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The Generalist Social Work Practice: Planning Your Intervention

"Plan of action: Follow-up"

How many of you have read this in case notes of clients that you have taken over, or when auditing your junior social worker's work? It is challenging to figure out your next steps in client intervention if the action plans are not clear. And, no matter how cliché it sounds, it is undeniable that if one fails to plan, then one has planned to fail.

Planning is the third of the 7 planned change steps of the Generalist Intervention Model.

However, social workers may realize that separating assessment ( the 2nd step) and planning into distinct stages can be challenging for casework. Social workers may not have every information they need to make a holistic assessment of the client's situation during the first interview. Still, this should not hinder the worker's effort in identifying goals and planning a course of action to achieve these goals.

Critical circumstances that clients are in usually call for immediate intervention, especially when there are concerns over safety and risks. In such situations, social workers face the pressure to respond to the client's needs in a timely manner, and plan for longer-term outcomes may be shelved temporarily.

Nevertheless, the worker must be agile enough to set and review intervention plans as new information is revealed. Thus, even though contracting with the client is part of the planning process, social workers need to be mindful that the contract to carry out tasks to achieve the goals set with the clients is merely a guide - to be reviewed periodically throughout the helping relationship.

Focused on Goals, Guided by Theories

While contracts are the product of the planning exercise, social workers must first establish the overarching goals they want for their clients. Contracts may list a set of tasks that the worker and client will carry out over the period of the helping relationship. However, these tasks should be seen as means to achieving the end goals, and not as goals themselves.

For example, when helping a client who is facing domestic abuse, the goal is not just about getting a protection order from the courts. This should be considered one of the several tasks of helping the client achieve the goal of a life free from violence. With the latter as the goal, the worker then has a wider perspective of what needs to be planned. The tasks now include: formulating a safety plan with the client, identifying strategies to manage triggers, increasing avenues of support during critical incidents, getting protection from the law, seeking counseling for the client and partner, and overcoming trauma from the violence. In this case, planning could also involve getting practical help like temporary shelter, legal advice on divorce, and financial assistance. All these tasks contribute to the goal of living free from violence.

While social workers use theoretical frameworks to understand and assess the client's problem, planning the intervention must also be anchored in theories - How would you know which tasks are useful, and for what preferred outcomes? How would the client be impacted when the tasks are performed?

When planning is informed by theories, intervention becomes intentional and purposeful.

Planning Programmes in Macro-level Practice

Similarly, at the macro level, social workers also engage in planning. When gaps in services are identified (usually following community needs assessments) social workers would want to intervene through advocacy for social change, or developing new programmes and services.

Without careful consideration of the social impact that they want to see, planning for programmes becomes a top-down process of organisations giving more of what they think the community needs, instead of what the community appreciates. However, while planning for casework interventions usually involves individual clients, programme planning must take into account the preferences of members in the community; which can be diverse.

In this case, social workers may use tools like the Theory of Change and the Logic Model as frameworks to plan their programmes. They must, however, be guided by the goals which the organisations hope to achieve in the long run. The goals will determine which outcomes and pre-conditions could be targeted for the social workers to incorporate in their planning process. This, in turn, will inform what activities would be useful to achieve the outcomes intended; and what resources are needed. ( I will elaborate more on the efficacy of using the Logic Model in the future)

The Role of Supervisors in the Planning Process

For any level of practice, the social work supervisors can ensure junior social workers under their charge gain good insights on the importance of proper planning.

These are my recommended steps :

1. Clarify the theoretical framework used for the plan.

Engage workers in critical thinking about how they plan their intervention. Sometimes, social workers fall back on 'what seems logical' for problem-solving without thinking much about the purpose and the reasons for these interventions. Supervisors can help workers to think through the theories behind these action steps and how they would contribute to the overall impact on the client's environment, relationships, and personal growth.

2. Differentiate between goals and tasks.

Help workers see the difference between actions that lead to specific goals and just merely carrying out tasks to address an issue. Encourage them to see how goals help them to identify and prioritize tasks that would lead the clients to overcome their challenges - for example, getting re-employment (task) is to gain financial stability (goal). In this way, workers can begin to identify other tasks that the client can carry out to gain financial stability, and not stop after getting a job.

3. Quantify the measurements for success.

Challenge workers to think about how they could determine the client's success. What tangible results can be used as measures. If the results are intangible ( like improved well-being, perhaps? ) what could be a measurable proxy indicator? This is especially useful in programme planning because what cannot be measured cannot be evidenced to support your claims of success.

4. Determine the timeline for action completion.

Plans need to be carried out. They also need deadlines to complete. Timelines and deadlines provide clients and social workers with opportunities to track the level of commitment. This will also enable workers to engage their clients to review their progress and identify obstacles, personal challenges, or even structural barriers that need to be addressed. Supervisors can then engage social workers to identify the workers' own struggles in completing tasks and in ensuring clients complete the tasks.

5. Review the plans during each supervision session.

All well-made plans are not necessarily well-executed or produce the expected results. Workers may face various challenges. Supervisors can help by getting workers to review these plans during the supervision session and work out strategies to overcome these struggles. Alternatively, workers could also be engaged to review if the timeline to see expected change is realistic at that juncture, considering whatever new circumstances that had developed. Junior social workers need to feel validated that it is acceptable to change intervention plans when things are obviously not working for them and their clients.

Planning to Succeed

In casework, planning reminds social workers to engage in reflexivity. It requires careful considerations of the client's circumstances, strengths, challenges, wishes and desires, risks, and opportunities. Planning also provides social workers with a blueprint for discussion and negotiation with the clients, to decide on what is best for them to overcome life challenges that are most crucial to them for that particular moment, and for the years to come.

At the macro-level, planning develops confidence in the programme and its execution. It is an important step towards effective and successful outcomes for social service organisations and the communities they serve.

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