In today's article, Faith Wong, a 3rd year Social Work Student shares her paradigm shifting experiences caused by reflections during placement.
During my placement at a family service centre, I had the opportunity to work as a case worker. This role gave me the ability to interact with clients directly and the privilege of listening to their life stories. Such experiences have been filled with challenges but also great lessons. One particular challenge that I find myself tussling with is how I often view my client through a problem-based and pathological perspective. Such perspectives, as I have learnt, can be disempowering to clients and may cause dependency. This experience is thus important in my learning because it challenges me to think about my personal values and my position as a social worker in helping my clients.
The Critical Incident
I had the experience to work with a few clients within the prison context. Before I met the clients, my initial perceptions were that they would be distraught and would require a lot of assistance. I prepared myself to face my clients within this framework. However I was proven wrong after working with two particular cases. Two clients from different families may have a lot of similarities: both experienced an element of shock and grief when their sons were incarcerated for committing offences. Both were left with the responsibility of taking care of their loved ones. Interestingly, in spite of their non normative life stressors, both of them were not as distraught as I imagined them to be. They were still holding on, coping with what life throws at them. When I asked both of them what kept them going despite the many challenges they face, I received the simple response: “life goes on,” and “I will just have to take a step at a time”. These responses rendered me speechless, amazed by their ability to cope and remain strong amidst the difficulties. This experience also accorded a new perspective in my work with them.
The Critical Reflection
This incident has allowed me to reflect about my current helping stance, an opportunity for me to dissect myself to reflect on my values, the values of social work, social work theories and my practice as a social worker. I realised I had been focusing too much on the client’s problems and had forgotten my client’s strengths and determination. Within this problem-based and pathological lens, the client is not emphasized but instead her issues and problems come into the forefront. Such a problem-based perspective can be disempowering for clients and may not be consistent with the goals of social work. Problem focused orientations may contribute to the client’s feelings of helplessness (Graybeal, 2001). This article reflects how such a perspective may stem out from my personal experience and values. Following this, I reflect on how it may influence my role as a professional social worker in Singapore.
Wosket (1999) mentioned that the worker brings a part of themselves into the helping relationship with client. This is an aspect which has been shaped by our experiences, beliefs and values (Wosket, 1999). Such experiences function as double-edged swords that can help us in relating with our clients and may also hinder us in our work with the client and disempower clients. My personal experience as I was growing up had shaped my perceptions of how issues are often prescribed towards family dysfunction or possible developmental problems. Similarly, as a student my own behaviour had also been attributed towards the result of family dysfunction. Such perceptions become truths to us and shape our own lens in viewing others too. My placement experience and reflection has also allowed me to begin to appreciate the philosophy behind strengths perspectives and its emphasis on individual’s resilience and determination to cope through difficult time.
Although there are truths in such problem-based perspective and prescriptive ideas of viewing client’s issues, such theories and thinking are insufficient in understanding the complexity of human capability. Graybeal (2001) noted the growing emphasis on adopting strengths perspectives in assessment and intervention instead to the usual problem-based or pathological perspectives. The growing emphasis in a strengths based approach is because social workers realise that their clients possess such internal resources amidst the difficulties they face in life (Graybeal, 2001). My encounters with my clients have affirmed the philosophy undergirding the strengths perspectives. Thus I concur with the article that the paradigm shift in assessing client’s problem will bring about impactful intervention for our clients (Graybeal, 2001). Similarly, such statements do not nullify the philosophy of problem-based perspectives such as psychodynamic or attachment theories amd are instead complementary in relationship. Such a paradigm shift will aid in the worker’s ability to empower them through the resources that they have and fulfil the social work goal of empowering the clients.
Such awareness has also allowed me to reflect on my understanding of social work as a profession. Before this incident, I often thought that social work is about helping people; an act which includes the actual act of applying for assistance for the client or liaising with different agencies to ensure that systems are set in place. Our work would be done after these resources are initiated. However this incident helped me to understand that work done in this profession is not measured by our zeal and number of acts of helping only. It is measured by our ability and skill to empower our clients. Such an ability and skill can only begin to grow when we are able to view our client through the strengths perspective. Throughout the internship, I have often been challenged with this question, “Do you have to do this for your client?” My eagerness to help can be resolved when I come to realise through this incident that client do possess the strengths and resources to resolve their difficult situations. My job as a social worker is about bringing their strengths and resources in perspective for the client. This would in fact be the best form of help that can be rendered to them.
The awareness and reflection on the need for a paradigm shift has also helped me revisit my current helping stance. My initial problem focused stance has resulted in my zealousness and eagerness in helping client. Such a stance is not in line with the idea of empowerment and may not be helpful for the client at all. Ensuring that the work with the client is empowering will also demand a change in my helping stance. There is a need to ensure that the language used should not be prescriptive as in problem-based perspective (Rapp, Saleebey & Sullivan, 2005). As a result, there is a need for myself to be constantly updating my vocabulary of non-judgemental and neutral words. Secondly, there is a need to ensure that client’s choice is emphasized. So often in my eagerness to help, I often dictate what sort of intervention or help the client would need and as a result would dismiss the client’s choice, determination and motivation in the helping process. In emphasizing client’s choice, it is possible for them to know that they still possess the ability and power to choose, plan and work towards a “better situation”.
This critical reflection has been an interesting experience of learning about me, my helping stance, the social work profession, and social work theories and practice. From this, it is also possible to understand the importance of reflections as it can help the worker to realign herself/himself to the values of the profession. During work, where we are constantly on the move, our lens may get blurred. Continual reflection is thus the solvent that needs to be regularly applied to promote clarity of thought and practice.
Faith Wong is a 3rd Year Social Work Student from Monash University.
Graybeal, C. (2001). Strengths-based social work assessment: transforming the dominant paradigm. Sage Family Studies Abstracts, 23, 4, 411-568
Rapp, C. A., Saleebey, D., & Sullivan, W. P. (2005). The Future of Strengths-Based Social Work. Advances in Social Work Indianapolis-, 6, 1, 79-90.
Wosket, V. (1999). The therapeutic use of self: Counselling practice, research, and supervision. London: Routledge