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Social work practice can be seen as a very complex process as it seeks to promote social change, social justice, equality, anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practices and also social inclusion. It is therefore significant that as social workers, we reflect and evaluate our practice in order that the values we stand for are promoted and adhered to. Reflective practice is therefore a way of making social work professionals more accountable through an ongoing scrutiny of the principles upon which the profession is based (Fook, 2002). However, Ixer (1999) criticizes that reflective practice has simply become uncritical and orthodox mainly because it can be applied in many ways and across many professions. None the less, Donald Schön (1983) a key theorist of reflective practice, saw reflective practice as a way forward for professionals to bridge the gap between the theoretical and practical aspect of their work by unearthing the actual theory which is embedded in what they do, rather than what they say they do. He made it clear that by being reflect practitioner, one is aware of the theories or assumptions underlining your practice and what actions to take in improving your practice or providing better services for the service user. To me reflective practice is therefore like a ‘looking glass’ or mirror where you as a practitioner have the opportunity to correct or redirect your course of action. For the purpose of this assignment, I am going to use a case study from my previous practice placement to illustrate my reflection and evaluation of my own practice, how the use of self, my beliefs and values might have influenced my actions, how I have developed new meaning and understanding through peer supervision/feedback and the unit lectures and how theories underpinning reflective practice may help in improving my practice as a social worker.
I e-mailed the learning mentor at N. Middle School concerning a boy named J (for confidentiality purposes). A 12-year old, of ‘White’- British background, who was referred to my previous placement agency for having behavioural problems (such as fighting with his peers, being disruptive during lessons, disrespecting his teacher and general misconduct) at school. J from an early age of about 6 had witnessed Domestic Violence in his family. My concern was that J had revealed very confidential information to me regarding his mum and her ex-boyfriend (his mum’s ex-boyfriend was violent toward his mum and he witness it as well). J was worried that this might happen again since his mum’s ex-boyfriend was back into his mum’s life and sleeps over sometimes at the family home. I informed the school about this revelation since it was a school referral and also because J had mentioned that any time his mum’s ex sleeps over it affects him and his behaviour at school becomes disruptive due to the worries he has. When I passed this information to the school authorities, the school also informed J’s mum about it which I felt was not appropriate due to the fact that J’s mum had been very wary as to what information or issues J would reveal to professionals. In my email I also pointed out the fact that the trust and confidence J had towards me could be undermined since his mum got informed about this although it was suppose to be confidential among professionals.
Reflection and Evaluation of my practice
In this case study, I felt that the school authorities should have acted more professionally. They should have contacted me first before informing J’s mum but this was not the case. I only got to know that they had informed J’s mum when she asked me questions or tried to clarify the issues that J had revealed to me. Although, this situation didn’t mar my professional relationship with the school authorities at the time, it has made me wary of how much information I can share with other professionals and how that particular information should be treated (if very confidential).
I felt that I had eroded the trust and confidence between J and I because his mum got to know about what J had revealed to me although he did not want her knowing. Order to maintain the trust and confidence we had, I should have sought J’s consent first. Also the school should have contacted me first before informing J’s mum so that my trust and confidence in the school could be maintained as well. I also felt that this broken trust and confidence might extend to other professions who might be working with J in future. This experience could therefore distance J from other professionals (including myself). He might view all professionals as untrustworthy and as enemies rather helpers. This therefore meant that I did uphold public trust and confidence in social care services as enshrined in the code of practice for social workers (TOPPS, 2004)
I felt that J was very opened and honest to me. He had trust and confidence in me as well. I listened to him as a friend in a professional capacity which I feel he needed. However, I felt I let him down in this situation because he was not made aware that his mum would be informed (issue of consent).
This issue of confidentiality posed as a big ethical dilemma for me, in that I questioned myself whether it was right for the school to have informed J’s mum about his revelation? Have I broken J’s trust and confidence by informing the school about this? And am I right to question the school authorities why they shared the information with J’s mum even though the referral was made by the school. These were ethical dilemmas I was faced with before emailing the Learning mentor. I was therefore aware of these ethical dilemmas and conflict of interest and the implication to my practice (social work value A). However, not sharing the information could also mean that I would be held responsible for my actions if something went wrong.
Furthermore, I felt this could have been an issue of potential discrimination, in that the school had overlooked the effect on J, and also the relationship between mother and son, this could have potentially estranged J’s relationship with his mum, the school and even me. If this happened, he would be reluctant in dealing with professionals and this may pose as a barrier to him accessing the needed support he may require.
Theories used in case study
In this case study, the gathering and use of information was the main focus. Establishing service user confidentiality is as important as providing the need/service for him/her. However, though the issue of confidentiality is usually negotiated and established during the agreement meeting with the service user, there are lots of ethical dilemmas surrounding this (as to whom you can share the information with and how much of that information can be shared. Seden (2005) mentioned clearly that in working with Children services it is particularly difficult to have total confidentiality because a child may reveal something or an issue in confidence which may be a child protection issue. And as a professional you would have to share this information with others so that prompt action can be taken. It highlights the fact that in child protection issues, safeguarding and promoting the child’s welfare is paramount (Children Act 1989) rather than confidentiality.
Yet the Data protection Act 1998 and my previous placement agency’s policy on confidentiality also informed me of my practice. In accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998, it entreats all agencies that have access to people’s personal information to keep it safe and must only use the information solely for the purpose for which the information was sought. It also means that if personal information about people fall into the wrong hands it can be used maliciously and our right to private and family life (Human Rights Act 1998) could be contravened. Personal data can further be use to enforce discriminatory and oppressive practice by using it to categorise people in terms of service delivery.
Another important theory in this case study was multi-disciplinary and multi-agency working. The ‘Working together’ document (DOH, 2006) highlights the importance of multidisciplinary and inter agency working in children work force. This document was put together by Department Of Health, Department for Education and Employment and the Home Office. It serves as a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children as well. In my first placement setting, it was good practice to liaise with the lead professional/organisation that carried out the assessment and referred the case to my agency. All relevant information and process of the intervention were shared with the other agencies involved. In this way I was working according to my agency policy of liaising with other agencies, following the legal requirement of the ‘working together’ document and meeting unit 17 of the National Occupational Standards (TOPPS 2004). In doing so I was able to communicate effectively with other professionals and this also facilitated information sharing between professionals.
Theories of Reflection
Using the case study as a reference point, I realised that most of the reflection I did took place after the event. This is what Schön (1998) referred to as ‘reflection-on-action’. According to Schön (1998), reflection-on-action therefore means that as a professional, I only sit back after I have undertaken the intervention to think about what I did, how I did and whether there were any ethical considerations I took for granted. In doing so I am able to analyse and critical evaluate my actions and practice and improve on my shortcoming. For example, in the case study scenario, I realised that the trust and confidence J had in me was eroded once his mum was informed about his revelation to me. Had I reflected before the event or during my meeting with J (reflection-in-action), I would have made him aware that his mum would hear about it and hence J and I could have come to an amicable agreement as to how to inform his mum. This might have provided a more positive outcome rather than the presented outcome in the case study.
This same model of reflection-on-action can be related to Gibbs model of reflection. In Gibbs (1988) model, he identified six key stages of reflection; Stage 1: Description of the event – A detailed description of the event you are reflecting on.
Stage 2: Feelings and Thoughts (Self awareness) – Recalling and exploring those things that were going on inside your head.
Stage 3: Evaluation- making a judgment about what has happened. Consider what was good about the experience and what was bad about the experience or what did or didn’t go so well
Stage 4: Analysis- Breaking the event down into its component parts so they can be explored separately.
Stage 5: Conclusion (Synthesis) -Here you have explored the issue from different angles and have a lot of information to base your judgement. It is here that you are likely to develop insight into you own and other people’s behaviour in terms of how they contributed to the outcome of the event. The purpose of reflection at this stage is to learn from the experience.
Stage 6: Action Plan-During this stage you should think forward into encountering the event again and to plan what you would do – would you act differently or would you likely to do the same?
These six stages of Gibbs model serve as aiding tools to help professionals critically reflect on their experiences. For instance, through detail description in my case study I am able reflect on my feelings and thoughts towards the school authorities and how my actions may have affected the welfare of J. I have also been able to identify that I did not promote the social work code of practice (upholding public trust and confidence in social services). When faced with a similar situation like this in future or in practice, I believe I would think critically and reflect critically before passing information to other professionals with the view that the information will be used solely for the intended purpose.
However, another reflective model is that developed by David Kolb (1984) on experiential learning. Kolb (1984) created his famous model out of four elements: concrete experience, observation and reflection, the formation of abstract concepts and testing in new situations. These entire four elements are connected in a circular way. Kolb (1984) argued that the experiential learning cycle can begin at any one of the four points and that it should really be consider as a continuous and unending process. Meaning, the learning process often begins with a person carrying out a particular action and then seeing the effect of the action in the given event or intervention. Following this, the second stage is reached in which the professional/learner understands these effects in the event or intervention so that if the same action was taken in the same circumstances it would be possible to anticipate what would follow from the action. With this understanding, the third stage is to understand the general principle under which the particular instance happens.
Generalising may involve actions over a range of situations/events for the professional or learner to gain experience beyond the particular instance and suggest the general principle. Understanding the general principle does not imply, in this sequence, an ability to express the principle in a symbolic medium but rather implies only the ability to see a connection between the actions and effects over a range of circumstances.
When the general principle is understood, the last stage is the application through action in a new circumstance within the range of generalisations. Thus the action is taking place in a different set of circumstances and the learner is now able to anticipate the possible effects of the action. Two aspects can be seen as especially noteworthy: the use of concrete, ‘here-and-now’ experience to test ideas; and use of feedback to change practices and theories (Kolb 1984: 21-22).
Relating Kolb model to my case study, I felt that by emailing my concerns to the school mentor about how the information was treated seemed a more professional way of dealing with the issue. As the school authorities later apologised to me about their actions. I do believe that if I am faced with a similar situation with other professionals I would elegantly challenge their actions in a similar manner as I have done before and if it works I might generalise that this approach works well. This would therefore give me new meaning and a new perspective as to how to work with other professional collaborative in achieving the desired outcomes for service users.
Feedback from my peers.
During the learning sets meetings, I presented his case study to my peers and one the learning points from them was that I had assumed that the school authorities would not inform J’s mum about the revelation and because of that I hadn’t insisted on them keeping the information as confidential as possible until such a time when consent had been sought from J. I in my view this is what Brookfield (1988) called assumption analysis in critical reflection. To him, Assumption analysis describes the activity adults engage in to bring to awareness beliefs, values, cultural practices, and social structures regulating behaviour and to assess their impact on our dad to day activities. Assumptions may therefore be paradigmatic, prescriptive, or causal (Brookfield 1995). He stresses that assumptions structure our way of seeing reality, govern our behavior, and describe how relationships should be ordered. Assumption analysis as a first step in the critical reflection process makes explicit our takenâ€‘forâ€‘granted notions of reality. Members of the learning set also raised my awareness to the fact that the underlying assumption I had about the case could possibly being derived from my own beliefs, value base, cultural and social background, agency policies, my gender and race. Brookfield (1995) highlighted this by noting that a contextual awareness is achieved when adult learners come to realise that their assumptions are socially and personally created in a specific historical and cultural context. I should therefore have been self aware of the influences my personal, cultural and social (Thompson, 2006) may have had in the given case study.
Also, the learning sets helped me to unearthing or understand more about the power imbalances that exist between service users and professionals. One of my group members made it clear that possibly the school authorities acted the way they did because they had the power to do so and as a way of proving to his mum that the boy’s problem was generated from home rather at school because the mum blames the school authorities constantly for her son’s behaviour. According to Mandell (2008), power affects the experience and behaviour of both the practitioner and service user and so the practitioner needs to ask, or be asked, where does power lie in his/her relationship, how does it operate and who is defining the character and direction of what’s taking place. Therefore, to be a critical reflective practitioner I need to acknowledge the power imbalances in my practice before making decisions or embarking on a course of action. It’s also important for me to consider ‘all the angles’ and checks ‘out all the details before taking the plunge’ (Payne, 2002, p124) so that a more opened, honest, fair, just, anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice can be achieved in my service delivery.
The case study analysis with my peers provided me yet with another very important learning point. Thus, in sharing the information with the school authorities, I was focusing more on the theory (the ‘Every Child Matters’ and ‘working together’ agenda) for ‘off the peg’ solution (Thompson, 2005, p146) or what Schön (1998) calls ‘technical rationality’, the belief that well developed theory can provide solutions for professionals. Rather, I should have used both my theoretical background and past experiences to help inform me of my practice. This would have had a more balancing effect or less impact on J. With this now, I am confident that my decisions and actions in future placements would be drawn from my theoretical or formal knowledge and that of my past experiences or informal knowledge.
Summing up, I feel that this unit has provided me with greater insight about how my actions or decisions are influenced by my belief system, culture, values, gender, religion, assumptions, political and social orientation. It have also learnt that drawing from the views of others, I would be able to see the issue or problem from a different perspective and this might help me develop a new meaning of the event. Mezirow (2000) called the process of developing this new meaning of the event as perspective transformation. I now also understand that as a social worker, t would have draw on knowledge from all sources (theoretical and non-theoretical) in order to address the ‘messy’ complexities of real-life situations and to consider each individual situation or event unique (Yelloly & Henkel, 1995).
Therefore, the way forward for me as a social worker is to critical reflect on the use of self, the awareness of power imbalances (deconstruction) and the development of new meaning/ perspective( re-construction) illustrated by Howe (2008).
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