The Magic of Reflective Supervision

Author: Nancy Gearhart, MS Ed., works as a Program Senior in SPCC’s Supervised Visitation Program and is responsible for reflectively supervising and supporting direct service staff; she also works as a therapist in SPCC’s Therapeutic Visitation Program, and helps children and families impacted by domestic violence, trauma, addiction, high conflict, and other issues of familial discord heal. Nancy worked as a school counselor and an adjunct counselor educator for over 25 years and is currently a doctoral candidate in Warner’s Mental Health Counseling Program; she holds a special interest in educating future counselors and therapists.  In 2015, Nancy completed her doctoral internship in SPCC’s Therapeutic Visitation Program and neither Nancy, nor SPCC, could bare to part!  She is delighted to find herself in the congenial environment of SPCC and SPCC is so grateful to Nancy, her way of being, warmth and expertise.

When one thinks of the word ‘supervision’, a variety of images and feelings may arise.  Maybe you’re feeling this impending sense of doom and pressure.  Being held accountable or evaluated may come to mind; or the word ‘supervision’ might bring up the image of a child being ‘supervised’ on the playground.  Perhaps you’re imagining sitting down with a leader and going through a checklist of all your responsibilities, with the unspoken assumption that that if you don’t cover one area, it must mean that it’s not getting done.  Maybe even very little comes to you at all, because the idea of dedicated and regular time to think and talk about your work would feel like a luxury… certainly something no one has time for.

I am thrilled to say that none of the above scenarios capture the spirit of supervision at SPCC.  Throughout the agency, and in the two programs in which I work (Supervised Visitation and Therapeutic Visitation), a particular type of support called, “Reflective Supervision” is the gold standard. Reflective Supervision is a process which encourages us to delve into our feelings and reactions and to understand and accept ourselves and the important work we do.

When I joined the agency in 2015, I had not encountered this kind of support; in fact, my experience of supervision was talking to the boss once in a while and trying to solve any problems myself. I felt like I was on my own and that I needed to cover up any flaws so that I wouldn’t look bad or incompetent.  As I look back, it was like I was a naughty school child and my supervisor was the punitive adult. I didn’t have the chance to make my own decisions or explore my skills. Reflective supervision looks and feels completely different. And while I wouldn’t have known what I wasn’t getting before, and would have likely been lost in knowing what to ask for, now that I receive this type of supervision it solidifies my decision to take the leap of leaving my past career and making my way to SPCC. SPCC provides nurturing and supportive services to children and families healing from unimaginable loss and emotional pain.  Doesn’t it only make perfect sense that  staff members are also offered nurturing and support so that their ‘buckets’ are filled enough to fill the buckets of others?

There’s a magic to Reflective Supervision—a magic that can be hard to describe.  I think the beauty and difficulty in describing it is it’s not a set “thing to do” or a checklist to follow, it’s more a way of being, which generates a feeling.  In supervision sessions, I am encouraged by my supervisor to delve into my own reactions to my encounters with the children and families I serve. To my surprise, we were not only talking about what “they” said and did, but about what I thought and felt as I struggled with them toward health.  This type of reflection leads to deep learning about one’s self which can then allow more authentic and effective work with clients. After years in the field, I believed that I knew myself—and yet, it has been exciting to discover that I have more to learn!

I describe Reflective Supervision as nurturing and this could be surprising to some. We’re not used to adults needing nurturance, especially at work. But when we slow down and unpack what nurturance is, it’s the process of encouraging growth. Supervisors attempt to be attuned to the strengths brought to the work by each staff member along with the emotional risks that those providing direct service may face. The supervisor supports and encourages personal understanding and growth in each staff member.  And with nurturance, just like nurturance in a parent-child dyad, there’s room for hard conversations.  For turning toward the shadow instead of just the light; of the inevitable rupture and repair that occurs in relationships.  It’s not all bubblegum and roses here, folks—it’s authentic and real, which sometimes means it’s hard.

The work we do in our visitation programs involves meeting people at what could be called ‘low points’ in their lives. Children and parents are hurting….have been hurt and/or have often reenacted the scripts of their history.  Often times space is required, usually through foster care placement, to untangle the pain and give the distance sometime necessary to heal…sometimes together and sometimes apart.  At times the families and staff see themselves in one another, but sometimes they are so different and the historical roots and pain of their external differences add yet another layer of hurt.  There is enough pain in one room to last a lifetime, yet we ask our staff to be present, hold the hope, all while keeping physical and emotional safety in mind.

Staff members care deeply about the current and future well-being of children and families and are often faced with worry or disappointment when the family finding health feels out of grasp.  What’s unique about the Reflective Supervision perspective is that during weekly individual and group supervision, staff are supported in expressing their own emotional responses while simultaneously helped to craft an appropriate response or action when it’s warranted.. This agency lives the phrase we often say to children: “All feelings are OK; it’s what you do with them that matters.” I am happy to be part of this work; both in providing Reflective Supervision to those I supervise, but also in receiving my own Reflective Supervision, which allows me to be grounded in the support and service I offer to other.

This quote is powerful and it lives in my thoughts; it captures the essence of how we work and what we offer to one another and to our clients

            “Do unto others as you would have them do unto others.”

                                                                        Jeree Pawl

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