Putting Principles into Practice:

Strategies for Successful Social Work Practice

von Carol S. Cohen (Januar 2004)

Thank you for your generous introduction and welcome. It is truly a pleasure to be here and an honor to be your closing speaker. The conferences we have heard in the past two days have moved us forward with knowledge, vision, and inspiration (Hernández Aristu 2001, Lorenz 2001, Van der Laan 2001). It is my intention to use the theme of this symposium: How Social Work is Done, as the organizing theme of my presentation. I will speak of principles that inform and provide a framework for our practice. I have sub titled my presentation, Strategies for Successful Social Work Practice, in homage to the increased emphasis on the strengths perspective in social work practice. However, it could have been titled Struggles in Putting Principles into Practice, as well. As I hope my talk will demonstrate, we are engaged in challenging, difficult work with the potential of great rewards. The primary example I will be using comes from practice with groups, although the principles I will discuss are applicable in a wide range of social work methods and diverse practice venues.

A Story of Social Work Practice

I will begin with a story: Before joining the faculty of Fordham University, I was employed by Catholic Charities in Brooklyn, New York. In my last year, I worked with a wonderful social worker in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. One day, four mature women came to him and said: Son, this is important – we heard that you have groups for fathers who are trying to connect with their children. Well, we are grandmothers, raising our children’s children - our grandchildren - because our children are no longer here. And we want a group to help us.

This was a social worker’s dream come true! The clients came to us, demanding a service that was meaningful to them. The entire staff thought this was wonderful news, and that a group would be operating within a few weeks! I hope that you can tell from my smile that nothing went as easily as we imagined -- nothing at all! In fact, it took two years for this group to really get going (Cohen 1995). Now, some of you in the audience might ask: Two years for a group to get off the ground! How is that possible? How could you possibly be that incompetent? Other social workers might be more charitable, and say: Two years – not bad, considering what it is like to work in an agency or an institution! I will leave you to be the judge and will share more of the group story.

Following the grandmothers’ visit to the program we began a major planning effort. We considered the needs of the women, and thought of how a group could best serve them. We considered names for the group. One inventive worker suggested we consider calling the group GAMA, to signify Grandmothers As Mothers Again. With the proposed name, we began to send out flyers to local churches, post community notices, and of course, advise the women when the group was to start. Two workers were assigned to the group (a social work student intern and a social worker on staff) and structural choices were made about where and when the group would meet. I cannot adequately describe how excited we were. The Director told her superiors about the great program that was starting, and there was a strong sense of commitment. The agency was very interested in reaching vulnerable populations, with a mission to build caring communities. GAMA appeared to be such an opportunity. I was the Supervisor at the time, and thought: This is fantastic! I can help develop a real group work program before I leave. What a wonderful legacy!

Five grandmothers came to the first meeting in January. It must be noted that they were not the same women who had originally come to request the service. We did think that was odd. However, the workers were so thrilled that five women came that they didn’t ask many questions right away. Finally, they asked each woman what brought them there. First, one of the women explained that she was at the food pantry when a social worker suddenly asked: Are you a grandmother? When she answered yes, she was encouraged to run upstairs to the group meeting. The next person said that she was picking up her grandson at the adjacent day care center when a worker ran over to her and asked: Are you a grandmother? Again, when she answered yes, she was enthusiastically invited to the meeting. Well, you get the picture! Five women who had no previous plans to come to the group were suddenly at the meeting. As later discovered, only one of the grandmothers was actually raising grandchildren.

The workers, who had spent many hours preparing, went forward with what they thought was the perfect plan for the group. They welcomed those present and talked about how the group started with a request from the community. The workers began to ask about how often the group should meet, and if the women thought that there should be babysitting for grandchildren during the meeting. Then they asked participants for suggested purposes of the group. When no one responded, the workers posed that the group could bring together grandmothers to help each other, to collectively cope with the stress and strain of raising their children’s children. Well, the women who came to the meeting accepted the workers’ proposed purpose. Indeed, the participants thought everything that the workers suggested was fine, including the name of GAMA for the group. Let us remember, however, that these women did not quite know why they were there, or if they were ever coming back. Of course, cookies and beverages were served and the meeting came to a close.

The workers returned to the office and told me about the great meeting. We immediately began to make plans for the next one. What do you think happened at the next meeting? Only one person returned, and she became the single stalwart member, attending every meeting. She had been the only woman attending the first meeting who was raising grandchildren on her own. Her son had died of AIDS and her daughter in law was missing. Suddenly, she was raising children again, and found this group to be very powerful.

We struggled along. Another meeting was held, and a new person attended in response to a new wave of announcements. A pattern began in which new attendees were asked: Please tell us your story about being a grandmother raising your grandchildren. A new person would tell the most heart-wrenching tale. The workers and one veteran member would encourage the new person to continue, saying: Tell us more, tell us more. At the end of a session, each new participant said that she found the experience useful, but terribly draining. These women never came back.

We were terribly off the mark here. As powerful as the meeting may have been to a new participant, GAMA was supposed to be a support group, not a therapeutic encounter group. This pattern of inviting prospective members to a meeting and encouraging them to tell all did not result in the further development of the group. However, the Director kept talking about this group, and whomever she talked with said: Oh, that is just the kind of work that we should be doing! She didn’t dare say that that GAMA was just floundering along. As the supervisor, I am embarrassed to say that based on the workers’ reports I did not quite put my finger on what was so terribly wrong at first. With some time and study, the dysfunctional group process became clearer. Then the summer came and the student co-leader left, so we stopped the group for a while. September came, October came, and suddenly the group was dormant. We had stayed in touch with the one solid member and she then told us, I’m leaving New York City. We began to contemplate the demise of GAMA.

But remember that I said it took two years! The Director and one of the workers went to a parish meeting in the community, and mentioned the GAMA group. After all, we weren’t ready to tell the world that it was a failure. The pastor of the church told her that he had noticed many Latinas congregating in the back of the church to talk about their experience raising grandchildren. He wondered whether we could start a group like GAMA in his community! The Director replied: An excellent idea. We began that group, and shortly thereafter a representative of a child welfare agency met the Director at another meeting. After hearing about GAMA, he reported that his agency worked with many grandparents who had taken over custody of their grandchildren following the death or incapacity of their parents. He invited us to begin a group with these grandmothers.

A miracle!! Two groups from nothing. I make light of the formation process in my story, but we must remember that 3.2 million children in the United States have been identified as being raised by their grandparents (US Census, 1991). Obviously, there is no shortage of people who could benefit from a support group program – an improved version of the original GAMA group. Following the reformulation of the group, members themselves proclaimed: I want to be here and here’s what I want to see happen. They created groups in which they could support each other, expressed in statements like these: This is a place where I don’t feel so different. When I go to my grandchild’s school I am so different from the other parents - but here I feel like you really know what it is like for me. In a key change, new members spent more of their first meeting hearing the struggles and successes of other members than they did telling their own story.

The staff had begun with all sort of ideas, but they needed to help the group members take hold of the planning process. For example, the workers thought it might be helpful to bring together grandmothers and grandchildren at outings and picnics. Well, once the group members began making decisions, they made it clear that they spent day after day with their grandchildren and what really interested them was the chance to be apart from the children, in a supportive environment with other grandmothers. Surprising the workers, the members said that they preferred to walk together down Fifth Avenue than have an intergenerational picnic in Central Park! Eventually, some of these ideas evolved into a respite program for GAMA members and other grandparents raising grandchildren, for short-term relief from child care responsibilities.

In the second year of meetings, the groups decided to have speakers come in and talk about legal rights. Many of them were worried that another person could come along and demand custody of their grandchildren. Very few members, except those involved with the child welfare system, had legal custody of their grandchildren. The information shared at these meetings calmed some fears, but raised the critical need for advocacy. The GAMA members and workers spearheaded the formation of a coalition of grandparent groups throughout the city, and have engaged in lobbying and political action in many venues, including at the New York State Capitol.

The final element I would like to share with you about GAMA is a memorable moment when one group was discussing how they could reach out to potential members. They decided to redesign the GAMA announcement, as a personal invitation from the members. I want to read you part of the text that they wrote: We know you need support – And we are here for you. That is all they needed to say. GAMA was no longer an agency’s great idea, but a viable group program, with members taking responsibility and ownership. I am very proud to say that five, six, seven, years later these groups are still prospering. In fact, they have now been recognized as a center of support and wisdom. Policy makers and researchers visit GAMA and consult with the grandmothers. GAMA’s success is a credit to the members, and I believe, also a credit to solid social work practice, in which workers hear what clients want and need.

Four Principles for Practice

Following this story, it is time to ask: What can we learn from this experience? I believe that we can derive key principles from the GAMA experience. In thinking about principles, I draw from the work of Harold Lewis (1982), who talked about skill and the development of principles in a very interesting manner. He proposed that principles are developed through the combination of values and ethics, practice wisdom of clients and workers, as well as empirically based knowledge. Thus, principles are not simply what we can see and touch; they also include what we believe about good social work practice. Social workers who follow such principles do not do so robotically. Yesterday evening, we heard Geert van der Laan (2001) speak about the difference between a technician and a professional. A technician follows rules; a professional follows principles, which are subject to independent judgment.

Principle One: Social work programs should be CRITICAL.

I believe that unless we address the needs of the clients we are trying to work with there is no point in the undertaking. Further, it is unfair and unethical to engage clients in work that is not meaningful to them. Thus, criticality for the people most affected is absolutely essential. The finding of millions of children being raised by grandparents suggests that there is a critical need for support. To further understand what is vital, we must listen to grandmothers served by groups and by other social work programs and hear what is critical to them. We found, as I mentioned before, that the spilling phenomenon in the early group sessions, although incredibly seductive to the workers and veteran member, was not filling the key need of the grandmothers. Eventually, a few women did return to the program, and experienced a different group context. The members shared what we had already discovered, that supporting and helping others were most meaningful to the members.

In fact, the notion of support, of mutual aid, of helping each other seemed to be right on target. One of the grandmothers said: I don’t want to make the same mistakes I made with my grandchild as I did with my own girls. It was through mutual aid that members gained the courage to face their fears. GAMA members come from families in which the care of children by extended family members is generally expected and part of the community culture.However, these women were raising grandchildren through extraordinary circumstances. Certainly, it is not usual or expected that your child would die in prison and that you would be left to raise your grandchildren. This is a very different kind of grand parenting. Even in families where multiple generations live together, this is a far more difficult and isolating situation.

Yalom (1985) is best known for identifying therapeutic factors of groups, and many others have contributed to this understanding. The book that Julianne Wayne and I recently completed (Wayne & Cohen 2001) contains twelve answers to the question: Why Group? I would like to briefly describe them as evidence of how groups can be critical to their members.

I promise that the three other principles derived from the GAMA experience are given much less time in my speech. The reason for this is because being CRITICAL to clients is the sine qua non of social work practice. However, alone it is insufficient and without the last three principles GAMA would not have been survived.

Principle Two: Social work programs should be INTEGRAL

GAMA taught us that a key ingredient of success is solid integration of the program into the sponsoring organization of agency. This became clear as the workers could not bear the thought of doing something to take the place of GAMA, since it was so connected to their jobs. Other evidence surfaced when the administrator kept talking about this program. Even when it was almost nonexistent, GAMA appeared to be embedded in agency’s heart. Many of you have worked with groups that have operated under the exact opposite set of conditions - when groups are formed as afterthoughts or adjuncts to other services. It appears that when groups are frills, they are the first things to be cut, and with the first dissatisfaction the workers are redeployed. In GAMA’s case, when it was painfully clear that the skills of the workers and the agency’s orientation to this group needed some restructuring, a mandatory group work seminar was developed for all beginning agency social workers. Because this group was integral to the agency mission it became something that needed to be continued.

As Bertha Reynolds pointed out: Practice is always shaped by the needs of the times, the problems they present, the fears they generate, the solutions that appeal, and the knowledge and skill available (as cited in Ehrenright 1985, 13). It was the wise social workers in this program and in many of your institutions, who understood the importance of bonding the groups to the agency. I suggest that we look to put this principle into practice to protect needed programs from marginalization. This will require having a keen understanding of what is important to the sponsoring organization, and making sure that the new initiative fits within its priorities. I know that sounds somewhat cynical, but there is always a way for programs that are CRITICAL to find their way right into the central core. Thus, they avoid being though of as frills, or even as dangerous, such as groups that help members exercise their power.

Principle Three: Social work programs should be PERSONAL.

This principle may shock some people in the audience, and I certainly have had lively discussions about it. However, I believe that the GAMA experience and many others, that social work programs should be PERSONAL. Whereas being CRITICAL speaks to clients and being INTEGRAL speaks to agency sponsorship, being PERSONAL speaks to the workers. In order for the workers in the GAMA tale to sustain their interest, enthusiasm and commitment to this group and to its members, they needed further motivation than just doing their jobs. Staff members were all personally connected to GAMA. For the administrator, this program was her chance to show the agency how well we were doing. When those above her wanted her to deploy workers to meet other needs, she said, We cannot do that - this is GAMA! Her personal stake in her reputation and that of the program was clearly enhanced through GAMA’s continuation.

I’ve already told you how my own personal stake was on the line here. I was afraid that others might wonder why Dr. Group Work could not help GAMA succeed. As we considered abandoning the program I began to feel: If you hurt GAMA, you hurt me! For the workers, there was also an intense personal connection. One of the original workers was raised by her grandmother. The other one had a very close and devoted relationship with her grandmother and a rather contentious relationship with her mother. These personal connections - and not being afraid to name them – were essential to GAMA’s eventual success. The staff members involved were able to identify and nurture personal links in a professional manner to work effectively with the groups.

William Schwartz (1971) coined the phrase tuning in, a process in which we try to understand the many ways that clients are feeling. The process is based on worker self-awareness, and creates an inventory of workers’ own feelings. Therefore, it serves dual purposes of:

  1. preparation for work with clients and

  2. identification of workers’ personal stake in the social work intervention. It has four simple steps.

I have added a fifth step, of openness, believing that it deserves special emphasis. At this point, workers continue to guard against the misconception that they truly know clients by surfacing their own feelings. This step is vital, if workers are able to do what Shulman (1999) refers to as being open to the productions of the client, and to see clients as real people.

The need to make programs PERSONAL talks to all the fears that workers have, including that members will be hostile, acting-out, unmanageably resistant, or overly dependent on the worker. Of course, another key fear is that the agency staff will judge workers to be incompetent. Such statements are often rooted in fears of failure, blame and judgment — summed up in the twin fears that no one will talk and that everyone will talk at the same time. Fears are often good signals of other concerns, and they should not just be passed over as normal anxieties. For example, fears may often signal that workers need to learn more about practice. Exploring their worries may lead them to a much higher level of competence, and we can avoid having workers enter group work practice both afraid and poorly prepared.

Through the identification of personal stake, the worker and the agency are able to face their fears and worries, to see them as expected (which is what we think when group members express such concerns in the early stages of groups), and begin to find a balance between hope and fear. In a parallel process with clients, workers build their own state of motivation, conceptualized by Lillian Ripple (1956) as being afraid, but willing to risk, with the hope that something better is possible and needed. We ask clients to look at their motivation and barriers to change throughout social work practice, so the idea of asking workers to engage in a similar enterprise seems quite reasonable.

Principle Four: Social work programs should be RESPONSIBLE.

Now we get to our fourth and final principle. By saying that programs should be RESPONSIBLE, I mean that programs must be professionally sound. They must be grounded in ethics and skill in order to be truly responsible. I will never forget James Garland’s talk (1992) at the first international conference of the Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups that I attended. He asked the workshop participants: How many times have you heard someone say: ‘Go do a group?’ And then he asked us, Has anyone ever heard someone say: ‘Go do a client?’ It was a revelation! Doing a client is illegal, immoral, and downright stupid practice! As he pointed out, we need to believe that Doing a group without preparation, planning and skill is the same – clearly unethical and foolish. Thus, all social work practice, whether with individuals, families, groups, communities or organizations, needs to be RESPONSIBLE.

It is painfully clear in my story of GAMA that we did not follow this principle at all times. First of all, we named the group ourselves, and asked the very first participants to affirm our choice. It is true that those present seemed to like the GAMA name, but responsible practice would suggest other choices. Further, the workers went through the plans for the first meeting even when they knew something was wrong and the attendees wondered why they were there. The key to being RESPONSIBLE is to over plan and under use. Pressure from the agency and the supervisor aside, the needs of the members and potential members must take priority.

I am indebted in my professional career to the thinking Ruth Middleman, who with Gale Goldberg Wood has brilliantly described essential skills and their application to social work practice with groups (Middleman & Wood 1990). The ones I will share with you today are remarkably simple. First is thinking group. If you are working with a group, consider it as the unit of attention. In fact, think group is the theme of our AASWG symposium in New York City in 2002. The second skill is scanning, which suggests that workers take in all that is happening in the group. In this skill, we build on the individual-directed skill of focusing on one person, and enlarge our field of vision. For those familiar with photography, another way to think about this skill is to move from a portrait lens to a wide-angle lens in capturing the action of the group. Third, is the skill of fostering cohesion, and consistently working to build the connections between members throughout the life of the group.

Kurland and Salmon have contributed greatly to this concept, by drawing the distinction between casework in a group and group work in a group (1992). Rather than thinking only of individual members achieving individual goals, they direct the workers attention to the group-as-a-whole and its common goals. For example, when Betty shares a problem in the group, an individual approach would be to invite members’ participation, but keep focus on Betty’s problem. A group approach to this situation would seek ways in which Betty’s problem resonates with other members’ experiences – and thus find a new level of discourse. In group work in the group, the focus is on shared experience and problem solving of collectively constructed issues.


The four principles, that programs should be CRITICAL, INTEGRAL, PERSONAL, and RESPONSIBLE, serve as a guide to think about, and conduct successful social work practice. As you have heard, we did not always follow them as we struggled with GAMA. However, they clearly emerged from the work, and framed the program’s ongoing development. The principles are simple, yet they draw attention to essential elements of practice.

At this point, I will like to read a quotation from June 1955, from a journal called The Group. Harley Trecker’s article is about the process of deliberation and progress of the American Association of Group Workers as they prepared to merge into the newly organized National Association of Social Workers. It includes the following reflection:

Of great importance is the fact that we have learned to work together; we have learned to create excellent ideas as a result of our professional processes. It is true that our democratic process has at times seemed very slow, but as we review the ultimate results, we can not help but believe that it is a sound and rewarding way of working. (Trecker 1955, 5)

Almost fifty years later, I propose that these words perfectly describe this symposium. We may have experienced some slow moments, but most of the time it has passed in a rush of exciting work. The process of being together has yielded such wonderful results that I for one am honored to have been a part of this enterprise. I have been privileged to meet many of you and believe that you share my feelings about the Symposium.

Therefore, if it is not too far of a stretch, I could end by saying that this Symposium is a very large group that has been CRITICAL for those people who have come and to those they will serve. The symposium is INTEGRAL to our working lives, and as we leave here we take our experience as a new part of ourselves. We have come for many PERSONAL reasons. Most everyone has come for new knowledge and exposure, but we also have our own individual connections to the people and content of this symposium. The organizers and participants have created this experience in an extraordinarily RESPONSIBLE manner. The wisdom and practice brought to the floor of this event has been incomparable. I thank you for making a place for me here and welcome your stories, questions and comments.


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Mit freundlicher Erlaubnis des Verlages LIBOS CERTEZA, ZARAGOZA entnommen dem Buche: Miguel Olza Zubiri, Jésus Hernández Aristu (Hg.): Trabajo Social: Cuestiones sobre el qué y el cómo, Zaragoza 2003, Seiten: 49-65; ISBN: 84-88269-81-1.

Die Autorin:

Carol Cohen
DSW is an Associate Professor at the Adelphi University School of Social Work in New York.  Her work in the areas of agency-based practice, group work, supervision, and community development has been published and disseminated nationally and internationally.  Among her most recent publications is the book Group Work Education in the Field (with Julianne Wayne).  She is presently Chair of the Social Work Board of New York State and served as Chair of the 24th Annual International Symposium of the Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups. Before joining the academic ranks, she held a numerous positions with Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, and maintains strong ties with their programs, collaborating on training and evaluation projects.

Veröffentlichungsdatum: Januar 2004

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