Most supervision sessions between a social worker and their manager appear to follow a strikingly similar format.
David Wilkins – who has listened to many hours of audio recordings of children’s social worker supervision, observed several dozen managers in supervision and read hundreds of written supervision records – describes the first stage as a ‘verbal deluge’ of detailed update from the social worker about each case, with their supervisor asking questions to clarify what has happened.
The supervisor usually then identifies ‘the problem’ that needs to be addressed and provides a ‘solution’. Often, if not always, this takes the form of procedural actions such as convening a meeting, arranging a visit or contacting another professional.
But this isn’t the kind of supervision most managers want to provide, Wilkins says. Supervision might develop in this way to meet agency requirements for the oversight of practice or simply as way of navigating the complexity of the situations routinely encountered by social workers – but it is not the reflective, supportive, analytical space most managers would say they aspire to.
Wilkins has used his research and experience in social work to inform our new supervision knowledge and practice hub. Community Care Inform subscribers can access the quick guides, tips and videos which all offer practical, realistic ideas to try out to improve your supervision here.
Wilkins’ research is being carried out with child and family social workers but lots of the tips apply to supervision with social workers in all contexts. Community Care Inform Adults‘ subscribers can read applicable content in our management knowledge and practice hub.
Below are three key tips from the new resources:
Let the social worker know in advance of the session that you want to try out this approach. They will only have 10 minutes to update you about each case they want to discuss so need to structure their thinking to give you the most relevant information, new concerns or anything else they are a worried about.
Then when you start discussing a case, set a timer on your phone for 10 minutes. Resist the urge to type or ask questions – just listen. When the 10 minutes is up, you can then spend a few minutes asking clarifying questions, before moving on to discussing what is most concerning the social worker about this case or what they most need help with from you this session.
This approach should help avoid getting trapped in lengthy discussions about where things are up to and allow more time for analysis, reflection, discussion of emotion and how theory or research may inform the work. (From Tips and ideas to shake up your supervision)
Wilkins’ research found many supervision records included considerable detail of all the activity a social worker has described – for example, what they and a parent/or child have said to each other, which professionals have been informed of an incident and so on. But much of this information will be elsewhere on the case management system. The message? You don’t need to record everything! Ask the social worker what, if anything, from their update is not already on file and your notes can then refer to, for example, “talked about recent home visit, see recording dated 12.09.2016 for details“.
Then agree together what new information needs to be recorded, based not on what has already happened and been recorded (e.g. the home visit) but on the new thinking and reflection achieved together during the supervision discussion. (From tips for recording supervision – less typing, more talking)
Being able to talk about one’s emotions and those of others is widely considered essential for social workers. While managers will usually ask about a practitioners’ emotional wellbeing (“how are you this week?”) and social workers often use supervision to talk about feelings of frustration, it’s less common for these discussions to go much further. For example, if the social worker is frustrated by a parent, you might explore how this is playing a part in their assessment and decision-making. Are there times when they have been more or less frustrated with the parent? How might the parent be feeling? How might they experience the social worker’s frustration?
If managers ‘give permission’ to talk about emotions by asking questions about how the social worker felt and/or saying how they might have felt in a similar situation, it allows for discussions that involve emotion as a more integral part of the work. (From Tips for talking about emotions in supervision)