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Home > Consultation and Training > Trieschman Center for Consultation & Training > Workforce Development Initiative


2001 Finding Better Ways Conference Presentation Recap

The Wonder Years: Professional Development in Child Welfare

Patty Caplan and Dale Curry
Summit County Children's Services
Akron, OH

Recent research indicates that opportunities for career growth, learning, and development have been listed by employees as top factors positively affecting staff retention (Kaye & Jordan-Evans, 1999, 2000). Even when staff leave child welfare positions, training has been found to be a factor in future employment decisions. In addition, those who leave child welfare but remain in human services tend to have had more positive experiences with training (Curry, 1997). While the relationship between training and retention is not entirely understood, it is clear that training and development activities can play a major role in any comprehensive recruitment and retention initiative.

The Summit Developmental Training Approach

Summit County Children Services (SCCS) has identified several key developmental transition points/times when training can provide assistance in career development. There is an organizational belief that associated with each of these strategic times are opportunities to influence one's professional identity and commitment to child welfare. Four programs have been developed to address these developmental transition periods. Following is a brief description of these four developmental programs and an overview of the program's levels of competence training model.

Field Placement Units--The Transition from Student To Worker

SCCS utilizes field placement units of bachelor and master level social work students from various college and university settings and offers experiential child welfare learning experiences. The structured program provides a planned, developmental approach to learning child welfare casework. Ensuring that students are given the opportunity to practice skills and concepts learned in the classroom aids in the developmental process of instituting a professional sense of self. Many of the elements of the Entry-Level Training Unit program have also been adapted for use by the Field Placement program.

Entry-Level Training Unit--The Transition to Professional Child Welfare Social Work

New direct service staff are introduced to child welfare through the training unit program. The structured six-month program provides a planful entry to child welfare service delivery. Staff utilize programmatic features such as a comprehensive orientation to agency and community, 24 practice-focused training modules, strategically planned caseload development, supervision that promotes integration of learning and doing, the formation of learning teams, and a comprehensive knowledge, attitude and skill assessment/evaluative process. This approach promotes consistent training and concentrated learning that contributes to positive identification with child welfare service delivery.

Master's Leadership Development Training Unit--The Transition to Organizational Leader

Child welfare staff who have obtained a master's degree may elect to advance their professional development through entrance into the leadership development program. This comprehensive one-year commitment enables learning/doing practice and leadership opportunities that ensure a basic foundation from which clinical, leadership, management and coaching experience can be examined. Some of the activities promoting skill-building include servicing a diversified workload representing programmatic areas of the organization, supervision of bachelor-level students, a team program development project, formal presentations regarding child welfare philosophy and career development goals, the creation of a developmental portfolio of accomplishments, as well as 18 seminars that promote the integration of casework and leadership principles. The program culminates in a career-mapping presentation that is utilized to determine one's next leadership placement within the organization.

Advanced Practitioner Child Welfare Trainer Development Certificate Program--The Transition to Leader in the Profession

The Child Welfare Trainer Development Certificate Program is an 18-month certificate program of "learning" and "doing" experiences. The program, which is administered through the Northeast Ohio Regional Training Center at SCCS, is a response to a need for developing child welfare trainers with current or recent on-the-job experience and an opportunity to provide advanced training and development opportunities for experienced child welfare practitioners. The program includes before and after-the-workshop expectations for various training partners including participants, supervisors, agency administrators, and training personnel. Program components include a signed "agreement of expectations" by participants, supervisors, directors and training personnel, trainer needs assessment methodology, pre and post examinations, participant "homework" assignments, completion of participant individual learning logs, and completion of a checklist of other required activities for each participant. The program addresses five major content areas (33 competencies) and is based on a model of trainer development originally designed for the Education and Training Committee of the National Organization of Child Care Worker Associations (Curry & Rybicki, 1995). The five major content areas include: (1) learner needs and characteristics, (2) instructional strategies, (3) group knowledge and skill, (4) organization/environment, and (5) professional integrity factors.

Levels of Competence Model

Embedded within all the above programs is the agency's "levels of competence" model. This model integrates information from the fields of cognitive and educational psychology, such as Anderson's ACT theory, with practical information from the field of training and development (Anderson, 1982; Curry, in press; Curry & Rybicki, 1995; Pike, 1989). The model promotes an understanding of the development and utilization of a skill (from novice to expert) from the workshop to the job. There is also an emphasis on one's awareness of skill development (competence and meta-competence). Progression through the levels involves varying rates of time, as well as, individual and program activity. The model's five sequential levels are briefly described below, along with a few examples of the model's use within the four programs.

Unconscious Incompetence

This stage is characterized by a worker who doesn't know what (s)he doesn't know. The worker does not perform adequately in a competency area. However, the worker is not aware of his/her incompetence. All four of the programs described earlier emphasize the importance of introspection to promote awareness and professional use of self. For example, the programs utilize strategies to promote awareness of how one learns and applies learning to the job. Each of the programs administers the Learning Style Inventory and Creative Styles Inventory to promote awareness of how one perceives and processes information. The Learning Skills Profile, which builds from the LSI, The Leadership Competency Inventory, and the Managerial Style Questionnaire are utilized with the Leadership Development Program participants. The Trainer Assessment and Development Matrix and Inventory is used in the Trainer Development Program (Boyatzis & Kolb, 1991; Curry & Rybicki, 1995; Kelner, 1993; Kolb, 1981; McCarthy, 1986).

Conscious Incompetence

Workers in this stage are not yet competent in a competency area. However, these workers are aware of their knowledge, attitude, or skill limitations. They may be motivated to increase competence in order to improve performance or attain other goals. But, there is a gap between a worker's competency level and the desired state. Workers in this stage are most appropriate candidates for training, or some other educational/developmental/remedial intervention. Learning contracting in this stage can be a useful strategy to help clarify roles and responsibilities in the learning and application process. All four of the developmental programs described earlier utilize learning contracts. There is an attempt to incorporate information gained from administration of the learning assessment instruments into the developmental learning contracts. Other strategies are also used prior to training program involvement to promote learning and application readiness.

Conscious Competence

Workers at this level may be described as having "emerging competence." A worker in this stage has the knowledge and skill to perform a task, but the performance doesn't happen "automatically." The worker may have to be reminded or cued by the supervisor or competent colleague to utilize the knowledge and/or skill already stored in long-term memory. Also, when the worker performs the skill, it may not be "fluid." The worker may have to "think" about it while performing. Since short-term memory can only contain a limited amount of information, the worker may have to rely on notes or cues from others. Interaction with clients in this stage necessitates that the workers keep goals, strategies, and information regarding the client in active working memory. In addition, attending to what the client(s) is saying and doing as well as monitoring one's own behavior as part of an interactional exchange may overtax one's cognitive processing abilities. For example, during a client interview, the worker may "lose sight" of the goal of an interview and may be unsure of his/her interview techniques, sometimes not using the most appropriate response.

Coaching and mentoring are utilized heavily by the four programs in this phase. All program participants are also aware of the phenomenon of the "results dip" that may occur when learning new skills. One's performance may temporarily decrease until the skill is effectively integrated (Rackham, 1979). The use of cues and prompts are also heavily encouraged. For example, workers are provided and encouraged to develop "cheat sheets"/visual cues to aid performance. Trainer Development Program participants are taught to develop cues such as the writing of self-instructions in small print on a flipchart. Ample opportunities to practice are also provided. Trainer Development Program participants are expected to build on their presentation skills by presenting throughout the two-year program.

Unconscious Competence

This phase is characterized by a worker who, for the most part, has sufficient mastery of a competency area. In this stage, a competency is learned to a level where it can be performed relatively "automatically." Steps to successful performance in a competency area are consolidated and now appear as a fluid, "effortless" activity. The worker uses little active, short-term memory while conducting the skill. (S)he no longer has to "think" about the skill while performing. It has been learned to the level of automaticity. Short-term memory is freed up and the worker can consciously focus on other activities such as self-monitoring. Ironically, one of the characteristics of this stage is that a competency is learned so well that the worker is no longer "mindful" of the process of how the activity is conducted (the worker doesn't have to be). The worker may intuitively recognize underlying patterns/structures of behavior and respond accordingly. However, (s)he may not be able to articulate the "why" and "how" of his/her performance.

A common practice by many agencies is to prematurely promote workers at this level to supervisory roles. This is probably one reason why many supervisors under-emphasize their educational supervisory function. They have not yet adequately developed their ability to conceptualize and effectively articulate to others the social work skills that they can automatically perform so well. Therefore, they may have a tendency to emphasize a "tell them what to do" approach or do certain tasks themselves rather than effectively teach others.

An example of a program strategy used by SCCS at this stage is the heavy emphasis placed upon the learning of the case flow process for Leadership Development participants. In addition to learning new management skills and leadership principles, the participants must re-examine and conceptualize direct service practice. Additionally, the participants must conceptualize and articulate their practice principles, in the form of a presentation (which is also video-recorded) to the agency's executive council. Similarly, Trainer Development participants are expected to recapitulate their learning experiences in the program, also in the form of a presentation, to child welfare leaders in northeast Ohio.

Conscious Unconscious Competence

This fifth stage is characterized by workers who can not only perform at a proficient level, but are able to conceptualize and articulate what it is that they do so well. These workers may be described as "reflective practitioners" who can also communicate effective practice principles, strategies, and techniques to others. Workers in this stage have a high level of proficiency in the competency area as well as competent metacognitive skills. They are able to proficiently monitor their performance (learning and application). Metacognitive skills facilitate the movement from level one (unconscious incompetence) to level five (conscious unconscious competence). Workers in this level are able to "reflect in" (while interacting with clients) as well as "reflect on" (later self-reflection or in supervision/consultation) their practice with supervisor or colleague.

SCCS provides opportunities for program participants to further develop their skills in this stage by making presentations at the agency, the regional training center, and professional conferences. Many of the program participants have made a variety of presentations. Some program graduates currently work within the agency's staff development department and/or teach part-time at local universities.

The levels of competence model is helpful for determining when and what method of training is an appropriate performance intervention, as well as, when other activities are indicated rather than training. For example, workers in level one often attend training. Training is usually more successful when workers have an awareness of the need for training prior to attending the training. Therefore, learning readiness interventions may be appropriate at this stage. Participants in level two prior to training are probably the most appropriate learning candidates. Clarifying the learning and application roles and responsibilities is indicated. Individuals in level three are often in need of coaching (in the training setting or on-the-job). Level four workers are typically not lacking in skill and traditionally not considered appropriate for training. However, developing a better conceptual grasp of the competency area and learning to communicate the performance process to others are some of their training needs.

The levels of competence model indicates different training goals and strategies at different stages. The model also suggests that we should assess and promote the development of a worker's metacognitive skills in addition to behavioral performance in the workshop and on-the-job.

Future Pathways

We have suggested that a developmental model can promote worker retention and career development within child welfare. Four developmental training programs addressing key career development transition points have been described. In addition, the levels of competence model has been used to view the process of worker competence development (from novice to expert). The child welfare profession could benefit from further exploration of the process of the development of expertise and additional career pathways.


Anderson, J. R. (1982). Acquisition of cognitive skill. Psychological Review, 89, 369-406.

Boyatzis, R. E., & Kolb, D. A. (1991). Learning skills profile. Boston: McBer & Company.

Curry, D. (In press). Evaluating transfer of learning in human services. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work.

Curry, D. (1997). The exit survey evaluation report. Akron, OH: Northeast Ohio Regional Training Center.

Curry D., & Rybicki Sr. M. (1995). Assessment of child and youth care trainer competencies. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work.

Kaye, B., & Jordan-Evans. (1999). Love'em or lose"em: Getting good people to stay.

Kaye, B., & Jordan-Evans. (2000). Retention: Tag, you're it! Training & Development. 54, 29-34.

Kelner, S. P. (1993). Leadership competency inventory. Boston: McBer & Company.

Kolb, D. (1981). The learning style inventory. Boston: McBer & Company.

McBer & Company. (1993). The managerial style questionnaire. Boston: Author.

McCarthy, B. (1986). The creative styles inventory. Boston: McBer & Company.

Pike, R. W. (1989). Creative training techniques handbook: Tips, techniques, and how-to's for delivering effective training. Minneapolis, MN: Lakewood Books.

Rackham, N. (1979). The coaching controversy. Training and Development Journal. 39, 12-16.

Contact Information

Dale Curry, Ph.D., LSW
Training Coordinator
Summit County Children's Services
264 S. Arlington Street
Akron, OH 44306-1399
Phone: 216.379.9094
Fax: 216.379.1981

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