Professional helping works better if we have some idea where we are and where we are going. Social work includes a tradition of concern with process. The way in which we go about working with clients and constituents makes a lot of difference in what gets done. The MTSU Social Work Faculty reached an agreement some time ago that we would use the following terms to identify the five commonly accepted stages of the helping process.
1. Preparation. The first stage of the helping process involves getting ready. The main way that we get ready to do social work with a client is to prepare the relationship between worker and client. This relationship is the most important tool we have to help clients: the more trust and understanding that we build as we get started the more we will be able to help. One of the ways we do this is to prepare ourselves to begin the process as well as possible. We read about the client's situation when we have access to that type of information. We may talk with others who know the client so that we are more comfortable when we make the initial contact. In doing both of these things, reading and talking, it is important to remember not to draw conclusions about the people you have not yet met. Case records and other people can introduce us to certain ideas about our clients but they are not a real introduction. We use this kind of information to get ready, not to form prejudices. We you do meet your client and start to build a relationship it is helpful to assume the best rather than fear the worst; be prepared to expand your understanding rather than to think poorly because of what you have read or heard.
Once you do meet with your client, remember that you need to develop a relationship, to build trust and mutual communication before you can do anything else of real value. When we treat clients with respect, when we start out listening to their concerns and taking what they have to say as important, the helping process gets off to a much better start. We need to "respect process," meaning that we cannot begin to do a good assessment until the client has reason to share truthfully about his situation. It is a growing relationship that makes this possible.
2. Assessment. This second stage begins as we gather information about the client and his situation. Generally this is done by listening to the client tell us why they need help from a social worker and what is happening in their lives. It is important to remember that social workers make psychosocial assessments, which means that we find out about psychological issues, those things that are characteristics of the person himself, and social ones, those things that are going on around the client. Another way that we talk about this is that of the person-in-situation perspective. We need to know both types of things: what our client thinks, feels, and does; as well as what is happening in his environment.
Assessment often includes a process of recording. Social workers take the information which we receive seriously and one of the things we usually do is make written records of some of what we learn about clients. It is very important to remember our ethical responsibilitiy of confidentiality during this part of the process. We may keep some records just for ourselves and we need to have the client's permission or the permission of a responsible party in order to share with others. And we do that, sharing with others, only as necessary to help the client.
3. Contracting. The third stage of the helping process involves the development of a clear agreement between worker and client about goals and methods to reach those goals. Social workers do not tell clients what to change and how to go about making the changes. Our clients do not decide for themselves everything that we are going to do to help them. These issues are negotiated. They come from a growing understanding about what is right, what is wrong, and what the two people who are working together can do about things. Remember, social workers do not do things to or for clients, we work with them. Contracting has to be a mutual process. Sometimes this takes time: it is a process which cannot be done in five minutes. There needs to be discussion, understanding, and agreement.
The concept of contracting is a good illustration of another aspect of the helping process. Often, as we begin contracting, we realize that we need to gather more information, to return to assessment before we can go on. This is typical of a dynamic and effective process. The fact that things need to be done in a certain order does not mean that we go through each stage only once and then are done with it. Each part of the process is ongoing. We continue to build an effective relationship as we do assessment, contracting, and intervention. We are always gathering information, even as we contract, do intervention, and start termination. The first contract which we form is rarely our last. The process is not a each-stage-one-time only matter. We used the concept of process to guide our work but we also need to be flexible.
Another issue raised by the need for contracting is the question of written vs. verbal contracts. Using this word that has legal connotations makes some students think that contracts have to be written and signed. This is not always true and sometimes not the best way to go about contracting. I personally prefer verbal contracts. I like the way they demonstrate trust. If you and I verbally agree to something and we can trust each other, then we can expect that we will each live up to the agreement. Some agencies require or recommend written contracts, and some need to be signed. Different things work in different places and with different social workers and clients.
4. Intervention. This is the "action" stage of the process, where we get things changed, hopefully those things which need to be changed to improve our client's life. Social workers use a wide variety of techniques to help people change those things within themselves and in their environments which they want to change and which we have contracted to help them change. The word that I keep repeating here is "change." This is what intervention is all about.
There are three courses which MTSU social work majors take which teach about different interventions: Practice I, Social Work with Groups, and Practice II. Each of them is focused on different techniques. Practice I involves micro skills, the things we do working directly with individual clients to help them change. Social Work with Groups, obviously, focuses on group practice or mezzo skills. Practice II involves the development of macro skills for work with organizations and communities. All of them build on the base of interviewing skills provided by this course.
5. Termination and evaluation. As is true of each of the other stages, social workers conceptualize termination as a process which takes time, not just as a point at the end of professional helping. Termination needs the time to be done correctly in order to preserve the benefits which our clients receive from the good changes accomplished during intervention. If the helping relationship is ended abruptly or incorrectly, the client may finish with feelings of anger or sadness which compromises the value of the progress made before termination. Therefore we do a variety of things to ease clients out of the helping process and into the rest of their lives. We talk about feelings of separation and the anxieties and joys of greater independence. We may decrease the frequency of interviews as we come to the end of the process. We often have a follow-up session sometime after separation.
The termination process also includes evaluation. Social workers and the agencies which we work for need to know how well we are doing. We evaluate practice effectiveness in a variety of ways. Many are discussed in the Research Methods course required of majors. Good evaluation provides an opportunity to monitor the situation of the individual client as well as to get feedback about our effectiveness. It is our responsibility to find out if the client is ready to terminate and offer additional help whenever possible if more is needed.