Promoting systemic thinking, and therapeutic and relationship based approaches in social work


Promoting systemic thinking, and therapeutic and relationship-based approaches in Social Work

How to Make a Social Worker – reflections on social work education

Rhian Taylor

Rhian Taylor is a social worker in a specialist CAMHS team for Looked After Children. She is a consultant trainer and author of young adult novel, ‘Fosterboy.’

I have recently left my job as a senior lecturer in a university to go back to practice with looked after children. It was a difficult decision and like most complex issues, the reasons for it were overdetermined. As the months pass in my new role, I have been reflecting on my experiences of working in social work education and considering them from my current position, as a practitioner.

There were many good things about being in a university, and I learnt a lot from my colleagues. I know that my thinking around the social location of service users, the impact of poverty and critical race theory were really developed by the thinking and research in my department. However, during my time lecturing I became increasingly concerned as to how well social work students were prepared for the emotional demands of their role. Traditionally social work education has been psycho-social, reflecting both sociological and psychological theories, yet my own experience is that there was not an adequate balance in terms of psycho-social content, with psychological content taking a lesser role.

I’m aware that even voicing this makes me vulnerable to accusations of minimising structural equalities, yet social justice has always been central to my identity as a social worker. It’s why I came into the profession; it’s how I understand the location of service users’ difficulties. I don’t want to exclude the sociological at the expense of the psychological; the issues are inseparably linked. But I am now working with children in care who are dealing with such complex experiences of developmental trauma, attachment, challenges associated with neurodiversity, as well as stigma and discrimination, that I am questioning how prepared social work students are for this complex work. Also, of course, it is not just social workers with looked after children who are working with these issues, it is those assessing parents and families, as well as social workers working in mental health and other areas of adult services. It’s also important to recognise how the ongoing experience of micro and macro aggressions of racism and discrimination can cause trauma. This is not to say, of course, that all qualifying social workers are unprepared for the complexity of this work, many are prepared, and lots of social workers do a heroic job despite limitations in their training, but examining the issues critically might help us think about the overall provision and ways it could be improved.

Learning through relationships.

So why might the psycho of the psychosocial have taken a back seat in social work education? My first observation is that the ability to work effectively with trauma, loss and deep emotions is not primarily an intellectual skill. We learn to work with difficult feelings by becoming more attuned to our own emotional lives. As writer and sociologist Parker Palmer says, ‘At the deepest level of human life we do not need techniques. We need insights into ourselves and our world that can help us learn and grow from our experiences of diversity, tension and conflict.’

Research highlighting ‘wounded healers’ indicates how important our personal experiences are in motivating people to enter social work (Straussner, Senreich & Steen, 2018). It is therefore very important to understand our own early experiences, attachment style and be alert to our potential psychological triggers. Self-awareness involves engaging with our messy emotions and our unconscious motivations and reactions, and because it is so difficult for us to see our own blind spots, self-awareness is mainly learned through relationships. Therapy does this in an intensive way, but there are lots of ways to learn through relationships. Friends, families, groups, and communities can all play a part in how we learn about ourselves. One of the most positive things about social work education is that it is centred round practice placements and practice educators and this Is where most of this work will take place. However, students don’t always get this kind of in-depth experience on placement. Quality can be patchy, and universities shouldn’t rely on placements as the only place this learning should occur.

Traditionally, the student group has been an important site for learning through relationships. When I trained, twenty-five years ago, we had experiential groups integrated into our programme. But reflective spaces built into sessions and informal discussions are all important ways for students to consider the issues raised by the teaching. Head knowledge and intellectual knowing needs to be reflected on so it can become integrated into our emotional lives; recognising also that emotions aren’t just cognitive, they are embodied states. As trauma expert Dr Karen Treisman writes:

‘We need to move from knowing to feeling, to doing and to being.

However, it is not easy as a lecturer to provide the kind of reflective spaces that would assist this process of integrating head and heart knowledge, as there are some systemic issues which make creating sufficient reflective spaces difficult. 

Systemic Barriers

Most universities are set up to provide degrees in non-applied subjects (students studying history, sociology etc). The formats and room spaces for teaching understandably reflect these generic requirements. In the university where I worked this meant most modules were taught through a lecture then seminar format. This is cost effective for universities as you can deliver lectures to large groups. We would provide an hour’s lecture on a subject and then have group discussion in a seminar. On occasions we could argue for a 2/3 hour workshop, but it wasn’t easy to get rooms, and getting ‘café style’ spaces where students could sit around tables for group discussions, rather than be in rows, was an ongoing battle.

The issue with a lot of psychologically focused teaching is that this kind of lecture/seminar format, makes it difficult to facilitate safe space for teaching which includes personal disclosure and reflection on self. It can therefore be easier to keep to topics which can be easily intellectualised. An example of how these practical issues could affect teaching can be seen in the limited way sexual abuse was covered. There was very little input on this despite it being a vital issue. However, it is challenging to teach such a potentially triggering subject within short time slots and with large groups. In contrast to this, I also work as a freelance trainer where I find my ability to work with groups over one or two intensive days gives me a far greater opportunity to develop a depth of learning.

Inevitably, the opportunities for group reflection have been eroded yet further by the impact of the pandemic and the move to online learning. The way student groups are missing out on in-person informal connections is significant when we think about relational learning. This, of course, is no one’s fault, but there will soon be students qualifying with a minimal level of in-person interaction on their courses and their placements.

An area you would hope that social work students would be discussing the impact of their intellectual learning on their thoughts and feelings would be within relationships with personal tutors. Whilst there continues to be incredibly supportive work here and real commitment from lecturers, it is also an area under threat because of systemic issues. In my experience university financial pressures meant that the value given to tutorial relationships was being eroded. In my department there was a complex work weighting system with all tasks being given points to represent their value in terms of time commitment. Being on committees had a value, as did all university administrative roles, but being an academic tutor for students invited nothing on the workload weighting – it was ‘invisible work’. This didn’t mean that it didn’t happen. My colleagues were often hugely committed to students, but it was inconsistent and the fact that this work wasn’t given a workload weighting was, in my view, a sign of how undervalued it was in the system.

An Emotionally Attuned Environment

There is a lot to cover in social work undergraduate and postgraduate courses and whilst the curriculum is governed by the regulatory standards, there is still room for variation between universities. It is therefore important to consider whether what is being provided by universities meets the needs of practice environments. I draw on my knowledge of developmental trauma and attachment theory every day in my current practice role, yet in the university I worked there would probably be only a couple of lectures covering trauma and attachment in the three-year undergraduate degree. In contrast the BA course had a whole term studying research methodology. I think research is vitally important, but in terms of usefulness for practice to have a whole module on research methodology and so little on attachment and developmental trauma, makes very little sense to me. It seems that these curriculum choices are more about fitting into what academics prioritise and what the university can easily provide, rather than thinking into what could be most useful for social workers and ultimately for service users.

As is often the case, the real problems are systemic. I had excellent colleagues who were working incredibly hard to provide the best possible care for students. Yet there was also a lack of structured support for academics (no supervision or line management) and even pre- Covid, informal support was very affected by people not coming into the office very much due to other commitments and research. Emotional containment needs to be systemic to create a culture of support throughout an organisation. It is much more challenging to offer emotional containment to students, when you are not being supported yourself.

Universities are not always environments where emotions are recognised as important. Perhaps this isn’t surprising when intellectualising issues is almost part of the job description. But intellectualising can also be a psychological defence and a way of avoiding a more nuanced and empathic approach. These blocks in emotional understanding would sometimes leak out in approaches to students’ concerns about stress and mental health issues, where the approach could be that students under stress ‘should get used to it- as it will be worse when they are in practice.’ This thinking could have stemmed from the working culture often present in universities. In ‘workaholic’ cultures where time demands and expectations are very high, requests for support and appropriate work/life balance can be seen as neediness. For me, these attitudes were not helpful in preparing students for practice, where real resilience comes not from denying your own needs, but from facing and exploring them and finding the tools, boundaries, and support which help you cope with the demands of a difficult job. This is the culture and approach that I think would best prepare social work students for practice.

Universities are places of knowledge acquisition and are important symbols in our society. As a consequence, it is very easy for academics to absorb projections of expertise that people place on them. In comparison, social work practice is often a place of not knowing; what Donald Schon (Schön, 1983:42) describes as the “swampy lowland where situations are confusing ‘messes’ incapable of technical solution.’ Not knowing is definitely a feeling I’m familiar with when I think about my own caseload. Social work education should prepare students to lean into the questions of practice with emotional intelligence and curiosity, yet this will not happen without academics questioning some of their own priorities, systems, and working culture. Academic and writer Parker Palmer says, ‘When the ego becomes bloated with the gift of expertise, I stop asking questions and start believing I have answers.’ I saw that overconfidence a lot in my years at the university, and I felt it myself too. I wonder if it’s time for social work academics to engage more humbly with practitioners, learning from them and critically considering their curriculum and approaches to learning. This engagement will not only help academics work to better prepare students for the emotional demands of social work, but they may also help challenge their own systems and help create a more emotionally attuned and supportive culture for all.


  • Palmer, P (2011). Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. Jossey-Bass.
  • Parker P(2018) On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old, Barrett-Koeler Publishers: Oakland.
  • Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. London: Temple Smith
  • Straussner SLA, Senreich E, Steen JT (2018). Wounded Healers: A Multistate Study of Licensed Social Workers’ Behavioral Health Problems. Soc Work. 2018 Apr 1;63(2):125-133. doi: 10.1093/sw/swy012. PMID: 29425335; PMCID: PMC6042294.
  • Dr Karen Treisman

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  1. I found Rhian Taylor’s article on social work education very interesting and, for all those involved in social work education, challenging as well. All social workers have been through the transition from social work education to front-line practice and the complaint that universities do not adequately prepare students for the reality of qualified practice is often heard. Sometimes the complaint from agencies is that newly qualified workers are not sufficiently trained in the detail of the agency procedures and systems. This, I think, is a misguided complaint because the task of the university is to create an approach of critical thinking and an ability to adjust flexibly to changes in policies and procedures. Rather, it Rhian’s comments that hit the mark: the systemic blocks in universities that arise from the intellectualising culture, the layout of the actual physical spaces and the failure to value and ‘weight’ relational time between staff and students and within the student and staff groups that make it difficult to achieve a psycho-social-emotional balance in social work education.

    I have also made the move from university back into practice and, indeed, back again from practice into university. I have found each move highly rewarding if also challenging and extremely hard work! I recognise how Rhian’s move has led her to pause, reflect and provide such an insightful commentary. I also recognise the dedication that Rhian’s former university colleagues show towards their students and their commitment to providing a good experience and preparation for practice for them in spite of the systemic barriers with which they are faced.

  2. Rhian’s experience of social work education in a university chimes with aspects of my own, and has stimulated memories of why I decided to leave. As she says, the literal physical space, the furniture, and the timetable do not make a good fit with exploring the more personal and emotional aspects of social work that are so necessary for attuned and thoughtful practice, although this does not prevent many university lecturers from trying to create such spaces.
    I would add that social work sits within a larger university system that over the last 10 years has been commodified through the huge increase in student tuition fees that replaced central government funding. Much of the UK has followed the US system of making the individual student who benefits from education responsible for financing it, leading to years of personal debt, rather than regarding education as a social good that benefits society as a whole, as remains the case in Scotland and some Scandinavian countries, for example. With this, and perhaps for other reasons too, assessment has come to take precedence over personal development, and intellectual learning is far easier to measure than emotional attunement. Even expecting students to develop emotionally can be seen as an unwarranted intrusion into their personal worlds, rather than understood as integral to becoming a social worker. I introduced reflective learning groups when I was in an academic role, only to find them eroded by colleagues chary of emotion insisting that they be tied to concrete tasks. Although some colleagues took a more creative approach and students appreciated the space to connect with each other at a more emotional level, these tasks readily provided a partial barrier to feeling.
    The larger context, beyond the university, also prizes measurable results over the human relationship between social worker and service user. Many social workers find that emotion and reflection are honoured more on paper than in reality, with supervision time scarce and focused on organisational objectives. In this world social workers feel the pain of disconnecting from themselves and from the people they work with, and Rhian’s article speaks eloquently to that. This is what GAPS is all about – finding and nurturing the heart of social work.

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