Reflective supervision is a relationship based supervisory approach that aims to create an atmosphere where both the client’s and the provider’s needs are being considered. In my experience as a clinician working in an early intervention program, reflective supervision is instrumental for effective work with very young children and their families. Because the majority of my clients have experienced trauma, I use the evidence-based practice of Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP), where I have had great success using art therapy interventions. I am also a CPP clinical supervisor trained to provide reflective supervision, a requirement of this therapeutic approach.

I have always valued having a dedicated time and place to explore the emotionally evocative nature and complexity of work with very young children and families who have been exposed to trauma, however, I have faced challenges from my co-workers, who felt “supervision” was not necessary. “If staff members are to be empathic, open-minded, collaborative, and respectful, they need a place to experience and learn about these kinds of relationships and interactions” (Heffron & Murch, 2010, p. 5). In my experience, this is easier said than done. I am the only art therapist working with colleagues with many years of clinical expertise, therefore for me to be perceived as a “supervisor” when we have always worked at the same professional level has been difficult. I not only was tasked to provide reflective supervision to my peers, but our program manager also participates in my supervision group as well. Imagine providing reflective supervision to your boss. To her credit, our program manager regularly professes to benefit from my supervision, which fostered some acceptance of my role by my peers, and the value of having scheduled time to reflect on our clinical work. Weatherston, Weigand & Weigand (2010 p. 23) state: “[R]eflective supervision/collaboration contributes to professional and personal development within one’s discipline by attending to the emotional content of the work and how reactions to this content affect interactions with the children and their caregivers.” Once we agreed to call my efforts “reflective consultation” it became somewhat more palatable to my colleagues. Recently I was asked to provide paid reflective supervision to an art therapist (outside of our clinic) endeavoring to achieve her ATR credential. Fortunately, reflecting on her work with clients with our shared appreciation of the healing benefits of art therapy interventions has been a counterpoint to my supervision of my coworkers.

By Ariane Medero, Self-Reflective Waters, Acrylic Paint on Canvas

By Ariane Medero, Self-Reflective Waters, Acrylic Paint on Canvas

A key characteristic of reflective supervision is the exploration of the parallel process (Weatherston, Weigand & Weigand, 2010). Attention is paid to all of the relationships: those between the supervisor and the supervisee, between the supervisee and parent, and between parent and child. Consideration is paid to how each of these relationships affects the others. A skilled supervisor must be able to listen and wait, allowing the supervisee to identify perceptions and solutions on her own without interruption from the supervisor.

For those who may be unfamiliar, Parlakian (2001) describes the three building blocks of reflective supervision as Reflection, Collaboration, and Regularity.

Reflection in supervisory practice is built on an alliance in which the quality of the supervisory relationship is built on honesty and trust. A key element of reflective supervision is the ability of the supervisor to create an atmosphere in which the supervisee feels comfortable sharing personal feelings and contemplating on the stressful aspects of the work. The supervisor uses active listening in a non-judgmental manner to foster a safe space for the supervisee to take time and ponder on the meaning of the work. 

Collaboration is the sharing of responsibility and the control of power. Power can be considered based upon the position of authority of the supervisor, the ability to lead, inspire, and influence, in addition to the supervisor’s knowledge and experience. Sharing power in reflective practice stems from the collaborative interactions of shared decision-making and/or mentoring new staff leaders. The reciprocal nature of the relationship is honored by open communication, non-judgmental interactions, and the feeling of safety in which to disclose thoughts and feelings.

The regularity of supervisory interactions/meetings is the third building block. Supervision should take place on a reliable schedule, with sufficient time allocated to its practice. The challenge is to protect this time from cancellation, rescheduling, or procrastination, given how precious time can be.

As difficult as my experience has been providing reflective consultation to my coworkers, I have sustained my appreciation for its value, through our collaboration and honest sharing of feelings related to the challenges of working with families with children exposed to trauma.

Parlakian (2001) suggests valuing reflection as a guide to our work. Reflective capacity means standing back from the immediate, intensity of our experiences to take the time to contemplate what the experience really means. Reflective capacity requires examining our own thoughts and feelings, wondering about the thoughts and feelings of others and understanding the relationship between the two.

Resource: Heffron, M.C. & Murch, T. (2010). Reflective supervision and leadership in infant and early childhood programs. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.



Written by:

Cheryl Doby-Copeland, PhD, ATR-BC
LPC, LMFT Director ATCB Board