This is the final blog post in a three-part series exploring topics related to graduate students’ practicum and internship experiences.
In the current post, several complexities of supervision during practicum/internship are identified, and ways to achieve clearer supervision expectations are discussed.
The post is based on the big idea that supervision is a pivotal part of practicum/internship experiences, but supervision processes need increased clarity for students and supervisors to be maximally effective. The content is adapted from my recently published book Demystifying the School Psychology Internship: A Dynamic Guide for Interns and Supervisors (New York: Routledge).
Definition and Goals of Supervision
Supervision is generally recognized as the signature pedagogy in psychology. It is defined as “an intervention provided by a more senior member of a profession to a more junior member or members of that same profession. The relationship is evaluative and hierarchical, [and] extends over time” (Bernard & Goodyear, 2009, p. 7).
Two central goals of supervision are: (a) promoting supervisee developmental growth through teaching (i.e., enhancing the supervisee’s knowledge and applied skills), and (b) protecting the welfare of clients (i.e., making sure individuals the supervisee is working with are receiving high quality professional services).
Additional purposes of supervision include: (c) gatekeeping for the profession (i.e., making sure only those who have met particular developmental benchmarks are able to move forward in training or practice); (d) empowering supervisees with the capacity to self-supervise in the future (e.g., recognizing boundaries of competence and knowing how to seek out additional support), and (e) providing emotional support to supervisees to prevent or mitigate stress, distress, burnout, and problems of professional competence (Bernard & Goodyear, 2009; Corey, Haynes, Moulton, & Muratori, 2010; Newman, 2013).
When Supervision Becomes Blurry
Although the goals of supervision may at first glance seem intuitive or obvious, it is easy for them to get neglected or ignored.
For instance, supervisees may be thrown into an applied experience that they are not prepared for with limited supervisory support, a supervisor might be a poor role model regarding self-care or recognizing boundaries of competence, or processes of evaluation may not be explicitly discussed. These are but a few examples of problems that may arise from unclear expectations and/or a lack of formal supervision structure, the result of which is often supervisee anxiety or apprehension (Boylan & Scott, 2009).
In the sections that follow I explore a few supervision processes that I believe require some clarity, especially early on in the supervision relationship, and discuss potential ways expectations can be clarified when they are otherwise nebulous or non-existent. Questions are presented that represent topics for consideration in a written supervision contract or verbal discussion; readers can adapt these questions for discussion in a way that best fits the roles, relationships, and dynamics at their training sites.
Different supervisors approach the process of supervision in different ways. For example, some prefer to engage predominately in “on the fly” supervision when a supervisee requests assistance, some prefer to schedule time in advance, and some choose a balance of these approaches.
Models, formats, and techniques of supervision may also differ across supervisors. Without explicit discussions about how supervision will be provided, supervisees will not know what to expect from supervision, or how to best prepare for supervision meetings. Discussions about logistics get at the “nuts and bolts” of supervision; pertinent questions for consideration include:
- How often and for how much time will the student and supervisor meet for supervision?
- What model of supervision and supervision techniques will be applied by the supervisor?
- How should the student prepare for supervision meetings?
Consistent with the definition and goals of supervision, evaluation is at the heart of the supervision process. Field and university supervisors should evaluate students formatively (i.e., at points along the way) and summatively (i.e., at the end of an experience), formally and informally, and along numerous dimensions/competencies (Boylan & Scott, 2009; Sullivan & Conoley, 2008).
Providing a structured approach to evaluation including clear criteria for assessment, explicit and timely feedback, a variety of evaluation techniques, and transparent communication about progress helps mitigate supervisee apprehension (Boylan & Scott, 2009). Examples of questions regarding evaluation processes in supervision include:
- How will formative and summative evaluation be incorporated as part of supervision?
- What are the supervisee’s goals, and how will the student and supervisor know if those goals have been met?
- How is evaluative feedback communicated?
- How do field and university evaluation processes connect?
Supervisees (and supervisors too) are novices when entering situations in which they have no previous experience, whether it is working with a new population, learning a new procedure, or implementing a new tool (Harvey & Struzziero, 2008).
However, at times it may feel like a conflict of interests for a student to make himself or herself vulnerable (e.g., admitting not knowing how to do something) in the context of an evaluative relationship such as supervision.
Therefore, a supervisor should make explicit how developmental considerations are incorporated into supervision. For example, perhaps the supervisor follows an “I do, we do, you do” approach where scaffolding of the student’s work will look different depending on the student’s level of experience with a particular activity, or at different points in time during the year. Relevant questions regarding developmental considerations in supervision include:
- Does the supervisor know the student’s level of skills in various areas of practice?
- How are appropriate levels of independence and scaffolding determined and provided?
- How does the supervisor support the student’s development in an area where the supervisor may not be competent?
- How are supervision interactions different during the beginning, middle, and end of the year, if at all?
Troubleshooting Process Issues
A fourth area where supervision expectations are sometimes unclear is with regard to troubleshooting difficult situations such as ethical dilemmas (e.g., the intern is not receiving sufficient time for supervision) or interpersonal conflicts (e.g., the supervisor-supervisee relationship is fragmented).
Supervisors and supervisees may be well served by being up front about what to do if something in the supervision relationship needs troubleshooting.
For example, on a site visit I recently completed, a supervisor told a psychology intern “If you are not sure why I took an action, please ask. Talking through my decisions helps me to continue to grow as a professional.” Questions that may be relevant to address regarding troubleshooting process issues include:
- What should a student do if he or she disagrees with the supervisor’s perspective on a case?
- What should a student do if he or she receives different messages from different supervisors?
- What should a student do if he or she is receiving too much or not enough supervision?
- How can the supervisor and student improve the supervisory relationship?
Of course these four categories and question examples do not cover every potential issue that will arise in supervision. However, they are intended to provide some areas for consideration from early on in the year that may help to clarify supervision expectations. Yet even when supervision expectations are discussed, it does not mean that they are perfectly clear.
Fallacies of Language
The misuse of language, whether by mistake or deliberate (i.e., for purposes of persuasion), can contribute to poor decision making in clinical practice (Gambrill, 2012). Unfortunately, errors of language are common in supervision interactions, and act to further murky the waters of supervision.
A few examples of fallacies of language discussed by Gambrill include predigested thinking/oversimplification of complex issues (e.g., a student tells her university supervisor that her practicum site is “not amenable to evidence-based practice”, but does not explain further); jargon (e.g., an intern’s internship plan states he will engage in “data-based decision making” but what this means is not clarified); labeling/misapplication of terms (e.g., an intern tells her supervisor she wants to start a counseling group with “Aspergery-type kids” this year); and primacy effects (e.g., an intern gets observably nervous presenting at meetings [stumbling, turning red, relying on notes] at the beginning of the year.
Despite improvement over time, she receives a poor rating in this area on a summative evaluation). Readers are referred to Gambrill (2012) and Newman (2013) for several additional types and examples fallacies of language in clinical practice.
It important for students and supervisors to recognize fallacies of language because so doing may provide a path to clarifying supervision expectations.
First, awareness of these types of errors helps prevent them from being committed; students and supervisors can strive to be more conscientious in their use of language, communicating with more explicit, observable, and measurable terms.
Second, if there is an error that is committed, a supervisor or student can use communication skills such as clarifying questions (e.g., “What do you mean by ‘Aspergery’ type kids? Who do you feel will benefit from this group?”), or clarifying statements (e.g., “Tell me more about what you mean by data-based decision making on your internship plan”) to move towards a clearer understanding.
It should also be noted that fallacies of language are often committed by mistake. For instance, communicators make assumptions about meaning even though what is meant by the speaker and understood by the listener may not be the same thing. Some communicators may pretend they understand something in order to avoid embarrassment, for example a student beginning a new experience who wants to appear competent. To prevent pitfalls of communication, it is important for students and supervisors to be thoughtful in their interactions, and dig a bit deeper when information is not sufficiently clear.
Problems that may arise in supervision regarding logistics, evaluation, levels of development, or other process issues speak to the need for clear supervision expectations and structures. However, how to achieve clarity on these issues is less apparent.
One strategy that may be helpful is for students and supervisors to recognize the influence of language – both verbal and written – on our experiences, actions, and the actions of others. Clear communication interactions between supervisors and students help move inferential language down a ladder of inferences (Argyris, 1990).
In so doing, students and supervisors meet at the sturdy ground at the bottom of the ladder with (a) clear, explicit, and shared supervision expectations, and (b) the ability to more effectively meet the goals of supervision.
Argyris, C. (1990). Overcoming organizational defenses: Facilitating organizational learning. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Bernard, J. M., & Goodyear, R. K. (2009). Fundamentals of clinical supervision (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Boylan, J. C., & Scott, J. (2009). Practicum and internship: Textbook and resource guide for counseling and psychotherapy (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Corey, G., Haynes, R., Moulton, P., & Muratori, M. (2010). Clinical supervision in the helping professions: A practical guide (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Gambrill, E. (2012). Critical thinking in clinical practice: Improving the quality of judgements and decisions (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
Harvey, V. S., & Struzziero, J. A. (2008). Professional development and supervision of school psychologists: From intern to expert (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Newman, D. S. (2013). Demystifying the school psychology internship: A dynamic guide for interns and supervisors. New York, NY: Routledge.
Sullivan, J. R., & Conoley, J. C. (2008). Best practice in the supervision of interns. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
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