A Saint Paul University researcher heads a team of researchers in clinical supervision

Imagine this: Since your doctoral studies, you have devoted yourself to a nascent field of research. For more than a decade, you have contributed against all odds to the emergence of a less than popular specialty. After persevering for 15 years, you get $72,000 from a major research council to bring to maturity the fruits of your labour, whose implications promise to be significant. This is a good summary of the career of Cynthia Bilodeau, associate professor at Saint Paul University and a Canadian leader in clinical supervision research.

Professor Bilodeau

A long-standing interest

Director of the Saint Paul University School of Counselling, Psychotherapy and Spirituality, Cynthia Bilodeau has been passionate about clinical supervision for a long time. For her and her five colleagues, receiving a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant represents the culmination of sustained efforts. “My colleagues and I have been collecting preliminary data for four years in order to submit a proposal,” she says. “We are very excited to have received the funds and resources we wanted to pursue our work.”

The team led by Professor Bilodeau includes three researchers from the University of Ottawa, one from the Université du Québec à Montréal, and Christian Bellehumeur, a full professor at Saint Paul University.

A unique research topic

The main pedagogical approach used in training psychotherapists, including at Saint Paul University, is clinical supervision: what makes it special is that it is relational. “Supervising a future psychotherapist,” explains Cynthia Bilodeau, “involves accompanying them on a path that will allow them to develop an essential skill: a deeper understanding of the self and how their own experiences influence their relationship with their clients. The line between coaching and therapy is therefore very fine, and it is imperative that the supervisor is aware of this and does not cross the line.”

A common but misunderstood approach

Although it is used around the world, clinical supervision remains a largely overlooked research topic from a pedagogical standpoint. “We still know very little about this way of teaching,” says Cynthia Bilodeau. “What we know about this method comes mainly from psychotherapeutic theory. What our grant will allow us to study is: i) the relational aspect of clinical supervision, which is different from the therapist–client relationship; ii) the factors that foster best practice for supervision.”

Students’ strengths: a source of skills

From what angle do Professor Bilodeau and her co-researchers plan to approach their research topic? “We have chosen as our theoretical framework positive psychology, which focuses on the learner’s strengths to promote skills development,” she notes. She sees this approach, which has proven itself in primary education, as being very promising in the clinical supervision context.

“By building on a learner’s strengths, we ensure that they feel good; a learner who feels good performs well. We want to understand how supervised students develop skills and how an approach based on their strengths can facilitate their progress.”

Tangible benefits for future graduates

How will this work, and the publications that arise from it, affect upcoming cohorts of students? According to Cynthia Bilodeau, they will allow psychotherapy supervisors and teachers to better identify students’ needs in order to respond in the best possible way. “At this time, due to the serious lack of research, the world of clinical supervision is moving forward by trial and error. Thanks to our research results, we will be better equipped to train our students effectively and eliminate the risks related to the power relationship between the supervisor and the one being supervised.”

This research grant is very timely, as the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario has just recognized supervisory training as an essential skill. “This reflects the growing importance that is now being placed on supervision. We are optimistic that our findings will inform the practices of schools and professional bodies.”