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Understanding supervision

Ernie Hilton

Understanding what supervision can be as an instrument of learning and quality assurance is a necessary starting spot for effective service delivery. Supervision is not meant to be therapy, however therapeutic may be the experience; rather, maintaining a focus on career-oriented growth and development should be a theme of process. Following close to this is organizing a definition that would have the place of supervision become a welcomed, even sought after, experience. Supervision can be more useful if it is congruent with the approach which the service provider sets out to achieve. Obviously, there will be some differences, yet themes that originate in one’s service approach can be similar in process, and relational development, as those in supervision. It then becomes a wonderful check and balance when the approach used is endorsed in the service delivery.

A definition I learned a while back was the S.E.T. format, a focus on Support, Education and Training (Garfat 1992). A definition that includes and ties together a service with a person can also be helpful. For instance a beginning statement of need might include that supervision will enhance and increase specific content areas along with self-awareness, competency/knowledge, and actual practice (Ricks, 1989). Most important is that supervision has a specific purpose so the people involved always know their roles, whether they are the supervisor or supervisee.

We can decide that effective supervision is a right for an emergent practitioner and also one’s responsibility to request. I am reluctant to offer a definition, however, as the process of discussing with youth care teams what needs can be met through supervision can in itself be a useful process. The characteristics and themes that structure your supervision, as a process and thus a relationship, can be as unique as you decide. The only part I would insist upon is writing down the vision connected to the role of supervision. An example for answering this question and which can get everyone going is: "If I were to wave a magic wand what changes and experiences would occur in supervision?"

I would also recommend shaping supervision after having experienced effective supervision yourself. If you are charged with conceptualizing and drafting the role of supervision, this is a useful tool. It is usually not too hard to tell who has and who has not received effective supervision. If you have any of the following characteristics, the chances are that the supervision you are experiencing needs an adjustment: resentment, blame, poor me syndrome, apathy, frustration and overall contempt for your work. It doesn’t mean that to have these you are a terrible supervisor or supervisee, rather it means a process is needed to assist in understanding why these characteristics are present and to develop an action plan which offers change.

While talking with your supervisor or supervisee about what is wanted out of supervision is essential, it is also important to talk about pace. Where supervision is to take place, and when, can be critical. Is it to be planned, in the moment, in front of others, or the same day every week for eight weeks? The bottom line is, take the time to discuss the role of supervision and how it can be written down. It is useless to enter into supervision without writing down goals and gthen monitoring indicators of change. This documentation can be in the form of charts, developmental plans, even a journal or notes on your computer. It becomes impossible to measure any change (effective or otherwise) if there isn’t any pre and post data against which to measure.

An effective relationship depends upon many things, as we all know. The supervision relationship revolves around the cornerstones of support and challenge. A supervision rooted only in challenge can be very draining. Supervision rooted only in support can become condescending and impede growth and development. Effective supervision can be recognizing when you need support or to give support, or when you need a challenge or to give a challenge. I have learned over time that precision here is hard to achieve in the beginning until you learn to recognize indicators of frustration in the learning process for both the teacher and student. Knowing when to position onesself as the student or the teacher, and embracing the humility and compassion that comes with these roles, is another art.

Supervision can never be used thoughtlessly or without great care. During the process of supervision, details of another’s life might be disclosed while simply discussing or reviewing an intervention. It is for this reason that supervision should remain confidential. As mentioned earlier, supervision is not to be therapy however therapeutic the experience may be, but maintaining a focus on career-oriented growth and development should be a theme of the process. Spending time talking about the different types of supervision meetings might be useful, in terms of the different circumstances which apply, for example, a disciplinary meeting, supervision meeting, investigation meeting, debriefing meeting or evaluation meeting). All of these involve different processes and feelings and it is helpful to keep them clear and distinct from each other, so as to eliminate participants’ role and outcome confusion.

Connecting the role of supervision to learning, and understanding that good data is good and bad data is better (Kelly Ernst 2002) can be a useful focus. Service delivery can only be enhanced if all embrace the process of supervision, because a relationship with support and challenge is inspiring.



Garfat, T. (1992). SET: a framework for supervision in child and youth care. The Child and Youth Care Administrator, 4(1), 12-18.

Ricks, E (1989). Self-Awareness Model for Training and Application in Child and Youth Care J. Child and Youth Care, 4 (1) 33-41

Ernst, K (2002) Canadian Outcomes Institute, COI-Muttart Research Project. Hull Outcome Monitoring and Evaluation System, pg. 9