Reflective supervision: the cornerstone of good social work practice

02 May 2017

Image: Sam ClaytonSam Clayton

Reflective supervision underpins good practice with children and families. Like other children’s social care and family support roles, social work is a demanding and challenging job – in order for us to really understand the context of the child's daily lived experience we need to think about many complex and competing issues. Good quality reflective supervision supports us to do this, helping us to find a way through any 'analysis paralysis' to develop our practice knowledge, skills and wisdom; make difficult decisions and ultimately keep children safe.

However, research evidence and information to support setting up and delivering good quality reflective supervision can be difficult to find. That’s why Research in Practice decided to focus on this topic for one of its Change Projects, which bring members of its national network together with researchers and group facilitators to form a working group to examine a key issue or sector challenge. Participants met over a period of two years to gather evidence and draw together best practice in order to formulate and test a pack of resources for the sector to use to support good reflective supervision.  

When the opportunity arose for involvement in the Change Project, it seemed too good to let pass. In Lincolnshire a lot of work had been done to develop reflective supervision by my colleague Wendy Fegan, but there were some things that were just not as consistent as we wanted them to be, and we needed to have another look at this. We had also started to use Signs of Safety across all our work with children and their families, and so the approach to supervision needed to be updated to align with this; the language, format and approach needed to be refreshed.

The first phase of the Change Project involved regular discussion and meetings with other local authority representatives who had also signed up to the project. This in itself was an excellent means of networking and testing out ideas and approaches in a group setting.

During the first 12 to 18 months of the project we met regularly to thrash out ideas, hear about different models and how these were being implemented across the UK. We reflected on our own supervision experiences and what we thought good looked like and asked for feedback, talked about different models and referenced the earlier work Research in Practice had completed on supervision, trialled some examples, shared tools, asked our teams what they thought and used all of this information to develop an outline draft of what we all agreed worked well.

As the project progressed we thought in particular about practice leadership and how important it is that staff at all strategic levels receive reflective supervision if a culture of learning is to be developed. We also explored the importance of good team support through group supervision.

The second phase of the project involved piloting the resources with the RiP network. It was amazing to see how much had been produced in the timeframe. We were excited to use some of the tools to test if they worked in practice as well as in theory. In Lincolnshire, group supervision was promoted and we found that this was particularly beneficial for our teams.

Using the resources in the pilot stage reminded us about what good quality reflective supervision offers us individually, as teams, and as organisations trying to support children and their families through the complexity that is their family life. It was a thought-provoking and positive experience; a chance to clear the head space and reflect ourselves on what we had learnt over the course of the project.

The final resources are now available for anyone wanting to set up and deliver solid reflective supervision for their organisation. They combine and clearly present the research evidence on reflective supervision alongside everything we learned along the way.

Speaking on behalf of Lincolnshire, we were delighted to be involved. We’re proud of the resulting resources, and we would definitely do it again. The opportunity to be part of the Change Project on this particular topic reminded me about how important reflective practice is in allowing us to continually develop our work and improve practice, and now that it’s firmly in place we are looking forward to the resources helping us to improve the quality and consistency of supervision. The ultimate test will be if children and families tell us we are doing things better.

About the author

Sam Clayton is Principal Child and Family Social Worker for Lincolnshire County Council and a member of the Development and Pilot Groups for the Research in Practice Change Project on reflective supervision.

Related resources

Reflective supervision: Resource Pack

Reflective supervision: establishing the cornerstone of safe practice: Blog

Reflective supervision: a two-pronged approach: Blog


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