‘You’re likely to get a placement that interests you…as long you’re interested in child protection’.
As one student’s placement coordinator explained to their study group, funding issues for early help and adults’ services mean local authority placements are increasingly concentrated in children’s safeguarding and care planning. With limited options, finding social work placements that meet students’ inclusion, welfare and learning needs is a complicated process.
I can relate to the experience that many of us encounter of being placed in a voluntary or local authority setting that isn’t quite what we expect. My placement involved working internationally to reunite children with family members, within an agency I had never heard of. However, that experience taught me that a left-field placement can be an opportunity to confront the biggest gaps in our knowledge. Student Social Worker, Rachel captures this best, when evaluating her placement in a residential home for vulnerable teens as a student keen to work with adults:
“I think my placement has brought me out of my comfort zone and really made me examine areas which, left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have. It forced me to look at my emotions around that and recognise some useful traits about myself.”
The walls of our comfort zone shatter when we closely engage with people’s lives. Like Rachel, I believe my practice has been enriched with new perspectives on myself and society that I may not have experienced had I not been on placement. These moments of discomfort have helped me evolve as a social worker.
The ‘social worker’
The ‘social worker’ is a loaded figure for many. The social worker can carry a stigma, and people will have had experiences with services that let them down. It can inhibit trainee social workers to be aware of these anxieties and the barriers they present. And that’s before we even consider how other dimensions of our social presentation complicate our interactions, such as gender, race and accent. Rachel talks about navigating her fear of social distance on placement:
‘I never thought I would find a shared language with teenagers in residential care. But by remaining true to myself, I built meaningful relationships and felt like I could make a difference.’
By being up front about her responsibilities as a social worker and acknowledging the teenagers’ experiences were different from her own, Rachel was able to demonstrate that she was trustworthy, and encouraged the teenagers to connect with her.
I experienced other anxieties around communicating with people as ‘the social worker’ on placement. So that the child and their family knew what they needed to reflect on, it was important to prioritise the need for transparency over my social impulse to avoid sensitive areas of their personal lives. Becoming fluent with transparency on placement is one way I can now empower the people I work with in my day-to-day practice.
‘We’re still learning the skills to effectively communicate’
From what I’ve learned from other student social workers, we often find ourselves contemplating how to include those who do not feel heard. This may be because they find social workers intimidating, we’re still learning the skills to effectively communicate, or we have yet to reach a decision they agree with. When I was carrying out assessments with family members for overseas courts, it was my responsibility to make sure families knew about other platforms for sharing their views in case they were not comfortable disclosing this information to me. That isn’t to say that I didn’t and don’t want to be viewed as approachable and fair. The possibility of being told bluntly that someone thought I wasn’t and having to account for my practice made me feel vulnerable. But it’s a fruitful learning moment, as Rebecca a student social worker, found out when a Kinship Care Assessment disagreed with her decision not to place a child in care:
“It was very disconcerting, particularly on a first placement…but helped prepare me to give bad news and respond professionally to a personal attack”
Meanwhile, working relationships can improve when the social worker hears and responds thoughtfully to criticism, as I found during a sensitive conversation I had on placement, which concluded when the aunt I was speaking to burst into tears. While indirect, she was expressing to me her stress and frustration. This aunt was a private person, and I there I was – someone she had only met once and who had power over her family’s future – asking for personal details she ordinarily wouldn’t reveal, and for a safety plan on the spot. My discomfort during that encounter forced me to think about how I could change my approach to give families the time and resources to collect their thoughts and reveal their strengths. For me, this will mean planning with greater empathy and flexibility in the future.
‘At no point did I endure these new and difficult experiences alone’
I am new to social work and the discomforts I confronted on placement are the first of many. However, at no point did I endure these new and difficult experiences alone. I had a supervisor and colleagues who were happy to talk through any questions I raised. Had it been otherwise I would not have been able to do my job properly. While I often worked on the periphery of social work knowledge (sometimes with countries where social work as we know it does not exist), much of social work is uncertain. And so, if I have one piece of advice for students starting their first placement, it’s this:
If you do not feel you can turn to your supervisor or colleagues, seek support from your university (or your union!). Because this is the one area where you should not feel discomfort. If the purpose of placement is being open to the gaps in our knowledge, to consciously acknowledge them should not be a treated as a sign of professional weakness but celebrated as a sign of competency.
By Eve Wilson.