Effective Observation in Social Work Practice

Books

Maureen O'Loughlin & Steve O'Loughlin

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    Editors and Contributors

    Maureen O'Loughlin has been an independent social work consultant with substantial experience working with children and families as a social worker and a guardian ad litem prior to becoming an academic. After leaving the University of Leeds she undertook independent assessments for court proceedings in a variety of areas for a number of years; she continues her interest in children and families through chairing adoption and fostering panels for local authorities and the Independent Reviewing Mechanism.

    Steve O'Loughlin is a registered social worker with over 30 years’ experience. He now works as an independent social work consultant. He currently acts as a tutor for qualifying students and as an advocate for carers and young people. He has experience in fostering and adoption. Steve is committed to black issues and to furthering the interests of black and minority ethnic children and families.

    Jackie Hughes is a senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield where she is placement coordinator for the social work courses. She is a registered social worker and has been involved in social work education for many years. Jackie has worked with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on housing issues for families with disabled children, and with the National Development Team on short breaks for children with learning disabilities and complex health needs.

    Bronwyn Roberts is a senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield where she is course leader for the BSc and Diploma in Learning Disability Nursing. Prior to this she worked for the NHS for 25 years. Bronwyn has worked with people with a wide range of disabilities, family members, carers and friends. At present she is a governor at Calderstones, a specialist hospital for forensic care where she is working with service users to influence strategic development. However, her main focus is, and has always been, learning to communicate with people who are non verbal.

    Nicky Ryden has recently retired from work as a part-time tutor on social work courses and as a social worker. Nicky worked in statutory social work settings from 1974 to 1997. Between 1997 and 2014 she worked as an independent social worker, practice educator and tutor on social work qualifying and post-qualifying courses. Nicky has successfully completed research for a PhD (2009) and contributed to research on family support and to the evaluation of services for looked after children.

    Series Editor's Preface

    Surveillance and the power of gaze are often highlighted in contemporary society for their sinister connotations. For instance, in the UK one cannot walk along any town or city street without noticing the CCTV cameras positioned on street lamps; recorded announcements at train stations, on trains themselves and in a variety of public spaces inform us that we are being recorded, usually stating this is for our ‘own safety’, failing to acknowledge the intention to control behaviour and to increase self-monitoring and conformity.

    So, why a book on observation as a positive tool to enhance social work practice? Social workers are clearly involved in some of the social monitoring activities that are promoted by ‘surveillance society’ as set out above, but does this imply a sinister ‘Big Brother’ approach to social work in the UK; are we ‘watching you’? This edited collection acknowledges the need to observe drawing out the constructive need towards understanding rather than controlling, to gaining insight and standing in the contexts of the people with whom social workers practise.

    In a world where surveillance is the norm, we can sometimes fail consciously to observe others and ourselves and thereby fail to gain this deeper understanding of human situations and events. It is these important skills that the authors make explicit and challenge social work students to deepen their appreciation of the world around them and the contexts inhabited by their service users.

    This book re-establishes an important contribution to learning from which students, their service users and ultimately society should benefit.

    Jonathan Parker Director, Centre of Social Work, Sociology & Social Policy, School of Health & Social Care, Bournemouth University

    Acknowledgements

    This book is dedicated to all those who are ‘observed’ and to those who seek to observe with openness and respect. A special thanks for the hard work of all the contributors, particularly Nicky, without whom it would not have been written.

    Introduction

    Observation is a key part of social work practice; it provides workers with a source of information that informs their interactions, assessment and analysis and is an essential tool for social work practitioners. Observation underpins all social work practice and is an essential skill that practitioners need to continually develop as part of their ongoing learning. Serious case reviews and situations in residential care, for example, in the Winterbourne unit, have highlighted when workers have failed to observe signs of distress and harm, often because their focus has been distracted, leaving vulnerable children and adults at risk of serious harm or even death.

    The development of observational skills offers the opportunity to identify, understand, record and analyse what is seen, which links in to the worker's assessment, decision-making processes and their planning of interventions. This book will provide an introduction to the theory of observation. It will discuss key approaches and methods and address the development of individual skills through considering how to observe, communication, recording, group work, reflection and development. Theoretical approaches will include the target child approach, tracking, a psychodynamic approach such as the Tavistock method, event sampling and checklists, as well as participant and non-participant observation.

    The book will also consider the ethics of observation and how this links to social work values and human rights.

    Social workers believe that the work they do makes a difference and that they can make a difference. In order to do so they must have the necessary knowledge, skills and values to achieve this objective. This book will extend and enhance their understanding of observation as a key social work skill.

    Each chapter will highlight relevant professional standards, with case studies being used to highlight aspects of observation throughout. This book is intended to be used by social work degree students and social work educators, as well as professional practitioners.

    Chapter 1 focuses on the professional roles and responsibilities of social workers including discussion of the ethical considerations of observing and why we actually observe service users. It will include an overview of perception and objectivity and a discussion of the impact of values and issues of interpretation. It will also discuss data protection, freedom of information and ‘property’ considerations.

    Chapter 2 introduces the principal approaches to observation and discusses their strengths and weaknesses (for example, time and event samples, checklists, tracking, media, etc.) as well as what contribution the different methods might be able to make to the work. It will use some exercises to help develop the requisite skills needed for observation. It will help practitioners come to decisions about the best approach for the specific circumstances they want to observe.

    Chapter 3 considers some of the practical techniques for the observation of service users and the issues that arise when observing very young and older people. Two specific styles of observation will be explored and the chapter will discuss how observations can enhance our understanding of actions through the application of theory. Case studies will be used to demonstrate situations where observation is significant to the assessment of risk and need. This chapter will raise the use of telecare for older people as another aspect of observation together with the use of CCTV in residential and home settings and the ethical issues that might arise.

    Chapter 4 considers observation when working with children and adults with disabilities. It brings the perspectives of both social work and learning disability nursing into its discussions, to encourage the consideration of different professional backgrounds alongside the views of disabled children and adults and their families. The focus is primarily on those with profound and multiple disabilities or complex needs; the chapter uses case examples to help develop skills in both observation and communication. The chapter also discusses the values that underpin work with disabled people and their families, as well as the different models of disability. The views of disabled people, the importance of language and how this needs to inform practice are central to the chapter.

    Chapter 5 introduces observation as an integral part of training and development for social workers in the UK. It discusses the role of observation of new entrants to social work as part of the process of judging competence in social work skills. It then goes on to consider observation in relation to qualified social workers who will be observed by peers, assessors and managers in a work culture that emphasises continued development and accountability. The chapter also discusses the use of ‘shadowing’ as an introduction to social work settings, the use of observation in placement, and briefly considers how observation might be utilised post qualifying as a tool for development and appraisal of performance. Finally, this chapter considers some observational approaches in social care management.

    Chapter 6 provides a reflective discussion of observations in a local authority secure children's home (LASCH) of a changing group of young people and a group of staff. A description of the purposes of, and services provided by, the LASCH gives context to the discussion. The chapter provides the reader with a detailed account of observation in action and the impact of technology in this particular contained situation. The chapter also discusses elements of care and control and how CCTV has transformed both the care and control that is given and received.

    This book has been mapped to the basic Professional Capabilities Framework for Social Workers in England and the corresponding HCPC Standards of Proficiency and will help you to develop the appropriate standards at the right level. These are referred to collectively as Professional Standards in the book and by their titles. In further detail they are:

    • Professionalism: Identify and behave as a professional social worker committed to professional development.
    • Values and ethics: Apply social work ethical principles and values to guide professional practice.
    • Diversity: Recognise diversity and apply anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive principles in practice.
    • Justice: Advance human rights and promote social justice and economic wellbeing.
    • Knowledge: Apply knowledge of social sciences, law and social work practice theory.
    • Judgement: Use judgement and authority to intervene with individuals, families and communities to promote independence, provide support and prevent harm, neglect and abuse.
    • Critical reflection and analysis: Apply critical reflection and analysis to inform and provide a rationale for professional decision-making.
    • Contexts and organisations: Engage with, inform, and adapt to changing contexts that shape practice. Operate effectively within your own organisational frameworks and contribute to the development of services and organisations. Operate effectively within multi-agency and inter-professional settings.
    • Professional leadership: Take responsibility for the professional learning and development of others through supervision, mentoring, assessing, research, teaching, leadership and management.

    References to these standards will be made throughout the text and you will find a diagram of the Professional Capability Framework in Appendix 1.

    In addition to the basic Professional Capabilities Framework, the College of Social Work is introducing Professional Capabilities Statements in various areas of social work practice that will also impact on the expectations of how practitioners function. Further information about these can be found at www.tcsw.org.uk.

  • Conclusion

    This book has sought to introduce you to observation as a key part in social work practice, highlighting that it provides you with a source of information that can inform your interactions, assessments and analysis, and is an essential tool for social work practitioners. It advances the idea that observation underpins all social work practice and is an essential skill that practitioners need to continually develop as part of their ongoing learning. There have been many reported incidences when social workers have failed to observe signs of distress and harm, often because their focus has been distracted, leaving vulnerable children and adults at risk of serious harm or even death; there is much less written about when observation has informed and impacted to improve a situation for service users and their families.

    The development of observational skills offers the opportunity to identify, understand, record and analyse what is seen which links in to the worker's assessment, decision-making processes and their planning of interventions. This book provides an introduction to the theory of observation and how to observe.

    Chapter 1 helped you to begin to address the question ‘Why observe?’ It introduced the professional roles and responsibilities of observation, and began the discussion of ethical considerations that apply when observation is being used in a professional context. It also introduced you to the functions of perception and objectivity in observation as well as raising issues relating to data protection and intellectual property that you need to be mindful of in your use of observation. The chapter emphasised the need to involve service users in discussions and to share observations where this is appropriate; it also acknowledges there are sometimes difficult situations when, because of safeguarding issues, observations might be covert.

    Chapter 2 considered methods of observation and how you might use them in practice. The effect of being either a participant or non-participant observer was discussed and the uses of both naturalistic or structured approaches were compared. There was some discussion of the history of how different approaches have developed, together with the ways those approaches have influenced practice. Exercises introduced some of the challenges associated with negotiating the planning and execution of an observation as well as briefly considering how the material from the observation might be analysed.

    Chapter 3 considered some practical techniques for observing very young as well as older people. Two styles of observation were explored with the subsequent discussion of what the observations showed demonstrating how the application of theory extends and consolidates understanding of the action. The case studies presented situations where observation was significant to the assessment of risk and need, and made suggestions for how observation could extend the depth and quality of the assessment. The use of telecare for older people was raised – another aspect of observation that needs to be carefully managed and to be ethically used if it is to enhance people's lives.

    Chapter 4 emphasised that knowing the individual, their skills and abilities, communication methods and how they interact with and perceive their environment is essential if practitioners are to be effective in helping people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. It made clear that practitioners will need to take time, using keen observations, monitoring and recording all behaviours and working in partnership with all significant individuals and teams if they are to be effective. It highlighted the need to be creative in cultivating communications and to be sensitive to attempts at communications, as this can be rewarded by a two-way conversation and the development of enriching relationships.

    Chapter 5 discussed the centrality of observational skills to the practice and management of social work. It considered the necessity of developing observation as a means of obtaining feedback on personal and organisational performance in order that service provision is enhanced. The chapter demonstrated the importance of feedback in developing self-awareness and the significance of reflecting on process, giving examples of how this could be achieved. The chapter acknowledged and emphasised the need to make time for reflection and review as a key professional skill.

    Chapter 6 considered observation in a particular contained residential environment, giving the opportunity to focus on elements of care and control and the importance and relevance of observation to these. The use and impact of CCTV were discussed and the ongoing debate between privacy and security recognised.

    This book provides an introduction to the theory of observation and how to observe. The writers acknowledge that in the changing world of social work there are many different priorities but with an understanding of the key role of observation and the impact it has on communication and the needs of vulnerable people we believe that practitioners will have additional tools to provide them with the foundation to become analytical and reflective practitioners.

    Professional Capabilities Framework

    Professional Capabilities Framework Diagram Reproduced with Permission of the College of Social Work

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