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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century
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Holistic Engagement in Social Work Education and Practice

Social work education and practice are mutually informing, recognizing that transforming students into prepared practitioners draws upon the same types of individual growth and realizations as do advances in practice. Thus, we argue that social work education must be a holistic effort that goes beyond the arena of the intellect, affirming all dimensions of the self, including the biopsychosocial-spiritual (Canda & Furman, 2010). We must teach students how to pay attention to the experiences they are having inasmuch as the ones they are observing in others and also to inquire with as much of themselves as possible in any given moment. Changing thinking and realizations of the mind alone allows a different rationale for action, but it only partially catalyzes the prerequisites for human connection across differing beliefs, ideas, or worldviews.

A more integrative approach, instead, allows for connection across immeasurable differences through shared presence and “whole self” availability, actualizing the value of the dignity and worth of the person. Many of the contemplative and self-inquiry approaches utilized in practice settings have their roots in Eastern traditions and cultures, such as the yogic practices of India and the meditative practices of Buddhism; these traditions are now well-established in contemporary secularized techniques such as mindfulness-based stress reduction and the self-inquiry practices taught by people such as Eckhart Tolle (1999). They offer not only augmentation to clinical practice but also an invitation for social work educators to employ these methods in the classroom.

For example, presence and empathy are prerequisites for holistic social work practice—and are the very mechanisms through which social justice, advocacy, and action are transmitted. When the worlds of the professional and the client are immeasurably different, cognition alone cannot bridge the gaps because there is not enough context for translation of the worlds of the client into understandable languages of the professional. For example, home-based treatment experiences allow an enriched understanding of a client's experience even if dialogue remains the same. We teach social workers to observe and note what they see and how it likely influences various aspects of a client's experience so that, in a client's home, the social worker is fully immersed in the family’s context—the sights, sounds, smells, intensity, temperature, and the safety offered there, or its absence. In addition, the social worker is simultaneously immersed in his or her own reactions to that context, including the level of noise, cleanliness, temperature, or the presence of many people just outside the door.

Indeed, we teach social workers to observe and note what they see and how it likely influences various aspects of a client's experience (Forrester, Westlake, & Glynn, 2012; Gerdes, Segal, Jackson, & Mullins, 2011). However, we do not generally emphasize recognizing the voluminous data that come from sensing and experiencing fully all in which we are immersed. We endure the discomfort in our necks and churning inside our abdomens when our work takes us to uncomfortable places. We try to ignore the reality and intensity of relief when certain clients cancel. We manage our experiences rather than explore them. We juggle, hold, and only occasionally let slip through all that our body, heart, and spirit are trying to communicate in service of doing our jobs.

Social workers need training to pay attention with their whole selves to their whole self in context. This is not easy to do. Traditional methods of social work education bring this level of detailed, attuned noticing to others, but they fail to acknowledge that this level of wholeness and complexity resides within the social worker (and, by extension, the social work educator) in that very moment also. Social work students need skill-building opportunities that will help them to understand these complexities and develop skillfulness in this type of paying attention. It does not come naturally to us as social workers; we tend to bring all of that energy and noticing to our clients or communities or causes. And yet, we also often fall very short of noticing the richness of the client's experience or the environment. Similarly, as educators we teach much about what to pay attention to while limiting the exploration of how we do this or how our students can practice doing this in classroom (Epstein, Siegel, & Silberman, 2008; Gerdes et al., 2011).

Research indicates that professionals require specific training to develop this capacity, where each part ofthe body is noticed in a systematic and nonjudgmental manner, and focus shifts away from the linguistic and conceptual to the nonverbal, imagistic, and somatic aspects of experience (Hick, 2009; Lynn, 2010; Siegel, 2007). Furthermore, Epstein (1999) notes the role of self-reflection in quality of professional practice, stating “this critical self-reflection enables physicians to listen attentively to patients' distress, recognize their own errors, refine their technical skills, make evidence-based decisions, and clarify their values so that they can act with compassion, technical competence, presence, and insight” (p. 833). We may teach our students the importance of self-reflection—encouraging thinking about responses, biases, culture, and motivations—and this is certainly important and not something we want to quit doing, but we tend not to teach self-reflection of the whole self with the whole self. We often remain in our minds and so do our students, leading to professionals who are developed well in one aspect of self through our traditional pedagogy, but the others linger largely untouched. In summary, it is difficult to engage in healing practices with clients and to transform the existing conditions in our communities when we are tuned into so very little of the data available to us. It is even more difficult to do this without being taught to do so.

 
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