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Critical Reflective Practice Social Work Essay Admission

By: Kelly Dundon

When I thought about my experience and methods of using reflective practice, I wondered how I would ever be able to articulate and make sense of the complex, critical, and sometimes deep and painful thoughts that underpin my practice in front line child protection. Eventually I came to the realization that we all do a certain amount of reflective and critical practice on many differing levels. We can easily find time to reflect before, during, and after events, from the superficial to extensive and through our personal to professional lives.    Reflection allows us to plan, articulate, evaluate, exact change, and perhaps more importantly, learn in the complex issues that we face daily. As part of our working with often disordered and dysfunctional children and families, with reflection, we are able to positively work toward best outcomes and in the best interests of the children with whom we work.

    The importance of thinking reflectively, that is to break down and closely analyze the processes that occur in decision making, in child protection, I believe is an essential part of our role. Doing so helps us to develop a sense of what has been achieved, what is likely to be achieved, and what could be done better, the importance of which has long been evaluated by many writers, including Schon (1983), Johns (1996, 2000), and more recently Rolfe (2001) and Fook (2002). As students, child protection practitioners, and later in our careers as practice teachers, leaders, and in helping to shape policy, we are able with the methods of reflective practice to conclude, inform, and broaden our practice knowledge.

    I began to understand the importance of utilizing the tools that were available to me long before I knew what it was actually called. In 1998, I grappled with being a broke student and 21-year-old single mother of two. I juggled diaper changing and textbooks and felt overwhelmed with the demands that were either placed upon me, or that I had placed upon myself. I needed a way to make sense of it all, so I began to write a few lines every night about my placement, theories and methods, thoughts, fears, and achievements. This helped me to really focus on what the issues were. Not being a natural academic, I found this very useful. About a month later in a seminar, I learned that I had been documenting my learning experience and that this was an essential tool for every student. I have now kept eight years of practice diaries—all strictly confidential, of course, but boy, you should read the contents! Some are highly emotional and not very productive excerpts. Others are productive and insightful. It is pleasing to see one’s sense of self develop over time.

    I look at how I, and others around me, have grown in competence and thoughtfulness through this process. I can clearly see that at the end of each time we really think about what we are doing, there is what I call an “awakening”—the sudden realization that we are on the right or wrong track, that we can do this very difficult job. I see the clarity, harmony, and satisfaction. When I feel this way, it is almost as if I have lifted above the situation. I am able to see below and think laterally about the potential impacts of my actions, before, during, and after an event. I add that a major part of working in child protection is the responsibility placed upon us as practitioners and team leaders to make good decisions. We can, with reflection, be able to accurately describe in progress notes and through assessments what has led us to our decisions and critically analyze our practice without feeling the burden of blame.

A Model for Reflection

    Borton’s Developmental Model for Reflective Practice, developed as early as 1970, is of great interest to me. The framework works in a sequential and cyclical order and is very easy to follow and recommended for first-time reflective practice. Borton’s (1970) model looks at three levels of reflection—What? So what? and Now what?

    He starts with a descriptive level of reflection, which he calls the “what.” An example is: What is the issue/problem? What was my role? What was mine and others’ response to the actions taken? Then we move to “So what?” This concentrates on the theory and knowledge building level of reflection: So, what does this tell or teach me about my service user, about myself, about the model of care that I am providing? So, what did I base my actions on and what was going through my mind as I acted upon them? So, what could I have done differently? So, what is my new understanding of this situation? “Now what” looks at what we can now do to break the cycle and to improve the situation in the future. The broader issues now need to be examined if this action is now to be successful. Once we have done all this, we can look at the end of this cycle by asking ourselves: Now what might be the consequences of this action?

    When opening one’s mind to using a model such as Borton’s, and particularly with practitioners who are new to reflection, I find that a very simple exercise is to concentrate on something like what happened at breakfast this morning and to really start to pick apart the events—why certain things occurred and others didn’t, and so forth.

Other Models

    I also see great value in drawing or mapping situations that are complex and in need of a good sorting out. In one of my previous positions, we used a visual mapping technique in looking at one particular child whose needs were complex. The map was huge. It covered a wall. Everyone really got into drawing and describing different ideas over the course of about a week. This type of free association whet many an appetite and allowed us to think creatively and outside of the boxes that we can often get stuck in when working in child protection.

    Having spoken to many workers involved in child protection, I have found that we all have different ways and levels in which we reflect. Some use a log, mapping techniques, and supervision or verbal accounts and discussions within teams to thrash out the problems to get differing opinions and ideas. You may ask a colleague to play devil’s advocate and question your beliefs, values, and attitudes about, say, drug affected parenting. We can, with this level of discussion, learn a great deal from each other and ourselves. We can closely examine and reflect upon our fears, discriminations, power relations, values, and beliefs. We can also examine the ripple effects of these issues for our service users and the wider community setting.

Why Reflect?

    I can think of many different reasons to keep reflecting upon what we do. First, we are in the business of protecting children. We need to be clear that we do protect children and ourselves when we are in the field. A little bit of thought and planning now may be of huge benefit later. Something that I have found is that reflection seems to create a certain clarity and sense of safety around this business we are in. The log I use is a very safe way of offloading and debriefing myself, as well as discussions with colleagues and managers. It enables me to avoid stress and vicarious trauma. It helps me to move forward from anger and frustration at service users, colleagues, departments, policy, and red tape toward a certain inner peace! It helps me to understand why I feel this way, why it needs to be this way, and how what I do could potentially change this situation positively, I guess from negative energy to positive energy or something like that. By doing this we can go a long way toward keeping well at work, which affects our service delivery and ultimately the way in which we do our business with children.

    The constant weight of workload pressure and prioritization is often of concern to us as child protection workers. It is easy to get caught in the overwhelming feeling of drowning in paperwork, children with high needs, and balancing risk like a trapeze artist. When we feel this way, to sit quietly in a park for five minutes and briefly run through the priorities, we can look at how we can work smarter, perhaps delegate tasks to families, therefore empowering them and including them in planning for children. In the wider spectrum, we can look at how we can establish a work-life balance, while still getting through all tasks and complying. A balance is possible with some thought, care, and of course, departmental policy, which positively supports work-life balance and understands its importance in terms of overall success and health of its work force and work practices.

    Second, instead of finding ourselves bogged down with constraints, if we are serious about our roles as corporate parents, we can truly focus on the children we serve and what would be in the best interests for that child, even if what we think would be the best solution is not possible. We have thought through the “what ifs.” We can evidence this through formal and ad-hoc supervision and case notes. When an adult seeks information on his childhood file, if he can clearly see the efforts that were made to keep him within his family or the reflective practice and decision-making that led to his removal, this may be part of his healing process, and we have helped to identify to him what the department is, why we do what we do, our mistakes, and how we have learned and developed over time, a transparency about child protection.

    We can encourage others to utilize reflection by offering consultation papers, questionnaires, and service user groups to empower our staff groups, children, and families. The benefits of reflection in terms of collaborative practice with other agencies and wider communities opens many doors to our understanding of roles and responsibilities, and it can be critical in removing boundaries and stopping us from blaming others. We must seek to empower others around us to take personal responsibility for reflection, for speaking up and letting people know what we think and why through this process.

    Another part of reflection is being able to use the criticism we face and utilize it—that is, turn the situation on its head, and learn something positive from it. Instead of being defensive and subjective, we can learn and move forward. I acknowledge, through my own experience, that this healing process may take time, especially if we are particularly wounded by a scathing remark or insult in our work practices, but it is possible.

    We are also able to establish boundaries when working with children, something that is often assumed that we can automatically do, although it does take experience, time, and skill. When a worker does over-identify with a client, this can be a negative experience for the provider and user. If we find the ability, through reflection, to step back and look at the bigger picture, we are able to work more effectively with a service user.

    In conclusion, the importance of critical and reflective practice is difficult to measure and often under-estimated, yet it is crucial to our professional and personal development. More important, I feel that reflection helps and prepares us to be accountable and responsible for the very difficult decisions and challenges we often face in child protection and allows us to make good choices and have better outcomes for children.

Kelly Dundon, her husband Martin, and their four children immigrated to Australia in 2005 from England. Kelly has six years of front-line child protection experience and is now a team leader in a statutory organization. Kelly spends her spare time with her family and writing about the ups and downs of child protection.

2.4 Bringing your learning together in reflective practice

Consolidating your learning

In this section you are going to bring together the knowledge and skills you have gained so far and consider what is meant by ‘reflective practice’. You have been introduced to different ways of understanding the role of a social worker and the lives of the people social workers work with. You should have started to recognise the different aspects of what it means to become a good social worker. These include skills, values, ethics and knowledge.

Figure 8 The elements of good social work practice

You started by looking at the importance of historical and biographical perspectives in understanding service users’ life experiences and the context in which polices are formed and services delivered to help them. You have now considered your own identity and value base, and been introduced to a wider knowledge base, including theories and research into human behaviour and attachments. You have recognised that people receiving services may have a very different perspective from your own. You have also by now considered some of the skills needed to be able to acknowledge this and be empathetic to each service user’s situation.

However, social work is a practical business about engaging and supporting real people. Reflection is the process of learning that supports the integration of these different forms of knowledge and understanding into the direct work that is done with service users. In the rest of this section, you will explore what reflection means and how you can begin to develop this approach to your studies.

Reflection as a process of integration

There are many academic disciplines and sources of knowledge that influence social work practice, and these include sociology, psychology, social policy, law and research. These can be combined with practice experience, the skills of fellow practitioners and the knowledge of service users to make a potent learning experience , without which professional practice might be less informed.

Connecting academic learning with practice requires the ability to draw upon knowledge and use it to think about and write in a ‘reflective way’, and to make sense of practice.

However, reflection requires not only the intellectual application of ideas, but also an understanding of this process of learning through experience and self-awareness. Reflective practice includes an appreciation of, and sensitivity to, your own skills and values, and an awareness of your own impact on others in relationship-based forms of work.

This approach to reflection has been the focus of writers such as Donald Schön (1983) and David Kolb (1985). These theorists have been interested in the ways in which adults learn, and especially in the different ways that professionals learn and develop their practice. Kolb went on to develop a cycle of learning, as illustrated in Figure 9 below.

Figure 9 Kolb’s ‘cycle of learning’

The cycle of learning begins with the learner having a concrete, or specific, experience in practice, which prompts ‘reflective observations’ within the learner. These observations then lead the learner to draw out ‘generalisations and abstract conceptualisations’, which may then be applied to a similar experience, prompting ‘application of ideas and active experimentation’. Thus, the learner does not respond mechanically, simply by following rules or procedures, but learns by reflecting on practice and modifying or developing it in the process.

Cycle of learning

Here is an example of how each of the element in Kolb’s cycle of learning was used to reflect on an experience of some voluntary work undertaken by a male practitioner. Read his concrete experience extract below and then think about what you would draw from this at each stage of the cycle of learning before reading what the practitioner in question took from the experience.

Concrete experience

Observation and reflection

What observations and reflections would you take away from this experience?

  1. I came away worried about Susan’s situation. I wasn’t sure we communicated clearly because of her deafness. I don’t think she always heard what I was saying and so nodded or agreed to placate me.

  2. I felt, with my general physical discomfort in the room, I hadn’t been very clear or assertive in my communication. I would just be another person wandering through her home.

  3. It was easy to think of her as confused because of this, but I wasn’t sure if this was just because she hadn’t got the full picture.

  4. Her situation wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t know if the social worker had made a proper assessment and had weighed up the balance of risk and choice.

  5. I felt bad about doubting the thoroughness of the judgement of another professional about this situation and felt I should just know my place in the professional and service hierarchy – i.e. an unqualified worker in a voluntary agency.

Formation of abstract concepts and generalisations

What abstract concepts and generalisations might you take from this experience?

  1. Service users sometimes have different priorities from those of agencies and their workers. It is important to be alert to this.

  2. If someone is hearing-impaired then workers need to do everything they can to augment their communication and ensure they have been understood. For instance, the worker should sit in a good light so the person can see their face, be prepared with paper and pen to write down key messages, ask specific or closed questions to check they have been understood.

  3. If you are confident the person has understood, choice and control is an important value base and this needs to be respected, even when people are making choices you don’t think are good ones. The judgement or assessment about risk, or even potentially safeguarding concern needs to be shared and recorded with the social worker involved so that they can ensure they are getting as full a picture as possible about someone’s situation.

Testing implications in new situations

What are the implications for new situations?

  1. I decided to always carry a blank notebook and a clear felt tip pen with me to help communication if it was needed.

  2. I got a card and leaflet from the agency with my name and number printed on it so that the person I visited could always have a record of where I had come from, or show it to other visitors.

  3. I reported and discussed my anxieties with my supervisor. She suggested I phone the social worker and talk to them. I also wrote the social worker a letter to report what I had seen and Susan’s decision not to come to the lunch club.

About Susan

I was asked by the voluntary agency I worked for to go and speak to Susan, about coming to use our lunch club for older people. The social worker had said that they had already talked about it, and Susan was expecting someone to come and make the arrangements. I had written to make the appointment but when I arrived Susan did not appear to be expecting me. However she asked me in and I attempted to explain where I was from, and the referral from the social worker.

The room she invited me into appeared to be set up as a bedsit. It was very untidy and a bit smelly and was not helped by the fact that Susan had five or more cats wandering in and out. As is always the way, the cats were particularly keen to come and greet me, bring on my allergic asthmatic reaction and generally ignore my attempts to politely shun them. Susan was very deaf and it was difficult make myself understood. But it was clear she was not aware of the offer of the lunch club and didn’t think she would want to bother. Somebody from the council had been to speak to her a while ago but she wasn’t sure what that was about. She thinks they came because of her GP and they were going to get her something to do with the toilet downstairs.

I thanked Susan for her time and left saying I would get back to the social worker who had made the referral.

Developing your own reflective skills

An important aspect of developing your own reflective skills is that you try this for yourself on any aspect of your experiences.

Activity 11 Reflecting on your own practice

Think of a situation that you found difficult when you first attempted it, such as your first time doing something new, meeting someone who was using the service for the first time, or a situation where you or somebody else became upset in some way. Use the stages in Kolb’s cycle of learning to help you reflect on what happened. Using the questions below, try to recall what emotions, thoughts or reflections the situation prompted in you and what you learned from the experience. How did you deal with a similar situation the next time you encountered it?

  • Describe the concrete experience.
  • What observations and reflections did you take away from the experience?
  • What abstract concepts and generalisations might you formulate?
  • What are the implications for new situations?

Discussion

We hope that by working through this exercise you will have recognised that there is nothing mysterious about Kolb’s cycle of learning.

However, reflection is not only about making connections with knowledge; Boud and Knights (1996) described three phases of thinking things through in reflection as:

  1. returning to an experience

  2. attending to feelings connected to the experience

  3. re-evaluating the experience through recognising its implications and outcomes.

Boud and Knights’ emphasis on feelings is important, as emotional responses can both influence a worker’s ability to make judgements and lead them to intuitive questioning, which can be very valuable in itself. Social work involves more than simply following procedures; social workers have to think things through, apply lessons from past experience and find new ways to deal with new situations.

Being self-aware in reflective practice

Being aware of yourself and conscious of your impact on others is a necessary element of reflective practice and is crucial to the relationships social workers build with the people they work with. Joyce Lishman described social work as:

‘Entering into the lives of people who are in distress, conflict or trouble. To do this requires not only technical competence but also qualities of integrity, genuineness and self-awareness.’

(Lishman, 1994, quoted in Lishman, 2002, p. 95)

Qualities such as ‘integrity, genuineness and self-awareness’ are central to developing empathy and an understanding of social work values. However, although self-awareness is needed in terms of work with service users, it is also a necessary part of taking a professional responsibility for your own learning and development.

In both Scotland and Wales the Care Council’s codes require workers

‘…to be accountable for the quality of their work and take responsibility for maintaining and improving their knowledge and skills’.

(Scottish Social Services Council, 2009; Gofal Cymdeithasol Cymru, 2017)

This supposes that students and workers are aware, not only of their own practices, but also of their professional development needs. It is perhaps natural to feel able to understand and comment on other people’s motivations, practices and attitudes more easily than our own. It’s also often easier to articulate clearly the strengths and shortfalls of the organisation we work within than to see our role or contribution to its successes and weaknesses. Self-awareness is a form of reflection, in the sense that it encourages us to think about ourselves, what sort of people we are and want to be. The process never stops, of course, for the more self-awareness we acquire, the more we discover the need to develop it further. The complexities of human behaviour and life today also mean that we are constantly learning about both ourselves and other people.

Developing your self-awareness

An important part of developing professional identity is understanding yourself better. Increasing self-awareness allows practitioners to understand what might influence their relationships with service users. It’s important to be aware of what they bring to the relationship themselves – in terms of skills and experiences but also in terms of assumptions and even subconscious reactions.

Activity 12 Awareness of your self

As you have worked through this course what have the activities revealed about your personal attributes and experiences? How might these have an impact on your relationships (both good and bad), whether you already work with service users or not?Think about these questions and make some notes on what you have learned about yourself and your relationships.

Discussion

You might be surprised to learn how many different activities in this block are related to personal awareness. For example, you considered how you define your identity in different settings. You also considered some stereotypes that you might hold. It’s important to acknowledge such reactions, so that you can deal with them. Similarly, everyone has their own blind spots and automatic reactions. If you are aware of these, you can deal with them and take this into account in your social work relationships. You have to be prepared to consciously put your prejudices aside. Rather than just reacting automatically, you need to examine the reasons behind your reactions. Consider, for instance, the practitioner who reported that he has problems with people who smell. Once he acknowledged this prejudice, he was able to take it into account and adjust his reactions accordingly.

In addition, you have considered your personal values. Again, it is important to be aware of your own values so that you can see where they differ from those of other people.

Supervision as a tool for self-awareness

Whilst trying to maintain critical awareness is one way of developing your reflective skills and practice, supervision is another very important way of doing so. Social workers normally have supervision built into their professional practice, and would consider it central to their development as skilled and reflective practitioners.

Lishman (2002) lists six points that should form the basis of all supervision for students and staff:

  1. It should focus on learning.

  2. It should be provided on a regular and reliable basis.

  3. It should involve mutual trust and an awareness of issues of authority and responsibility.

  4. It should provide support and opportunities to express feelings and to go ‘below the surface’ in the analysis of problems and situations.

  5. It should address those particular issues which you identify as problematic, including dealing with pain, anxiety, confusion, violence and stress.

  6. It should be anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory in its content and its process.

She concludes that ‘supervision is time for exploration, reflection, learning and problem-solving’ (Lishman, 2002, p. 107).

Supervision was given prominence and recognition in the Munro review of children’s social care services in England in 2011:

‘Analytic skills can be enhanced by formal teaching and reading. Intuitive skills are essentially derived from experience. Experience on its own, however, is not enough. It needs to be allied to reflection – time and attention given to mulling over the experience and learning from it. This is often best achieved in conversation with others, in supervision, for example, or in discussions with colleagues.’

Her words serve as a reminder that reflection helps you to deal better with complicated situations that cannot be resolved simply by following rules or guidelines.

Reflective writing

You have now considered reflection as a way of thinking and learning. Now we move on to think about reflective writing. Many of the expectations of reflective writing will be very similar to the kinds of writing you may already be used to, such as the requirement to acknowledge your sources by using references and using clear language that is easily understood by your reader. There are also, however, important differences which you will also need to think about, should you go on to study for the social work degree.

  1. The questions may not require an ‘essay’ answer and may therefore need a different approach and structure from the conventional one of introduction, main paragraphs and conclusion.

  2. While most professional writing (e.g. reports, records) are written in the third person, reflective writing requires that you write about your own experience and consequently the use of the first person (‘I’) is encouraged.

  3. While you are still expected to use your reading or ‘theory’, this will need to be linked to your discussion of your own experiences and also what you have learned from these experiences.

If you already have experience of writing in higher education, reflective writing may feel odd at first. One social work student who was already a graduate commented that while her experience was that academic writing ‘is looking at writing in the third person’, reflective writing is about something different:

‘Well, you write that to your Auntie Jane, you don’t write it for a course, I’ve never written it for a course ... In this course you are going to be asked to write about yourself big style. You have got to be king. You have got to be in the centre.’

Although reflective writing is not exactly like writing a letter to ‘Auntie Jane’ or a personal blog, this student was picking up correctly that reflective writing has something in common with writing a diary or journal (or blog) and that most academic writing does not encourage you to write about yourself and your own experiences.

Activity 13 Reflective writing

Spend 15 minutes writing as freely as you can about your thoughts on your learning so far. This writing is only for you to see, so don’t worry too much about how you organise your ideas or even about your language (words used, sentence construction, spelling, grammar, punctuation etc.). Just write from your own thoughts.

After writing for about 15 minutes, put your writing away somewhere safe.

Later on, perhaps the next day, come back and re-read your writing. Note down your answers to the following questions:

  • Did you enjoy writing in this way, or did it feel difficult?
  • Did you feel able to forget about traditional expectations of ‘good’ writing and just let your thoughts flow?

Discussion

Some people find this type of writing hugely enjoyable, as a way to put their feelings and thoughts on paper and even to develop creative ideas. For others this is an awkward and artificial task, particularly for people who would not commonly talk about themselves reflectively, never mind commit their thoughts about themselves to paper in this way. Some people also feel very inhibited by the thought of someone reading and judging their writing, which can get in the way of expressing themselves. Free writing can be a good way to overcome feeling anxious about expressing yourself. Free writing also has a lot in common with reflective writing, as the focus is on you, the writer, your thoughts and experiences as told in the first person. If you found this activity difficult in any way you might like to keep practising this free writing exercise. Remember, you can pick any topic, based on work or personal experiences.

Key points

  • Reflection can enhance social work practice.
  • Reflection involves drawing together your experiences, study and feelings to help you evaluate practice and think about intervention and outcomes.
  • Supervision plays an important role in supporting reflection.