Consultation and supervision are often used as interchangeable words. However, they are very different processes for key reasons. Consultation is the model or process by which one practitioner seeks out the advice or recommendations of another. While supervision may appear on the surface to be the same, the key difference is that in consultation there is no official sanction to the relationship. In the process of consultation, there is no requirement for the seeker of the information to follow the recommendations or responses given. Additionally, unless otherwise specified, there is no administrative responsibility or accountability compelling the person in receipt of the consultative services to follow the counsel or recommendations set forth by the consultant.
Conversely in the relationship, if problems arise, the recipient of the counsel or recommendation in a consultant-social worker relationship does not follow through on information provided or recommendations made, the consultant has no power in the relationship. A consultant does not have the responsibility, accountability or authority to compel the social worker to change course or to implement a course correction or sanction against the social worker. As a supervisor, whether of a student or employee, that individual would have the responsibility and accountability to do so if the supervisee does not follow the recommendations as set forth.
Consultants are often retained by experienced social workers for their specific expertise in a particular area and develop and ongoing relationship to for case review and consultation. Experienced social workers are expected to know when such services are needed or required on a self-determined or as-needed basis. Federal or state requirements may mandate consultative or supervisory intervention in the social worker's state of practice.
Experienced social workers are also encouraged by the NASW Code of Ethics to mentor and share their expertise to other social workers. Experienced social workers are encouraged to pass on their knowledge and skills to organizations, groups or individual social workers through mentoring and training opportunities. This assists in maintaining the integrity of the profession, while also enriching the fabric of providers.
Connie was hired by The Children's Center to consult with the counseling department. She is an expert in cognitive-behavioral techniques with children, and has pioneered a new protocol for dealing with behavioral problems in the school setting. The counseling staff has experience in a variety of techniques, and appreciates the opportunity to learn different ways to deal with challenging and complex cases. Jennifer presented a case: Sara, age 7, who has difficulty with her schoolwork, following directions at school and at home, violent outbursts with family members, physical altercations with peers and authority figures at school, and great difficulty drawing her out in session. Jennifer is trained in play therapy. Connie made recommendations specific to her new, proven protocol. Jennifer attempted to follow the recommendations, but had little success in the following four sessions. Jennifer returned to her treatment format in which she was comfortable, knowledgeable and accomplished in her interventions, but made some alterations based on the group's consultative feedback.
In this example:
Jennifer sought the consultation of Connie in the departmental group. She did not have success and returned to what was familiar and consistent with her training, but with some of the new ideas integrated into her style. Jennifer is an experienced social worker and is not bound by a consultant to alter her treatment methods. However, she can enrich her practice by learning new techniques and her clients will likely benefit from her expanded knowledge base.
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