Simulated Person Methodology bridges theory to practice in social work

How can we best prepare undergraduates for clinical practice in social work? How can we scaffold experiential learning in social work? One approach is to use Simulated Person Methodology to enhance theory-to-practice training for students.

Above: From left, Social Work Associate Professor Maria Liegghio and Field Education Manager Vina Sandher

On Nov. 8, 2018, School of Social Work Associate Professor Maria Liegghio and Field Education Manager Vina Sandher facilitated an Undergraduate Simulation Based Workshop using the Simulated Person Methodology (SPM). They worked in collaboration with Eva Peisachovich, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, and the founder and director of the Simulated Person Methodology (SPM) Lab.

In partnership with the SPM Lab team, the Theory-To-Practice Training examined communication for engagement and relationship-building for a social justice practice. This was a pilot initiative to explore the feasibility of developing a series of workshops to prepare students for clinical social work practice within a social justice framework. The pilot was important for assessing the learning potential this simulation methodology has for social work students as they move into their practicum opportunities.

“The workshop, using the simulated person methodology, was such a positive and rich experience for the students because they had an opportunity to experience real-life conditions in a safe and guided environment,” said Liegghio. “It provided the students an opportunity for hands-on learning of the theories and approaches they are taught in the classroom.”

The Simulated Person Methodology Lab team recruits and provides training to simulated persons (SPs) who are individuals trained in simulation methodology to portray a client or person in a specific encounter. The SPs were trained to learn their roles and scripts for two scenarios that Liegghio and Sandher prepared. With the support of the SPM Lab team, Sandher worked in close collaboration with the SP trainers to ensure that the SPs enacted and embodied the role defined in the scenarios to meet the learning objectives.

“Prior to the simulation, I had the chance to meet with the SP trainers to support them in contextualizing the simulation scenarios,” said Sandher. “This meeting allowed for a mock ‘walk through’ of the scenarios so that the SP trainers can get a sense of how the questioning will unfold. This was, in turn, communicated to the SPs.”

The workshop consisted of two scenarios consisting of an interview focused on supporting the SP or “Alex,” who is a father to 13-year-old boy and is requesting support with access to meals or breakfast. The first scenario was of a non-clinical nature. The second scenario was a clinical interview taking place in a clinic setting, where Alex, is interviewed by a social worker and is assessed eligibility.

“As a facilitator, I was able to provide an educational experience that mirrored dimensions of real-life social work practice situations,” said Liegghio about the learning objectives. “The SPM allowed me to create learning opportunities that I am not able to create in our usual lecture or seminar. I am very excited about the opportunities this methodology and the SPM Lab have to offer.”

“The SPM allowed me to create learning opportunities that I am not able to create in our usual lecture or seminar. I am very excited about the opportunities this methodology and the SPM Lab have to offer.” – Maria Liegghio

Students in their second and third year, who attended the workshop have never encountered a simulation event and they were unfamiliar with the SPM. The students had an online tutorial with assigned readings that Liegghio prepared to engage students in a conversation (i.e. debrief) after each scenario was presented.

Despite students’ unfamiliarity with the SPM, they were very receptive to the new learning experience, engaging genuinely with the facilitators during the debrief session. The SPM offered students resources to foster their critical thinking and emotional intelligence in a safe environment. Students’ feedback included: “I would like simulations to be embedded in a course because it is a useful tool” and “I feel more confident in my abilities to communicate with others seeking service.”

Liegghio anticipates that this workshop experience will encourage other faculty members in the School of Social Work to incorporate simulated persons into their own curricula.

“I heard about Eva Peisachovich and her work from colleagues last year when I was on my sabbatical,” said Liegghio. “I cannot wait to share the experience with them and I expect that some may certainly want to learn more about the SP methodology and lab as a viable opportunity for bridging theory to practice before students are in the field as social work interns.”

The SPM Lab provides workshops at no cost to educators across the University who are interested to implement this form of experiential education tool into their teaching and learning context.

To learn more about SPM Lab, visit spm.info.yorku.ca.

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