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115 SEPTEMBER 2008

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Supervision in Child Care

Katherina Groning

(This article is translated from the German original)

A. Supervision as a professional activity
Supervision was developed at the beginning of the twentieth century in the USA as a method of giving untrained female social workers the knowledge they needed to accomplish their voluntary work with the poor and the homeless.

In Germany today, there are three types of supervision which developed one after the other:

  1. supervision as a method of managing and inducting staff into their jobs, performed mostly by a line manager
  2. supervision as method of self-analysis mostly practised by therapists and
  3. supervision as a process of reflection on one’s professional roles and the work of the institution.

In Germany, the need for supervision became obvious in the fifties as there was a growing demand for it from social workers who discovered in it the possibility of getting a positive professional identity. After the students” protests in the late sixties, the growth of new therapies influenced supervision. This brought a diversity of approaches but also the danger of poor quality due to eclecticism. Progressively, supervision lost its close links with social work and developed its own profile as a profession. Currently, the DGSV (German Society for Supervision) has admitted more than 20 institutions as members and has developed criteria for the professional training of supervisors. Today users of supervision prefer a supervisor who can understand the work of the institution and can provide external supervision to a practitioner with a lot of professional experience. Supervision has become a method of providing external support in the field of applied social sciences and is oriented towards three types of demands: personal problems, problems of interaction in the group/team and problems in the work of the organisation. It is mainly concerned with the development of professional roles. It tries to influence the professional identity, the environment and the personality of the supervisee.

Supervision as practised today is a long way from the line management focus which is oriented only towards the interests of the institution. That tries to communicate to the supervisee the values and the norms of the institution. Supervision is also different from the therapeutic focus which often creates a relation of dependency between supervisor and supervisee. Supervision tries to focus on the professional role of the supervisee, on the way she/he defines and performs this role. It is a reflective process through which professionals enhance their personal and professional development.

We distinguish individual, group and team supervision. Individual supervision is most appropriate when a worker starts a new job, when she/he shifts to another job, when she/he has very difficult tasks to perform or when she/he is under particular stress.

Group supervision needs a supervisor trained in group dynamics. She/he is an enabler. The group chooses the subjects to discuss, works on them and decides upon the practical conclusions that have to be drawn.

In team supervision, the supervisor tries to improve the quality of the relationships between staff members. It is a systematic reflection on teamwork inside an institution and therefore reflects the need of the institution to function well.

B. Residential care
The placement of children in residential care is problematic for several reasons: Institutions are traditionally considered as places of punishment made for children from marginal and working class populations. They have always been places where the identity of the children was systematically destroyed. In order to keep alive the relationship with their parents at least in their imagination, the children consider themselves as responsible for their placement which leads to regressive patterns of behaviour. Against the wishes of their carers, the children refuse to participate in daily life tasks which leads to a chain reaction of disobedience and punishments. Team supervision in this context must discuss ways of defusing situations to avoid care workers adopting an “eye for an eye” mentality.

A second problem for institutions are the frequent doublebind situations in which care workers are involved. They have mostly very close contacts to children and children need to be loved and hugged. But care workers do not have the right to give way to their own emotional feelings as they are supposed to behave in a neutral way towards children. For their part, children who express their emotional needs too overtly are considered emotionally disturbed.

A third problem for institutions is money. Costs which in normal life do not appear become obvious in residential care: the costs of caring, the needs of the children, costs following the giving up of their children by their families. Management are supposed to operate according to criteria such as economy, efficiency and bureaucracy. Children and staff are mostly considered as cost factors on which to spend as little as possible.

In institutions, care workers are in an ambiguous position in relation to the parents of children in care. Often, but unconsciously, they identify themselves with the children and consider the parents as their rivals. In this situation, they are not able to react properly to rejection from the children who idealise their “good parents” and who regard the staff as “mad”. As a result, the staff respond by rejecting the children in turn and by retreating to a “professional” stance and reducing relationships to the strict minimum.

In this context, supervision must become a striving towards good professional practice in daily living and a defence against the regressive tendencies of both children and staff.

This feature: Groning, Katherina. (1994). Supervision in child care. FICE Bulletin, 10. Spring. p. 25.

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