Callahan, A. M., & Benner, K. (2017, October). Teaching students to be spiritually sensitive: Learning from a spirituality course evaluation. ePoster presented for the Council on Social Work Education’s 63rd Annual Program Meeting in Dallas, TX.
Anthropology, Sociology, and Social Work
The way educators address spirituality can create a sense of community or social isolation. This necessitates a spiritually sensitive approach that enables students to build spiritual competence. Spiritual competence reflects an understanding of how spirituality shapes human behavior, how spiritual diversity manifests and can lead to risk for discrimination, and how to communicate spiritual sensitivity in professional relationships (NASW, 2008, 2007). Research shows that educators have helped students explore themselves and others spiritually (Barker & Floersch, 2010; Johnston, Mamier, Bahjri, Anton, & Petersen; 2008), but more research is needed on how self-reflection informs spiritual competence (Hodge & Derezotes, 2008).
This presentation examines the experiences of 37 undergraduate students in an online spirituality social work course. After course completion, students were asked to rate their assignments based on level of meaningfulness. “Meaningful course work” was defined as course work that had significance, value, or purpose. Survey respondents identified the most meaningful assignment as a self-reflection paper that required each student to develop a conceptual framework for spiritually competent practice. The authors independently analyzed each student self-reflection paper based on Braun and Clarke’s (2006) methodological approach to thematic analysis. The second author, who was not the course instructor, further consolidated the data to determine overarching themes described as the final results.
A number of themes emerged with the most common being the importance of spiritual sensitivity in the building of spiritual competence. Every student described a number of personal and relational qualities as being characteristic of spiritual sensitivity. Students also reflected on how intrinsic spiritual awareness and their own spiritual well being had the potential to influence and be influenced by clients. Students emphasized the need for self-preparation including personal growth to internalize particular qualities to be spiritually sensitive such as being understanding, compassionate and accepting of different spiritual and religious views. The importance of spiritual diversity was another common theme reported by students. Students indicated that this course helped them realize that spirituality and religion could be experienced separately and could be experienced differently be each person. Although there were students who admitted discomfort with spiritual diversity, students expressed awareness of the need to overcome discomfort in order to help clients address spiritual concerns and reduce spiritual distress. Hence, client-centered quality, holistic care was believed to require sensitivity to client spirituality. The final theme was the importance of self-efficacy. Spiritual and religious concerns were said to be challenging to assess in others, primarily due to fear of risking offense. One way students said they gained confidence was to focus on being spiritually sensitive. For example, students often linked spiritual sensitivity to self-awareness; the more aware students were of their own thoughts and feelings related to spirituality and religion, the more confidence they said they had in their ability to address spirituality with clients. Students expressed a desire for education, observation, practice and supervision to continue building spiritual competence.
This course was designed to help students recognize how spiritual sensitivity can inform spiritual competence. More specifically, course activities were expected to help students reflect on their own spirituality and consider how they might best respond to the spirituality of others. The results suggest that students gained new insights about spirituality through meaningful coursework. The process of self-reflection heightened spiritual sensitivity, which demonstrates how spiritual competence begins. In this way, students began to recognize spirituality as an intrinsic, rather than an overlooked dimension of diversity.
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Council on Social Work Education 63rd Annual Program Meeting Educating for the Social Work Grand Challenges