Good Internship Needs Frequent Communication, Sturdy Structure

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Timely, accurate and clear communication is the lifeblood of a quality, functional and durable internship. However, there is more to this than just the dialogue necessary to meet the logistical needs of the program.

Complete communication demands the processing of information. It is this processing that leads to retention, thereby enabling integration with existing knowledge, thus producing true learning. Coursework will naturally include both, formative and summary testing or evaluation of some kind, to determine content mastery.

This stands in marked contrast to many professional seminars and workshops, which seem to provide content presentation (perhaps supported by some illustrative exercises), but are void of learning measurement, either in-house or take-away. It is left to the individual to assess, accurately or not, if they have mastered the content in a way that will be applicable at a later date. We call these events trainings, but are they really educational without the assessment component?

Of course this applies predominantly to the intern, but not without the substantial collaboration of the instructor and the supervisor.

Data in, learning out

There are overlapping responsibilities and benefits among the participants. While the instructor’s function is that of teacher, the sponsor’s function is to be a mentor, a qualitative activity that requires real quantitative structure. Here again, comprehensive communication, in its broadest sense, is essential.

Establishing a weekly face-to-face meeting for a set time and duration with a clear agenda is critical. To assist in this, instructors and supervisors should support student journaling, or at least the completion of a short questionnaire on paper. Formative evaluation or progress questions might include the following: performances strengths, new responsibilities undertaken since the last review, areas in need of improvement/growth, plan for improvements and/or new responsibilities.

Headshot of Michael Mitchell of Association for Child and Youth Care Practice wearing glasses, dark jacket.

These summaries might also include intern perceptions of challenges or barriers to comprehending agency policies and procedures, client relationships, the scope of the juvenile justice (or social service) system, agency operations, professional development (such as ethics) and cultural competency. In conclusion, the review should include a section for general comments and concerns from intern with a similar section for the supervisor to provide constructive feedback and recommendations. This review should be shared with the instructor at the first opportunity possible.

This enables student self-assessment and progress review over the term of the placement. It can also alert both instructors and supervisors to student progress in harvesting maximized learning from their internship experience.

In addition, placing the intern in close physical proximity to the supervisor allows for real-time processing of daily experiences. The value of this cannot be overemphasized. Why? The true integration of experience requires both detail and context; data and background. Only the seasoned supervisor can fulfill this on-the-job function. There is really no substitute for real-time processing of real-time events, and the closer to the experience the better. Waiting up to a week to process the student’s activities, reflections and conclusions seriously dulls the edge of maximized learning potential.

This can then be used either as the focal core or the general background of the weekly meeting agenda. This gives both intern and supervisor the opportunity to jointly witness events as they happen and incorporate some short interactive processing, no matter how brief. Having students sign a confidentiality agreement and reviewing it in the orientation (before placement confirmation), should alleviate most concerns about client privacy.

Each one teach one

Having students share their weekly progress with others in the classroom can provide the instructor with an abundance of enrichment materials. This experiential cross-pollination is perhaps the best in-class supplemental activity an instructor might employ. With textbooks lagging significantly behind the latest research, supplemental reference materials are often mandatory. Student-generated anecdotal materials can provide the context in which to place objective research. Instructors can take this a step further and invite supervisors to class as guest lecturers. This provides yet another opportunity for students to process details within a larger context, creating an integrated learning matrix. The relevancy and value of this kind of learning cannot be overestimated. If you have a class where students occupy a wide range of placement types (detention facility, community-based, law enforcement, social work, etc.) in juvenile justice, plus maybe in social services (nursing homes, community centers, clinics, mental health facilities, etc.) , the range of intern experiences on which to report and share could be exceptionally large.

If you build it they will come

If not developed jointly by the agency and the instructor, the supervisor should have a master internship plan, with details as to its scope, sequence and objectives. Collaboration with the instructor is an ideal way to tie in these same three elements from the course curriculum, thus producing an internship program. This need not be minutely integrated, but rather generally coordinated. A general outline retains enough flexibility to accommodate a range of courses, minors or majors.

While it’s probably a given that student activities within the sponsoring agency will be derived from the agency’s mission, this should be the core, but not the totality of the internship structure. It is wise to get student oriented to the agency’s daily activities and culture as soon as possible. Think of this as a “job description,” but with measurable learning outcomes.

Integration of the intern into the agency environment should begin with a general orientation long enough to tell the student the specific expectations, opportunities, duties and anticipated outcomes of the placement. This includes plenty of time for Q & A, so that students arrive at what we extend to clients as a right of service — informed consent. Supervisors could even work up a list of FAQs. This must happen before the placement confirmation. The relatively small time commitment can help insure a comfortable and durable fit for student, sponsor and instructor alike.

Having students reject or abandon their placement at the last minute can be extremely disruptive for everyone. At best, this is highly inconvenient. At worst, it can cost an instructor a valuable placement opportunity. The responsibility for preventing this rests on all three parties equally.

Strong trees from little acorns grow

When the internship starts, it is essential that interns and supervisors talk personally. This establishes the collegial spirit for the mentorship environment. Exploring how and why both parties chose to pursue a juvenile justice (or social service) career is conducive to good bonding and an enduring rapport, which can thrive well beyond the completion of the internship. Many a career-long friendship has been launched in just such a manner.

Following this personal introduction, supervisors should go over the master plan. This is where they need to model strong organization and efficiency habit and techniques. Good time management skills, agency policy adherence, timely communications and work accuracy are just some of the skill sets an intern should be expected to acquire from supervisors.

Take it outside!

Perhaps halfway through their tenure, interns should be given the opportunity to expand their learning opportunities through auxiliary enrichment activities.

Whether the agency or program is governmental- or community-based, enrichment activities are yet another opportunity to expand both experiential detail and context for the intern. These opportunities may be coordinated with other intern supervisors within the agency (or with other agencies) or with the instructor’s other placements.

Interviewing foster parents, social workers, juvenile court judges and law enforcement officers would be a good start. Touring a group home, juvenile detention facility and neighborhood community center would all expand direct student knowledge of the social service environment.

This is how interns can assess where the gaps exist within the prevailing juvenile justice system of service delivery. This contextual knowledge might well help them better understand how and why specific programs and policies succeed or fail in the real world. Any internship that does not provide the opportunity to attend a juvenile court hearing might be considered deficient. This can also help interns sharpen their career focus.

Michael Mitchell has worked with more than 30 post-secondary interns from four-year and two-year institutions who have worked with juvenile court-supervised, at-risk, special-education teens, plus adolescents with clinical mental health issues. He is a first vice president, online publications editor and membership services chair for the Association for Child and Youth Care Practice. Write to him at He wishes to acknowledge his sincere gratitude to Program Director Jay Kiefer and Director of Finance Shannon Algrem, both with Briarpatch Youth Service of Madison, Wisconsin, for their indispensable assistance in the preparation of this series.

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