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The Generalist Social Work Practice: Making an Assessment

This is the second of seven installments on the generalist social work practice 7-planned change steps.

Making an assessment is not easy, even for social workers who have many years in the field. There are a number of tasks that need to be carried out in the assessment process. The social worker also needs to be mindful that while we work towards an assessment of the client's problem, the client too, is making an assessment of the helping relationship and the worker as well.

An assessment requires the social worker to gather relevant information in order to understand what is happening to the client. Therein lies the challenge - what constitutes relevant information? How much of it is good enough to give you a sense of what is going on in the client's life? How much of it are facts of the case and how much are based on the client's own perception of what happened? At the same time, how much of the information gathered from the client is sieved based on the level of trust the client has in the worker; and how much is, really, just made up?

Building Sufficient Rapport to Engage in the Assessment Process

Gathering information from the client requires the worker to build enough rapport to get the client genuinely engaged in the assessment process. While voluntary clients may be ready to share information that would help them resolve their issues, workers should not take this as a given. Clients may have felt at ease with the worker during the engagement stage because the questions were likely to be non-consequential - how's the weather, have they eaten, did they have to take a leave of absence from work to come to the agency?

When the questioning gets a bit more in-depth and specific - to look for details or even discrepancies, clients may begin to put their guard up and wonder how much to reveal. Social workers may resort to asking open-ended questions to explore the client's thoughts and pick up the information from the client's responses. Additionally, workers must be mindful that words also carry the client's perceptions and feelings as well. Thus, responding to the underlying emotions is a necessary part of building rapport for assessment.

For involuntary clients, rapport building is much harder but not impossible. Involuntary clients tend to be warier of the worker's intention in building rapport. While the worker may attempt to address this during the engagement phase, the client may still be more cautious about sharing information that surrounds the issues that brought the client to the agency.

Using Theories as Basis of Assessment

The information that social workers seek from their clients should be guided by theoretical constructs to help them understand the clients' behaviour and the interactions that the clients have with their social systems. This could be a daunting task for many junior social workers who might be grappling with applying the many theories they have learnt in school into the agency practice.

As a primer, professional social work education teaches a broad range of theories which social workers, upon graduation must begin to synthesize as they take on their professional role. In addition to the basic understanding of systems theory, ecological theory, cognitive-behavioural theory, person-centered, ego-psychology, and psychodynamic theories; there are also perspectives to consider, like strengths-based and multicultural perspectives. Within the agency, junior social workers might also be introduced to various tools of assessment, like suicide risk, child safety, elder assessment, family violence, and assessments for mental health and well-being.

Here is where guidance from the supervisor is essential. It might take practice for a worker to develop some level of intuition to ask questions that could trigger a specific risk assessment. Supervisors could help by closely monitoring the social worker's assessment report and encourage reflexive practice on how the assessment was formulated, the theories used, and the other sources of knowledge that the worker has used to derive the assessment.

Junior social workers can try to formulate their own assessment from the knowledge base built in school. However, the supervisor's experience and practice wisdom bring the reality of working with clients into the assessment process. For example, while the worker might assess an elderly in need of full-time nursing care as not likely to survive at home alone, the supervisor might still see a potential for the elderly to return home if the appropriate services are rendered. In this case, the extent of the assessment includes knowledge of available services, beyond just the theoretical constructs.

Goal Setting as a Necessary Part of Assessment

Finally, an assessment also includes working with the client to set realistic goals. This can be challenging and time-consuming. Workers might feel an urgency to resolve a particular issue amongst a list of problems that the client has identified. However, the client might think otherwise and may not be ready to commit to addressing that problem.

The client might also be fixated on wanting to achieve a particular outcome while the worker might see it as unrealistic and unachievable. This might lead to the worker losing rapport and the client disengaging from the helping relationship.

By continuing to strengthen the client-worker relationship, the worker will enable the client to participate in goal setting fully and ensure that the tasks identified in the planning stage are carried out during implementation. This is to prepare the client for eventual termination. When the client has the capacity to set goals and work towards achieving them, it will contribute towards improving the client's social functioning in the future.


Boyle, S. W., Smith, L. L., Farley, O. W., Hull, G. H., & Mather, J. H. (2014). Direct practice in social work: Pearson new international edition ( 2nd Ed.) . Pearson.

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