Social Work Process - Part Two

Theory in Social Work Practice

Social workers must use a range of theories and models to engage with service users. An understanding of Person-Centred theory and Communication Theory will help with the engagement process.

It is important that a social worker explains exactly what their role is and why they are working with the person. This honesty and openness sets the scene for working in partnership with the person.

At the same time the social worker must listen to the person, to their hopes and fears; to what they want and need. In social work practice there is almost always a need to carefully balance what it is the role and responsibility of the social worker to provide and what the service user would like from the social worker. Sometimes what the service user wants coincides exactly with what the social worker is there to provide. In a drop-in mental health service a service user might be looking for a sounding board for how to deal with a particularly stressful life event, and that may be exactly what the service is set up to provide. At the other extreme a parent who is sexually abusing their child might want the social worker to go away and let them carry on abusing, but that is something the social workerís role and responsibility means that they will never do.

Regardless of the situation the social worker must always strive to listen to what the person wants and to recognise that this is valid, even when it cannot take place. Good communication skills are essential at this stage of the work.

In the assessment phase a social worker must be able to build upon their engagement with the person to develop a shared understanding of what has happened, why it has happened and what needs to happen in the future. Smale et. al. (1993) introduced a useful model to understand different models of assessment. The first model is called the Procedural Model. This focuses on eligibility criteria and standardised assessment tools. The second is called the Questioning Model. This is based upon the notion of the worker as having expert knowledge of specific theories. Using these theories the worker questions the service user with a view to uncovering the nature and causes of the problem and developing a plan to address the problems identified.

Smale et. al.ís third model in called the Exchange Model. This involves the worker and the service user exchanging information and ideas to arrive at a joint understanding of the service userís strengths, difficulties needs and resources. Further details of this model are given in the Assessment Models section of this book.

Different social workers working in different settings will use different amounts of each of these three models of assessment. It is not that one model is the correct one, but that a social worker must choice the right model at the right time in order to be effective.

Regardless of the model of assessment used at some point the social worker needs to move from assessment to planning. This can happen as soon as the worker and the service user have agreed what needs to happen next. Planning begins with goal setting, but then moves on to what needs to happen for those goals to be turned into a reality. Plans need to say who, will do what, when and how, and for what purpose.

The implementation phase involves the carrying out of the plans. In general a social worker should not do for a service user what a service user can do for themselves. The reason for this is that by doing things for a service user, rather than with them, a social worker can undermine the service userís self-confidence by unwittingly communicating the message that the social worker things the service user is incapable of successfully completing the task.

The rest of this book deals with a range of intervention strategies that can be used in this phase of the work. Whatever method of intervention is used it is important to monitor its effectiveness. This is where review and evaluation are important.

Review and evaluation are both an integral part of the process and also a distinct phase prior to closure. On an on-going basis it is important to ask service users whether the plans have been carried out and whether what has been tried has brought them closer to their goals. This is vital as it both enhances motivation when the service user can see the progress being made and it also prevents drift when interventions are not being effective in bringing about change. In some situations it may be necessary to use formal evaluation tools, such as questionnaires and checklists. In other situations simply sitting down with the service user and discussing progress will be enough.

At the end of the work review and evaluation can form an important part of preventing problems re-emerging. By evaluating what has worked and how it is has worked the worker and the service user can agree what needs to happen should problems re-occur in the future. Knowing that things have made a difference increases the likelihood that the person will use those successful strategies in the future.

In some social work situations, such as children in permanent substitute care, the closure phase may be less directly relevant. In such long-term cases periods of active involvement might alternate with periods of much more low-key involvement. In most case though an awareness of the need to disengage and close the file will be an important step for the social worker. It is important to recognise that service users usually rapidly and readily mobilise resources and continue on in life with no further social work involvement. It is helpful to assure service users of this and to express a confidence in service usersí abilities to do this. This can prevent an unhealthy dependency relationship building up where service users believe that they cannot manage without support.

What itís not

The most important thing social work process is not, is a rigid and fixed set of steps a social worker must follow. The model of social work process describes a broad pattern that is typical for social work practice. While it is helpful for setting a general structure for practice social workers must also be aware that progress is often a case of steps forward followed by set-backs.

Social work process is also not a detailed blue-print for practice. By itself social work process provides no concrete steps to be taken. For that a social worker will need to draw on other theories, many of which are outlined in this book.

Theory Checklist

Has the worker engaged with the service user as a person?

Has the worker collaborated with the service user to assess the needs, strengths and goals?

Is there a clear, agreed plan?

Has the plan been put into practice?

Is there are clear process for monitoring progress and knowing when the work will end?

Unless you can say Ďyesí to all these questions you are not using Social Work Process, regardless of what other techniques and approaches you use.

Critique of the theory

One of the strongest critiques of the Social Work Process model is that it reduces a complex and multi-faceted process to a simplistic notion of what should happen, whereas in reality social work is complex, every changing and unpredictable. Most social workers will recognise that the orderly progress of phases is much easier to describe on paper than it is to implement in practice.

It is however important to recognise that any model is only ever a simplified version of a more complex reality. As a model Social Work Process is only designed to provide a general framework. A competent social worker will then bring a range of knowledge and skills to the model to implement it in a way that reflects the complexity of the lives and situations of social workers and service users.

Similarly Social Work Process also focuses on a procedural model of social work practice. By itself Social Work Process is value neutral. It is important for social workers to remember the importance of core social work values when using the model

Despite these weaknesses Social Work Process remains a useful overall model for social work practice.


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