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Noticing and encouraging ‘sparks’: How can social workers and educators empower others to develop

Noticing and encouraging ‘sparks’ of potential in others is the core business of social workers and educators. We will all have examples of how our own ‘sparks’ of interest, talent or enthusiasm were fanned into our flames of success. The importance of those key people, or moments , when our capabilities were recognised and we were given encouragement cannot be underestimated. Though I suspect we will have many more stories to tell about how our ‘sparks’ were put out by others, often those with arguably a duty to help us grow and develop, such as parents, friends, teachers, social workers, managers, or colleagues.

So how can social workers and educators empower and energise others using encouragement? What does it really mean and why is it important? Why might we be unable or unwilling to encourage the lighting of fires? These are some ideas that I have been wondering about recently. How can I inspire social workers and students to have an ongoing passion for learning? How can I get others interested in research? How do I keep my own ‘fire’ burning bright? So many questions!!!

Then I had one of those ‘moments’, where someone unexpectedly breathed encouragement into my own potential. This caused me to reflect on who had encouraged me (academically and professionally) through the years. As we head into a New Year it seems an opportune time to capture something about the impact of others on my professional journey. Maybe some things in my story will resonate with your own experience, or encourage you, or maybe you will be inspired to encourage others…

Now being a child of the 60s there are two key points I wish to start with. Firstly I do not intend to give you my life history in this blog. Too long! Secondly, I cannot really say my early educational experiences were that encouraging. The education system at that time was rigid. I got the grades but lost any enjoyment in formal learning. My reports, from an all girls grammar school, do not provide any clues to my actual talents and strengths. I was described as a ‘square peg in a round hole’ and the word ‘disappointing’ features prominently. I think it would be fair to say I was a ‘late starter’ on the academic front.

Encouragement suggests both support and guidance (containing, holding, enabling, suggesting, leading). The catalyst for change for my professional development was subtle encouragement. I had started fostering and there were several people, in the training and supervising team, who noticed over a period of time that I was fizzling with sparks (ideas, possibilities, enthusiasm, commitment) and that I enjoyed learning. They nurtured my interest and capabilities. I was introduced to academic texts, relating to ‘looked after children’, such as A Child’s Journey Through Placement (Fahlberg, 1991) and a wide variety of books (I did not own a computer). I was invited to facilitate training and to mentor other carers. I was engaged in critically reflective discussions and so much more. Reflecting on this time it is clear that this was ‘relationship-based’ practice in action. Genuine relationships based on reciprocity. When I stumbled across the work of Gillian Ruch some years later it all made sense! These practitioners were secure enough in their own competencies to feel comfortable in fanning my sparks into flames, without fear of being overwhelmed by the resulting fire! I was encouraged to enrol on an Open University degree and academically there has been no stopping me since…

What made the encouragement of these amazing social workers effective, is that they noticed I had strengths that could be creatively developed. They were attuned and spotted the possibilities in me and for me. Rather amazingly, they did not try and keep me in a ‘box’ labelled ‘foster carer’ and they offered me opportunities. I was supported to go beyond my comfort zone and celebrated in my successes (even though it meant I moved on from fostering to train as a social worker). They ‘modelled’ excellent, empowering practice. The power of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory at it’s best. Perhaps it is my own experience of being encouraged in this way, that makes me revel in enabling others to realise their dreams and be all they can be.

Roll on a few years (through social work practice in a variety of settings and lecturing in social work) and I am in a position where I can influence the professional development of others by encouraging them by noticing their proudest moments. It is hugely rewarding to be able to shine a light on their strengths with a view to identifying ‘sparks’ that can be ignited.

The ‘messages’ we convey to people about their abilities are powerful. The ‘single most important variable’ determining whether someone accomplishes educationally is their ‘belief’ they can do it (Whitaker, Zoul and Casas, 2017). There is plenty I could say about why social workers and educators might be unable, or unwilling, to encourage others but that can keep for another blog. I want to end on a positive note…

We all need encouraging from time to time or our sparks dim (or maybe even go out). I am fortunate to have people in my life who constantly encourage me but even so its good to get a boost from elsewhere. I said that I had unexpected encouragement recently. I bumped into a couple of those inspirational folk who originally set me on my path. They are still encouraging and inspiring foster carers. A few sincere words have once again made a huge impact on me. I was discussing how Twitter has unexpectedly opened up my professional network and how I have been encouraged by academics and social workers nationally (and even internationally). I was told (very gently) that people have always tried to contain me in ‘boxes’ but my thirst for learning means I outgrow them…and I need to carry on breaking into new or bigger boxes! Wow! I wonder. Bit scary. Maybe. Not sure. Maybe easier to try and fit into the box?? We shall see...

So a great big thank you to those who have encouraged and inspired me over the years. Most of you probably have no idea what a difference you made. Finally, if I can encourage you (whoever you are and whatever your situation) not to be contained in ‘boxes’, or be defined and restricted by labels, that prevent you from growing then I will be delighted! Pay attention to those moments of encouragement and go for it!

Please do give me feedback on my blogs. I am a novice blogger and I am wanting to use this as a platform for debate rather than me pontificating!

Twitter: @CarolineAldrid5




Fahlberg, V. (1991) A Child’s Journey Through Placement, London, BAAF (newer editions available)

Ruch, G., (2010) Relationship-based social work: getting to the heart of practice, London, Jessica Kingsley Press

Whitaker, T., Zoul, J., and Casas, J., (2017) Start. Right. Now. Teach and lead for excellence, San diego, Dave Burgess Consulting Inc

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