Last year I had a holiday in France. What a cracking week it was, too! Lots of good grub, sleep, walks and relaxing in the sun.

One evening my wife and I – both social workers – got to talking about work. For once, it was a VERY positive conversation…

After only a very few minutes, I began to realise the vital importance of reflection. Of taking time to think back and remind ourselves of what we did, what we achieved and where we could improve.

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Where we go wrong…

Unfortunately, we tend to:

– Concentrate on being self-critical or, worse still…

– Looking for where the blame lies (as news events frequently highlight)

How I was gobsmacked…

This whole thing started when I met a colleague who works many miles away from me. She had been working with a young person I knew. I had worked with this boy for some time about three years previously.

I had been involved in the messy business of his coming into care. I had had no news about him or his siblings since that time. My colleague told me that he was now doing really well, responding to interventions and about to embark on living independently.

More specifically, I discovered that he is:

– Settled in accommodation

– Attending education

– No longer at risk

– No longer posing a risk or suffering the way he was before

– Enjoying more positive family relationships

– Generally in a really good place in himself


What shocked me most about this conversation was the impact it had on me. I found myself elated. You would expect to be pleased, but I was really gobsmacked. Not only did it cheer me up at the time, but the positivity lingered for days. A part of it is still with me now.

I got to thinking why it is that I don’t reflect positively on work more often.

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Why we don’t reflect much…

I guess everyone is different, but as a social worker and criminologist who works with high need adolescents, here are some of the challenges I have when it comes to thoughtful reflection:

– Time – The rush of the day job just doesn’t allow time for thoughtful consideration of our successes. Once we get the urgent work done, or things settle down a bit, we have to move on to the next thing.

– Energy – Days are packed out. It can be sapping enough getting to the end of the day. When I get a spare moment, work is usually the last thing I want to think about!

– Information – Often, once our concentrated input is over, the next piece of work beckons. We are no longer part of that particular child’s life. As such, we just don’t know what’s going on any more. The better things get for the child, the less likely it is that we’ll hear about it.

In short, caring for troubled young people and families is usually crisis orientated. Once the melee is over, we’re out of the loop.

Feed your thoughts…

Over the years, I’ve happened upon a couple of simple ways of fuelling the process of positive reflection. Yours will be different, I’m sure. But for those who aren’t deliberate about this, these may stimulate you to start!

– Keep stuff – I very occasionally get a thank you card from a parent or young person. In 20+ years, I’ve never knowingly thrown one of these away. I have them where I can get at them easily – in my office. Now and again – usually at the end of the day when things are quieter – I take a few minutes and read a couple. I find this really encouraging. It allows me to think more positively about the things I’m currently involved in. It balances the equation a little.

– Colleagues – I quite often initiate conversations with colleagues, about people we’ve helped. Often this ends up with comments about what a nice kid someone was – something it’s easy to forget in the throes of a crisis. I also have leaving cards from when I’ve moved jobs, references people have written for me, emails, texts, even Christmas cards from fellow workers or service users. Again, these are potential fuel for reminding us about the positive aspects of the work.

– Funnies – I keep a note of funny things that have happened at work. Faux pas that I and colleagues have made. For example, I worked with four  young skinheads who lived in the same area; all offenders. They knew each other well and were friends. To mark this, they all had matching tattoos on the backs of their hands. The tattoo was a small swastika with “The Four Skins” written underneath. None of them were bright enough to see the pun!

I also have the initials of six young people written in the front of my diary. Each of them means something specific to me. They are a reminder of why I do the job.

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Final thought…

We all have our own stories to tell. But working with troubled young people is tough. Sometimes very tough.

We really need to make sure that we tell ourselves the good stories too. The ones about success. The ones that make us laugh. The ones about people we really liked and cared about a little more than the others.

Reflection can be a positive tool in our arsenal of techniques to keep us going…

What do you think?

– What are your thoughts about reflective practice?

– How do you keep yourself buoyant when the going gets tough?

Please contribute to this discussion by adding your own thoughts and experiences. You can  leave a comment by scrolling down, or just click here.

Related previous posts…

– 6 Self-care tips for carers…

– How to keep caring – 6 lessons for success…

Pass it on…

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© Jonny Matthew 2013

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