University of Sussex
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Becoming effective communicators with children in social work practice: who you are, not just what you know and do

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posted on 2023-06-08, 11:46 authored by Michelle LefevreMichelle Lefevre
Shortcomings in the quality and level of social workers’ communication with children have led to queries about the role qualifying training plays in equipping students for this challenging aspect of their practice (SWTF, 2009; House of Commons, 2009). This thesis seeks to clarify some of the factors and processes which support qualifying students in learning to become effective communicators with children. The evidence for what should be taught to students to enable them to communicate effectively with children and the programme structures and pedagogic approaches which best facilitate students’ learning and development are explored. An original framework for practice is outlined which constitutes a taxonomy of 32 evidence-informed ‘dimensions’ of ‘Communicative Capability’ needed for effective social work practice with children, set within ‘domains’ of ‘Knowing’ (knowledge and understanding), ‘Doing’ (skills and techniques), and ‘Being’ (ethics, values, personal qualities and emotional capacities). The compass of the dimensions is broad and diverse, so requires teaching and learning opportunities across the whole curriculum including in fieldwork placements, rather than just through a discrete course or specific pedagogical model (Lefevre et al, 2008). The Communicative Capabilities taxonomy has been used as a framework for analysing data collected from social work students on an MA qualifying programme which I teach. Taking a realist approach (Robson, 2011), as an insider (Drake, 2010), I sought to learn more about students’ journeys towards qualified practice so as to identify any factors or processes which support or hinder students’ learning and development. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected at four time points during the programme using self-efficacy scales, course feedback, and written responses to a case vignette, which were analysed for students’ awareness of the Communicative Capabilities. Baseline data on student characteristics, intentions and experiences were gathered so that individual trajectories could be identified and mapped against these. Once students had been qualified for between 16-18 months, follow-up interviews were conducted with a sub-sample of five participants using a semi-structured questionnaire. There were a number of limitations and methodological constraints, most notably those engendered by the lack of a comparison group and small sample, so findings must be regarded as emergent and tentative. An analysis of students’ learning journeys indicated trajectories were rooted in specific experiences, strengths and learning styles. Students would benefit from developing a personalised learning plan which would enable them to maximise their potential and plug gaps in their capabilities. Ways need to be found to enable students to build up from generalist proficiencies in communication, so that first generic, then child-focused, and finally child-specialist applied capabilities in communication can be developed to at least a basic level at the point of qualification. Drawing on Kolb (1984), a cyclical model of the teaching and learning process has been mapped to the development of Knowing, Being and Doing capabilities. Students enter qualifying training with pre-course concrete experience of communication which provides a valuable source for inductive learning through critical reflection. Related theoretical input enables them to conceptualise processes of communication (developing Knowing). Skills may be acquired and honed through active experimentation with techniques and methods both in the university and in placements which are subject to observation and feedback (Doing). Tutor modelling and experiential approaches to capability-building help engender the kind of thoughtful, ethical, contained and engaged use of self by students (Being) which matters to children. Learning needs to be integrated and consolidated so that it is not forgotten or absorbed solely into tacit professional knowledge (Eraut, 1994). The learning cycle has been developed into a proposed framework for how qualifying programmes could ensure a coherent and integrated learning experience.


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  • Social Work and Social Care Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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