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Social Work Degree Apprenticeships: How to learn from mundane, routine, or limited activities

As the Coronavirus spreads our health and social care services will be under unprecedented pressure. These are exceptional times and social workers will provide a vital service. There has (rightly) been some debate about what HEIs should do about their students. Apprentices mostly work for local authorities and as employees they are part of the workforce. Yet their primary role is to learn. For all sorts of reasons, social work apprentices (and students) might find themselves required to undertake work tasks that, on the face of it, are not learning opportunities. Social work teams will increase lone/remote working and home visits will be replaced by phone/video conversations if possible. Experienced social workers, Practice Educators, and Work Place Mentors will need to prioritise supporting the people who need services over apprentices. How can apprentices learn if the activities they are allocated are easily within their capabilities or they are mundane or limited?

Despite apprentices possibly having in less than ideal working arrangements, working differently through a national crisis can be a rich learning opportunity. Here are some ideas that I shared with my apprentices that might help their learning:

Some ideas to support your learning -

Please bear in mind that we are in a rapidly changing situation and some of these suggestions will be more, or less, helpful over the coming weeks.

Don’t try and learn/do lots of new things at once – pace yourselves.

Remember to practice self-care and make some time each day to calm your mind and restore your emotions:

- Calm alert brains are support cognitive processing and learning. It is difficult to concentrate when we are anxious or tired. Find links to Karen Triesman and Lisa Cherry online, they are generating lots of online self-care resources.

- Use the ‘Emotional First Aid Kit’ (below) to identify what calms or soothes you and what increases anxiety and dysregulation. I have used this activity over many years with children, adults (practitioners/students). Save it somewhere and remind yourself to do some regulating activities when needed. You can be as creative as you want in undertaking the activity. NB: You might find this a useful tool to use with others and it could be easily shared via photos/email and completed via phone/video link.

Capture your reflections.

- These are exceptional times and history is being made. Why not keep a diary? It might be really helpful to pause for a short while each day and think about what you were able to do, or what you couldn’t do, and how this impacts on the people who use services. Now is the time to start that reflective journal using whatever format works for you (written, audio, video, creative etc). Capture how it feels to be unable to perform certain tasks or to be restricted in what you can offer. Don’t forget to celebrate and reflect on your successes too.

- Write the reflections you need to for your portfolios. You don’t have to write about something amazing. You might simply want to reflect on how this international crisis is impacting on you as a social worker of the future. Think about your reactions. Are you frightened or sanguine? Why might this be? How does that effect your behaviours? Or your interpretations of other people’s behaviours?

- Engage in any virtual reflective group supervisions that are offered to you.

Use innovative ways to stay connected:

- Twitter can be a scary place where misinformation abounds. However, right now history is being created (very visibly) on there. Follow practice leaders, academics and organisations. I have learnt so much from this and you can too. Watch (or better still participate in) the debates about autonomy v protection, the ethics of who might get treatment (and why) etc. Participate in Twitter chats. I will tweet links to the chats being hosted on @SApprentieship.

- A whole section of the Social Work Apprenticeship Standards is about digital skills. Now is your moment to demonstrate, and sign off, your use of technology to support service-users! You will never be so motivated again in learning to use new digital tools. Then pause and think about things like the ethics, barriers, and data protection issues. Check out @AMLTaylor66, she is really understands these issues and is generous in sharing information.

- Link what you are doing to evidence. For example, @trishgreenhalgh a medic and academic (on Twitter) is live time generating new scientific evidence in collaboration with others. You can see how research evidence is created. Her work on supporting GPs to learn to use video or phone consultations is impressive and backed by research.

Help your teams and community:

- You might feel ineffective if you cannot go on visits but you might have time that others in your team might not have right now. Could you be their researcher? Could you look for tools and up to the minute information to support them in their role? You might be in isolation, and only have the phone or a computer to communicate with, but you could really make this a learning opportunity.

- Maybe you have a skill someone else is struggling to learn (eg. How to use Skype). Supporting others in your teams by sharing your skills demonstrates key social work skills (professional leadership PCF 9).

- Get involved with your community. Even if it is just picking up shopping for your immediate neighbours. Think about how those needing help, and those charged with offering it, interact. One day you might be a leader in social care. What learning will you take forward from this time?

Link everything to research and theory:

- Take a step back and research around a topic relating to Coronavirus. For example, the Coivid19 Bill (announced yesterday) was fast tracked through parliament. Social workers and others are concerned about the implications on people’s and Human Rights. The changes in your ways of working, and the decisions you and others will make, will be profoundly linked to issues of social justice, economic rights and well-being, equality and diversity. Now is a good time to think about how legislation, theory and practice interlink. Even the tiniest thing, like taking a phone call and directing someone to a foodbank or community resource is a rich learning opportunity.

- Read, read, read. If you feel like you are unproductive and not being given enough tasks to do (right now everyone around you might be busy sorting out strategic responses and ‘fire-fighting’) use the time to read. I’m pretty certain in the weeks to come that no one with skills in health and social care will have this luxury.

- Engage in all the online teaching that will be on offer to you. We will all need to get used to doing things differently for a period of time but we might find some things are better!

Skills in difficult conversations:

- As the crisis in Corona virus progresses all of us at home or at work will need to have very difficult conversations. The people around you might be frightened for themselves or a loved one. Many will be bereaved. It is possible that, whatever our role, we will find ourselves trying to have highly emotive conversations via technology. We are all going to be learning about how to remain compassionate and empathic under extreme pressure without succumbing to emotional burnout. Prepare and gather your resources now. There are some brilliant infographics on the internet that explain Coronavirus related things simply (for children or people with learning disabilities). When the worst happens, we all need simplified information I suggest you start looking at things like ‘social stories’ and think about what consistent ‘scripts’ you might need. Then look at the theory behind these ideas.

Learning from under the duvet:

- If you are sick, or your family members are, or you need to be in protracted self-isolation, prioritise the health and wellbeing of yourself and your loved ones. College work can always be picked up again at a later date. You will be learning even if you are only able to watch television, or scroll the internet, or you are home-schooling your children.

If your mindset is ‘what can I learn from this?’ no experience is wasted however routine or mundane it might seem. When this is over, and one day it will be over, we will draw on your experiences of this time and learn how to be social workers fit for the future.

As always my blogging is done in the spirit of sharing ideas. Do feel free to copy and adapt anything that will be useful to you. Any questions: email me or comment on my Twitter feed @CarolineAldrid5

Keep safe and well everyone, Caroline

The ‘Emotional First Aid Kit’ activity

This is a really simple activity that seems to work for all ages (give a bit of creative adaptation). The ‘Emotional First Aid Kit’ requires adults or children to individually identify the things that help them regulate their feelings. They put into their ‘kit’ the things that help them feel calm, safe, or relaxed and identify things to put outside the ‘kit’ that make them feel more stressed. Discussing the choices can help to identifying feelings and strategies for managing them.

This activity can be done by simply drawing first-aid kit bag (a rectangle with a handle and a cross on it) on a piece of paper and writing or drawing things on it or you can get really creative with a bag and items to put in.

A key part of the activity is placing the kit where it will serve as a reminder to the person (and those around them) of what to do or avoid if stress levels are rising.

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