Reflections on applying lessons from research into practice

My story of research and practice

Almost five years ago, I left my job with School of Hard Knocks (SOHK) to enter the world of academia (basically, go to the dark side!). I had been offered a PhD on how professionals understood and responded to child sexual exploitation in Scotland. The CEO told me to go off and do great things, but that there would always be a home for me at SOHK.

Not long into the PhD, I returned home to SOHK. I missed working in practice, so I opted to juggle the PhD and a role as a Behaviour Specialist. I worked with young people in secondary schools in Scotland who were facing challenges in their school and home lives, and were in need of a bit of support to remind them how awesome they are. It was, and likely always will be, the best job I have ever had, and the combination of both practice and academia meant I had really varied and stimulating weeks.

What I did not realise was how much my PhD would influence my practice, and vice versa.

Returning to practice, I found my PhD actually developed me as a practitioner, and my work in practice strengthened my PhD. I was better able to ground my research in the actual everyday realities of child-protection work and I applied evidence about best practice in my work with young people. By trying to work in line with the research evidence about what young people say they want from professionals, I improved as a practitioner, becoming more knowledgeable and confident in working with young people.

Let’s talk about sex

I noticed the biggest change in my practice in one particular area. By researching sexual exploitation every day, I became more comfortable working with related issues and was able to apply research evidence around what is known about this topic in my practice. For example, I was aware of the evidence showing young people say they want to talk about sex, relationships and sexual violence more than they currently get the opportunity to. However, my own research, and others, also shows professional discomfort and lack of confidence in talking about sex and relationships can lead to us, as practitioners, avoiding the topic. Generally, these are topics we are not very good at discussing in the UK. In fact, if I had a pound for the number of times I have killed a conversation by telling people about my PhD topic…

However, without having these conversations, young people may not be able to explore what is healthy and appropriate. Evidence shows young people can then seek answers from other places, including pornography, rather than from trusted and safe professionals. Applying this evidence into practice, we included new sessions around these topics, based around what young people said they wanted to know (not what we, as adults, want to tell them), and tried to foster an environment that meant young people felt able to approach us around these issues. These were small efforts, but we did then get young people seeking support for sex and relationship- related concerns they said they could not normally ask others, for example around issues like when they might know they were ready for sexual activity.

These questions open up for wider conversation around peer and societal pressure, talking through their concerns or worries around sexual activity and how they might know if/when they are definitely ready. Sometimes these conversations can be a little uncomfortable, but as professionals, we have to sit with the discomfort to help young people make sense and meaning of their lives. It is potentially that or them turning to the internet for answers to their questions.

So how do we learn from research in practice, and involve practice in research?

I have used the example of sex and relationships to highlight the importance of current research informing our practice. Practice and academia often work in silos and there can be scepticism between the two disciplines or ‘camps’. There is a tendency to view academics as sitting in an ivory tower, devoid of any understanding of the real world. There is also a view those in practice just turn their noses up to research and theory, dismissing the relevance.  

However, we as humans lead complex, messy lives. There are often then complex, messy issues we are grappling with in our work lives. We need practice to point out the questions that need addressed, and we need academia to try to answer them via good research. Good research listens to those in practice and those they serve, designing research with them and for them. Good practice happens when we listen to current research evidence. We therefore need evidence-based practice and applied research, and to do this, we need to work together.

Becoming more evidence-based in practice

There are some small steps we can take towards being more evidence-based in practice, including:

- inviting relevant academics to services or institutions to talk about their research findings and the implications for your service delivery;

- ensuring training is linked to current research evidence;

- enquiring at the local university about existing learning alliances or groups linking practice and academia;

- taking part in research studies, because there’s a good chance the findings will help the organisation and staff develop;

- supporting and encouraging staff to undertake further learning or educational courses; it is likely to improve their practice and the practice of the team;

- having a representative in the team to translate research into digestible practice information;

- exploring the role of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, linking academia and business/service providers.

These steps apply if working with young people or adults in third sector, public services or the corporate world.

There are also some things we can do to become more comfortable talking about sexual relationships:

- Sometimes, we just have to have these conversations. We might not feel like the best person in the world to have them, or the most qualified or trained, but if everyone thinks this, the conversations just don’t happen. If young people trust us enough to come with their concerns, it is most likely we are the best person to chat to them about this big stuff.

- To help us become or feel more confident and knowledgeable, we should look to the latest guidance, resources or evidence in our area. We can ask colleagues who work in the area how best to have the conversations and request to go on training.

- We should ask young people what they want to know and how best we can answer their concerns or questions. We should focus on being young-people centred, not on enforcing an adult agenda.

- Reflecting on, and challenging, our own views and experiences, recognising how these might shape attitudes we hold and how that might influence our practice. Linked to this, making sure we are not reinforcing stereotypes or myths in our discussion.  

- Remembering young people just want workers who are non-judgemental, trustworthy, approachable, kind and help them feel safe.