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Adding an element of feeling to traditional training in social care.

By Phil Benson, Service Manager, Community Integrated Care

Reading and listening seem to be the fundamental components of how we are expected to learn in social care. We listen, take notes, remember and try and put into practice the theories that we have been taught in a classroom, or on an e-learning module. Often, also, we take tests or perform competency assessments to prove our awareness or understanding of a subject; we test our knowledge of theory. It’s all very academic.

It is widely accepted that people have individual learning styles; and that if people are taught in the way that matches a person’s learning style – they will be more likely to learn successfully  (Pashler et al., 2008). For example, they could be taught using pictures instead of words or verbally using speech or alternatively using the written word or even using sounds or music to support learning.

However, in social care, so much of our learning is classroom-based and focuses on mandatory topics delivered to a room of people, sometimes with parts of e-learning blended in. It’s all very samey.

After this training, or sometimes before, staff are often expected to ‘shadow’ someone more experienced and work alongside them to learn ‘the right way to do things’. This relies heavily on the more experienced member of staff knowing the right way to do things and doing it without any bad habits.

Lastly, there is the expectation that you will learn as you go and that this is the way to establish your way of working, finding your own feet and trying to make sense of things on your own. I’m personally not sure this gets the best out of people because it misses what we need people working in social care to understand most – how something feels.

Recently I went on a training session that was not only enlightening as a subject but changed the way I think about how staff working in social care are trained in general; how we, as managers and employers, encourage people to gain the knowledge they need to support someone to live a better life. How to anticipate what a person might want or need. How to help someone feel fulfilled or achieve their goals. How to understand how a person feels.

The training that I attended was a kind of ‘Virtual Dementia Tour’.  We were briefed, given special glasses to wear that impaired your vision, headphones that played background noise that was distracting and had to put gloves on which dampened our ability to feel. Everything happened in a dark room full of noise and clutter.

The facilitator then tried to speak with us, interacting with us and asking us to do things. All of which I found nearly impossible to do with so many things impeding me.

The most straightforward task became amazingly difficult. I was looking at an object and couldn’t think what it was or how to use it, and this happened after only five minutes of being subjected to the experience. It was eye-opening in so many ways.

The training was designed to highlight in an extreme way what a person living with dementia might experience, and was designed to have the most significant shock impact on the people going through it. It was clear what the message was: to make you feel, just for a moment, what it must be like to live where things are confusing, scary and uneasy. The experience, In turn, should change your thinking about how you might work in an area that supports people living with dementia.

Immediately I had an almost visceral connection with the knowledge I had gained in previous classroom training sessions, e-learning modules and studies we had done ourselves. In all of these, I had missed a vital component; how it felt to experience it from the other side. It’s all well and proper developing best practice techniques to support people living with dementia and using this in your day to day practice, but if we fail to understand the impact of the dementia on a person from their perspective, then we entirely miss the point.

One example of this is signage. In the care home I manage we have a purpose-built environment that supports people to be able to move about freely with well-placed signage to help people move from place to place with ease. However, at times it can be a little on the noisy side – when lunch is being served, or people are watching TV or listening to music, or the phone rings just as someone clinks a cup while making a cup of tea. After my experience in the simulator, I realise how useless the signs are and how broken the environment is if the noise pollution within the home stops people from being able to concentrate on the task at hand.

Before this training ‘I knew’ that high noise levels could affect people living with dementia in this way, I had ‘learned’ it. But it was only when I had felt it myself that my understanding became so much more three dimensional. I was 100% more conscious and aware. We now work even harder to reduce background noise levels in the home and have definitely seen some improvements in the way people move around the household and interact with each other as a result.

The training covered much more and stimulated many things that we are working on currently. However, imagine what would be possible if we expanded as much of our learning as possible to simulation or experiential type learning where people get to feel the impact themselves physically before they start supporting other people. I believe that it could transform how we do what we do in social care for the better.  We wouldn’t need to imagine what the experience felt like to another person, we would already know ourselves.


Pashler H., McDaniel M., Rohrer D., Bjork R. (2008). Learning styles: concepts and evidence. Psychol. Sci. Public Interest 9 105–119

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