Being a social work student on my final placement before I graduate, I know how daunting and challenging they can be. From my own student perspective, I have put together some tips that I hope will help you make the most of your placement.
All social work degrees in the UK require students to undertake compulsory placements. In Northern Ireland, where I am based, students must complete two placements of 85 days and 100 days in practice, respectively.
Once you have received your placement, the nerves may start to creep up on you but try not to let them affect your enthusiasm!
First things first, do your research. Read up on the area/specialism that you will be working in as this will provide you with knowledge about what to expect and what the role might entail. Although, social work has no set role and changes depending on what area you are in, so it is important to bear this in mind. Our expectations of how we view the social work role can negatively impact how we perceive our placement so it is best to stay positive and keep an open mind!
In Northern Ireland, we are required to arrange a pre-placement visit. This is just a meeting with your practice teacher to talk through the logistics. If your university does not require this I advise thinking about organising one anyway. They allow you to meet your practice teacher, the team and to get a real understanding of the environment you will be working in. This can be a good way to minimise anxiety!
Every placement is different. As students, we sometimes have an idea of the area we want to work in when we graduate. This is good but don’t let it put you off other placements! You may find that your mind changes with your experiences!
Be organised! Keep and maintain a diary that sets out your working hours. Do you have assignments? Make sure you know when they are due. You need to time-manage effectively. Some placements will allow you to complete assignments during your working hours, however that depends on the service users. They are your priority!
Make full use of supervision! Supervision is vital regardless of whether you are a student or professional, so don’t waste the opportunity it provides. This may be your only time with your practice teacher. Prepare what you want to talk about and set an agenda. They will be impressed if they know you are motivated, proactive and thinking about practice.
Not everyone hits the ground running, and it’s okay to have doubts about your placement and/or your own abilities. I doubted myself during my first placement, but don’t let one placement dictate your view of social work. Some placements can be challenging, but there are things you can do to make it that little bit better!
Find a staff member that you can work alongside. For my first placement, I wasn’t placed in a statutory setting, so I did not work with other social workers. This can be daunting, but you are not alone. There are many other members of staff more than willing to help you! Find one who you can communicate with and who you think could give you good ideas. Staff members know the service users, so don’t be afraid to ask questions as they may have knowledge you can utilise that you won’t find in a textbook.
Know yourself. Sometimes, as students, we get so overwhelmed by what all our friends are doing that we worry whether we aren’t getting a good experience. When you have spent many semesters reading pages upon pages, once you get out into the real world of practice, we sometimes have expectations set too high. We have thought about what we want and what we hope to do, but placements can’t change to our way of thinking. We need to adapt to theirs. Changing your mindset about how you view your placement can help you understand exactly what you need to achieve and how.
In the UK, there are evidence criteria that have to be met during placement. Usually these are listed in a huge table in a 288 page document. Break it down. Go through each standard, either on your own or with a team member, and jot down ideas as to how to meet it.
Placements aren’t meant to be easy. Social work in general isn’t easy, but don’t overcomplicate it. You can only work with what you are given. Adapt work to suit your placement and your learning needs. Think of things in the context of your own placement, this makes it easier to understand exactly what you need to do.
If you need to, talk to someone. Never keep an issue to yourself. Social work requires us to be available, physically, mentally and emotionally. We cannot work with people effectively if we are worn out or stressed. Talk to your practice teacher, or a university tutor as chances are the issue will have arisen before with other students and they will know exactly how to help!
Honesty is the best policy! As students we sometimes have the dilemma of, if we see something in practice that we don’t agree with, should we challenge it? Weigh up the risks. You are going somewhere on placement that some people may have worked at for years. An ethos can be drilled into an organisation and change is not a quick thing. However, don’t be afraid to ask why things are done a certain way and if you don’t feel comfortable doing this publicly, mention it in supervision. Supervision is a ‘safe place’ and a place for you to critically reflect on your practice.
Self care is important because placements can be tough and draining. Look after yourself! Do things that help you relax, maybe yoga, reading or exercise. Listening to music really helps me zone out but I would also recommend adult colouring books! These are great for alleviating anxiety and just channeling your energy for a while and there are also free apps too if you want to try it out!
Lastly, have fun! You are on your way to becoming a qualified social worker. This may be one of the last times you can do social work without the heavy case loads and the safety net of university! Be open to it, seek out your own work and view everything as an opportunity.