By: Dierdra Oretade, MSW
In my past field placement, I had two supervisors. This was something that was very new to me and, often, it was difficult to manage because of their different supervisory styles. Many times, I found myself preferring one supervisor over the other, because I felt I was better understood and that this supervisor’s supervisory style was more aligned with my learning style. These differences really caused me to struggle with how I approached cases and caused me to question the differences in my relationship with each supervisor. Until recently, I never thought or even considered that there were theories and styles of supervision that supervisors may use to help teach and guide MSW students’ development in their field placements.
In an effort to better understand the relationship I had with my supervisors and how it affected my practice within my field agency, I decided to do some research on the role of attachment in the supervisory relationship with MSW students. Attachment theory is a theory of human relationships/behaviors and motivation (Shilkret, 2005; Bennett, 2008). Within supervision, better understanding of the relationship-specific attachment styles of the supervisee and the supervisor will better explain the type of relationship they have. Therefore, this article will provide a literature review that discusses this topic in detail. Finally, I will discuss how this new knowledge has helped me to better understand the role of attachment in the supervisory relationships and how it can improve students’ practice within the field agency.
C. S. Bennett (2008) presents a model for training field supervisors of MSW students, which incorporates key components of attachment theory. Attachment theory, when placed within the supervisory relationship, encourages the supervisees’ professional development. This model shows how supervisors can provide a safe space for critique and support for the supervisee. As challenges arise within supervision, this safe space will encourage supervisees to develop a professional sense of self and exploration of their clinical practice with confidence (Bennett, 2008). Bennett (2008) states that supervisees are more likely to create a safe space for their clients if this was first modeled through their supervisory relationship. The supervisory relationship provides a blueprint of knowing how to relate to one’s client. Therefore, Bennett’s work demonstrates how the relational dynamics between the supervisor, supervisee, and client potentially mirror themselves.
Previous research has revealed that students value supervisors who are supportive, open to differences, available, and able to develop positive relationships with the supervisee (Bennett, 2008; Bennett, BrintzenhofeSzoc, Mohr, & Saks, 2008). Bennett (2008) contends that “attachment theory is applicable to supervision because it provides an empirically-based framework for understanding both the nature of relationships and the process of establishing a supportive, secure base for supervision” (p. 97).
Bennett’s (2008) 8-month training program for social work field supervisors had five objectives, as follows:
(1) To critically examine the supervisor’s role in the context of the student’s education; (2) to understand the components of a successful working alliance and effective supervision; (3) to understand how supervision may trigger attachment processes; (4) to increase the supervisor’s skills for reading student attachment cues and learning needs; and (5) to understand the supervisory relationship as a circle of security facilitating development of the student’s professional self. (p. 100)
The participants in this training model felt that it was successful in helping them develop confidence in their skills. They reported that they were successfully able to establish a supportive environment that was appropriate for the student’s learning and exploration. As a result of the positive relational dynamics within supervision, the supervisees achieved more confidence in their work with their clients.
Bennett, Mohr, BrintzenhofeSzoc, and Saks (2008) hypothesized that students’ perceptions of, and behaviors in, their supervisory relationships may be influenced by the students’ general patterns of attachment. Their cross-sectional study was completed with 72 master’s-level social work students. The study examined “general attachment styles (anxiety and avoidance) and supervision-specific attachment (anxiety and avoidance)” in the MSW students’ foundation year (Bennett et al., 2008, p. 79). These variables were studied to better understand the students’ perception of their supervisory relational experience in terms of the working alliance and the supervisory style. For purposes of this study, the working alliance was defined as an agreement between the supervisee and supervisor regarding the goals and tasks of the work to be completed, and the essential relational bonds needed to complete the goals and tasks agreed upon. The supervisory style was defined as the particular approach used by the supervisors to carry out their roles and functions of supervision. Although the authors believed that the students’ general attachment style would influence their perceptions of and behaviors in their supervisory relationships in terms of the working alliance and the supervisory style, this was not supported in the study.