The Use and Purpose of Clinical Supervision in Social Work Education and Practice

Over the past six years as a social work administrator, educator and clinician I have found that there has been a gap in theory to practice during the formal education of MSW students.  It appears that what the student is learning in the classroom is not connecting to what they are learning in their field placements.  The students are having a difficult time grasping how the foundations of social work practice is applied to what they are doing in their everyday interactions within the field work.  One of my questions is, should this gap be filled by clinical supervision with the student? Are field instructors able to do this? How is it being done?  If it is not, why?  Is the student able to learn beyond the scope of job tasks that are put before them?  I have found more often than not this is not happening and the student leaves the placement frustrated without any transferable skills other than how to file and answer phones.  In the social work profession, which is essentially a “train the trainer” model how can we then enhance this experience so that the student is able to gain the skills needed to enter the field with confidence and knowledge about how theory and practice relate and impact on each other.

I have found in New York State that one can become a SIFI (supervisor in field instruction) with only two years of practice with a LMSW (which is considered a generalist license.) Is this really enough experience to teach a new student?  I strongly feel that there should be a re-fresher or advanced courses that a SIFI should be required to attend in order to continue to supervise students in the field.  Let’s face it, someone who graduated from social work school in 1970 may not be aware of curriculum changes or the challenges that students and the social work community is faced with today.  We all know the only thing constant is change and we must change with the challenging landscape of our times.

More and more students are looking for traditionally clinical field placements where they can have the experience of providing one on one therapy.  I find that this new outlook of social work is quite interesting since the history of social work has been mostly community based advocating and not so much providing psychotherapy which had been left in the past to psychologists and psychiatrists. However, with that being said this is yet another challenge in the idea of what then is clinical supervision in social work practice? If we are training the next generation of social workers to become therapists (keep in mind, social work school DOES NOT teach you to be a therapist) then what is really expected of a SIFI? I think it then appropriate that student’s are placed in therapeutic settings where their field instructors are either a LCSW or an LCSW-R.  I have explained to students that social work school will not teach you how to be a therapist, it will discuss theories and models, but will not show you how to apply them in practice with clients. But then these are questions and concerns that should be part of clinical supervision, discussed in process recordings and worked out in formal and informal supervision within placement.  It appears that this is not happening and the student is at a loss of what to do with clients in session which leads to what I call”winging it.”  How then can we prepare students and field instructors  to communicate better, utilize their sessions appropriately and spend time working together and learning from each other? How do we make clinical supervision appropriate and meaningful to a new student practitioner?

I have been a SIFI myself since 2009 and a Field Advisor for two different Schools of Social Work over the past two years.  I am very invested in the education of future social workers.  I have reflected on my experience as a student, a SIFI as well as a Field Advisor and have come to question for myself what the role of clinical supervision is in social work practice?  I have found at times that students are not properly supervised, educated or prepared for the professional world of social work that they are about to step into.  This is concerning to me as a clinician and a change agent.  I can say that I have had the unfortunate experience of being involved with educational review boards which have removed students from placements as well as schools all together, but it just strengthens the idea of the importance of enrolling students that are appropriate for the field as well as investing in instructors that are appropriate for supervising.  This project would help me to incorporate the importance of theory to practice and practice to theory as we continue to educate and support the future generations of social work practitioners.

As I can continue to explore the topic of Clinical Supervision, please feel free to join me on this exciting journey.  IN the up coming months be on the look out for the following…

Podcast: What does clinical supervision mean and what does it look like in field practice?   This podcast will feature interviews of each of the following in order to get their perspective on clinical supervision. A current MSW student, a SIFI and a Field Advisor.

Also on the horizon… A curriculum for advanced SIFI education as well as videos for students and practicing SIFI’s.



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