Animal Assisted Interventions and Activities in Social Work

Jasmin is an academic tutor and research assistant at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. This blog is based on her social work honours research project on human animal interaction and the benefits to mental health. Email Jasmin at

Background: Animal assisted interventions have had a place in mental health services for a long time, particularly in institutional contexts. However, with the dawn of scientific medicine by the early 20th century, animals were mostly removed from these settings (Serpell, 2006). Animal interaction and the benefits to health were brought back onto the agenda in the 1980s’, following a ground-breaking study that found reduced mortality rates in patients with coronary disease who were pet owners compared to patients who did not own a pet (Friedmann et al., 1980). Since then, a growing body of research has shown that interaction with animals can be beneficial to mental and physical health and well-being in various contexts including therapeutic interventions (Dell et al., 2011), pet ownership (Allen et al., 2002) and working with farm animals (Berget et al., 2011). Today, animal assisted interventions are increasingly recognised and utilised in a variety of settings and across different target populations. For example, therapy dogs at schools and nursing homes, equine assisted therapy for people with mental health issues or substance addiction, and companion dogs for soldiers with PTSD.

Why should Social Workers be interested in animal assisted interventions and activities? It is increasingly recognised that interaction with animals can result in various benefits to mental health and well-being, and animal assisted interventions and activities provide a non-medical and holistic way of improving mental health. Such activities can be easily accessible (for example, volunteering at an animal shelter), and can help clients focus on strengths and work towards recovery. Animals are part of many people’s environments and animal assisted interventions are another way to think about achieving well-being overall. It has to be said that such activities and interventions are not suitable for all people or all situations. However, if social workers are knowledgeable and educated about different options and ways in which animal interactions can be utilised to promote mental well-being, they may be able to identify clients who could benefit from it and support them to access it.

My research: For my honours research I conducted a phenomenological study exploring participants’ experiences of the benefits of interaction with animals to their mental health. My research focused on animal interaction in general, rather than specific animal assisted therapies. It aimed to identify in what ways interaction with animals may benefit mental health—something that is not precisely understood.

Young Girl Being Visited In Hospital By Therapy Dog
Image by © Monkey Business via fotolia

Participants in the study interacted with animals on a regular basis and in different settings. Specifically, volunteering at a wildlife rescue place, fostering dogs and attending a residential health service that included caring for animals as part of the program.

The study identified eight distinct themes as benefits of interaction with animals, namely that animal interaction provided company and comfort, provided a context for increased social interaction and social skills, helped peopled develop routines and balance in their daily lives, provided opportunities for helping, promoted learning and an opportunity to reach ones potential, provided for fun and enjoyment, helped people develop a sense of achievement and a passion for caring.

The following paper has been published from the study:

Jau, J., & Hodgson, D. (2018). How interaction with animals can benefit mental health: A phenomenological study. Social Work in Mental Health, 16(1), 20-33.


Allen, K., Blascovic, J., & Mendes, W. (2002). Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: The truth about cats and dogs. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64(5), 727-739. doi: 10.1097/01.PSY.0000024236.11538.41

Berget, B., Ekberg, O., Pedersen, I., & Braastad, B. O. (2011). Animal-assisted therapy with farm animals for persons with psychiatric disorders: effects on anxiety and depression, a randomized controlled trial. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 27(1), 50-64. doi:

Dell, C. A., Chalmers, D., Bresette, N., Swain, S., Rankin, D., & Hopkins, C. (2011). A healing space: The experiences of First Nation and Inuit youth with equine-assisted learning. Child & Youth Care Forum: Journal of Research and Practice in Children’s Services, 40(4), 319-336. doi: 10.1007/s10566-011-9140-z

Friedmann, E., Katcher, A. H., Lynch, J. J., & Thomas, S. A. (1980). Animal companions and one-year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit. Public Health Reports, 95(4), 307-312. Retrieved from:

Serpell, J. A. (2006). Animal-assisted interventions in historical perspective. In A. H. Fine (ED.), Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice (2nd ed., pp.3-20). California, CA: Elsevier.




‘Losing my undergraduate consciousness’: Reflections on the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate identity in social work research

Melissa Laing is a PhD candidate in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. She graduated from the RMIT Bachelor of Social Work (Honours)/Bachelor of Social Science (Psychology) in 2016. Melissa’s blog describes her experience of transitioning from undergraduate study, graduation into practitioner identity, and commencing postgraduate research (almost) simultaneously. Melissa can be contacted at

Commencing a doctoral degree can be a big transition for any new PhD student, but doing so soon after graduating from an undergraduate degree brings unique challenges to the emerging social work professional identity. As one of the few social work graduates at my university to go directly into a PhD program, there was no clear process to guide me through this unique and at times overwhelming transition. In this blog post, I reflect upon aspects of my own experience of transitioning from undergraduate to postgraduate study, which could be helpful for final year social work students contemplating a similar path.

During my final year Social Work placement, which was in the research centre I am now associated with, I overheard a conversation between an academic and a student he was supervising. The student was asking about how she could really step up into feeling like a PhD candidate. Her supervisor replied, “you need to lose your undergraduate consciousness”. There seemed to be something a bit magical about these words, but I would not recognise what they were foreshadowing until quite a bit later…

Completion of an undergraduate social work degree necessitates a shift in identity from student to the social work practitioner. Is there a discrete social work identity? Miehls and Moffatt (2000, p. 339) describe social work identity as “a sense of ego mastery and control by the acquisition of theory to enhance skill-based practice expertise”, while Barnard (2009) makes the claim that the graduate social worker ‘self’ attains stability on becoming a practitioner. But what if this new identity emerges concurrently with the cultivation of another ‘self’ –that of the PhD student? Kamler and Thomson (2014) suggest that the process of constructing an identity as a PhD scholar is about multiple identities, and this was certainly the case with my identity as both a graduate social worker AND new PhD student.

Beginning a research degree as a new social work graduate was not the plan that I had when commencing as an undergraduate, so this unexpected and divergent ‘PhD identity’ path choice entailed treading overwhelming terrain. I was now a social worker, but I wasn’t ‘doing social work’. Who was I, and what was the point of having invested five years on two degrees (social work and psychology)? Was I a failed social worker? My research wasn’t even related to social work practice.


Business Travel Meeting Discussion Team Concept
Image via Fotolia ©

A turning point arrived when I witnessed an inspiring lecture on World Social Work Day, where the need for social work researchers was articulated. I had the realisation that this was the integrated identity I could aspire to. Bringing social work more explicitly into my research would enable me to give expression to my identity as a social work graduate within my emerging academic identity. My fully integrated identity would be as a Social Work Researcher collecting stories about how social workers in direct practice are working in ways that the literature has yet to catch up with.

Getting back to the overheard words of wisdom, I pulled the supervisor aside later to share how his words had affected me, and that I wondered how I could lose my undergraduate consciousness (hypothetically speaking). He suggested that it was largely about cultivating authority, and that in the identity work required to become a postgraduate researcher, we by necessity become an expert in the little piece of academia that we are staking out and claiming as our own. In the twin emergent identities, there lies a tension between the aspiration to be an expert in academia, versus the social worker who relinquishes a desire to be an expert as a necessary part of anti-oppressive practice. As a means of sitting with this tension, Kamler and Thomson (2014, p. 16-17) have made propositions about identity construction in the context of completing a doctorate, and the developing social worker can be nested with ease within these ideas. To each proposition (in bold italics), I have added direct questions and an example of my own experience with that proposition.

Identity is plural, not singular – identities

How does my social work identity ‘fit’ with my emerging researcher self? What does the Researcher bring to the Practitioner?

Since beginning my PhD, my social worker self has strengthened as my research has become more explicitly informed by the major driver of my decision to take the divergent path—my animal advocacy. As I have moved through the first year of my doctorate and acquired a range of skills necessary to attain the first milestone, my social worker identity provided the skills required to complete my literature review and problem identification (needs assessment), research proposal (intervention plan), and a confirmation of candidature seminar (case conference).

An identity narrative is informed by the ways in which we are seen and described

Am I ‘putting myself out there’? Am I rehearsing my emerging PhD scholar by seeking out and engaging with peers?

New social workers are guided to build strong, often interdisciplinary networks of relationships. I was able to find a desk in both the research centre I am affiliated with, and the social work office, which has enabled me to embody both identities in a very tangible way. Not only had I become a postgraduate student at the university where I completed my undergraduate social work degree, but my former lecturers were now relating to me as though I was their academic equal. This took some getting used to, but having a constant physical presence in both spaces allowed for many serendipitous hallway conversations and helped me to ‘feel’ like a peer to both those who had helped shape my social work graduate identity, and were shaping that of the emerging scholar.

 Identities are continually being made and remade in and as action

Am I saying ‘yes’ to opportunities to get out of my comfort zone? Am I asking for help when I feel lost?

Social work students are taught from early on that critical social work requires regular reflection and reflexivity. Use of a journal to track emotional, academic and task-specific progress has been central to this process for me, as has using new experiences (such as writing articles and speaking at lectures and symposia) as learning opportunities gave me the chance to ‘perform’ the doctoral identity (Kamler & Thomson, 2014).

Twelve months of occupying both the social worker and PhD candidate, I feel I am embodying the social work researcher, and look forward to how these identities will intertwine further in the next 12 months.


Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Miehls, D. & Moffatt, K. (2000). Constructing social work identity based on the reflexive self, British Journal of Social Work, 30, 339-348.


Beyond disconnection: A social worker thinking about faith and belonging

Monica Short lectures in Social Work and Human Services in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Charles Sturt University.  Monica is a currently undertaking her PhD by portfolio. You can contact Monica via email at

“Social work practice and people’s beliefs are two separate things, so why research about the church?”  It is not my view that practice/actions and beliefs are dualistic or disconnected. In response to this common question I could reply with three quick statements: 1. Australia is religiously diverse (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). 2. People’s faith (including faith in non-belief or no-religion) matters. 3. Faith can profoundly impact values, identity, motivation, justice, empathy and resilience (Tillotson, Short, Ollerton, Hearn, & Sawatzky, 2017, pp. 334-335).

Being a social worker, however, I cannot help but embrace the dialogue and aim to navigate the conversation towards critical self-reflection and the discussion of narratives (case studies). One of my favourite replies to this question begins with a common social work, sociological and theological concept – belonging.

Can you think of a time when have you felt like you belonged? When you felt loved, important, significant. What did it feel like for you to belong? (Short, 2017)

Social workers well know that not everyone feels like they belong in Australian society. Pockets of disadvantage, exclusion and isolation exist, and that many such pockets are in non-urban locations (Jesuit Social Services & Catholic Social Services Australia, 2015).

What, however, does disadvantage, isolation and exclusion feel like personally, emotionally and spiritually? To help create a connection to the topic can you think of a time where you felt ignored, where your faith and/or beliefs did not matter and you felt like you did not belong?

Sam (anonymised), a person participating in the research, also personally knows disadvantage, isolation and exclusion. “There is nothing here for [people living with disabilities]. You have services [government and non-government] in Sydney in Canberra … [This is one of] those spots where [name of town] gets forgotten. In country towns, a lot of [people living with a particular disability] are ignored.” Sam also has thoughts about belonging. She explains, “That is where [church] is different, they are trying to integrate everyone in”. (Short, 2018)

Maslow (1943, para. 34) recognises that people have a need to belong. In 2016, 52% of Australians identified as Christians (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016) and many of the people I have interviewed through the research ‘love’ belonging to a church (Short, 2018).

My PhD (by portfolio – consisting of books and journal articles) is bringing Sam’s and other peoples’ voices into the public domain. The focus of the research is about how the Anglican ChurchPhoto by Jan Stead of Australia in rural, regional and remote communities engages with people living with disabilities, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and Indigenous people groups. The research is centred on the Anglican Church because nationally it contains stories about the link between loving God and care for your neighbours (Anglicans Online, 2018; New International Version, 2011, Luke 10:27), and also themes like belonging. An integrated lens with an epistemological base in social work, sociology and theology is scaffolding the research. The research methodology is participatory, and through the process, people in rural Australia are narrating and publishing their stories of engagement (Short, 2015a, 2015b, 2018; Short, Broughton, Short, Ochala, & Anscombe, 2017). Consider for example, Joan’s and Joy’s stories.

Joan (anonymised) moved from her home country to an Australian town to study. She suffered from homesickness and loneliness. Local church members noticed her and also other international students’ struggles. The church members sensitively modified their day-to-day language to encourage clear communication, assisted people in crossing cultures and aimed to build people’s resilience and confidence (Short, 2015b). Joan declares, “They share their experience with you. I was doing [a course] and it was tough during the placement… I lost weight [a lot of weight]. She [friend from church] noticed and cooked me food [and encouraged me to eat] (Short, 2015b, p. 28).”  Joan also states, “I am touched by their compassion. At that time I was not a believer… Love in action touches peoples’ heart.” (Short, 2015b, p. 36)

Joy (also anonymised) too shares her experience of engaging with the church. Joy lives in a country town in another state of Australia. Joy lives with multiple disabilities, finds mixing with people confusing and has not always known kindness. On moving to a small rural town, Joy felt isolated with few resources. A neighbour invited Joy to church. Joy enjoyed church so she kept going and began reading the Bible and as a result, her life has radically changed. For example, Joy has moved from feeling isolated to belonging. Now when she walks down the street people from the church will ask her to join them for coffee or tea. Joy has found that she belongs at church and to God, belongs down the street and belongs in her community. (Short, 2017, 2018).

I am lead to believe by the 53 people from NSW and Victoria, whose stories have already been or are about to be published, that belonging occurs when the very essence of someone and what they believe is respected and valued (Short, 2017).  And yes the experiences of belonging documented are not dependent on connection with church. Rather the research is presenting examples of belonging in that specific context.

To return to the original question about why am I researching rural Anglican Church engagements? Based on Sam’s, Joy’s, Joan’s and other people’s testimonies, I am becoming increasingly convinced that faith expressed in community can have a profound impact upon people’s lives and provide a powerful experience of belonging.

afternoon tea
Photo by Jan Stead

Another reason is to further social work, sociological and theological knowledge about grassroots initiatives facilitating faith, dignity and belonging throughout Australia. Additionally, it appears possible to incorporate this knowledge into social work practice.

What do you as a social worker think about faith and belonging? Do you have ideas that could assist the research? I would be interested in connecting with other social workers exploring similar ideas about the connections between faith and belonging, I look forward to hearing from you. In the meantime, let us as social workers stand in solidarity with other disciplines and let us celebrate people like Sam, Joan and Joy. Let us celebrate belonging, in church and in the community, wherever it exists (Short, 2017).


Anglicans Online. (2018). The Catechism. Retrieved from

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016). Census: Religion. Retrieved from

Jesuit Social Services, & Catholic Social Services Australia. (2015). Dropping of the edge, 2015. Retrieved from

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.

New International Version. (2011). Holy Bible: Biblica Inc.

Short, M. (2015a). The Anglican Church of Australia and engagement with people living with disabilities. St Mark’s Review, 232(July 2), 123 – 138.

Short, M. (2015b). Three Anglican Churches engaging with people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Sydney, NSW: BCA.

Short, M. (2017). Belonging: Social work, sociological and theological insights into engagements with people living with disabilities. Paper presented at the SWift: Newsletter of the Australian Association of Social Workers New South Wales branch, Sydney, NSW.

Short, M. (2018). Anglican churches engaging with people living with disabilities. Sydney, NSW: The Bush Church Aid Society of Australia & CBM Australia’s Luke 14 Program.

Short, M., Broughton, G., Short, M., Ochala, Y., & Anscombe, B. (2017). Connecting to belonging: A cross-disciplinary inquiry into rural Australian Anglican Church engagements with people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 32(1), 119-133. doi:10.1080/13537903.2016.1256657

Tillotson, N., Short, M., Ollerton, J., Hearn, C., & Sawatzky, B. (2017). Faith matters: From a disability lens. Journal of Disability and Religion, 21(3), 319-337.

Autoethnography – a reflection on method

This post is from Dr Lynelle Watts, an early career researcher and one of the curators of this blog. Autoethnography has become a popular method in social work research and this post is a reflection on it as a method. Lynelle finds methods interesting and is hopeful others out there do as well – you can contact her at

One of the methods I utilised in my doctoral research on reflective practice in Australian social work education was autoethnography. Autoethnography is an increasingly popular method for engaging in reflection on a range of social phenomena. Autoethnography is a term for research that explores the connections between culture, the wider society and the self (Chang, 2008). It does so by using the reflective practices of the researcher as subject. As I was embarking on studying an aspect of my own professional tribe the method seemed a good way to get started. The term autoethnography was first coined by David Hayano (Anderson, 2006Ellis & Bochner, 2000) and the method gained wider audiences through Carolyn Ellis and Art Bochner’ paper Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity – Researcher as subject published in the Handbook of Qualitative Research (2000). Since then papers using autoethnographic practices have exploded – even a cursory Google Scholar search brings up approx 16,200 results in the date range 2000 to 2017.

The emphasis on culture is no accident. The method emerged from the discipline of anthropology and it retains this core foundational aspect. Prior to Ellis and Bochner’s paper, Deborah Reed-Danahay (1997) discussed autoethnography as a method for incorporating the autobiographical within ethnography. Likewise, in a recent text on autoethnography as

line up
Image by Bohanka via Fotolia

method, Chang (2008) also emphasises the cultural aspect suggesting that culture is inherently a group phenomenon but that it is accessible through the exploration of the self. The assumption is that culture is already in play. In my study, this meant exploring the impact of gaining a professional identity as a social worker and how reflection had become a marker or proxy for this development. I did so by tracing my trajectory from student social worker, practitioner and then back to university as a social work lecturer. The second aspect is also core to autoethnographic research: self as the researcher-subject. Negotiating these aspects – culture and self – makes autoethnography a tricky enterprise.

My interest in autoethnographic research began as an undergraduate when it was first presented by one of my lecturers. When I picked it as one of the methods for my own doctoral research some criticisms had begun to emerge about the method. One of these was ethics of consent (Medford, 2006; Tolich, 2010). Ethics of consent refers to “respect for the participants’ autonomy, the voluntary nature of their participation, or of documenting the informed consent processes” (Tolich, 2010, p. 1600). It means thinking about how people might be affected and/or represented by the story being told through the autoethnography. The thing specific to autoethnography is the need for anticipatory ethical reflection on these matters both during and after the research. For example, as Tolich points out retrospective consent is hardly possible as it would be compromised by the very process of the research which is exploring incidents where others are sometimes treated as bystanders. In other words, did these bystanders know their encounter with you is part of your research? This gets to the heart of a question posed by Clandinin and Connelly (2000, cited in Chang, 2008, p. 69); a question important for potential autoethnographers to consider “Do they own a story because they tell it?” I had to wrestle with this issue in terms of people around me as I was conducting the study. It is important to consider who might be affected by your telling of the story.

Tolich called for autoethnographers to adopt the same ethical standards outlined in the various position statements on Qualitative Research and Institutional Review Boards from the Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. These include considering who is likely to be affected. Hence, Tolich (2010, p, 1605) suggests two main considerations to think about at the outset “First, choose the topic very carefully. Second, treat all the persons mentioned in the text as vulnerable, including the researcher.” I highly recommend using Tolich’s (2010, pp. 1608-9) ten (10) foundational guidelines for autoethnography as these cover issues of consent, consultation and vulnerability. It is important to consider these issues not only at the outset but as your project evolves too.

Another issue I encountered with the method is that there are also different autoethnographic camps. The debate here is about whether autoethnographic accounts should incorporate objective vs. subjective stances. In the Ellis and Bochner camp, autoethnographic accounts are meant to be “evocative”, emotionally engaging and, thus, are considered primarily subjective (Chang, 2008). Thus this camp is known as evocative although this term is later contested by Ellis and Bochner (2006). Evocative means that the account uses a descriptive and expressive writing style that rejects a more sociological account. What this means is that the text itself is meant to work at eliciting emotion. In contrast, anthropologist Anderson (2006) argues for an autoethnography that is more realist (objective) in its orientation and outlines some basic principles for producing this kind of autoethnography. Anderson is also interested in ensuring that autoethnography utilises systematic forms of data collection and some basic criteria to establish cultural membership status pf the researcher in being able to speak to the topic. Anderson calls this analytic autoethnography. I opted for a third way. I felt that writing evocatively need not discount a realist orientation to produce a compelling account of self, culture and society but I agreed that thinking carefully about issues of data generation and analysis were equally important.

Autoethnographic accounts also rely on researcher reflexivity but appear to have a barely developed account of what this entails. Lynch (2000), helpfully outlined different varieties of reflexivity and these can be considered in relation to specific kinds of topics/projects. While it took some work I found it was useful to compare and contrast the different kinds of autoethnography. I did so against a number of categories and orientations: Reality, epistemology, data generation and researcher visibility in the text, membership of the cultural group, research or setting, focus of the research, kind of reflexivity and, lastly, the kind of reasoning required. The table below outlines the similarities and differences between analytic, evocative and my own approach:

AE table
Table of the different aspects of analytic, evocative and my own approach to autoethnography.

If you are thinking of using autoethnography, it is worth exploring your own assumptions at the outset – it will help in your research design, in choosing your methods for creating the self-culture-societal narratives, and assist you in thinking about other kinds of data that may be useful. It’s also important to consider the ethical dimensions of your project at the beginning but it’s likely you will need to do so all through the process. These processes and sources helped immensely with conducting my research as they provided a strong foundation through which to explore my topic. For folks interested in some contemporary examples in social work check out Narrating social work through autoethnography (2014), edited by Stanley Witkin. They are all great examples but a personal favourite of mine is by Karen Staller (2014) – evocative, analytical and at times lyrical – Staller ably showcases the results of the method beautifully.


Anderson, L. (2006). Analytic autoethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 373-395. doi: 10.1177/0891241605280449

Chang, H. (2008). Autoethnography as Method. Walnut Creek, USA: Taylor and Francis.

Charmaz, K. (2006). The power of names. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 396-399. doi: 10.1177/08912416062869

Ellis, C., & Bochner, A. P. (2000). Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity – Researcher as subject. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2 ed., pp. 733-767). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ellis, C. S., & Bochner, A. P. (2006). Analyzing Analytic Autoethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35(4), 429-449. doi: 10.1177/0891241606286979

Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what? Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Lynch, M. (2000). Against reflexivity as an academic virtue and source of privileged knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society, 17(26), 26-54. doi: 10.1177/02632760022051202

Medford, K. (2006). Caught with a fake ID: Ethical questions about slippage in autoethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(5), 853-864. doi: 10.1177/1077800406288618

Reed-Danahay, D. E. (1997). Introduction. In D. E. Reed-Danahay (Ed.), Auto/Ethnography (pp. 1-20). New York: Berg.

Schwandt, T. A. (2000). Three epistemological stances for qualitative inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 189-216). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Staller, K. (2014). What remains? Heroic stories in trace materials. In S. Witkin, L. (Ed.), Narrating Social Work through Autoethnography (pp. 141-176). New York: Columbia University Press.

Tolich, M. (2010). A critique of current practice: Ten foundational guidelines for autoethnographers. Qualitative health research, 20(12), 1599-1610. doi: 10.1177/1049732310376076

Witkin, S. (Ed.). (2014). Narrating Social Work through Autoethnography. Columbia, USA: Columbia University Press.




Field education research: Opportunities for collaboration and advancing social work education

Dr Ines Zuchowski is the field education coordinator in Social Work and Human Services at James Cook University. Ines completed her PhD in October 2015 exploring ‘Social Work Field Education with External Supervision’, and is a member of the National Field Education Network (NFEN) and ANZSWWER. This blog is a reflection on research practice. Ines can be contacted at

I am generally pragmatic and goal oriented, so, when I started thinking about a PhD I chose a topic that was connected to my work (field education) and presented an unanswered question I had (how do students fare in placements with external supervision?). Little did I know what a wonderful journey towards research partnerships and collaborations was ahead of me. When I started on this research journey in 2010 there was a sense that there was not that much research about field education out there. Well there wasn’t that much available, particularly when looking at my specific area of interest, but I would argue today, that field education research is an active space and, lots of good work is being done. My guess is that lots of it is done by overstretched field education academics and professional staff without much, if any, funding, so the projects are often small and likely primarily reported on at conferences.

My own research journey led me to discover that writing throughout the PhD is useful.  It can help you grow as a researcher and writer and help you finish your PhD in a timely manner (Zuchowski, 2016). While writing can be scary and receiving feedback from editors and reviewers daunting, the opportunities to expose my work to peer-review has helped me hone my skills and confidence (Zuchowski, 2016).


Writing throughout my PhD and sharing my ideas and disseminating my findings helped me also connect with others. Presenting papers and workshops at conferences, submitting articles for review and in turn reviewing manuscripts for journals has connected me with academics and professional staff in field education and to other important professional networks. Showing enthusiasm, commitment and interest in scholarship in field education led to invitations to join the Australian and New Zealand Social Work and Welfare Education and Research (ANZSWWER). My active engagement and interest in field education as an important area of research meant that I was an active driver in the formation of the National Field Educators Network (NFEN).

So, why is this note-worthy? Well, I would like to encourage PhD students and Early Career Researchers to keep writing as they undertake research. It can take determination and courage to manage to present manuscripts to editors and abstracts to conference organisers. However, it connects you with others and opens up new opportunities. For example, recently I collated a research audit on various inquiries being undertaken in Australian social work field education research. Some examples from the Audit are studies about how students persist in field education (Hemy, Boddy, Chee & Sauvage, 2016), placements with external supervision (Jones- Mutton, Short, Bidgood & Jones, 2015; Zuchowski, 2013), team-based rotational supervision models (Hosken, et al., 2016) and international field education (Fox, 2017). The research audit process helped showcase the research that is already taking place about social work field education in Australia. Further, as authors share the outcomes of their research we can now connect and collaborate with them, progress the work and get motivated and inspired to advance social work field education, practice and scholarship!


Fox, M. (2017). The international field placement: A reconciliation of identity. Social Work Education, 36(5): 495-507

Hemy, M., Boody, J., Chee, P. & Sauvage, D. (2016). Social work students ‘juggling’ field placement. Social Work Education. 35(2), 215-228. doi:10.1080/02615479.2015.1125878

Hosken, N., Green, L., Laughton, J., Van Ingen, R., Walker, F., Vassos, S., and Goldingay, S. (2016). A rotational social work field placement model in regional health. Advances in Social Work and Welfare Education, 18( 1), pp. 72-87.

Jones-Mutton, T., Short, M., Bidgood, T., & Jones, T. (2015). Field education: Off-site social work supervision in rural, regional and remote Australia. Advances in Social Work & Welfare Education, 17(1), 83-9

Zuchowski, I. (2016). On becoming a researcher: The value of writing throughout the research process. Advances in Social Work & Welfare Education, 18(2), 66- 78.

Zuchowski, I. (2013). From being ‘caught in the middle of a war’ to being ‘in a really safe space’:  Social work field education with external supervision. Advances in Social Work and Welfare Education, 15 (1), 104-119.

Using film in social work education: a medium for critical analysis

Dr Mim Fox, University of Wollongong discusses her teaching and learning innovation for engaging students about group work practice. For more information contact Mim at

Whilst developing an undergraduate social work subject this year in group work practice I started to reflect on the number of films I had seen over the years where support groups or group process had been depicted as a component of the protagonist’s life journey. Modern films such as Ruben Guthrie (2015) and Thankyou for Sharing (2012) came to mind, along with the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). As I started to think about this the list grew and I realised that social work students already had a wealth of representations to draw on when beginning to engage with group work practice. From there I became interested in the use of film as a medium for critical analysis and the development of practice skills more broadly in social work education, both with specific intervention methods and in the development of social work professional identity and socialisation to the profession.

Scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) (Source: Youtube via Google images)

There is a strong tradition of using film and video in social work education to critique social inequality, stereotype and sociopolitical context (Lee & Priester, 2015; Van Wormer & Juby, 2016). Principles of teaching and learning in social work education support the use of film both in the classroom and in remote learning, with transformational learning allowing for the locating of change to be within the student (Sandlin, Redmon Wright & Clark, 2013), and of great importance (Giles, Irwin, Lynch, & Waugh, 2010). Also crucial is the opportunity to engage with professional role models, learning from their practice wisdom. Practice wisdom is required in order to use professional judgement (Noble, 2011), grounded in professional values, and allowing for general social work theory to be applied to specific social work settings and context (Chu and Tsui, 2008). Practice wisdom is intimately linked to critical reflection, grounded in issues of power, privilege and inequality (Das and Anand, 2014).  Critical reflection requires students to connect their personal experiences with social, cultural and structural context (Fook & Askeland, 2007). By engaging in transformative learning, practice wisdom generated from professional social workers currently in practice and a process of critical reflection, the student is able to foster self-reliance (Kucukaydin & Cranton, 2013), and develop their own practice wisdom (Marlowe, Appleton, Chinnery & Van Stratum, 2015).  This is vital in the transition from university to career and in professional identity development (Cleak & Wilson, 2013). When students are able to “meet” professional social workers they are able to understand the experience of working in the human services sector, developing their social work identity in relation to organisational practice (Liles, 2007; Loya & Klemm, 2016). This, in turn, increases their transferable practice and eventual employability (Thomas & Marks, 2014).

To this end I undertook to embed film as a teaching and learning medium in the group work practice subject I coordinated this year. I did this in two ways. The first was relatively passive and benign in that I made accessible to students a list of links to various film trailers on Moodle that featured group work practice. I used one clip in class and actively demonstrated and engaged the students in critical analysis, but otherwise left them with the instructions to engage with the trailers and embed them as they saw fit in classroom discussions and in their assessment tasks. The second way was more direct in that I recorded myself interviewing a series of social workers discussing their group work practice in their agencies. I edited three of these mini-films, made them accessible on Moodle and used them all in active teaching in the classroom.

Upon the conclusion of the subject, I invited students to participate in a conversation as to how they had used the film resources in their learning. The students anecdotally reported a high level of engagement when the film trailers were introduced in the classroom and they were invited explicitly to engage in a process of critical analysis and discussion. However, when they were at home engaging on Moodle they were passive, reporting feeling unsure what they were meant to do, beyond watch as they would any other film. The benefits the students found when viewing the interviews with social workers were as I predicted. They enjoyed the examples of social work practice in action, they got a sense of what practice looks like in an agency, and they engaged with the socialisation process i.e. the way social workers speak and act in the workplace. In addition, hearing social workers talk about the challenges they face with group work practice in their organisations it made real for students the challenges we were discussing in class. The next step for my teaching practice is to structure the learning so that students are supported to critically analyse as a matter of course when engaging with film content throughout and around their social work studies.


Chu, W. C. K. & Tsui, M. (2008). The nature of practice wisdom in social work revisited, International Social Work, 51(1): 47-54.

Cleak, H. & Wilson, J. (2013). Making the Most of Field Placement. Third Edition. Cengage Learning, Sydney.

Das, C. & Anand, J. C. (2014). Strategies for critical reflection in international contexts for social work students, International Social Work, 57(2): 109-120.

Fook, J. & Askeland, G.A. (2007). Challenges of critical reflection: ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’, Social Work Education, 26(5): 520-533.

Fox, M. (2016). Student isolation: the experience of distance on an international field placement, Social Work Education, DOI: 10.1080/02615479.2016.1215418.

Giles, R., Irwin, J., Lynch, D. & Waugh, F.  (Eds.) (2010). In the Field: From Learning to Practice. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Kucukaydin, I. & Cranton, P. (2013). Critically questioning the discourse of transformative learning theory, Adult Education Quaterly, 63(1): 43-56.

Lee, O. E. & Priester, M. A. (2015). Increasing awareness of diversity through community engagement and films. Journal of Social Work Education, 51, pp. 35-46.

Liles, R. E. (2007). The use of feature films as teaching tools in social work education. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 27(3/4), pp. 45-60.

Loya, M. A. & Klemm, T. (2016). Using TED Talks in the Social Work Classroom: Encouraging Student Engagement and Discourse, Journal of Social Work Education,

Marlowe, J. M., Appleton, C., Chinnery, S. & Van Stratum, S. (2015). The integration of personal and professional selves: developing students’ critical awareness in social work practice, Social Work Education: The International Journal, 34(1): 60-73.

Noble, C. (2011). Field education: supervision, curricula and teaching methods in Noble, C. & Henrickson, M. (Eds.) Social Work Field Education and Supervision across Asia Pacific, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

Sandlin, J. A., Redmon Wright, R. & Clark, C. (2013). Reexamining theories of adult learning and adult development through the lenses of public pedagogy, Adult Education Quaterly, 63(1): 3-23.

Thomas, K. A. & Marks, L. (2014). Action! Student-generated videos in social work education. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 32, pp. 254-274.

Van Wormer, K. & Juby, C. (2016). Cultural representations in Walt Disney films: implications for social work education. Journal of Social Work, 16(5), pp. 578-594.



Childhood adversity and the development of professional identity

Michelle Newcombe is a Sessional Lecturer in Social Work and Human Services at Queensland University of Technology. This blog is based on Michelle’s doctoral research. Michelle also presented her research at the 2016 ANZSWWER Symposium in Townsville. You can contact Michelle at 

For many people entering social work and human services (SWHS) the journey prior to entering university is complex. Many SWHS students have had experiences of adversity, disadvantage and even trauma prior to, or, during their studies (Gilin & Kauffman, 2015; Thomas, 2016). These experiences can, in turn, lead many people to accessing health and human services. This can include SWHS students. But how do students with a history of adversity and service use integrate this into their own professional identity? Unravelling this phenomenon has been explored within my own PhD. My study used a mixed methods design to ask how childhood adversity and resilience impacts on student learning in SWHS. During my study, I was continually inspired by the way my research participants grappled with how these experiences of service use impacted their own emerging professional identity.

A part of my project I interviewed twenty SWHS students who identified as having a history of childhood adversity. Fifteen of the students I interviewed had also been service users as children and adults. Their stories varied; some had traumatic childhoods involving violence, abuse and escape. Many had experiences of accessing mental health services or supporting family members to do so. Some had learned to cope with the death of close family members or fled from violent partners through the use of services. Others had needed counselling to cope with the financial strain or the stress of adapting to being the first in their family to attend university.

What remained consistent in all their stories was the utility a history of service use had brought to their emerging practice. For many students, the experience of using a service had provided transformational learnings and interventions.

© Frank via Fotolia images

They had been able to see and experience the power of SWHS practice, which often inspired them to enter into the same fields. Even when service use was ‘bad’ it was useful in role modelling what ‘not to do’ in practice. These students became the living embodiment of what it is to survive adversity, to seek help and to transform from these past experiences. The experience of ‘being in the other seat’ was invaluable to students as they developed skills and knowledge about SWHS practice.

Yet within these tales of hope and inspiration were parallel narratives of shame and stigma. For many students’ their experience of service use could not be spoken about or referred to in the classroom. Students were overtly conscious of inappropriately disclosing past events or traumas with the majority choosing to keep this information secret from peers. Participants feared being judged as unfit for practice due to their history of service use. This meant that the beneficial knowledge and skills derived from their lived experience of using services had to remain hidden and secretive from peers, academics, future employers and service users.

Despite the transformational experiences service use had brought these students, merging their history of service use into a professional identity remained difficult. Participants wanted greater acknowledgement of their experience within the SWHS curriculum. This included recognition of their past but also an acknowledgement of the unique contributions they can bring to teaching and learning in SWHS. Such students embody the success of SWHS practice, without which many would be unable to enter or graduate from their courses. This research demonstrated that it’s time for academics to destigmatise students experience of service use and to celebrate the role that past, present and future help-seeking can have in their professional development.

The full findings of this research have been published at:

Newcomb, Michelle, Burton, Judith, & Edwards, Niki (2017) Service user or service provider? How social work and human service students integrate dual identities. Social Work Education. Doi: 10.1080/02615479.2017.1327574


Gilin, B., & Kauffman, S. (2015). Strategies for Teaching About Trauma to Graduate Social Work Students. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(4), 378-396.

Thomas, J. T. (2016). Adverse Childhood Experiences Among MSW Students. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 36(3), 235-255.