10 Lessons from 10 years on the Frontline: 9, Small Wins

By Richard Devine (10.09.2020), Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council.

In this blog, I will share some of the mini-lessons that I have picked up over the years. It is a random list of ideas and thoughts that didn’t fit into any of the other lessons. So here it is: 

  1. Confidence over competence is dangerous: This is what my first manager, who I am eternally grateful to for the support she gave me during my formative years as a social worker, used to say. Humility is important in social work because of the complexity of the work that we do and the challenges that families experience requires us to embrace uncertainty and not knowing.  Believing you are more competent than you are leaves you blinded to your flaws, inadequacies, and lack of knowledge, and thus unable to counteract these limitations in your practice and/or make improvements. 
  2. Case notes: Get good at good recording, don’t need a transcript but key points – you just don’t know where a case may end up. And don’t forget that kids might read it one day, let your notes reflect your compassion.  BUT and a big but, some of the most meaningful pieces of work and interactions can’t and won’t be recorded because they are relational..…. ‘not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts!’ (It is difficult to find out who to attribute this quote to, often it is Einstein but that is apparently incorrect).
  3. Separating fact from judgement: I was recommended this website when I was a newly qualified social worker and I have recommended it to every student I have supervised. Delineating between a fact and a professional judgement is one of the most important skills I have learned in social work. To illustrate with an example from the website, take the statement ‘The flat is unsuitable for bringing up a young child’ and consider whether this is a fact or a judgement. It is a judgement, that if supported by descriptive and supportive evidence could be given credence. Like most opinions, the statement is framed in a way that gives the impression that it is fact. 
  4. Embrace feedback: Consistent and honest feedback given regularly is the fastest and most effective way to improve as a social worker and as a person. For the first 3 years of being a social worker, every assessment, care plan, report, and chronology I wrote was read by my manager and I was always advised on how to improve it. At first, I found receiving feedback painful, but this feeling was eventually overridden by a positive association being made between receiving feedback and having an improved piece of work. Even now, my work is read by my supervisor and comes back filled with red pen. I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.  Giving high quality, constructive feedback is time expensive and you should always be grateful to anyone who is invested enough in the quality of your work to do that. When you are writing about children and families’ lives then you want your writing to be as clear, coherent, and compassionate as you can make it. My first manager used to say ‘no matter how good you get, you can always improve’. 
  5. Social Work models: For the last several years I have been searching for “the” model that will help me in every way with the families I work with. Somewhat belatedly, I have learned that no such model exists. ‘Some’ models help with ‘some’ problems ‘some’ of the time. With that said, it seems to me that it’s better to know 1 model extremely well than to know a few models moderately well. Even better, is to know many models extremely well. Findings from psychotherapy treatments are relevant here because it has been found that different models of therapy tend to produce broadly similar outcomes, and this is because the therapeutic relationship has repeatedly been identified as the most important ingredient for change (Johnstone & Boyle, 2018). 
  6. Social work can be tough: There have been many times when I have felt that I can’t do this job, it’s too difficult, I keep messing up, too complex, too stressful, etc. One of my all-time fav quotes, which I have in a frame on a wall in my house is by Mary Kay Ash, ‘Aerodynamically the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble doesn’t know that so it goes on flying anyway’.
  7. We are all flawed: We are fundamentally flawed (note the tacit, almost subliminal projection through the use of the noun ‘we’ as opposed to ‘I’). I am compulsively late, I forget to book rooms for meetings, my recording can be terrible, I don’t always respond to e-mails, and despite this my ego has me believe I’m better than I am at times.  I have many other flaws.  I’ve learned to recognise most of them and own them…and defensively exclude the others!! And if you mess up, which I do regularly, own that too. This job is far too complex to get things right all the time.
  8. The serenity prayer: ‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference’. If you are not careful, you can spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about the ‘system’ of child protection, and this, in turn, can diminish your energy  and ability to focus on making progress in the areas where you can make a difference. As much as I like to complain, I try to limit this – critiquing the system is relatively easy, however, it often doesn’t create change. There is a balance to be struck. As pointed out by Maria Popova, ‘Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety’ (Solnit 2016: xi/ii cited Featherstone et al 2018, 25).
  9. You never stop learning: Perhaps this is cliche, but it is true. In respect of knowledge, there are 3 domains. 1. You know what you know. 2. You know what you don’t know. 3. You don’t know you don’t know. I have learned that  what I know is exceptionally limited. The area of knowledge that ‘I know I don’t know’ is larger than the first domain – this is where I want to invest my time and energy. For example, I have recently learned that there is a whole field of psychology called ‘evolutionary psychology’ that I know nothing about, but I believe that it could be helpful to learn about. The largest domain, however, which is infinitely large, is the domain of knowledge that I don’t know I don’t know. There is a vast amount of knowledge, ideas, and theories that could potentially be immensely beneficial to learn about for which I have no idea exist (yet!). Therefore, in the face of all that we do not know and understand, humility is required. Learning to be an effective social worker is a process, not an outcome. I still consider myself a student of social work.

If you have found this interresting/useful, you may wish to consider scrolling down further, and join 140+ others in signing up for free blogs to be sent directly to your inbox (no advertisements/requests/selling). I intend to write every fortnight about matters related to child protection, children and families, attachment, and trauma.  Or you can read previous blogs here

By Richard Devine (10.09.2020)

Johnstone, L. & Boyle, M. with Cromby, J., Dillon, J., Harper, D., Kinderman, P., Longden, E., Pilgrim, D., & Read, J. (2018) The Power Threat Meaning Framework: Towards the identification of patterns of emotional distress, unusual experiences and troubled or troubling behaviour, as an alternative to functional psychiatric diagnosis. Leicester. British Psychological Association.

Featherstone, B., Gupta, W., Morris, K & White, S. (2018). Protecting children: A social model. Bristol: Policy Press.

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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