By Laura Halton
At the end of my first year on the initial training course for educational psychologists there were a year’s worth of university discussions, literature and placement practice circulating like a Ferris-wheel of reflection in my mind. Surprisingly – for me – none more so than my understanding and participation in supervision. The BPS accreditation standards for educational psychology courses (2019) state that supervision is a ‘critical component of safe, effective, reflective, ethical psychological practice’. An established practice amongst other professions, including clinical psychology and counselling, supervision has seen a rise in importance in educational psychology practice since the turn of the century. On placement, trainee educational psychologists should receive 30 minutes per day of protected supervision. Good supervision is now considered vital professional practice for educational psychologists (EPs).
Hawkins and Shohet (2007) suggest that there are three functions to supervision: Supportive, Managerial and Educative. At the beginning of the year, I quickly identified that I prefer a managerial approach to supervision. Naturally, I feel most comfortable sharing a weekly update of completed practice with my supervisor. I want validation that I have formulated logically, approached tasks systematically and have reflected effectively. Because of this, I used supervision as a regular opportunity to check that I was ‘doing it right’ and, in my eyes, my needs were being met.
At least, that was my opinion until the second university seminar on the topic, where we were asked to reflect on how valuable supervision had been so far. Valuable? Supervision was reassuring for me, my supervisor knew what I had done and we could tick it off our to-do lists. But, valuable? How had I actually developed myself? Cue a light-bulb moment. From that one question, I realised that I had been wasting an amazing opportunity. In my strive to check that I was ‘doing it right’, everything about my approach to supervision was wrong. It dawned on me that it isn’t a tick-in-the-box exercise but an opportunity to learn from an experienced professional, challenge my understanding and develop my own practice.
A learning curve
It was then that I made a conscious decision. Supported by the university tutor, I was going to make an active change in my approach towards supervision. I braced myself and jumped in feet first. In collaboration with my placement supervisor, we scheduled a 20-minute problem-solving session into each supervision. I could not believe the change. From the first reformed session, we were sharing topics of interest, bouncing ideas off each other and working creatively. I felt that I had developed more in one session than the entirety of my previous supervision experience. I left the checklists at my desk, trusted in the support of my supervisor and embraced supervision as a valuable part of professional practice. In doing so, I was able to loosen my life-long obsession with checking that I was ‘doing it right’ and began to enjoy practicing a little flexibility of thought. It felt like a self-imposed weight had been lifted.
A safe space
On reflection, I realise that my need to produce a pre-written checklist of completed work each week was driven by my desire to appear competent. Having previously worked in a profession where you were expected to independently identify and solve problems before they came to the attention of your managers, I initially struggled to trust in the integrity of supervision as a practice for development. However, as my engagement in the educative function of supervision grew, so did the trust in myself and my relationship with my supervisors. I realised this during my second placement To my amazement, I – the girl who had previously just used it ‘to tick a box’ – sought supervision to discuss the emotional impact of a piece of casework. Never before had I allowed myself to discuss how a piece of work had affected me, never mind how it had upset me. In trusting its principles, I was able to experience all three functions of supervision within one session. I left it feeling reassured, informed and protected – my initial desire at the beginning of my engagement in supervision.
A final thought
One year on, I feel that it is only through the development of all three functions that I have seen the true value of supervision. As the academic year ends, perhaps now is the ideal opportunity to reflect on your views and approach towards supervision. Although your preference may lean towards one function of supervision, I wonder if it would be of surprising benefit to your practice to consciously tweak your existing approach. Moving forward, I am determined to continue to utilise the functions of supervision, practise flexibility in my own approach and make the most of the opportunity to develop in collaboration with my supervisor.
Laura is a trainee educational psychologist who is currently in Year 2 of the initial training course at the University of Birmingham