A career as a community social worker is more complex than many people assume. There is a lot of essential and recommended beneficial training. The role itself is varied and includes working with people from all backgrounds and who need different levels of help. People who use this service can benefit from it in small ways or how they live their lives can be significantly impacted.
If you’re considering a career in social work, here is everything you need to know about the training, the role and some of the ways you’ll be helping people.
Education and training
One of the most important ways to train as a social worker is to take a degree course. The online accredited MSW degree programs from Keuka College are a great way to progress in your career or switch careers, whether you have a BSW or not. There are options to suit students of all educational backgrounds.
Your education will cover everything you need to prepare you for working with vulnerable members of the community and liaising with other agencies, and your work placement will help you put your knowledge into practice.
Each state has licensing requirements to become a social worker, so it’s worth checking these for yourself. However, education and hands-on experience with supervised training are the two main requirements when applying for your first role as a social worker.
After graduating and starting a career in social work, regular top-up courses and training days or sessions can be helpful for staying updated with the latest changes.
The seven principles of social work
Being familiar with the seven principles of social work will also help you when you find yourself in a new or challenging situation. These can serve as a reminder of how to behave and remain professional around your clients and people you work with from other agencies.
Acceptance is one of these principles. It’s important in community social work because people can have a negative view of social workers, especially when they are assigned one to help them or their family. This acceptance works both ways, and they need to accept you as much as you need to accept them as a client. It can be impossible to help them if they don’t want help, or you are unable to see the person behind the problem. Finding a way to make that first connection with them will make it easier to help and make a real difference.
The principle of individualization can be helpful, too. Community social workers who accept the uniqueness of each client will not compare them to any other clients or people they have known throughout their lives at their first and subsequent meetings. While your education and past experiences can help guide you, you should see each client as a unique person and work to understand who they are. For example, an experience with an alcohol-dependent relative may help you see certain signs of drinking again after a period of sobriety, but unless you uncover tangible proof of this from the service user, you could be wrong. Accepting that everyone is different is crucial to helping your clients.
Communication is essential, also, and is also one of the seven principles of social work. Although this can’t be taught as such, it can be practiced. You can learn how to improve the way you communicate with clients and outside agencies to have an impact on how they react.
Practicing communication skills goes beyond talking or listening, although these are important, as well. There can be times when the client is reluctant to talk or limits how much they tell you. By picking up on non-verbal forms of communication, you might spot patterns that hint toward subjects they feel more uncomfortable talking about and others when they become more relaxed. By getting them to talk more about the subjects they’re comfortable with, they may occasionally divulge more information about the other aspects of their lives, sometimes without realizing it. This can be a long process, but by making them feel comfortable around you, they’re likely to talk more over time.
Sometimes a client may not understand the question fully, so bringing up the topic later, while presenting the question differently, can help you get a better response. It’s also helpful to remember some of the successful methods of communication or ways of phrasing questions. This can help you communicate effectively in a way that they understand and avoid misunderstandings.
Your most basic role as a community social worker is helping people. Without being able to ensure confidentiality, many people won’t open up to you, and this can prevent you from doing your job.
That’s why it’s so important that one of the first things you tell them is that anything they say to you is confidential. For example, working with people who have been abused is often challenging because they may be feeling guilty or ashamed and don’t want family, friends, or workmates to find out. While you may want to support them and help them find justice, often the first step is to get them to talk to you. This will help you guide them to the appropriate agencies that are, specifically, there to help them. Other actions, such as supporting them through the judicial system, can happen later, if that’s what they decide to do. Referring to the principle of acceptance is important here because you may have to accept their decision if they don’t want to pursue legal action. Your role is to help them, accept their decision even if you disagree with it and not make them feel judged.
Service users’ expectations from social workers?
Being a community social worker can mean being something different to all your clients. Of course, there are some similarities and general guidelines. Clients generally need practical or emotional support, someone who will listen and someone to advocate for their rights or help them access further help.
Despite needing help, some will be reluctant to accept your assistance. Only time and displaying empathy, being respectful, building trust with them and developing a professional relationship will increase your chances of a client responding positively. Despite this, it’s important to keep some emotional distance. It’s considered unprofessional to become too involved. Trying to look objectively at your client and their unique situation is essential, rather than comparing them to yourself and what you would do or to someone you have previously known.
Looking after the elderly community
One example of your role is working with elderly clients. While it’s good news that people are more likely to live longer, this also means they can become frailer and more prone to illness. They rely on agencies, such as carers and social workers, to help them with their day-to-day life and with bigger issues, like staying in their home and the adaptations that need to be made to make this possible. Being vulnerable doesn’t make people more likely to relinquish their independence. As a community social worker, you can advocate for them to stay in their home, contact the relevant agencies to help with adaptations, carry out regular check-ups and ensure they have access to all the services they need. It can be rewarding to help them stay in the home they know and feel comfortable in where they have access to all their home comforts and more privacy than they might have in a care home.
Protecting the rights of children is another part of social work. If they’re being abused by the adults who should be protecting them, their voices can go unheard. It’s your job to take them away from harmful situations. This can be done in many ways. Removing a child from their parents occurs only if there isn’t another option, but, despite the abuse, that can be a traumatic experience for the child involved. So, as their social worker, you will help with the transition, carrying out checks on potential foster parents and staying in regular contact to help resolve any problems.
Working with members of the community who have addictions is another part of being a social worker. This is where leaving out judgment is important. People develop addictions for a variety of reasons. Bereavement is one; drinking or drugs can numb the pain caused by the loss of someone they care about. People with mental health problems may also turn to addictive substances, instead of getting the long-term help they need.
Common tasks in social work include speaking up for people and guiding them toward services to help them. This is no different when dealing with clients who have addictions. Besides ensuring they get help for the addiction, you might need to talk to other agencies on their behalf, assist them during the initial or subsequent appointments and speak out about any gaps in the local services that you feel could be beneficial but are currently not being offered.
This can be particularly challenging because these service users may not want to address their addiction or may struggle to quit, with several attempts made before being successful. However, when you manage to help them, it’s a rewarding experience that makes all your hard work feel worthwhile.
Supporting adults or children with disabilities
Sometimes you will be working with disabled children whose families aren’t abusing them, but they still need support for the additional challenges they face or barriers they have had when trying to access education and other services that able-bodied children take for granted. You can help by finding support groups for both the child and the family. This way, the child gets support, and the family has other parents to talk to, professionals who can give them valuable advice and sometimes training, and they don’t feel so isolated.
Alternatively, adults with disabilities may also need a social worker to help them live their life as independently as possible. This can include helping them apply for jobs or further education, finding a property to rent and going through the process with them, ensuring they get any disability benefits they are entitled to and much more. Independence is important, so it would be your job, alongside other agencies, to empower them as much as possible, showing them how to do things rather than doing everything for them.
You could also be working with clients who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. This might be because of family breakdowns, addictions that have led to severe poverty, returning from military service and suffering PTSD, other mental health issues, or they have recently left care or prison. Following the principles of social work is important because many people find it too easy to judge. However, as a community social worker, you should avoid having personal opinions about a client’s personal situation as much as possible, and never voice judgments about their actions or decisions. Instead, try to see things from their viewpoint and how one decision or a little bad luck in life can spiral out of control and lead to becoming or risking being homeless.
Some of these clients may have disabilities or other needs we’ve already discussed, such as being elderly and needing more support, suffering mental health issues, etc. Therefore, it’s likely you will need to help them with more than just keeping or finding a secure place to live. Being able to hold down a home could depend on overcoming addictions, getting support for a disability or poor health, rebuilding relationships with their family or finding a local support network.
What else you need to know
If you want to simplify a complex career choice such as social work, then looking at five of the common tasks should help. No matter which problems you’re helping your client with, you often must carry out one or more of these tasks.
Assessment: This is the first step to being able to help the service user. Only after you’ve gathered all the relevant information, used this to make a professional assessment and created a plan of action that is most suitable for their specific needs, you can move on to helping or treating them.
Treatment: This step will often involve at least one outside agency. Your role will be to explain to the service users the benefits of the recommended treatment, offer support in attending appointments with other professionals, from accompanying them when applicable to ensuring the venue is accessible for them and staying in regular contact to monitor their progress. If the client feels their needs aren’t being met during treatment, they may stop attending. So, you might need to act as a go-between to explain some of the methods being used and encourage the client to give the treatment time to work.
Finding and securing resources: For many of your clients, they will have struggled to find the relevant help and resources. Some of these are difficult to find or accept only referrals. As a community social worker, you can help with this. You may also be able to help launch suitable services if there is enough demand. This can involve running drop-in sessions or setting up pop-up centers that target specific groups of vulnerable people in the local community.
Monitoring the changes and improvements: Getting it right is crucial in social work. Therefore, regular monitoring can prevent more serious mistakes in the long term. By evaluating what is working and what isn’t, you can adapt your plans, look at new ways to help, and avoid wasting valuable time and resources on ineffective services and other treatments. Something that works for one person may not work for everyone, so it makes sense to set aside time to look at your progress, and potentially look for other options.
Advocating: Whether working with children, the elderly, those at risk of homelessness or other groups of service users, many share one thing in common. They are most likely vulnerable in some way. So, it will be your responsibility to speak up for their rights, present the case for more resources in a specific area or highlight anything else that needs changing on their behalf.
Community social work is an equally challenging and rewarding role. Not everyone will want your help at first, but with the right training, professional approach, persistence, and the ability to connect with people on different levels, you can make a positive difference in people’s lives. This is one of the main reasons people choose social work as a profession.