Personal and Professional Reflections on Supervision in the Context of Guidance and Counselling

by Frances Burke O’Brien


While the requirements for supervision of counsellors vary in different countries, it is widely promoted as an essential aspect of ethical and effective practice and is seen as the corner stone of continuing professional development. (Wheeler & Richards, 2007) A study on supervision of school counsellors is of particular significance to this paper and states that, the desirability for school counsellors to participate in clinical supervision is well documented, and, great commitment is needed from employers and professional organisations if, the provision of clinical supervision for guidance counsellors is to move from an ideal in position descriptions and code of ethics to a reality. (McMahon & Patton, 2000).

In Ireland in 2001 at the AGM of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC), a working party on counselling supervision for guidance counsellors was set up in response to a number of factors including fears around litigation, a need for the IGC to form a policy on supervisors, the ad-hoc nature of supervision that was in place and rising levels of stress amongst guidance counsellors.  Four years later, the national supervision programme for guidance counsellors began.  The IGC policy on supervision recommends that supervision is an essential part of all guidance counsellors’ training courses; it is required for membership for new guidance counsellors for the first number of years and is voluntary but very strongly recommenced for all other guidance counsellors. In 2008 the IGC invited tenders for supervision training and in 2008/09 a collaboration between the IGC and Dr. Mary Creaner, School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin saw the first formal professional training for Guidance Counsellor Supervisors to be offered in Ireland.

Definition/Theories/models of supervision

Described as a ‘working alliance between supervisor and counsellor’ (Inskipp and Proctor, 2001), the supervision process allows the counsellor to ‘offer an account of their work, reflect on it, receive feedback and where appropriate, guidance’. Forming the working alliance is an essential first step in the supervisory process and begins with, a sharing of mutual expectation and, is built on growing trust, respect and goodwill between supervisor and supervisees.  The contract provides the holding frame in which the relationship can develop.  The supervisor must be alert to the learning needs of supervisees, focusing on different aspects of work with clients, intervening to help supervisees reflect on their work, facilitating learning and monitoring the counselling work in respect of the welfare of both clients and supervisees. Carroll (1996,100). Being able to switch focus between these different areas of the supervision process requires what Hawkins and Shohet (2006, 51) call the ‘helicopter ability’.

The need to provide a framework for supervision emerged in the 1980’s and a number of theorists put forward various models. Since then many supervision models have emerged. A number have arisen from the counselling context (for example, psychoanalytic, humanistic and behavioural). These models seek to emulate the principals of the therapeutic approach. Other generic models are also available and may be useful to the Guidance Counselling context. Hawkins and Shohet, (2006) present their ‘process model’ of supervision in Supervision in the Helping Professions. The text is eminently practical, evolving from the authors’ experience of being supervisors and contains very helpful frameworks and maps for supervision.  Their model, referred to as the ‘seven-eyed’ mode of supervision involves two interlocking matrices:  that of the client / supervisee and that of the supervisor / supervisee.  Each matrix is further divided into three categories depending on the emphasis on the focus of attention, giving six modes of supervision. The seventh mode focuses on the wider context in which supervision and client work happens.

Page and Wosket’s (2001) ‘Cyclical model’ of supervision is systematic and flexible.  It consists of 5 circles:  contact, focus, space, bridge, review and each containing 5 sub circles. I found the text to be a fine blend of practice, theory, literature and skills and, gives a down to earth approach to view the work of supervision. The model is designed to be used with flexibility and pragmatism and can be entered at any stage.  At all times the welfare of the client is pre-eminent. Models of supervision help to increase the options within supervision and certainly give useful clarification on the various elements of the supervision process.  I have found them helpful in giving clarity about which modes of supervision I might use, over-use or avoid. However further research is required to establish how effective particular models serve the supervision of Guidance Counsellors.

Roles and functions of supervision

Many writers address the functions of supervision. Inskipp and Proctor (2001) use the terms; ‘formative’, ‘restorative’ and ‘normative’, to describe the functions of supervision.  Hawkins and Shohet (2000) developed their own model and define the three main functions or roles as ‘development’, ‘resoursing’ and ‘qualitative’.  The development function is about developing the skills, understanding and capacities of the supervisee.  The resoursing function is a way of responding to how the supervisee is affected by the work and how it has affected them and allowing them to deal with any reactions.  The qualitative aspect of supervision is the quality control function and ensures that the work of the supervisee is appropriate and falls within defined ethical standards.  Copeland (2005, 122) contends that when the supervision functions are conducted within an organisational context, their scope needs to be expanded to include the effects of that context upon the therapeutic work between supervisee and client.

Tasks of supervision

Copeland (2005, 125) defines a task as the behavioural side of the function, a definitive piece of work expected of a supervisor when engaged in their role. Carroll (1996) presents 7 generic tasks of supervision. The supervisory relationship is the container within which tasks are performed and roles are carried out.  It is a professional relationship between supervisor and supervisee and as such requires clear roles and boundaries which spell out the rights and responsibilities of both parties. Teaching is an essential task of supervision and changes as the relationship changes.  The teaching task recedes as the supervisor becomes more experienced. The counselling task of supervision encourages supervisees to reflect on their personal reactions arising in working with clients (Carroll 2004, 59).  It is important to make a distinction between counselling as personal therapy and counselling as a role within supervision.  The latter has a place in supervision and need not imply that supervision has crossed the boundary into therapy.  One aim of supervision is to help supervisees become better therapeutic workers, whereas the aim of counselling stresses becoming fuller functioning. The monitoring task is the quality control function.  This professional/ethical task of supervision ensures that clear boundaries are maintained with both counselling and supervision, that both client and supervisee are safe, that accountability is assured and that personal and organisation contexts are given reflective time. Within supervision evaluation may take one of two forms. Formative evaluation consists of ongoing feedback for and evaluation of the supervisee, it is informal and ongoing.  Summative tends to end up as supervisory reports. According to Carroll the consultancy task is the most frequently used task in supervision (1996, 76) and refers to the whole area of process in supervision. It considers client dynamics as well as the various relationships in the system.  The administrative task of supervision is about monitoring the various contexts in which the supervisee works.

Forms of supervision

Supervision takes place in various forms:  self-supervision, one to one, co-supervision, group, peer and team/staff.  All have strengths and weaknesses and it is important to know which format is most suitable for this supervisee at this stage of their development.  Also it is important for supervisors to ask themselves which form of supervision they feel comfortable with and which they consider to be either beyond their competence or outside their belief.

Group supervision is the form used by the IGC in the provision of counselling supervision.  One approach to group supervision designates the supervisor as leader of the group and works with individuals within a group setting.  Individuals are allocated time within the group and the supervisor works with the individual supervisee within the group.  Other members may share their thoughts and reflections but group process is generally not the focus of learning within group supervision.  Some of the strengths include:  its cost effective in terms of time and economics, it is a supportive atmosphere from peers in similar working environments, there is a value of listening to others describe how they work and the problems they face and there is the possibility of feedback from a number of people.  There are also some weaknesses including not having enough time for supervisees who carry heavy case-loads or for experimenting with other supervisory interventions and not all individuals are suited to group work. Review times are important to evaluate the individual needs of each group member and to allow for evaluation of supervision.

Ethical, legal, clinical and contextual issues as they pertain to IGC best practice

Since the supervisor may be confronted with ethical and professional issues it behoves the supervisor to be familiar with codes of practice and the ethical principals that underlie such codes (Page and Wosket. 2001, 180). The Code of Ethics and Practice for supervisors of Guidance (IGC, Spring 2009) provides supervisors with the means to make ethical judgements. As an IGC supervisor, I monitor the supervisee’s practice with reference to the Constitution and Code of Ethics of the IGC 2004, for the welfare of the client and the development of the supervisee.  Guidance counsellors working in post-primary schools must also pay attention to the Child Protection Guidelines of the Department of Education and Science, Sept 2004.

Sue Copeland (2005) outlines the dilemmas around managing the cultural fit between counselling and supervision and the organisational fit in which they reside.  In the context of supervision of guidance counsellors, a number of factors need to be attended to, including the roles and responsibilities of the guidance counsellor, the type of contract they have, the expectations and value school has of the counselling service, issues of confidentiality, the school culture and the power the guidance counsellor has within the organisation.  Copeland (1998) cited in the British Journal of Guidance and counselling, suggests that it is through supervision that counsellors learn how to work with and manage the contexts that impact on their clients, on themselves as employees of the organisation and, on the counselling relationships they form.

Within the IGC there are two main groups of guidance counsellors:  those who work with adults in further education, higher education or adult education, and those who work in second-level school where the majority of students are under 18 and thus minors. The guidance counsellor in a second-level school has a huge workload, having a duty of care for hundreds of students, providing counselling, taking classes, administering aptitude and interest tests to assist in subject and career choice and having responsibility for guiding all school leavers into a suitable career.  Consequently the guidance counsellor is constantly challenged to prioritise and make decision about multiple demands on their time.  Supervision of individual counsellor is not possible without equal recognition of the programmes and functions they perform and the context of their work.

Benefits of Supervision for Guidance Counsellors and Conclusion

According to McMahon (2003), the benefits derived from supervision include the enhancement of counsellors’ personal, skill, and professional development, confidence, and competence. Also she claims that the process of supervision may address the support needs and personal well-being of counsellors, has the potential to facilitate self-evaluation and learning for guidance counsellors long beyond their initial training, and, may provide them with a vehicle for life long learning. In doing supervision work one draws on one’s sense of personal and professional values, beliefs, life experiences. Writing this paper has contributed to my sense of identity as a supervisor. It was an exercise in making implicit knowledge explicit and much of what I have referred to is best described as emerging insights, as such the work is very much ongoing.

Frances Burke O’Brien is an accredited psychotherapist with a background in education. She is a member of the IGC and successfully completed the training for Guidance Counsellor Supervisors in Trinity College Dublin in May 2008.


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