Learning the relevant skill set needed to be a good social worker is a vital part of the development required for the role, whether soft skills or specific knowledge sets. Critical thinking and reflective practice are crucial elements in the day-to-day tasks of any social worker, so understanding what they are and how to use them is very important.

What is Social Work

To understand the importance of critical thinking and reflective practice, it is useful to define what a social worker does in order to place them within the right context.

According to the National Association of Social Workers, the main aim of the profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the needs of people, both basic and complex, with a strong focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. Social workers look at the environment and individual inhabit as well as the individual themselves in order to understand the external factors that have an impact on them. This enables them to help clients deal with their situation, how they feel about it, and what they can do about it. 

Social work practice involves understanding human development and behavior and how social, economic, and cultural development impacts that. Day-to-day work could involve, for example, dealing with families, children, adults, seniors, people with disabilities, those with health issues, or individuals dealing with mental health challenges.

You could be providing one-to-one, or small group services to people dealing with a range of issues, such as needing support regarding housing, substance abuse, or neglect. Or you may be working with groups in locations such as schools assisting pupils who are struggling, within prisons helping rehabilitation, or coordinating hospital care for patients. On a broader level, you may want to be involved in community-based projects, research, and policymaking. 

Critical thinking

Given the role of a social worker and the wide range of individuals and settings they will be working within, it’s understandable that developing the skill set required to think critically is important. Critical thinking is the ability to analyze the information garnered from unbiased communication, either verbally or non-verbally, as well as observation. You will need to evaluate each case objectively, gathering information by interviewing your clients and researching the subject you are dealing with and the help available. It is important to think without prejudice in order to make informed decisions to help each of the people you are working with in the best way possible. 

Reflective practice

Reflective practice is an important part of being a social worker as it is based on the concept of learning and development. It is the ability to reflect on your own actions in order to develop and learn on a continuous basis. When you use reflection within your working life, you will be reviewing your experiences so you can make positive changes for your future practice, turning your experiences into knowledge and therefore helping others.

A step beyond this takes you to critical reflection, which means you will be striving to examine your judgments, approach, interventions, and decisions and look at the steps you take to provide support to your clients that is objective and free from your personal beliefs.

Using critical thinking and reflective practice within your social worker role

During your career, you will sometimes be dealing with and helping people whose beliefs, knowledge, and experiences are different from your own. These will feed into how they interact with you and the issues you are trying to assist them with. Taking your belief system and assumptions out of your interactions and thinking about social context for the people who use the services you work for, as well as your own, will help you be more effective at what you do. 

A National Library of Medicine paper on reflective practice in healthcare talks about the stages of reflection, which include thinking about a situation in detail, what part you played and what the outcome was, how it made you feel, and why it happened, You think about whether you could have done anything differently, what you would do differently next time, and how you would put this into practice.

Learning to be a social worker

The minimum qualification needed to become a social worker is a bachelor’s degree, but most states require a Master of Social Work. Enrolling in a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited online MSW degree from Spalding University will provide you with the skills and knowledge you need to set you on your way to a rewarding career, including modules on critical thinking and reflective practice.

This degree is open to anyone with a first degree in any subject and will provide you with a range of roles within the profession. You can choose between studying full time or part time and will have the opportunity to do both fieldwork and coursework in order to connect theory to practice.

The learning does not end with gaining your initial qualifications, as becoming a social worker means you will be dedicated to evolving your skills and knowledge throughout your career, whether it be taking further exams, doing training courses, or reading relevant publications on new developments. There may be opportunities to follow in-house learning provided by your employer or establish and source training requirements yourself. Whatever you do, it is important to build this into your life to keep connected to what’s going on within the industry and within the world of your potential clients.

Once you have decided to embark on this line of work, you will be assured of a long-lasting and rewarding career. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of social workers is expected to grow by approximately 9 percent between 2021 and 2031, which is faster than the average for all occupations, and there are projected to be about 74,700 openings within social work over that decade.