As mental health, social work or human services supervisors, we need our staff to provide the best possible care and services for clients. To do this, we need our supervisees to be trained, to keep up their skills, and to grow professionally. We often send our staff to workshops, webinars, conferences, and other kinds of workplace training or continuing education to support their growth. But, do you feel sometimes like nothing is gained, or you don’t see any changes on the job?
While there are many great training offerings out there, there’s a problem with training that’s often left unaddressed: people have a difficult time applying what they’ve learned in a training once they’re back on the job. This difficulty is a known vulnerability in the training field. Learners are vulnerable at the point of application. It’s hard to bridge between the training context and specific work context.
The good news is that you, as a supervisor, can play a significant role in helping your supervisees to apply what they’ve learned in a training to their specific job role, the workplace context, and their unique clients. And more good news—you don’t need to be an expert in the subject of training to do this!
Some Basics of Adult Learning
Let’s look at two helpful concepts about the way adults learn that provide some context for this approach.
Situations, Not Subjects
For many of us, the majority of our experience with education is our own experience in K-12 and higher education. Much of this experience involved the learning of subjects. For example, kids today might be focusing on STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. This approach works when we’re younger and we lack experience and an understanding of the world. However, when we think about an adult taking training, it’s important to shift our thinking from subjects to situations.
As adults, we all find ourselves in unique and specific situations with respect to work and other aspects of life. In these unique situations, we need to assess what’s happening based on what we know and apply what we know to the situation. The subject matter of any given training becomes relevant when it impacts this process. Learners must use what they’ve learned to resolve unique problems that arise in unique situations on the job and in their life.
The best training for adults has content that draws from real-world examples and relevant scenarios—situations they will actually find themselves in. These training approaches lead not only to a deeper understanding of the subject, but also make it easier to bridge between the training and the job. As a result, you can deepen your supervisee’s learning by discussing what they’ve learned in the context of their specific cases and other work.
The Value of Experience
By the time a person has reached adulthood, they have a wealth of life experience. This experience is the resource of highest value in adult education. A focus in our K-12 and higher education is someone else’s experience and knowledge that the teacher passes on to the learner. However, as adults we learn from what we do. Life experience is the living textbook for an adult learner.
For this reason, you can support and guide learning for your supervisee by helping them to analyze their own experience concerning the training material and their specific job. Even if your supervisee is new to the field, they still have a wealth of experience by virtue of living into adulthood. As a supervisor, you are in a unique position to support the supervisee to find the deeper and relevant meaning in their experiences, and build on it to integrate the learning.
Within the course of your ongoing supervision, you can discuss the situations that arise within a supervisee’s role as well as their past experience to build on and integrate what they’ve learned in training. You can support this unique and tailored learning experience even without specific knowledge of the training subject matter. In fact, we do this all the time as supervisors when we facilitate a supervisee’s process of conceptualizing their cases and reflecting on other work.
A Student-Centered Approach
We can’t teach another person directly; we can only facilitate another person’s learning.
You are likely familiar with American psychologist Carl R. Rogers who developed a person-centered approach to counseling and psychotherapy. As a parallel to this person-centered approach, Rogers also conceptualized “student-centered teaching” which grew out of his experience with adults in psychotherapy. According to Rogers, we can’t teach another person directly; we can only facilitate another person’s learning. Student-centered teaching requires a shift in focus from what the teacher does to what is happening within the student.
We can support deeper learning for our supervisees by taking a student-centered approach. This involves taking the role of facilitator as you support them to apply what’s learned in training to unique workplace situations while validating and leveraging the wisdom of the learner’s life experiences.
Concrete Actions to Support Learning and Application
Your support before and after a training program will significantly enhance a supervisee’s ability to apply what they learn to their unique job role and to the specific needs of your organization and clients.
Before the Training
Before a supervisee takes a training, take a few minutes to explore the training program description so you’re familiar with the purpose of the training. Think about how the supervisee might benefit from it. If you have a little more time, think about the organization, clients, and the supervisee’s role: How do you see this training helping them? What will they do differently with clients if they’ve learned something? What will they bring to the agency if they’ve learned something?
Then, in supervision, have the supervisee discuss what they expect to gain from the training. What do they want to get out of it? This will be more beneficial if it’s concrete. For example, “What are three things you want to be sure to learn in the training?” or “What are three ways you can see your practice with clients benefitting from this training?” This discussion doesn’t need to take up much time.
Share with them what you hope they will gain, and be sure to let them know about any organizational expectations. Sometimes training is solely for the supervisee’s growth, and sometimes it’s required by the organization. If required, make sure you understand the organization’s expectectations for change as a result of training the staff, and discuss what those expectations with the supervisee. Within this conversation, be sure to ask the supervisee what they need from you to support them.
A final step to support the learning process is to allow the supervisee time for training. Support them to schedule uninterrupted time to fully participate. Don’t assume they’ll be able to make the time if it’s not scheduled in. If needed, reallocate workloads to other staff. The supervisee will be better able to learn if they’re not stressed out about falling behind on their workload.
After the Training
After your supervisee has taken the training, you’ll use your regular supervision sessions to support application and integration. In these sessions, you’ll use the student-centered approach to facilitate the process. You’ll help the supervisee to think about their take-aways as they apply to their specific clients and to the specific situations they’re experiencing in their work. You’ll help them to think about their past experience and how the new material relates to it.
You’ll want to tailor your discussions to the supervisee’s original expectations of the training. In general, you might discuss:
- What did you find helpful in the training?
- What did you struggle with in the training?
- What are will you do differently in your job after taking the training?
- What do you think the impact will be in doing these things differently?
Engage the supervisee in discussion on their specific cases and other work from the perspective of the training. This process is similar to what we already do in supervision, where we support a supervisee to reflect on their work, and we facilitate their process of conceptualizing, problem solving, using skills, and more.
The supervisee will then engage in their work or practice, and come back to supervision for more reflection and discussion about how they’ve incorporated the learning. This process of discussion/reflection on application – application – discussion/reflection on application supports the process of deeper integration of the material. The supervisee engages in practice while consciously and intentionally applying new skills with your support.
If the supervisee lacks much opportunity for practice in their current role, see if there’s a way you can provide opportunities. For example, you might allow them to cover for another staff person who’s out of the office, or engage in role plays with you or other staff.
An effective way help what’s been learned to stick is by teaching others. If you encourage the supervisee to share what they’ve learned with other staff, the learning will deepen for them, and other staff will potentially benefit too. Examples include:
- Give a lunch-and-learn style talk to other staff on an aspect of the training program.
- Create a handout for other staff on one or several of the training topics.
- Compile a summary report of what was learned that can be shared with other staff.
What this looks like in practice
Mental health, social work and human services workers engage in an incredible variety of work, but my hope is that you’re able to use this approach regardless of your context. Let’s look at an example that can apply to many workplaces and staff in many different roles that might help the approach become clear.
Verbal De-Escalation Training
Before the training:
You take a look at the training description to make sure you know what’s being taught. You read that the training covers verbal de-escalation techniques using the Handle with Care model. You’re not familiar with this model, but that’s okay! As a supervisor, you’re familiar with de-escalation generally. You think of an example of a recent client who was at risk of losing their housing and got escalated in a meeting with the supervisee. The supervisee appeased the client by promising to advocate for them in a variety of ways. Based on this client situation, how do you see a de-escalation training helping the supervisee? How would the client benefit?
In supervision, you talk to the supervisee about the training. You ask “What are three things you want to be sure to learn in the training?” Your supervisee responds: “I want to feel more comfortable when a client is in crisis. I want to be able to say the right thing. I want to be more confident that I can stay safe and help the client.”
After the training:
In your next supervision meeting after the training, you ask the supervisee to tell you about their experience. What did they learn? How do they plan to use the skills they learned with clients? Since you’re not familiar with Handle with Care, you have the supervisee explain the main points of the framework to you. Next, you ask the supervisee to reflect on what they had wanted to learn. How do they feel about that now? Did they get what they needed?
Within the conversation, you ask the supervisee to think about a past case and how they might handle things differently based on the training. The supervisee has a hard time coming up with an example, so you bring up the client you’d thought about previously. You help the supervisee to think about Handle with Care de-escalation approaches and how the supervisee would apply them to that past situation.
In the next several supervision sessions, you bring up the training and ask the supervisee how they’re working on integrating the new skills. They bring up relevant situations as they arise, and you facilitate their learning by asking about aspects of the Handle with Care model as they relate to those situations. You role play with the supervisee to help them practice the skills.
Finally, you ask your supervisee to create a 15-minute presentation of the components of the Handle with Care Model to deliver at the next staff meeting and to lead a short discussion on verbal de-escalation with the other staff.
It doesn’t take much more than some intention with these “before training” and “after training” steps to help a supervisee integrate and apply what they’ve learned in training to their unique job and context. You are likely already having similar discussions with your supervisee on their cases and other tasks. Shifting to incorporating these strategies ensures that the supervisee, the organization, and clients benefit as much as possible from training.
Please feel free to download the Learning Support Checklist for Supervisors above to use with your supervisees.