would not be resilient enough to understand the first meeting. I had labelled her as a ‘victim’ of bullying in my mind when this is not how she saw herself. Perhaps if I had realised this early on I would not have meandered through the conversation of hygiene with no direction, and stated the facts in a much direct and open manner. I made my apologies known to A and explored more about her thoughts on bullying and its impact. This allowed me to remain consciously focused on her as an individual and aware of my own values about addressing individuals.
Funding and organisational issues within the social care sector have meant that resources and number of staff available to attend to service users has meant there is an uphill struggle to meet the needs of the users (Routledge and Gitsham, 2004). These have also had a substantial effect on the voluntary sector where I was based. My interactions with A were largely unsupervised to begin with because of a shortage of qualified staff and resources. This meant the amount of time and resources I was able to spend with any of the young people attending the service has to be made the most of. This may be why having highly skilled practitioners is vital in the face of the current political context. In the face of a double dip recession means having to economise now also extends to social workers as well (Sanderson et al., 2002). Having enough staff members to begin with would be helpful in providing one to one work usually required for person-centred planning. Even when facing such hardships, it may be crucial to have a positive attitude and have a good team to work within to feel that the work you are producing is not only of a high standard but also done collaboratively. Kydd (2004) also affirms that the solution may not always lie in having enough resources but positive together to develop conducive and appropriate working environments. This may go some way to explain how my manager supported me in this particular incident and was able to provide valuable insight into how to improve our working relationship, by being present in future work with A. It is also in line with the organisation’s working policy (Appendix A).
Transparency is crucial to completing positive work with people in social work. Congruence is an imperative aspect of this where the worker and the service user have openness within themselves and with one another to foster trustworthiness (Platt, 2007). Though this can only happen if there is a genuine desire to be honest with one another. That the professional will not hold up a façade and will be able to attend to what the service user is saying by staying in the present and remaining transparent. This may have seemed like a natural concept but was quite difficult to apply when working with A. I did not want to undermine her experience of being bullied by her peers by bringing my own personal experiences into the forefront. Yet I thought if I told her she may not feel quite so isolated which is a common feeling in teenagers with complex lives (Metzing-Blau and Schnepp, 2008). Ultimately I realised my confidence had been shattered to the point where I began to question almost every piece of work I undertook with A, convinced that I would disappoint her and her mother.
This led me to consider other approaches or skills I could better use with A later in my work with her. I came across cognitive-behavioural therapy which is an amalgamation of both behavioural and cognitive disciplines which emerged as a fascinating new concept in 1970s (Rachman, 1997). It addresses the thinking and emotional aspects together, and believes that behaviours can be unlearned. In this way I hoped to be able to view how A conceptualises particular events in her life. Through this I recognised the way A may view herself as she often expressed feeling low, and lack of self-esteem and self-worth. A also had a persistent habit to turn a seemingly positive situation into something negative. This enabled me to understand her experiences from a different point of view and continuous reflection helped me see how she may have needed empowering.
A strengths-based approach was also researched and utilised in my work with A, which has become favourable in both direct and indirect work with service users (Rapp, 1997). This approach appealed to me as it is more service-user led, and helps them see how their strengths play a significant role in the face of their problems or crisis that they may be facing. It is quite different to other approaches in that it acknowledges a person’s suffering and impairment as the result of systemic rather than just psychological drawbacks. In using this approach, this helped A to understand her ability to cope well despite the harshness of her surrounding environment and daily routine of caring for her mother. She was able to see her positive attributes, how others also recognised these which provided for a more balanced view of herself. This is also in line with social work values which places emphasis on helping the user feel empowered and in control (Value B, Topps, 2002).
Since the incident I have had ample time to reflect on my work with A and how I feel about it. Different techniques and tools are used to enable reflection within the field of social work, which can help the way we relate to work, home, culture, and supported networks. Winter (1988) states that experience is not something that we ‘store’ as we would on a computer, rather we ‘story’ it.
Similarly keeping a reflective journal is a useful technique in proactively encouraging critical reflection if done correctly (Kam-shing, 2005). This was a requirement whilst on the course, which I was not keen on at the beginning. I felt it was quite a daunting experience expressing my thoughts and feelings and could not see the benefits of this. For the duration of the placement, as my ability and knowledge of reflection improved with the help of my educator, I was able to understand how this would help me in becoming an effective practitioner. It helped to formalise my ideas, trail of thoughts and bring about a heightened sense of awareness on my own practice.
This technique can be seen as embedded within a theory of reflection developed by Schön (1991). He called this reflection in action (whilst the event is occurring) and reflection on action (after the event has occurred). The journals or learning logs were primarily used after an event had occurred to understand our learning. This tool is available to evaluate the work I have undertaken and how my knowing-in-action may have had an impact on the end outcome. Thus will be able to improve on my skills and ability to reflect-in-action and recognise if there is something more to be done to help the service user. In my interactions with A and other users, I have also recognised that reflection on action is beneficial in evaluating my own practice and reflection in action to implement those lessons learnt actively.
To be able to detect my own mistakes and correct these involves uncovering deeper learning. Argryis and Schön (1974) proposed that when we as people and practitioners simply only operationalize our goals rather than question them we are only applying single-loop learning. When this incident with A occurred, I looked at the different aspects such as theories, A’s behaviour, the organisation’s policies that had influenced my thoughts and perceptions and brought me to look at myself and the situation with close scrutiny and query the governing variables to enforce social change be that within myself, the organisation or A or all of these.
Kolb (1984) and his reflective cycle helped me examine the structures to my reflection. He developed four stages to his cycle. These include concrete experiences, reflective observation, followed by abstract conceptualisation which includes drawing conclusions from incidents encountered and active experimentation. Active experimentation is the ability to learn from past situations and try a new approach. I think this is where I feel I continued my work with A from the very first incident in trying to utilise different approaches to help her. Using this approach also made me realise that perhaps even if the event itself may have hurt A’s feelings it may have raised awareness about her hygiene and brought about independence. This is also in line with Value B of the GSCC codes of practice (Topps, 2002) and with Domain 6 (Professional Capabilities Framework 2012).
Group studying has been known to develop enhanced learning and reflection. Bold (2008) suggests that having a supportive group to talk through your knowledge and experience gained can generate deeper learning and increase reflective competence. In using group reflection I found that having a group to talk through my morals, beliefs and assumptions that direct my work very useful in a public and collaborative setting. It provided the opportunity to look back at a past experience from multiples perspectives and raise questions. I had not realised the grave nature of discussing one’s hygiene would be so difficult, with the help of the group I was more aware of my hidden assumptions on this and how it could affect my practice.
Research by Dahlgren et al. (2006) highlights the importance of group reflection and the role of a critical friend to promote empowerment to both students and teachers. This may be because it allows for the students work in an informal setting and therefore have more of a balanced working dynamics. This kind of democratic environment aids reflective learning by advancing self-knowledge. In my group learning set I came away learning more about my own assumptions about A being a carer to her mother with mental health issues meant that she may not have had facilities to aid good hygiene. The group also helped me look at other explanations for what had happened. I came to understand that whilst the issues of A ‘smelling’ might have been genuine, it could have also been exacerbated by other staff and children through their own assumptions about her learning disability, and status as a young carer to a parent with mental health problems. Their behaviour and assumptions daily may have impacted the way I saw A even though I did not agree with their views. I failed to raise this further with my manager when handed the task of telling A, as I may have also assumed here that she would ‘know best’.
Much later I was introduced to the critical incident technique developed by Tripp (1993). To analyse incidents that have had a strong emotional impact on ourselves as practitioners. It entails learning to look beyond just describing to gain deeper reflection. I began to understand that my underestimation in what I had to tell A, was my own failure. This underlying assumption I later realised arose from my supervision with my manager who had assured me that disclosing this information to A would benefit her. The feedback given from my group has helped me identify areas of my reflection where there may perhaps be gaps and how I could improve on these. I felt the feedback was accurate and enriching, it helped for me to understand how they saw my situation with A and were able to offer alternative explanations for the outcomes that I had not yet explored further.
Overall this assignment has aimed to demonstrate that there are a number of factors involved in practicing good social work. This is highlighted by being able to demonstrate an awareness of my own values and philosophies, how my knowledge in terms of theories can be applied to inform my own practice. I have learnt that utilising and evaluating theories have furthered my practice by eliciting my understanding and learning over time. I have gained additional skills together with multiple sources of knowledge and techniques to better help the people I have worked with. This kind of creativity is what can bring about social change and empowerment. Reflection is an integral part of social work practice and different tools like journals can augment deep learning and improve future practice. What I may have learnt from a situation initially does not mean that these are the only recommendations to take forward. Through continual reflection and critical thinking, it can help to question our judgements and that of others and see if more can be done to change the face of social work practice.