What is meant by the term ‘supervision’?

The ELSA initiative was set up with recognition from the outset that ELSAs should receive regular professional supervision from a fully qualified educational psychologist. There is an expectation within the caring professions that practitioners receive supervision from other qualified and experienced practitioners. If this is delivered well it provides opportunity for reflective practice, supportive challenge and personal support. Reflective practice implies shared consideration of a client’s needs and ways in which those needs have been or may be addressed. Supportive challenge implies a process whereby a practitioner is enabled to think about issues from another perspective and consider alternative ways of assisting clients. Personal support implies the supervisor being interested in the personal and contextual factors that influence the practitioner, including their own wellbeing.

In the ELSA context supervision involves understanding the psychological development of children and young people, considering the meaning behind children’s behaviours and applying psychological principles to the process of supporting change. Since most ELSAs are likely to have had no specific psychological training beyond those insights provided through initial ELSA training, it is essential for them to receive regular on going support that develops their knowledge and understanding in these areas. Without this they may be left floundering as they seek to support children with a complex range of needs. There is also a risk of them being asked to deal with issues beyond their level of competence which in reality require much more specialist professional input. Good supervision arrangements will reduce the likelihood of these things occurring.

This unsolicited feedback sent by email to an ELSA supervisor underlines the value of a supervision group: ‘I must thank you and the other ELSAs at supervision earlier this week. It proves to me the importance of these supervision sessions. I don’t think other staff members and Heads necessarily understand how emotionally draining the job of ELSA can become. I will continue to use my mindfulness techniques [demonstrated in supervision] to keep me sane. Thanks again.’

Specific guidelines outlining the nature and importance of supervision have been developed within the Hampshire ELSA project. To read these, please click here.

Other useful files include (please click on them to open): Guidance for ELSA SupervisorsProgramme and Session PlanningProforma Referral With Specifics and ELSA Session Plan.

Preparing for supervision

To get the best out of a supervision session an ELSA should think beforehand about their work. Is there any casework in which they are feeling a little stuck? Is there anything about a pupil’s responses that they find hard to understand? Do they find themselves having an adverse reaction to a particular pupil? Are they experiencing any difficulties in the working environment in relation to other colleagues, resource needs or adequate workspace? Do they have something to celebrate that might encourage or inspire others? Have they come across a particularly useful resource that others might like to know about? Supervision sessions are not only about problem solving but also about sharing success. They are intended to be times of group reflection, so some thought beforehand about what ELSAs would like out of a supervision meeting will help to ensure their needs are met. Sometimes the greatest need is for some personal reassurance. ELSAs are constantly giving to the youngsters with whom they work. In order to look after the needs of pupils an ELSA’s own needs should be acknowledged and supported by the supervisor and other group members. It is therefore essential that the group is built upon trusting relationships. Negotiating ground rules when the group is initially created and revisiting these when any new ELSA joins will help this trust to be built. If an ELSA experiences any difficulty with another member of the group or with anything that has been said, it is important to talk in confidence to the group supervisor who will be able to offer appropriate support and guidance.

For a sample supervision record sheet for ELSAs, please click here

For a useful pack of prompt cards please click here. These serve as reminders of useful supervision processes and some key elements of ELSA training that may be helpful to refer to in different casework discussions.

How big should a supervision group be?

There are real benefits in having a range of ELSAs sharing their experiences and insights together. Group supervision involves group learning. If, however, a group becomes too large there may be more risk of ‘silent’ members whose needs may not be adequately recognised and met. There may be a tendency for some ELSAs to feel that others’ needs are more important than their own and to continually give the airtime to others. Due to the rapid growth of the ELSA project in Hampshire some supervision groups grew very large, making them more like support groups than supervision groups. It was decided to move towards a maximum number of eight to a group to encourage the participation of all. In a two hour session there is then greater likelihood of everyone contributing. Even with this number there is bound to be more emphasis on some people’s needs than others, but there is always something to be gained for all by thinking through an issue that is not their own. It is the responsibility of the supervisor to ensure that no one ELSA becomes the repeated focus of attention or the dominant voice within a group.

Evaluation of ELSA supervision in Hampshire

An evaluation study on the effectiveness of ELSA supervision was conducted in Hampshire and the report can be found on this website in the Hampshire area of ELSA Around the UK.

What the literature says about supervision

(Dr. Cara Osborne, Psychology Research Associate, Hampshire Educational Psychology Service)

The role of supervision

Previous research suggests that supervision serves several purposes, both in terms of supporting the supervisee and in ensuring the quality of their work (e.g. Barden, 2001; Lockett, 2001; Vallance, 2005). Based on this, three overarching functions have been identified: ‘developmental’, ‘qualitative’ and ‘resourcing’ (Hawkins & Shohet, 2007). These can be summarised as follows:

  • To develop the supervisee’s skills and competence (‘developmental’)
  • To safeguard the individuals they work with by improving the quality of the supervisee’s work (‘qualitative’)
  • To sustain and support the supervisee (‘resourcing’)

A recent review of the literature concluded that effective supervision has a wide-ranging impact on the supervisee, resulting in increased feelings of support, self-efficacy and self-awareness, as well as enhanced skills and knowledge (Wheeler & Richards, 2007). Conversely, a lack of supervision may lead to feelings of ‘staleness, rigidity and defensiveness’ (Hawkins & Shohet, 2007, p. 5).  However, even where supervision is in place, various factors may affect its perceived effectiveness, and the extent to which it is valued by supervisees.

Potential factors affecting views on supervision

A range of factors may influence supervisees’ views on supervision. One example is amount of experience as a practitioner. It may be that particular aspects of supervision are valued more – or less – depending on how long the practitioner has been an ELSA. Equally, level of attendance at supervision may affect views, in that individuals who attend more frequently may perceive the sessions to be more helpful. More complex factors, such as the relationship practitioners have with their supervisor or other group members, may also play a role. Although such factors have previously been addressed in the literature (e.g. Hawkins & Shohet, 2007; Weaks, 2002; Webb, 2001), their specific impact in terms of ELSA supervision is unclear and this is potentially an area for future research.

The relationship between supervisee and supervisor

A key part of supervision is the relationship held between supervisee and supervisor. Indeed, the quality of the relationship between supervisor and supervisee has been flagged as a determining factor in the quality of the learning that takes place during supervision (Hawkins & Shohet, 2007). Weaks (2002) suggests that the key factors in the supervisor-supervisee relationship are challenge, safety and equality.  ‘Challenge’ may manifest itself in various ways – for example, in terms of gaining insight into a difficult issue, or in terms of maintaining a professional relationship, with boundaries. Weaks suggests that such challenges are helpful, provided the supervisee feels safe in their relationship with their supervisor, and able to discuss all aspects of their work.  Moreover, the relationship should be equal, and based on shared beliefs and values.  In spite of this, power differentials can exist between supervisees and supervisors and this can lead to difficulties (Webb, 2001). This is in part due to the ‘monitoring function’ of the supervisor, which conflicts with the need for a supportive, open and honest relationship (Barden, 2001; Webb, 2001). In terms of ELSA, a particular difficulty may be that, in some cases, supervisees know their supervisor in other guises, for example as the link educational psychologist for their school, and this may impact on the relationship held. However this may also provide some benefits including better knowledge of the context and direct knowledge of some of the pupils with more complex needs.

Difficulties may be further exacerbated by the fact that the role of supervision is not always clear, for either supervisee or supervisor (King, 2001). Borders and Leddick (1987, cited in Hawkins and Shohet, 2007, p. 35) provide a list of areas good supervisors should address. These include:

  • Helping the supervisee feel at ease with the supervision process
  • Facilitating and accepting feedback from supervisee
  • Helping supervisees to clarify objectives in working with clients
  • Encouraging supervisees to conceptualise new ways of working with clients
  • Enabling supervisees to become actively involved in the supervision process

The relationship between supervisee and other group members

In the past, research has tended to examine the role of individual supervision sessions, possibly as these are more common-place than group-based sessions. Nevertheless, research has highlighted advantages and disadvantages of both approaches (Hawkins & Shohet, 2007). Hawkins and Shohet suggest that group supervision is more cost and time effective as it allows more supervisees to benefit from a limited pool of supervisors. Additionally, a group setting allows for support from other group members, as well as the supervisor, and this might be particularly useful for newly qualified practitioners in allowing them to share any concerns. Supervisees also gain a much wider range of ideas and support as suggestions can be made by all members of the group, not just the supervisor. Hawkins and Shohet suggest that these factors minimise the risk of sessions that are dominated by the supervisor, and therefore reduce the possibility of over-influence on the part of the supervisor or over-dependence on the supervisor on the part of the supervisee.  Equally, though, other members may be dominating or unhelpful, and thus group sessions need to be carefully managed by the supervisor (Lockett, 2001). Other disadvantages also exist. Hawkins and Shohet suggest that the main issue is that there is less time allocated per person, thus not every group member will necessarily receive supervision at every meeting. In order to balance up these issues, Hawkins and Shohet suggest that a group size of between 3 and 7 is ideal, to ensure that all members receive sufficient attention.

Impact of supervision on practice

A final consideration is the relationship between the supervision received and the ultimate impact on practice. Previous research has acknowledged the deficit of studies examining the impact of supervision on the individuals in receipt of counselling (e.g., Vallance, 2005). This is presumably because it is difficult to make a firm link between support provided during supervision and any eventual impact on a client. Nevertheless, good supervision might be expected to instil confidence within a practitioner, and offer new ideas and perspectives for working with children as an ELSA.


Barden, N. (2001). The responsibility of the supervisor in the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy’s codes of ethics and practice. In S. Wheeler and D. King (Ed.s) Supervising Counsellors: Issues of responsibility. Sage Publications: London.

Hawkins, P. & Shohet, R. (2007). Supervision in the helping professions. Open University Press: UK.

King, D. (2001). Clinical responsibility and the supervision of counsellors. In S. Wheeler and D. King (Ed.s) Supervising Counsellors: Issues of responsibility. Sage Publications: London.

Lockett, M. (2001). The responsibilities of group supervisors. In S. Wheeler and D. King (Ed.s) Supervising Counsellors: Issues of responsibility. Sage Publications: London.

Vallance, K. (2005). Exploring counsellor perceptions of the impact of counselling supervision on clients. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 5 (2), 107 – 110.

Weaks, D. (2002). Unlocking the secrets of ‘good supervision’: a phenomenological exploration of experienced counsellors’ perceptions of good supervision. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 2 (1), 33 – 39.

Webb, A. (2001). Expecting the impossible? What responsibility do counsellors expect their supervisors to take? In S. Wheeler and D. King (Ed.s) Supervising Counsellors: Issues of responsibility. Sage Publications: London.

Wheeler, S. & Richards, K. (2007). The impact of clinical supervision on counsellors and therapists, their practice and their clients. A systematic review of the literature. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 7 (1), 54 – 65.