Dealing with problems on social work student placements

How to deal with potential social work placement problems by Dr Barry Cooper, lecturer in social work, Open University. The Open.University.

by Dr Barry Cooper, lecturer in social work, Open University.


The Open University Social Work Degree Programme arranges and monitors more than 700 student placements across the UK every year. The following tips and advice are drawn from this experience.

What should you do if you’re struggling to cope on your placement?

The answer to this and to most questions related to problems on placement is that you need to discuss the difficulties you’re having with your tutor and your practice educator. This can be easier said than done in certain situations. All students should be aware that social work practice is made up of a network of power relationships and as a student you too are in an unequal power relationship with your practice educator – you are being assessed.

Having feelings of “not coping” can feel, well, pretty disastrous. But such feelings are very common with the pressures of social work and it may be that you simply have too much to do. At some point you will have to discuss and explore this with your practice educator. However, sometimes the explanations and resolutions may be complex and more personal and you may feel safer to explore them with your tutor first.

“I found myself really struggling in my second placement. I had things going on at home and I didn’t feel safe sharing all of this with my practice educator as she seemed to be so competent and I just didn’t want to look as though I wasn’t up to the job. Luckily I talked it through with my tutor and that gave me the confidence to bring it up as an issue in my next supervision. My practice educator was brilliant, really sympathetic, and we worked out why I was feeling under pressure. We seemed to get on so much better after that.” Nancy – year 2 student

What if you feel you’re not learning anything?

Again, the explanation may be complex and you need to discuss it with your practice educator. It may be that you don’t have enough to do or you’re not being “stretched” enough with new learning opportunities. If so, you should discuss this in supervision and review your workload and the breadth and depth of your practice learning opportunities. You may agree to formally explore this at your mid-point review meeting and amend the practice learning agreement.

How do I know if I’m providing enough evidence for my practice assessment?

Discuss this with your practice educator. You need feedback on a regular basis; firstly, on your performance as a student social work practitioner, and secondly, on the quality of practice evidence that you are producing. It is your responsibility to provide the evidence of competence and it is your practice educator’s responsibility to make a judgment about this and write the report with a recommendation of pass or fail. The placement is therefore a learning partnership arrangement between student and practice educator with the tutor as “third party” monitor and, where necessary, facilitator and trouble-shooter. The process should be transparent when it is set up and agreed and this transparency is maintained through the life of the placement by regular feedback.

What if you have a clash with your practice educator or supervisor, or other members of staff?

Disagreements are inevitable at some time in professional work. Part of the skills and confidence that you will be developing will involve ways in which differences of perspective and values can be constructively discussed and negotiated. You will be expected to do this equally with colleagues as with service users. Remember that there are very few clearcut “right” and “wrong” views and answers.

If you clash with someone else it is the first step towards expanding your understanding of how and why others sometimes see things differently to you. If you are unable to resolve serious disagreements, you may want to explore this with your tutor.

“I had a real problem with the attitudes of some of the people in the team that I was part of in my placement. I really learned how to manage my own feelings as there was little way that I could see to get into a useful discussion about this. My supervisor was sympathetic but there was no way he was going to “take it on” so, in the end, I just had to live with it. We talked about it back at uni in our tutor group and I was relieved to find others had similar experiences. Sometimes not everything can be resolved or sorted and you just have to carry on.” Ed – year 2 student

What if you disagree with or have problems with the practice in your placement?

These occasions are relatively rare but not unknown. As a student on placement you are in a special situation of being assessed and the repercussions of challenging agency practices can be difficult to gauge. You need to talk though your perspectives and feelings with your practice educator and your tutor before coming to any firm conclusions. Professional social work is a very complex and sometimes ambiguous business and there are often many layers of duties, and decision-making responsibilities. A major aspect of any placement, particularly in the statutory sector, is in understanding the organisational perspectives that impact upon social work practice.

Further reading:

Surviving your Social Work Placement, by Robert Lomax et al (2010), Palgrave

More discussion on placement problems and advice from users can be found on Community Care’s online CareSpace forum.

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