When I got up this morning, I had a shock. The mirror. An awful reflection! The problem was, it was ME!
But how often do we look at our professional practice in the mirror? I believe that being deliberately reflective about what we do is essential.

Sketch - Reflective Practice

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Tsung-Lin Wu (adapted)

Why is reflective practice so vital?…

Just as I was able to move away from the mirror and make myself presentable, so our practice improves if we take the time to examine what we do more closely.
Working with troubled young people affords us some fantastic opportunities. There are challenges too. So how do we navigate all this?
One way is to develop the habit of reflection.
Here are a couple of definitions:
[callout]Reflective practice – is the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning (Schon, 1983)*[/callout]
[callout]Reflective practice – is a way of studying your own experiences to improve the way you work (Brightside)[/callout]

Why should we reflect?

  • Professional responsibility: we owe it to our service users to learn from what we do, to continually improve. Each case we get involved with has unique characteristics. Each of the is a chance to move forward in our practice and our knowledge base. We are not building widgets here, we are dealing with young people’s lives. Taking this seriously is intrinsic to the professional task.
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  • Image courtesy of ©123rf/valentint

    Image courtesy of ©123rf/valentint

    Humility: most of what we do is about promoting the rights of those who can’t assert them alone. We assist the down-trodden towards the better life they aspire to. This means our focus is often on what they want, not what we want. So working hard to constantly learn from what we do – both good and not so good – keeps us humble and ensures we don’t forget the true purpose of what we do.
  • Encouragement: there’s nothing quite like a bit of encouragement in the middle of a difficult week, is there? Reflective practice is as much about identifying what we did right, as it is about about looking for ways to improve. Discovering that despite the challenges, we actually did a good job, is lovely! It can give us a lift as well as underlining the practice so we know it works and can do it again next time.

[shareable cite=”Jonny Matthew”]Reflective practice is as much about identifying what we did right, as it is about about looking for ways to improve.[/shareable]

  • Improved communication: taking time to scrutinise our practice leads us to more sensitive, person-centred ways of working. Asking questions of ourselves from the perspective of the service-user will only empower them and re-focus us around their needs. This can only be a good thing. It will also help to free us from the strait-jacket of form-filling and process-pursuit that bogs down so much of what we do…

[callout]The secret to…child-centred practice lies in relationship building and effective communication with children. (Charles & Wilton, 2004:188)**[/callout]

  • Self-improvement: Like exercise, reflective practice takes work and can be challenging. But it also yields personal as well as professional benefits. We know when we’re drifting and it never feels good. But learning from our successes and our struggles leads to fulfilment as well as improvement. Getting better at what we do is, I believe, central to getting the most out of work. When I learn something, develop in a technique or improve a method, I know I’m on the up. Better still, the people we work with get a better deal too!

How to reflect…

  • Make a start: like looking in the mirror, essentially we just have to look. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Even taking a few minutes to run through the timeline of a case and the central things we did, will help. Asking yourself what one thing you’d change about you did, can yield lessons worth learning. The least it will do is suggest some questions that we could ask ourselves later on. All great journeys start by putting one foot on front of the other – reflection is no different. Make a start. Just have a go…
  • Look hard: take some time to do it. We can’t hope to gain quick insights into what we did right and how we might improve. It’ll take a while. But it will pay dividends too. The harder we look, the more we will learn. Work through the last few days of a case one day at a time, one decision at a time or process by process. Or chat it through one person at a time: child, parent, grandparents, etc. Working chronologically helps too – it can bring some degree of order to cases that otherwise seem (and often are!) chaotic and disjointed.
    Photo courtesy ©iStockphoto/joecicak

    Photo courtesy ©iStockphoto/joecicak

  • Make a habit of it: One off episodes of self-examination are a great start and a lot better than nothing. But building this into the routine of what we do ensures continuous improvement. Use the end of a team meeting to convene a bit of peer supervision. Tag it onto a lunch break or just diarise a regular half hour slot at the start of the day – before you start on your emails!
  • Include others: sometime we can’t see the wood for the trees. Two minds (or more!) are definitely better than one. When situations are complex – and these are the ones we can learn most from – ask a trusted colleague to help. Or get together with other allied colleagues who know the case.  Chewing the fat together makes for more insight and an objectivity that is just not possible on our own.
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  • Include service users: the best people to give us insights into the way we work, are those we work with and work for – service users. Given our focus on helping them achieve their goals, they are best placed to help. Going through reports about them before we finalise them is one way. Preparing for and de-briefing after meetings is another. If we see these things as opportunities for us to learn – as opposed to just another box we have to tick – we’ll find significant gains for our practice. Learning how to help better, is best done by asking those we are helping.
  • Take notes: If you’re anything like me, you forget things. Having taken to time to consider your practice thoughtfully, it’d be a shame to lose the insights gained. So it’s an idea to keep a record of it somewhere. If you write a journal, or you use Evernote (I’m a massive fan!), these are good places. Otherwise, just open a file somewhere you can remember and keep some notes for yourself.
  • Review your notes: Next when you take time to reflect, pull up the file and use it as a springboard for your next foray! Time can bring clarity that isn’t always there in the moment.

[shareable cite=”Jonny Matthew”]Learning how to help better, is best done by asking those we are helping.[/shareable]

Final word…

If this all sounds like pie in the sky, then it’s likely that you really need to start reflecting more. Not seeing the need is more of a problem than seeing it but not getting ’round to it.
Reflection is at the heart of good practice, in my view. If we want to practice well, if we want to practice with humility and keep the kids we serve at the centre of it all, there’s no better way than reflection.
It keeps us deliberate, it keeps us learning and, hopefully, it keeps us improving! Go for it…

What do you think?…

  • How good are you at reflection? 
  • What’s hindered or helped you in this?…

Please let me know what your thoughts are… Leave a comment below or click here.
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© Jonny Matthew 2015

*    Schön, Donald A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books. 
**  Charles, M. & Wilton, J. (2004) Creativity and Constraint in Child Welfare, in M. Lymbery & S. Butler (eds) Social Work Ideals and Practice Realities, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, pp.179-199.
Disclosure of material connection: The above book link is an “affiliate link.” This means that if you click the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.