Halfway around the world - Being Brave

The learning experiences of an Occupational Therapy Student during their fieldwork placements are some of the most intense times of their life so far.

...and this can be said for supervisors too. As a supervisor, it is my role to maintain the high standard of service provided to my clients while also teaching critical OT theories and finding opportunities for students to practice their emerging skills. I love the challenge and believe irt makes me a better Occupational Therapist because I need to justify and evaluate each decision I make for every minute of my day so that I can explain myself and my actions so the students can learn how to think and apply their knowledge to a situation. 

I asked Katherine to write a blog post each fortnight during placement to capture the essence of the educational journal of fieldwork placement... this is what she had to say after Week One

I’m an international student from China. I came to Australia two years ago to pursue my Master of Occupational Therapy degree at the University of Sydney. Just like many of my friends, I have left my family and everything I am familiar with, and have come to a strange country alone, which is the bravest decision I have made in my life. This is not an easy journey and I have overcome so many challenges to keep going. Now I’ve just started my last 8 week placement at Early Links before graduation. I’m so grateful that I could have this opportunity to share my experience with other international students who are about to practice in this setting, because I believe I’m not the only one who is struggling during their journey. I hope that through reading my blogs, students who have similar problems or concerns will feel more confident to enjoy their placement.

When I first heard that I would practice in a pediatric setting, I could not stop worrying about the difficulties I may face. How can I communicate with kids? What topics or activities can I use to build trust and rapport with kids? What if kids cannot understand me or what if they don’t like me? What if I cannot explain theories or reasons well to parents? I have no confidence to deal with those problems as I have both language and culture barriers which keep me from communicating effectively with clients. For instance, although I still remember some games that I used to enjoy when I was a little girl, I have no idea how to translate them and fit them into Australian culture. Not to mention that I know nothing about what kind of games or activities Australian kids would like. During my third placement, I got an opportunity to play with a lovely local kid. He was so eager to play his favorite game with me. He told me the name of that game several times and even demonstrated how to play it, but I could not get it as I had never heard or seen it before. I could see the disappointment in his eyes although he didn’t say anything. I felt so awful and this feeling has stayed with me till now. I have a fear that it will happen again during my current placement. In addition, the way we communicate with kids in Australia is quite different to the way in China. In Chinese culture, discipline is a concept that would be taught to children throughout their whole childhood. It is very common to hear a parent or a teacher say “don’t do this” or “you must do that” to a child, and the child’s compliance is very high. Whereas it is definitely inappropriate to use this way to communicate with kids in Australia. But without experience, how can I know the appropriate way to approach kids? There are so many things I need to learn and adapt during this placement, which stresses me out.

Stress is a normal part of any learning experience and it actually helps to lay down new memories. The strategies we use to cope with stress and ensure we have opportunities to step away from it, relax, reset, re-energize...are what will allow our stress to be a positive during our placement.

On the other hand, along with initial fears, I have some excitements as well. I love kids, but I need to find out my way to interact with them. I believe this placement is my best opportunity to achieve it. I also love the feeling of helping people, which inspires me to be an OT. It would be one of the most wonderful things in my journey as an OT student if I could help my little clients to achieve their goals. During my third placement, I developed some sensory playgroup sessions for preschoolers and I enjoyed the process of finding and creating interesting activities. However, I did not have a chance to run them in person. This time, practicing at Early Links, I’m looking forward to having more opportunities to develop and run sessions. Furthermore, unlike my last long-term placement, I have another OT student as my partner. I enjoy working within a team at the university as we could come up with more ideas and complete tasks more efficiently. So I feel excited to work with her during this placement. Last but not the least, I really appreciate that I can have a supervisor to instruct me when I practice to make sure I’m on the right track. I can’t wait to pass this final placement and become a real OT.

After a week of practice, I have a better understanding of what I am going to do during the placement. When I look back to my initial fears and excitements, I have found several changes. The biggest one is I feel more confident to deal with my problems. Although I still feel a bit overwhelmed by a large amount of information and caseload, well-organised working environment, clear structured working process of this placement and supportive supervisors help me to take the edge off stress. For example, my weekly tasks throughout the placement were explained on the first day, and I knew that I would have time and opportunities to observe supervisor’s practice before actually taking part in a clinical session. This is exactly what I did during the first week. I observed how my supervisor interacted with kids and their parents, which was really inspiring. She used engine analogy to explain the concept of self-regulation to little kids and parents, which made the theory much easier to understand. I would never know how to explain something like that to clients if I have not seen it. Besides, she encouraged kids to improve their performance by asking about their feelings and their wishes, and making them feel better after participation. As a results, kids would be motivated to continue the therapeutic sessions and complete their homework. It was amazing to see the change of some kids, from unwilling to happy. After each session, my supervisor would ask for my observations with clinical reasoning and answer my questions, which helps me to develop my thinking process. With those observations and help from my supervisor, I’m able to find a starting point to learn clinical knowledge and solve my language and culture problems. Now I’m about to start my second week of placement. With more confidence, I definitely feel more excited to practice at Early Links.

I certainly wouldn't say that coming from a different culture is a problem, in fact it's a point of difference that kids will often be curious about. Kids are great like that, they just want to be allowed to play and ask questions, they want to explore and challenge, they need to feel acknowledged and supported with boundaries. Overall, fieldwork placements are an opportunity to grow, change and share your experiences both past and present with others. To be open and honest, to be vulnerable and resilience. And isn't that what being human is all about?