Social worker, Elise Birthisel, talks about a unique and creative client-centred recording tool

Posted: 28/05/2021

Social worker, Elise Birthisel, uses reflective letters in her work, and here she shares some insight into why. She also shares some tips and ideas on how to include reflective letters in your work.

But first, we thought we’d give you some background on what a reflective letter actually is!

What is a reflective letter?

Reflective letters are used to record conversations in such a way that they acknowledge the person’s story and experiences, notice strengths and exceptions, and focus attention on the person’s future picture and solutions. They are also used to ask curious questions and invite the person to think in terms of possibilities.

You might write a letter at any stage but it may be particularly useful at key change points or on completion of the interaction with the person. The letter is sent to the person, who can then keep it as a record of the conversation or as a reminder of the things you have discussed. They can reflect on it, share it or keep it private, or even use it to advocate for themselves within other services or situations. A letter is an enduring record that the person can keep and that documents a particular period in their life.

Writing a letter can also help you, as a practitioner, to focus your attention on reflective listening and on validating the person’s experience. It can also help you to remain focussed on the person’s strengths and goals and is a valuable record of your interaction with the person. Writing a letter that summarises your interpretation of a situation or conversation is a good way to check in with the person, to see if your interpretation aligns with theirs. Asking for feedback on the letter can help to clarify if you have read the situation accurately.

And here’s what Elise had to say about reflective letter writing!


First things first, tell us a bit about yourself? How long have you been a social worker?

My degree is in psychology and I’m currently studying my Masters of Social Work part time (I’m doing my last year). For many years, I worked in home-based care. I now work at a family violence support service, so I’ve primarily worked with young people.


When did you start using reflective letters with people? Where did you get the idea for doing this?

My years of growing up writing letters to my grandmother prepared me well!

I first learnt about reflective letter writing in Strengths Approach training. I still remember the trainer, Andrew Shirres, giving an example of reflective letter writing and how this can be used with clients. I was fascinated that this was a strengths-based tool. After the training, I purposefully tried to incorporate letter writing into my work practice.


Why do you think reflective letters are so effective?

Writing letters to me is about reflecting on a person’s nature but it is also about reframing and creating a different way at looking at a situation. This includes suggesting to the person the positive aspects of their character and is a way of giving them some empowerment over their life/situation.

I’ve worked with young people who have no idea that they possess strengths and the power to change their situation. Talking about strengths is not always a part of everyday conversations. In reframing and reflecting on strengths, a person can start to set goals using their strengths.

Letters can also be valuable as people then have something to keep, which they can look back on. Conversations can easily be forgotten.


How do people generally respond when they receive a letter from you?

Mostly positive, and sometimes surprised. Receiving handwritten letters can be a bit of a novelty. I have had the occasional letter back which was unexpected. Sometimes the reactions have been a mix of grateful and moved. Whatever the reaction, I find that they usually help my working relationship with that person.

The aim of my letters are to highlight someone’s strengths but the impact is sometimes that I get a better understanding of that person myself. My letters are about their strengths, as noticed by me, but also about getting to know that person better. They seem to be a good way of connecting to people on a different level.


Could you give us an example of when you’ve used a reflective letter? What feedback did you receive from the person you sent it to?

Recently, while working at a family violence support service, I used them with a young person struggling at home and school. After visiting her I wrote her a letter and photocopied four strength cards into the letter. I spoke about how this young person has demonstrated these strengths. I do believe taking a strengths-based approach with young people can be empowering through tough times.

A while back, I was working with a foster carer who was caring for a teen with high risk behaviours. This was a tricky time for the carer so I wrote her a letter with strength cards within the letter. I wanted to highlight to her that her strengths in caring for this teen were noticed and acknowledged and I wanted to do something more than just verbally telling her. I remember visiting the carer after sending the letter and noticed my letter stuck to her fridge. She told me it was so special to her and she loved to re-read it whenever she went to the fridge. I was struck at how my letter had affected her and realised the impact that my words had had on her.


Why do you add the strengths card images to the letters?

Adding a visual element takes a letter to another level in my opinion. Sometimes words aren’t enough to demonstrate to someone their strengths, especially children. In my mind, the words in the letter tell the story and the cards compliment and add depth to the story. Visual communication can be more powerful than words when connecting with someone.


What advice would you give to someone who would like to include reflective letter writing in their work, but aren’t sure how to start?

Have a go! Be genuine and provide examples of why you think they possess certain strengths. Try to capture and describe how you have noticed them using these strengths. Take care in what you write and be mindful of the impact of your words.


Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I would highly recommend the Strengths Approach to Practice training to anyone who hasn’t completed it. The Strengths Approach book by Wayne McCashen is also a great guide and starting point for learning about letter writing and other strengths-based tools.


If you would like to learn about some other client-centred recording tools, our Strengths Approach to Client-Centred Recording online course might be just the thing for you!


Useful resources:

Strength Cards®

Strengths Cards for Kids

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