6 Apr 2021

NQSW supervision resource 12 - Using peer-group reflective practice

NQSW supervision resource 12 - Using peer-group reflective practice

Thinking about peer supervision

From the development of supervision discussed in the What is supervision? resource, we can see that group supervision preceded individual models and it has benefits as well as potential risks. It can ‘let in more light and air’ (Proctor, 2008) and may reduce the risks from inadequate individual supervision but it should not replace this.

NQSW who feel their supervision is inadequate should raise this in their organisation and continue to escalate this issue if unresolved, because it is core to our professional development and the safety of those who use services.

Nevertheless, whether with an expert facilitator (for specialist interventions) or among peers for reflective practice it can increase confidence, support learning cultures and help us broaden our perspective. Supervision and support for peer-based reflective learning, when well designed and facilitated, can create spaces to ‘stop and think’ (Davys and Beddoe, 2021).

“The session allowed me to learn more about the idea of peer supervision and showed me a new way of working with others where we can support each other without influencing others’ decisions and projecting our views into their work.”

NQSW involved in peer group supervision test session

Learning together

There is also renewed interest in communities of practice which may be organised around specialisms or other subjects and are more learning focused. Meanwhile, action learning principles in groups can be empowering and a safe way to increase accountability in learning and implementing new roles and skills. 

Generally, group work requires strong boundaries and attention to group dynamics which could destabilise an activity that requires an element of vulnerability with peers. For example, most of us at one time or another, but perhaps more often early in our careers, may struggle, perhaps without cause or evidence, to believe our work is ‘good enough’ or else we question our skills.

At such times it can be extremely helpful to share these within a peer group and get a sense that these are shared struggles. Structure helps to contain risks where participants may, in understandable frustration, introduce unhelpful comparisons, give unsuitable advice or spend time complaining about the organisation.

There may be inconsistent commitment if some participants are reluctant, so group work would ideally be a positive individual choice with organisational support and the joint ownership of a clear contract essential.

There is more information on using peer group reflective practice and a suggested learning exercise included here.

“Most helpful was the peer group reflective practice approach. This was a new method and I enjoyed exploring this. I would like to set this up within my workplace so this will be appearing on my next supervision agenda if not informally before.”

NQSW involved in peer group sueprvision test session

Approaches to peer learning

There is a great variety of approaches to group supervision and in some areas of the helping professions including some social care settings, this might be the main way of delivering supervision. In social work 1:1 supervision is the dominant model and essential for NQSWs. However, group supervision models and specifically peer reflective practice are highly complementary without compromising organisational accountability.

Peer groups have identified some of the advantages and disadvantages of group supervision including greater insight, reduced isolation and organisational learning with problems such as competitiveness, judgements, time commitment and ‘groupthink’ (Hawkins et al. 2020).

The authors go on to suggest group dynamics of between four to seven peers with shared values, clear contracts with simple but firm ground rules. They suggest that a time for social connection at the beginning helps to avoid going off-topic later.

Action learning sets

Having time for feedback at the end helps to identify any discomfort or breaches of ground rules. Of course, groups require regular review and need to be situated in terms of the expectations of employers, regulators and those who use services.     

Action learning sets (Revans, 1998) have been used in social service settings in areas of leadership development, integration, undergraduate training and NQSW supported years in other UK nations. As a voluntary reflective learning opportunity in addition to line management supervision, it has principles that can help support broader development:

  • There is no learning without action and no sober and deliberate action without learning.
  • Adults learn best when they are directly involved in their own learning about a current life situation.
  • Adults who voluntarily choose a learning experience usually learn more readily.
  • Applying that learning in the workplace makes it more personally meaningful and of greater benefit to the organisation.

Individuals usually voluntarily, join a group of four to eight people who meet regularly, agree on ground rules and ways of working. They bring specific topics they want to work on and listen to without interruption. Respect for other individuals, the issues they face and their perspectives are key components.

Presenters take a turn to present an issue or situation openly focusing on a live exploration about the dynamics of a problem which in social work groups Patterson (2019) has called a space for ‘thinking aloud’. Where all members are trained in this approach and highly committed to the regular group meetings a peer enabler may help define problems by using open questions such as:

  • How does that make you feel?
  • How do you want things to be?
  • What other options are there?

Effective peer group learning

Prior training, high commitment to closed sets and risk of unequal power dynamics between members can be an issue in such groups. In the basic peer group model, set out below, this is overcome by asking members to put the enabling questions to themselves. In this way they reduce fears of being scrutinised or judged but instead allowing all members of the group to reflect on how the issue presented has impacted them and their cases.

As reflective practices are a core part of social work training and formation using these skills applied to the self would be familiar to participants and not require new resources (e.g. training) other than the group space and contract.

Open groups can also sometimes better accommodate crisis and business needs and allow for groups of up to 10 members where four to seven are likely to turn up to any given session. During our test sessions, some supervisors had noted a culture developing where NQSWs felt that attending groups signalled they were perhaps not ‘busy enough’ leading to management intervention to encourage group work.

Structured peer group reflection

Peer group reflective models including action learning principles also meet the ‘restorative’ needs of a demanding profession and consequently learning and mutual support to address the emotional demands of social work, reflection and mutual learning are preferred over managerialist models of supervision” (Boahen et al, 2021). Their reflections on using such group models includes running with or without a facilitator or enabler role.

A more flexible open group model particularly suits groups of NQSW and was well received in testing while developing this resource including an outline training session (link). This could be used in your organisation to increase NQSW’s awareness of supervision and familiarity with peer group reflection that can be adapted to suit local contexts, including online groups, see also the section on virtual supervision issues.    

In this basic model, each person briefly reflects on an issue from their role and casework. In place of any questioning by an enabler, each member, in turn, speaks from their own experience about how the themes raised by the presenter affect them in their practice. It is helpful if any speaker is reflecting from the ‘I’ place rather than generalising and including issues with values and feelings (cathartic). The presenter then summarises any learning from going around the group (catalytic) and includes what actions they will follow up on in their own practice. The cathartic and catalytic interventions are discussed in the section on supervision models.

This may seem relatively simple but it can take practice and discipline as social workers to stay with this mode and prevent it from turning into a wider discussion or analysis. This structure avoids NQSWs being ‘put on the spot’ by external questions about their case and equalises any power dynamics and  shared time for NQSW practitioners.

It helps create a culture of reflection rather than advice-giving and problem-solving which if required should be sought from a supervisor, senior practitioner, or other mentors as per organisational policies. The group needs to agree that anyone can gently remind others of the contract if such questioning begins.

The aim is to move from the mere description or ‘presenting the case’ to a more vulnerable self-analysis of interaction between ourselves and those who are using services, other professionals and our organisations without judgement of the parties.

‘the group session showed me a new way of working with others where we can support each other without influencing others’ decisions/projecting our views into their work’.  

NQSW participant in test session 2021

There are benefits of NQSW groups in common skills, values and adherence to codes of practice including understanding confidentiality.

The challenges include changing from activist styles that may be helpful in crisis management or pragmatic styles that might be used for case conferences to reflective styles, see learning styles in the What is supervision? section.

Successful peer group reflective work requires trust to deepen further which can be of significant benefit. The whole group learns from each issue raised as they are applying it to themselves in the process.

Reflective questions

  • Think about and then discuss in your next supervision session with your line manager:
  • What would be required for you to start a peer group reflection within your organisation?
  • Who would you approach?
  • What would you need to consider?

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