Research Associate Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, is part of a team that won a multiyear grant from the Sauer Foundation. Meuwissen will lead a study to evaluate the impact of a reflective consultation-plus-training model of professional development on child welfare workers. She is working closely with Kristin Johnson, LGSW, IMH-E® Infant Family Specialist, of KayJay Consulting, LLC, and Jessica Hoeper, LISW, IMH-E® Infant Family Specialist, of Ray of Hope, LLC, to design and implement the project.
Reflective supervision, also known as reflective consultation, is a mode of relationship-based professional development. It is widely used in the field of infant and early childhood mental health, where research has shown it can help prevent burnout and improve workers’ effectiveness. Child welfare workers are also at great risk of experiencing secondary trauma and burnout. The Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare conducted a 2016 Child Welfare Workforce Stabilization Survey of child welfare professionals in Minnesota and found that 83% of respondents had experienced secondary traumatic stress. The survey also revealed that 53% of respondents had actively sought employment outside of their current position within the previous year, and 22% intended to do so within the following year. In addition to being costly for agencies, high workforce turnover affects outcomes for families and children.
Meuwissen’s new study will explore how child welfare professionals—and as a result, the people with whom they work—can best reap the benefits of reflective supervision. This work builds on a previous study done by Meuwissen and her colleague Mary Harrison, PhD, LICSW, IMH-E®. While a few child welfare agencies in Minnesota have implemented reflective consultation (several of them working with Teya Dahle, MSW, LICSW, IMH-E®, who is also consulting on this project), the practice has not become widespread.
Reflective supervision consists of regular meetings between a trained supervisor or outside consultant and a supervisee or group of supervisees. Conversations in these sessions focus on supervisees’ emotions and perspectives. They explore supervisees’ relationships with the people whom they serve and with colleagues. These conversations also take into account the viewpoints and relationships of the adults and children with whom supervisees work. Reflective supervision sessions emphasize building on strengths and managing challenges. The sessions are a safe place for frontline workers to process the distressing emotions that arise in their work.
For this study, the project team will work with the staff of a county social service agency in Minnesota. Johnson and Hoeper will provide reflective consultation to both the agency’s supervisors and its child protection workers. Training on topics related to mindfulness, coping, and stress will also be integrated into the reflective consultation model.
“There are really two parts to implementing the reflective supervision program at this agency,” explains Meuwissen. “The first part is to build a culture of awareness and support of reflective supervision. To do so, we’ll provide evidence-based training about the effectiveness of reflective supervision.”
In this way, people at all levels of the agency will understand the value of reflective consultation, increasing organization-wide support for this model of professional development.
“Second, our experienced consultants will meet regularly with both agency supervisors and child protection workers,” Meuwissen says. “Supervisors will receive reflective consultation for one hour a month. Child welfare workers will attend monthly sessions that begin with 15–30 minutes of training and skill-building activities. They’ll learn strategies such as mindfulness and diaphragmatic breathing that will help them to identify and manage the emotions associated with their work. Following these activities, workers will break into small groups for an hour of group reflective consultation.”
Reflective consultants Johnson and Hoeper will make adjustments to training and reflective supervision sessions based on feedback from participants. Participants will have multiple opportunities to share their thoughts both in person and anonymously through surveys.
“We’ll gather data every step of the way,” says Meuwissen. “The data will help us in two ways. First, we’ll be able to make informed adjustments to optimize our program while it’s happening. Second, we’ll discover whether this is a feasible and effective program model for a child welfare agency.”
At the close of the program, which will span about a year and a half, Meuwissen and her colleagues will conduct interviews with each participant to understand their overall perceptions of the program. Finally, Meuwissen will present the study’s findings and recommendations to participants and collect further feedback from them. She will incorporate this feedback into the study’s conclusions, which she will publish as a report as well as disseminate as a podcast.
“We want to know from participants: did this experience reduce their secondary traumatic stress and burnout?” says Meuwissen. “Did it increase their empathy, perspective-taking, and reflectiveness when they worked with clients?”
Meuwissen hopes that this study will demonstrate the benefits of reflective supervision for child protection workers®benefits that also flow to those with whom they work.
“Our goal with this project is to support child welfare workers so that they can better support children and families,” she says.