“Interprofessional collaboration between social workers and school counsellors in tackling youth at-risk behaviour”: Of social service mandates and definitions of “at-risk”

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Journal article: Lim, X. H. C., & Wong, P. Y. (2018). Interprofessional collaboration between social workers and school counsellors in tackling youth at-risk behaviour. Asia Pacific Journal of Social Work and Development, 28(4), 264-278.

The collaboration (and conflicts) between social workers and school counsellors – in the school context, working with and for “at-risk” students – is (are) the focus of Lim and Wong’s (2018) study, which has the potential to offer practical recommendations for such professionals across Singapore. While some of the dynamics are well-documented, three limitations should be highlighted: First, the focus on inter-professional collaboration at the individual level ignores more structural mandates dictating the roles of the counsellors and social workers (and is thus a missed opportunity to interrogate how the professionals perceive their responsibilities); second, there was only one counsellor-social worker dyad in the sample of nine, which means professional interactions were not adequately captured; and third, persistent reliance on the label “at-risk”, in my opinion, continues to be problematic.

In Singapore, each school is provided with at least one full-time school counsellor (by 2008), and the majority of secondary schools have at least one social-work trained student welfare officer (since 2015). The former “support[s] students who have socio-emotional needs and behavioural issues that are unaligned with school expectations” (p. 265), while the latter “provide[s] [community] support and resources to at-risk youths and their families” (p. 265-266) . Ideally, greater synergy between these professionals – one may even argue that involving the student’s form teacher is equally important too – should result in better intervention outcomes for the students.

Interviews with five social workers and four counsellors revealed four themes. The first three are a sense of professional partnership and interdependence, role boundaries – with the counsellors dealing with issues within the school and the social workers dealing with those outside the school – as well as tight communication and issues of confidentiality. Notwithstanding the critical judgement that these findings are largely unsurprising, it felt like Lim and Wong’s fourth theme on challenges experienced by the professionals deserved greater emphasis.

In addition to the challenge of engaging unmotivated youths, the professionals clashed over differing “agendas” and the lapses in coordination with the schools (and perhaps teachers). In fact, earlier on, a school counsellor had referenced the need to align to the “school’s agenda”:

“There are things that I cannot don’t align myself with the school. So yeah attendance is definitely compulsory. If students say they want to work and earn a living, those are resources I don’t have and agendas that I cannot push. Those are agendas I will let the social workers to take on. I am a ‘school counsellor’. I am not independent of the school” (p. 269).

These concerns and challenges may manifest at the level of the individual counsellor and social worker, yet these professionals are dictated by broader structural mandates which were not adequately addressed by the study. What exactly are the mandates for these professionals in the first place, who designed them and how were they designed, and to what extent were overlaps and complementarity taken into consideration? What exactly are the “agendas” of the school? More importantly, how do the professionals perceive or understand their responsibilities vis-à-vis the one another and the school agendas?

Next, of the nine interviews, only a single pair was dyadic. That is, a school counsellor and a social worker who could speak directly to the experiences of working with each other. The rest spoke to their own perceptions and experiences, but there is no way of checking whether their counterparts supported or contradicted claims. Finally, the problem with the “at-risk” label of students is tied to stigmatisation and the assumption of homogeneity: That the associated stereotypes could be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the labelled students, and that the problems students may have are diverse. In this study – and perhaps even in Singapore too – it is not clear how “at-risk” is precisely defined or operationalised.

Guided by the three essential characteristics of interprofessional collaboration – role clarity, flexibility, and communication – Lim and Wong conclude with proposed standard principles for the professionals. Even so, the study would benefit from a more dyadic sample as well as more attention to the broader environment or ecology within which the counsellors and the social workers – and above all, the students themselves – are embedded.

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