Order in Our Universe? Sometimes.

Question: Those “application” questions can be confusing! I often end up with two answers and can’t choose between them. Are there any guidelines to follow to help me choose the correct answer?

Answer: Yes, but.

Social Work isn’t chemistry. There will be some “fact” or “definition” questions on the exams, but most are situational, usually describing a client or a request for service, asking “What would the social worker do “first” or “next”?

Social work practice isn’t random or chaotic; it follows an orderly sequence – usually. My description of this order boils down to three words: Engage, Assess, Act. Does that mean this is a rigid rule you can follow all the time? Not at all; but it can be very helpful. Here’s an example:

Mr. Smith comes to see a social worker at a community agency. He is concerned about his mother, age 82, who lives alone and recently hasn’t been answering the phone

when he calls. He asks the social worker to make a home visit to see if she is OK. To respond to his concern, the social worker should first:

A) Agree to the request, obtain the address and schedule a home visit.

B) Gather information from Mr. Smith about his relationship with his mother, her level of functioning and any special factors or urgent concerns.

C) Phone the mother while Mr. Smith is present in the office.

D) Ask Mr. Smith about other family members to contact to see if they have had recent contact with his mother.

Which answer would you choose? Why?

In this situation, a social worker’s most important tool is the ability to conduct a skillful assessment, in other words, asking the right questions to try to discover the most relevant facts. Fill in the blanks so that you have a reasonably complete picture of the current situation, before you act. This principle – “assess before you act” – will be the concept embedded in many questions on the exams. Sounds straightforward enough, but it can often be not so obvious to notice. For example, in the question above, all of the answer choices seem reasonable. Identifying the differences among the four can lead you to select the correct one. “A” and “C” demonstrate action. “B” and “D” are back one step, still asking questions, in the “assessment” phase. So if we choose “A” and knock on her door (taking up a lot of our time) the mother might not answer the door, or we may be helped by a neighbor who opens her door and reports that Mrs. Smith (the mother) left for her weekly yoga class about 15 minutes ago. Or, Mrs. Smith might be home, opens the door and says “I keep telling my son not to call me every day, that I am not going to lend him the money he is asking for. When I see from the Caller ID that he’s calling, I just ignore it.”

If we choose “C” and call her right then and there we might get no answer. If she does answer the phone, our inquiry might not be welcome, might be experienced as intrusive, as in “Who are you to be checking up on me”? In either “A” and “C” we are shooting in the dark with unpredictable results.

The remaining choices, “B” and “D” are both aimed at learning more. “B” is the better choice because it is more specific and comprehensive; it gathers more relevant and potentially useful information than “D”. The exception to this guideline? SAFETY concerns supersede every other factor.

So – please don’t jump to “fix” before you have asked questions, gathered relevant information and put them together in a picture that will help inform what you do next.

Next week: “Engage”. How do you recognize when that is the priority?

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