What is Reflective Supervision

Reflective supervision is the regular collaborative reflection between a service provider (clinical or other) and supervisor that builds on the supervisee’s use of her thoughts, feelings, and values within a service encounter.  Reflective supervision complements the goals and practices of TIS

Reflective supervision in practice

Supervisor and supervisee meet regularly (for example, for an hour weekly or monthly) to discuss difficult cases.  The case and direction of discussion are chosen by the supervisee, who is guided by the supervisor to examine her feelings or thoughts about the case and use this awareness to better serve the client.  The relationship between supervisor and supervisee in reflective supervision models the desired relationships between provider and client in a therapeutic/helping relationship. In particular, like TIS, the relationship is based on collaboration, choice, trust, and control. 


The evidence supporting reflective supervision comes from qualitative studies in early childhood services, where its presence is associated with greater resilience among providers, or where the lack of continuing education and appropriate, supportive supervision contributes to provider burnout. 6  In addition, observational studies show that child welfare agencies with more relationship-based supervision and greater time devoted to continuing education, both elements of reflective supervision, have lower rates of turnover and greater success in obtaining permanent placement for children.7  Critics may argue that reflective supervision is resource-intensive, taking the supervisor’s time from other tasks and the worker’s time away from direct services.  Indeed, it does require dedicated resources, including up-front training at the time of implementation, ongoing support for supervisors, and time for supervisor and supervisee to devote to reflective practice.  While these resources must be taken into consideration, the studies cited above suggest that this investment may yield returns in staff retention and potentially in client outcomes.

Existing supervisory models are less consistent with Trauma-Informed Systems

The principal alternatives to reflective supervision include administrative supervision and peer consultation.  The former consists of an administrative approach to the assessment of worker performance, for example quantitative assessments of client-hours, or caseload.  Because ongoing case-based reflection is not formally incorporated in this, individual cases are reviewed typically in times of crisis, and the nature and quality of supervision is entirely dependent on the individual supervisor.   In contrast with TIS, which is a strengths-based approach to services (focusing on the strengths and abilities of the client), crisis review or critical incident debriefings approach the supervisee’s work when there has already been an adverse event, instead of working from strengths regularly and in a safe setting, which goes counter to the TIS strengths-based approach.  

The Structured Peer Consultation Model was developed and implemented with counseling professionals, in part to respond to the need for insufficient supervisory support; using the structured format, counselors create their own supervision-like experiences and receive support and critical feedback from peers. 8  This model’s efficacy has not been evaluated in settings that serve traumatized populations.  Although it has some of the relational and supportive attributes and non-hierarchical approach that would be consistent with TIS, advocates of TIS argue that the emotional content of the supervision may not be appropriate for peers to hold.  

Core elements and potential pitfalls

The converse of an established reflective practice is that in existing programs that have previously been using other supervisory styles, the transition to reflective supervision may be challenging.  Several essential aspects must be aligned before RS can be successful. 

·      Leadership commitment

Every level of the organization must be engaged in order for time to be regularly dedicated to RS.   This commitment to RS is essential:  not only must the supervisor/supervisee prioritize it, but its scheduled time must take precedence even over client visits if it is to be maintained and flourish as a method of staff reflection and development.   A focus on caseload alone, or pressure on supervisors to increase productivity to the exclusion of supervision time, leads to shortchanging reflective practice.

·      Support for supervisors

A tiered mentoring/supervisory structure is also important:  Supervisors offering RS need to be supervised and receive support modeling reflective practice from their superiors.from their. 

·      Trust, privacy and time

In order for RS to work, supervisees must be able to trust that the information they share is private that the work they do in supervision is part of a professional growth process.  This is facilitated by setting aside time and private space for supervision In settings where the supervisory approach has been less relational and more administrative, it may take time to build the kind of trust necessary for effective reflective supervision.