The emotional responses of students help them make sense of all aspects of their lives and this is equally true in practice. Richard Ingram discusses the required thought and reflection to use them appropriately.

I am fortunate to teach the first year module on our BA (Hons) Social Work programme at the University of Dundee which introduces practice skills in the context of relationship building in social work. One of the first things I do is ask the class why they have chosen to study social work and in turn start on a path to a career in the profession. The reasons are varied and can often be rooted in personal experiences, a commitment to social justice and/or a desire to make a difference. However, the number 1 answer is always rooted in an attraction to ‘working with people’ or ‘being a people person’. This places the inter-personal aspects of social work at the core of the motivation to become a social worker. This edition of "ThursdayThunking" will argue that these formative motivations are an essential element of relationship based practice but can be obscured and side-lined by competing requirements and pressures facing social work students as the progress through their academic and practice experiences. Practice learning opportunities would appear to be the forum in which these issues come under the sharpest light and one in which the core motivations and qualities of students can be most usefully permitted and nurtured. I will conclude by proposing the ‘3 Rs’ required to achieve this.

The good news for students at the start of their studies is that often one of the most developed aspects of their skillset is their self-knowledge, values and inter-personal skills. Students may not always be conscious of this initially but it can be reassuring that these aspects are recognised by others. This is not to suggest that students should be complacent as ‘soft’ skills and knowledge can be seen to be common sense or in some ways lesser than the ‘hard’ elements such as theory, policy and legislation (Ingram et al, 2014). This presents social work courses with a challenge to maintain the important status of these inter-personal elements despite the competing demands and messages that students pick up when confronted with a series of modules and essays that require academic knowledge acquisition. In a small-scale study a few years ago I analysed a range of student practice studies (reflective and analytical accounts of practice) in collaboration with practice educators and service users (Dowson, et al, 2008). What we discovered was that most students highlighted the role of theory in terms of informing their decision making, but few unpicked the complex inter-personal relationships within their practice and no students made reference to their emotions. This prompted me to think again about the messages that students receive and perceive regarding what are the important components of social work education but also left me wondering what had happened to the centrality of inter-personal skills and relationships between point of entry and practice learning opportunities.

Relationship based practice is a term increasingly becoming used to refer to relationships social workers form with service users, groups and communities that take place within, and are informed by, a range of factors including:

  • Recognition that social workers bring themselves in to their practice and explicitly combine the personal and the professional – hence bespoke to each social worker.
  • Acknowledgement that relationships can have a profound impact on the lives of those involved and can promote radical change.
  • Relationships must be understood within the context of an individual’s internal world (emotions, motivations etc.) and their external worlds (poverty, power, social exclusion etc.).
  • Support and opportunities for reflection to manage the emotional complexities of practice.
  • A motivation to seek, hear and value the expertise and experiences of service users.

(see Ruch, 2010; Hennessey; 2011; Megele, 2015)

These elements of relationship based practice are familiar ideas for anyone engaged in social work, and reflect an aspect of practice where profound change and impact can be achieved. It locates the work of social workers right at the point where individuals and their environments connect. If we link back to the initial motivations of social work students then we can see a direct line between relationship based practice and the articulated sense of ‘self’, confidence in their own interpersonal skills and the ambition to ‘make a difference’. However there are competing pressures that social work educators need to take cognisance of in order to nourish and enhance these aspirations and qualities. Figure 1 (below) illustrates three key areas of challenge for social work students. These will be explored in turn to identify key areas for focus and action by social work educators (in academia and practice).


Figure 1 – Factors impacting on the place of relationship building


Getting it right and opportunities for reflection - a relationship based approach lays great emphasis on ‘use of self’ and with it a need for a degree of emotional exposure and reflection. This places students in a potentially vulnerable space and when the assessment of practice learning can be seen to be about ‘passing’ and ‘getting it right’, the risks involved in grappling explicitly with complex relationships can be daunting. In an earlier edition of “ThursdayThunking” by Liz Beddoe there was an extremely helpful account of what constitutes good supervision, and in many ways it serves as a guide to the type of supervision which can underpin relationship based approaches and give students the support and confidence they require. This is in part about opportunities for reflection, but also about acknowledging and valuing the place of uncertainty and complexity as part and parcel of the social work task (Cornish, 2011) and not evidence of a shortcoming or an incomplete piece of work. If we return to the motivating factors mentioned at the start of this article, it is clear that students would benefit from opportunities to re-engage with what they bring to their practice as a means of helping them unpick their practice but also to provide a compass in terms of their own drivers and motivation.

Being professional – this is closely linked to ‘getting it right’, but is also tied up in perceptions of what it means to ‘be professional’. Often this is linked strongly to notions of expertise, application of a knowledge base, clarity and solving problems (Brodie et al, 2008). This conception of professionalism may work well for certain professions but for social work it runs the risk of pushing the willingness to work with uncertainty aside and may encourage top-down directive approaches to practice. It is easy to see that this can be tempting for students because there is an expectation that they demonstrate significant knowledge and link it to their practice. In a research study that examined the role of emotions in social work practice with a group of Scottish social workers (Ingram, 2015) it became clear that qualified practitioners also struggled with this in that they overwhelmingly agreed that they demonstrated empathy in their practice but at the same time many felt they could remove their emotions from the practice. This seems to be rather contradictory and the notion that emotions were ‘unprofessional’ was a recurrent theme. This suggests that those inter and intra personal aspects of social work are vulnerable to other narratives about what constitutes a social work professional. Help can be found by considering the term professional as a ‘self-concept’ (Slay and Smith, 2011; Ibarra, 1999) in that it is made up of how we as individuals view and interact with our professional knowledge, codes and roles. This simply means that we can be more flexible when it comes to the difficulties about what ‘being professional’ might mean because there are elements that are bespoke to the individual. The key is to allow these reflections to take place and be embraced.

Messages about requirements of academic and practice learning – often the assessment of practice learning is tied up with two key elements: assessment of direct practice and the assessment of the written articulation of it. This assessment process is then combined with a range of other academic modules to lead to (one hopes) a graduating student. It is important that Universities locate themes such as emotional intelligence, relationship building and reflection across their teaching so that when students grapple with the challenge of linking ‘theory to practice’ they are still in touch with those aspects of the social work role. When this is lacking or confused then students really have to choose the ‘low risk’ option which often results is presenting a clear and linear account of practice. It is in this context that the aforementioned ‘hard’ elements may take centre stage. This presents a tricky balance between nurturing openness about the potential messiness of what we as individual bring to relationship building in practice and also requiring evidence of insight and knowledge that we associate with competency and professional standards. Inevitably a key forum do this will be within the supervisory relationship between student and practice educator.

Introducing the 3 Rs

As I noted at the beginning, the notion of relationship based practice is not new and is linked to the core motivations of many students to become a social work practitioner. Despite, the essential streams of knowledge that students receive through lectures, research, study and practice there is the inescapable truth that each individual student brings their ‘self’ into practice (Hennessey, 2011). The following suggestions around the ‘3 Rs’ which are noted in the title of this article should serve as a signpost for all involved with social work education to hold onto the foundations of student motivation and relationship based practice’.

Reinforce... There are many sources of support and reinforcement for located within social work literature to encourage students to see relationship based practice as integral to linking theory to practice rather than in some way outside of it. The core generic social work textbooks will have chapters which covers practice skills, ethics of care, use of self and service user perspectives. Furthermore, if students consider their professional codes and required standards in education, they will be encouraged to see that they can only deliver on this by making positive relationships with service users at the heart of what they do.
Re-ignite... Having sought and found reinforcements of this message in literature and codes, there is an excellent opportunity to allow students to take these connections forward with confidence. The myriad of reflective exercises and tasks (reflective diaries, blogging, process recordings, oral reflection etc) can be reoriented to embrace the fluidity of relationships and emotional responses to practice. By removing the message that such reflection requires a neat conclusion, it can permit the confident (and crucial) reflection on the interplay between personal/professional values and issues. It would be hoped that this would then become much more evident in the final assessed written assignments that students complete connected to practice.
Re-connect... If the first 2 Rs are successfully navigated, then the stage is set for students to re-connect with those initial motivations to begin a career in social work. Being explicit about these links can be very reassuring to students and can in turn increase a sense of self-efficacy and worth in an assessment context which can often make this very difficult. This brings us back full circle and I hope that this edition of "ThursdayThunking" is a helpful reminder of the foundation stones that often underpin a student’s motivation and the real value to keeping in touch without throughout the journey to qualification and beyond.


Brodie, I., Nottingham, C. and Plunkett, S. (2008) A tale of two reports: social work in Scotland from Social Work and the Community to Changing Lives. British Journal of Social Work, 38, 697-715

Cornish, S (2011) Negative capability: insights from Keats, Bion and business. Journal of Social Work Practice. 25 (2). Pp135-148

Hennessey, R. (2011) Relationship skills in social work, London: Sage.

Ingram, R., Fenton, J., Hodson, A. and JindalSnape, D. (2014) Reflective Social Work Practice. London: Palgrave.

Ingram, R. (2015). Understanding Emotions in Social Work: theory, practice and reflection. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Megele, C. (2015). Psychosocial and Relationship Based Practice. Northwich: Critical Publishing.

Ruch, G. (2010) The contemporary context of relationship based practice. In Ruch, G., Turney, D. & Ward, A. (Eds.) Relationship based social work: getting to the heart of practice . London: Jessica Kingsley.

Slay, H. and Smith, D. (2011) Professional identify construction: using narrative to understand the negotiation of professional and stigmatized cultural identities. Human Relations. 64(1). Pp85-107.

About the author:

Dr Richard Ingram is the Associate Dean (Internationalisation) in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Dundee. His main areas of research and scholarship are concerned with emotions and social work; reflective practice; professionalism; and social work education.

He has authored two books which may be useful for practice educators and students engaged in practice learning:

Ingram, R (2015) Understanding Emotions in Social Work: theory, practice and reflection. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Ingram, R., Fenton, J., Hodson, A. and JindalSnape, D. (2014) Reflective Social Work Practice. London: Palgrave.

You can follow Richard on Twitter at @richardingramsw


Next Month...

Kirstin Parkes talks about the ongoing challenge of supporting critical reflection. Keep an eye on

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