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Ecological Systems Theory and Practice: Complexity Lexicon

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by Dr. Michael Wright

As part of my ongoing series on ecological systems theory and practice, this week I will be discussing complexity lexicons. Complexity grows exponentially due to interactivity, and interactive effects are present at each level and every context of assessment and intervention. In the sociological context, interactive effects mean that individuals in groups often influence one another toward homeostasis. In environmental practice, interactive effects result in ability of systems to predict choice behavior by intentionally structuring the choice calculus—increasing or decreasing options by managing awareness and expectation of role, culture, access, and capacity.

After reading this section, you will be able to:

  1. Utilize a new lexicon for discussing change in human systems.
  2. Articulate how purpose and rules impact perception, construction, and mechanism in human systems.
  3. Articulate operational methods to structure human systems to predict outcomes and control outputs.

The Short Version: Perception, Construct, and Mechanism

As a blog post, this post is rather lengthy. I emphasize the most important points in bold, but I did not want to short change the curious. For my other friends, the whole post in a nutshell: Whether you are working with an individual client, a community change effort, research or consulting 1) all these activities are related through ecological systems theory and practice; 2) begin your work with a consideration of agents, institutions, and environment that impact the choice behavior of your clients.

In order to set the lexicon for prediction of choice behavior, we must move from “individuals” to “agents,” from “groups” to “institutions,” from “environment” to, well, “environment.” We also introduce Sociocybernetics. Sociocybernetics is the study of the social contracts that result from the interaction of institutions, agents, and environments.

What do we call an individual that operates within a system for a specific purpose based on rules of engagement? AGENTS. Agents are both intentional and unintentional.

What do we call a collection of individuals who convene for a purpose and produce a charter and standard rules of behavior? INSTITUTIONS. Institutions include social constructions like marriage or volunteerism.

What do we call that convening space that influences social roles by virtue of its own rule that either highlights the strength of the individual or exposes the weaknesses of the person? ENVIRONMENT. Environments are physical and metaphysical. The physical we call the environment. The metaphysical we call culture.

Agent Complexity

Agent complexity is focused on the agent profile as well as the agent perception. Agent profile includes the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual characteristics of the individual. Agent perception recognizes that these characteristics influence a construction of meaning within the client that either highlights or obscures options. The combination of biopsychosocial-spiritual characteristics also means that each client has constructions and distortions that impact meaning and behavior choice. The job of the worker is to manage both the constructions and the distortions to increase the sustainable options perceived by the agent. The point here is that these complexities in the agent are useful. They are not simply annoyances that presuppose dishonesty, they are powerful tools toward creating a new reality that supports sustainable choice behavior even in the absence of a complete comprehension of the theoretical frame. Once a habit of sustainable choice is practiced, the work of increased comprehension can proceed in earnest. The worker must support empowerment of the agent to intentionally select sustainable choices. The agent is made more complex in that the examination of complexity must account for both constructions and distortions. Said another way, the prediction must incorporate ways that clients lie to themselves.


106567388Constructions

A number of theorists and scholars have contributed to our understanding of constructions. Among them Carter and McGoldrick (1999) informs family contexts, Greene (2012) informs resilience, Erickson (1980) remains a seminal work on identity and social perception, Bandura (2001) informs social agency toward action, and Rollo May (1975) must be included for his work on creativity.

Each of these has in common the concept of the “lifespan.” Santrock (1999) presented the constructs of the lifespan approach. You need to know them because the lifespan approach allows social scientists and practitioners to understand and apply stage theories and structural conceptions in a review and modeling of individual choice. In one way, the lifespan concept is the “it depends” answer to a question of individual complexity. We can model this complexity because we can identify the variables upon which the answer depends.

Behavior, cognition, and meaning are the three domains of assessment. In the spaces between those three, we find more nuanced or complexity-producing concepts. These introduce time, the chronology to events, into the discussion of individual agency. In other words, clients make choices (behavior) based on what they think (cognition), and expectations (meaning), but these result from history/experience, perception/awareness, and meaning/sense-making.

History/Experience. Each individual experiences life events, and those experiences shape future behaviors. That much is common knowledge. But, the social scientist must add that the individual constructs schema for choosing how to apply the knowledge gained from experience. That is, whether it is conscious to the individual or not, behavior has a mechanism. This is useful because we can discuss the prediction of behavior as a function of the mechanism of choice rather than attempting to discern the intention of the individual. Work toward behavior change begins with this foundational exploration of the patterns that make up a profile of the individual.

Perception/Awareness. Each individual attends to life events in ways that are specific to that individual. This may seem to introduce a level of complexity that cannot be overcome. But, conscious or not, each individual approaches events with discernible logic and observable methods that provide a window into perception and add predictability to what she will have the capacity to be aware. This is useful because we can use the typical intervention of psychoeducation, but also, discerning the logic (or dismissal of logic) we may introduce the intervention of cognitive restructuring. A common example of cognitive restructuring is when you ask a client to begin to use positive self-talk. Instead of referring to himself as “idiot,” you may ask him to speak of himself as a “learner.”

Meaning/Sense-Making. Humans choose to do what they expect will give them what they want. This is why despair is so dangerous. Not because it signals a metaphysical dearth of hope, but because it signals a lack of predictability. Sense-making also points to variability in the conclusions drawn from observing the same event. Meaning is not only a function of historical prediction and perception, but humans make sense of events in comparison with what they expected prior and what they are motivated to continue to believe and expect later. This is useful because we can use it to facilitate new realities demonstrated in new behaviors the client could not make sense of prior and therefore could not, in his mind, achieve.

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Distortions

Theorists and scholars also exist to inform our discussion of distortions. Among them Brené Brown (2012) informs vulnerability and shame. A host of seminal authors like Freud, Rogers, and Bateson who describe ego defenses. Logic is considered one of the ancient arts. As such check Aristotle for original quotes Socrates. Fowler (1981) adds faith. These highlight the ability of the human mind to disregard evidence and context and create a new reality. It is important to realize that this function of the human mind is useful when all evidence suggests failure. To believe in something unseen and illogical is sometimes needed to overcome the fear and trepidation toward learning and acting to overcome a seemingly impossible challenge.

I divide Ego Defenses into three categories. I tend to focus on the grouping of defense mechanism that Vaillant (1977) calls Neurotic, but it would be interesting to expand my categorization with listings from other authors.

Consider my categories, whatever the actual ego defense, as characteristic ways to distort reality to your needs. AVOIDANT (Resistance) Characterized by a subconscious (non-aware) resistance to the anxiety producing stimulus. “I will not believe it. I have not seen it. It is not true.” REACTIVE (Decoupling) Characterized by action to decouple evidence in behavior from labels and meaning when faced with the anxiety producing stimuli. “Look at my actions. That PROVES that I am what I say I am.” PROACTIVE (Restructuring) Characterized by an intentional or unintentional activity aimed at restructuring the meaning implied by behavior in response to the anxiety producing stimuli. “You are mistaken. To be like this means to act like this.”

Ego defenses can be useful, for example, in a situation of client self-doubt by trading on Proactive Ego Defense. We cognitive restructure client meaning by pointing out that the client has made positive progress. We encourage, “You are making progress, more successful days than challenging days. Progress IS success.”

Logical Fallacies are seemingly systematic ways of “making it up” as you go along. They are often presented in the form of substantive arguments, but any review of the structure of the argument reveals flaws. The fallacies also do not hold true to transfer.

For example:

  1. I like red cars.
  2. I have seen many red cars today. (Implying that others also like red cars.)
  3. Everyone is buying red cars.

This can be useful because logical fallacies suspend logic and the requirement for things to “add up.” It can be especially useful when a system of self-defeating logic has been employed by the client. The client says:

  1. I have not been able to find employment.
  2. The economy is depressed.
  3. I will never find a job.

The worker rebuts:

  1. You have employable skills.
  2. Our community is recovering economically.
  3. You will find employment with help.

The work here uses faulty logic to move the client’s focus away from the economy, which he cannot control to encouragement and help, which the agency can provide. Again, logical fallacies are not sustainable in the long-term, but they can move a client out of a rut of despair.

Faith is my favorite of distortions. Faith confidently states, “I believe even if I cannot see any evidence. Further, my hope is all the evidence I need.” Faith is a powerful tool to be shared with clients.

For example, a client who feels some anxiety about her performance in a job interview speaks with a worker at an employment services agency. She has practiced with the worker and at home, but she has never been in a real interview situation. The worker counsels, “Trust me. You have prepared. You’ll be amazing.” The client calms and performs well in the interview.

Institutional Complexity

Humans when in groups exhibit behaviors that are not necessarily expected from any one of the individuals in the group TOWARD stability, purpose and order. These types of systems are termed Complex Adaptive Systems. They are driven by heterogeneity: the more different the individuals, the greater the impetus for change toward homeostasis.

Institutions have specific processes for transmittal of environmentally supported culture and enforcement of rules. The resultant culture and rules are expressed in values, beliefs, and expectations linked to environment and events over time.

This means that hierarchies naturally form as the goals, standards and norms are agreed upon implicitly or explicitly. The leadership and culture that results is primarily dependent upon individual expertise. It is not necessarily competence for the tasks at hand. Without clear qualifications for leadership or evaluation of fit with goals, leaders will hold operational expertise or political advantage. It is always true that individual expertise is most important to leadership and culture change in institutions. The question is does the group have the structural policies in place to support sustainable change? It is not enough to answer this question with a Yes or No. Examining the complexity asks HOW the structural policies influence choice behavior.

Quick Thought on Choice

The primary motivation of all individuals is toward purpose and order, predictability and homeostasis. But, agency is a complex choice (Bandura, 2001; Bertalanffy, 1969; Csikszentmihalyi, 1998; Miller & Page, 2007). Humans are not unique in their ability to both make decisions and articulate their process as a pattern for observers. Other animals can teach and learn. But, humans (other than marketers and salepeople) seem unaware or at least passive toward their ability to create physical embodiments of expected choice behavior. Creating institutions is about INFLUENCE through the physical space and culture—reinforced behaviors, norms and beliefs about the knowledge, relationships, and social roles.

Environmental Complexity

Environmental complexity is our entry into the emerging science surrounding behavior, mental health, well-being and their connection with the physical brain, neurology, and the fundamental mechanisms underlying “humanness.” What may surprise you is that the social work profession has advanced models beyond the diagnostic statistical manual (DSM). What I hope excites you is that application of these models within the context of statistical/mathematical models combined with neuroscience portend an expansion of our understanding of choice behavior and monumental improvement in service to clients.

128074523The Sociocybernetics of Culture and Contracts

Person-In-Environment was presented by Karls & Wandrei as an alternative model of client profiling (as opposed to diagnosis). The framework is supported with evidence and implementation history as far back as 1983. At its core, the detailed taxonomy provides a basis for contextualizing the interactive effects of social role, environmental factors, and strengths of the individual (See Karls & Wandrei, 1994;1983).

Ecological Perspective of Gitterman & Germain, not to be confused with the ecological systems theory of Bronfenbrenner, was presented as early as 1973. The framework describes how transactions with Environment and Culture impact behavior (See Gitterman & Germain, 2008;1973).

These add to Agent and Institutional complexity another variable. Humans make “deals” or contracts functionally with the environment. More specifically, humans perform based on role perception and adoption specific to culture outside the individual or the institution, and resulting from the interactive effects of person-to-institution and person-to-institution in the environmental context.  This means that examining complexity must include a careful articulation of the physical environment and metaphysical culture. This is not just a description. Careful articulation suggests a connection between agent, institution, and environment-culture. The agent perceives a contract. The institution supports a contract. Both contracts operate within a larger structural context that impacts whether any certain real outcome is possible.

A simple example. An annual race is organized with a reported $500 prize. Individuals train all year for the event. The town gears up with industry supporting the annual race. The agents are ready to run. The institutions are supportive. What no one counted on was the flood that would envelope 75% of the town under 3 feet of water. It is impossible to run the race in these conditions. Though this example illustrates an act of nature, consider that other environmental (and even acts of nature: meteorology anyone?) are predictable if we account for them in our examination of complexity. To simply abdicate predictive capability is at least ignorant of available technology. At most it is negligent of due diligence. Neither are good looks for a social worker.

Using ABM to Handle Complexity

Group behaviors are unexpected but predictable if characteristics are known: Agent profiles, Institutional Structure and Policies, Cultural Environment, and Interactive effects. The outcomes of systems can be modeled through a process called Agent-Based Modeling (ABM). Control systems provide the structural policies that influence agent choice. A well-formed control system can provide a predictable output each time it is executed. Though human inputs are more complex, a well-formed control system will account for the variability with new operations that adjust to the needs of the agent perception, the institutional construct, and the Sociocybernetic mechanism—the environment control system in execution.

Consider that the combination of agents and institutions in action, constrained by culture is a control system: inputs, system activities, outputs, and feedback. Consider what could be done if you exercised a level of influence within that system. This is what social work has that no other profession has in the combined mandate of individual, social, and environmental practice…the scientific and ethically-grounded framework to utilize sociocybernetic constructs to promote sustainable gains in health and well-being. What did you think you were learning?

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Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers his expertise as an career coach, serial entrepreneur, and publisher through MAWMedia Group, LLC. Wright has maintained this macro practice consultancy since 1997. Wright lives in Reno, NV.

          
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Culture

Examining White Privilege: What’s the Fear?

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Dickinson student Leda Fisher asks the question “Should White Boys Still be Allowed to Talk?” in her opinion piece in the college’s daily news publication, The Dickinsonian.  Reportedly, Ms. Fisher indicates that she has received overwhelming support in response to her piece.  However, the backlash and negative comments have been swift and brutal, including calls for her expulsion.  The opinion piece has gone viral, which presents the opportunity to explore why her comments have pushed so many buttons.  Specifically, examining the role of higher education, exploring constructs related to power, and the impact of cumulative rage are issues for further consideration.

The Role of Higher Education

We expect colleges and universities to value freedom of speech, to support the development and expression of thought, and to expose students to new ideas.  However, these priorities come with challenges, including the challenge to listen while feeling uncomfortable. The evidence about white male dominance in the classroom and other life settings is clear.  Being silenced, mansplained, and not having room for diverse views are routine characteristics of school and work environments for women and people of color. It is unclear why Dickinson students would not be glad for the insight that Fisher provides about her experience, and appreciative for her courage in putting such a perspective out there. Further, as a woman of color at a majority white school, why would her vulnerability not be supported? Supporting vulnerability is also the role of students in higher education.

Power

Feminism, since its inception, has been acknowledging and understanding power.  Contemporary feminist theory speaks about the definition of power as “the capacity to produce change “ (Jean Baker Miller, 1991), and notes that power itself is not bad/wrong/evil.  In fact, there is an understanding that power is what helps us make decisions about our lives and move us forward. The distinction is made of the difference between “power over” which speaks to how one uses their power to impact themselves and others;  and the “power with” approach, where we can share in the capacity to produce individual, organizational, and collective change. “Power with” does not necessarily mean that you lose anything; it means that you gain the perspective and respect of others. As this understanding deepens, it promotes mutual benefit.

The question to those of us who are white is, can you sit quietly and really listen to the experience of someone else?  Can you share power? Just as being heard and having a voice is critical to healthy psychological development, the experience of not having a voice is also a critical experience in one’s life.  Suppressing your voice for a moment so that you can listen to another does not make you weak. It makes you vulnerable in the best possible way. It helps you to grow in your understanding of another person’s experience, and it gives you knowledge which will undoubtedly help you in future interactions with those similar and different from you.

Some of the response to the op-ed seem to focus on a perspective that Fisher is “being racist” for making generalizations about white boys, and that such generalizations are “just as bad” as the racism experienced by people of color. She has subsequently responded to this accusation with the prevailing definition of racism which speaks to systematic efforts to marginalize others based on race.

Yes, Ms. Fisher makes generalizations and it is understood that the generalizations do not apply to 100% of the white male population.  But she is naming a prevalent and universal experience a Why is it so difficult to see the position of power and privilege that white boys occupy?  I speak for myself, and not for Ms. Fisher, but it is understood that it is not your fault that you have such privilege.

It is understood that you did not ask for it, and you may not even be fully aware of it.  But you experience your privilege in most life situations. You may not even realize that there is another way to behave in the classroom that does not involve your constant contributions. Rather than defending yourself, why not take a moment for reflection and observation?  If you have privilege, you have a responsibility to understand that you have it and use it to ensure all voices are heard. This is your real power.

Rage

I suspect that part of the negative reaction may be related to the clearly articulated rage Ms. Fisher expresses in the opinion piece.  Women, and especially women of color, are not supposed to express anger, let alone rage. Again, what is the issue with listening? Awareness means knowing that the issue of women experiencing rage is occurring throughout the United States right now. There is a growing body of literature about it (ie “Good and Mad” by Rebecca Traister). The style and flavor of anger will unfold as it chooses. We may not like the way it sounds and the way it makes us feel. But we must listen.

Welcoming the contributions of students like Leda Fisher make all of us more aware, more attentive, and more self-reflective.  The journey of self-reflection is life-long, and being open to the sometimes painful but inevitable growth that comes with engaging in another person’s experience is one of the ultimate goals of higher education and beyond.

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Education

The Difference Between Micro, Macro and Mezzo Social Work

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Sponsored by Aurora University

The social work profession is multifaceted, and the good news is these skilled practitioners are in high demand across all areas of practice. For instance, medical social workers have a projected growth rate of 20 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which is about three times the average rate of all occupations and the highest for any social work specialty.

Another way to look at the profession is to consider it from the three divisions or types of social work: micro, macro, and mezzo social work. These terms help categorize virtually any type of social work that these human services workers perform.

Types of Social Work

The following sections explore micro, macro, and mezzo social work. Information on the work these types of social work cover and what education is needed to enter these areas is considered.

Micro Social Work

Micro social work is one-on-one counseling with clients. These social workers help individuals with social, emotional, or health-related struggles. This work could include helping a person who is homeless find a place to live or helping a veteran transition to civilian life.

Jobs that are considered micro social work include:

  • City social services caseworker
  • Crime victim advocate
  • Family therapist
  • School counselor
  • Substance abuse counselor

Most jobs that involve micro social work require education at the master’s level because those jobs are considered clinical work.

Macro Social Work

Macro social work involves working with whole communities. These communities can be defined by geopolitical boundaries, but often, they are not. They can be neighborhoods, religious communities, or political- or cause-driven groups. The macro social worker may make or shape policy, lobby for social change, or train others to do so.

Jobs that are considered macro social work include:

  • Community organizer
  • Lobbyist
  • Professor of social policy
  • Program developer
  • Researcher

There are jobs in macro social work that can be acquired with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, but others, like a professor or most lobbyist positions, require education beyond the bachelor’s level.

Mezzo Social Work

Mezzo social work involves working with a group of people. Sometimes this group is as small and intimate as employees who need conflict resolution and mediation services. Sometimes it is a group of strangers in a support group who share a life experience, like a recent death, problem, or addiction.

Jobs that are considered mezzo social work include:

  • Business social worker
  • Community service manager
  • Group therapist
  • Parenthood educator
  • Support group counselor

As with macro social work, whether you can obtain a job with a BSW depends on the employer and the population with which you work. Some therapist positions, for example, are clinical positions and require a license, which necessitates a master’s degree and experience in the field. Other positions, such as a community service manager, typically require a BSW.

Interconnectedness in the Types of Social Work

It’s important to understand how social workers can provide assistance across all three types of social work. Here’s a simple example to demonstrate this idea.

A medical social worker who works specifically with babies receiving neonatal care begins meeting with a new mother. After her baby experiences some complications, the mother is stressed and begins receiving therapeutic sessions with the social worker. Because this takes place in a one-on-one environment, that type of assistance would refer to micro social work. The social worker is providing individualized help, as well as therapy.

The scope of practice would extend to mezzo social work if the professional begins assisting the family. For instance, perhaps the father could be struggling with parenthood and supporting his wife. Another scenario may be that another child in the family is having difficulties adjusting to a lot of time in the hospital. In either of these cases, the social worker may meet with the entire family and provide help, such as short therapy sessions or information on services that will help the family adjust. The family is often the smallest unit for mezzo social work.

Although it may not be as common in a situation like this, macro social work could be relevant. An example would be if the social worker helps advocate in the community or the state in some way. Perhaps the baby’s medical issues are quite rare, and support is lacking for families. Or, perhaps the family is struggling to help the other child at school, and the social worker can work with the district on supporting children in these types of situations. There are several ways in which the social worker may reach out to the community or beyond for helping clients. If change needs to happen on a greater scale, then the professional will engage in macro social work.

The example shows the interconnectedness of the different forms of social work. In this process, the medical social worker performs micro (the mother), mezzo (the family), and macro (the community/state) social work.

The Future of the Social Work Profession

There is an expected job growth of 16 percent by 2026 for the social work field, according to the BLS. An aging U.S. population and the booming health care industry are two of the factors that are likely to contribute to the growth. Like most job fields, this percentage varies by specialty. Employment of child, family, and school social workers, for example, is projected to increase 14 percent by 2026, and employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to grow 19 percent. Both are growing faster than the average for all occupations, which is only 7 percent.

People with a BSW are especially qualified for positions in mezzo or macro social work. With courses like Social Work with Groups and Social Work with Communities and Organizations, the online BSW program from Aurora University Online can provide you with concrete skills that will help you support the community with which you want to work. Graduates with a BSW degree are eligible to take the examination for the State Social Work license.

Clinical social workers must have an MSW and two years of post-master’s experience in the field. AU Online offers Chicagoland’s only CSWE-accredited online MSW graduate program, which includes four optional specializations: Faith-Based Social Work, Forensics, Health Care, and Leadership Administration. You may also pursue the dual MSW/MBA or MSW/MPA degree program.

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Education

A Holistic View of Social Work Using Systems Theory

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Sponsored Article by Campbellsville University

Social workers help struggling individuals receive the care and resources they need to live healthy, comfortable lives. Through aiding vulnerable children at schools, assisting terminal patients with changes to their daily routines and counseling struggling families, social workers serve society in many ways. While unique tactics are required to help people with diverse medical and emotional needs, all social workers can benefit from taking a holistic approach to each case.

Examining Behavior Through a Holistic Lens

A holistic approach to social work involves examining all social factors of a person’s life, rather than focusing on one issue. Social workers who practice this approach may examine their client’s behavior by considering the following factors:

Living environment

Where someone lives and with whom can have a variety of impacts on person’s well-being. Climate conditions can contribute to medical problems. Neighborhoods can be neglected or underfunded, which could lead to medical and psychological issues. Emotional issues can arise due to the people in a living environment. In addition, the cleanliness and organization of someone’s home may reflect specific behavior patterns.

Family

Regardless if a social worker is counseling an entire family or an individual, understanding the family dynamic is a key to understanding how one communicates and behaves. Familial relationships may provoke a person’s behavior, especially when a family has a history of physical or emotional abuse.

Culture

Cultural background can often shed light on how individuals were raised, their religious beliefs and their personal priorities. Culture may also define familial structure and dictate how family members communicate with one another and with those outside of the home.

Community

Many people can be easily influenced by those they work and socialize with. Attitudes and ideas expressed throughout a workplace or inner circle of friends may cause people to question their beliefs and opinions, leading to significant changes in behavior.

With a holistic approach, social workers can view all major facets of a client’s life to better determine underlying issues that may cause medical problems, emotional distress or negative changes in behavior. With a strong understanding of why a person behaves a certain way, social workers can formulate an effective plan to help their client overcome challenges.

When it comes to analyzing an individual holistically, there are a variety of methods to choose from. Still, many social workers subscribe to either the ecological perspective theory or person-in-environment (PIE) theory. Each theory utilizes different methods of sociological framework, and both have proven successful in solving behavior problems through social work.

Ecological Perspective Theory

The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies defines ecology as “the scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy and matter.” As applied to social work, the ecological perspective theory approaches behavior by examining the environmental and societal processes influencing a person; their reactions to changes in their surroundings; and the transformation of their overall health, behavior and attitude.  

Ideal for individuals of all ages, the ecological perspective theory considers specific social factors of a person’s life to determine the reasoning behind their behavior. When choosing this theory, social workers examine their clients’ interactions with family members and friends, along with their willingness to adapt their identity to fit policies and changes within their environment. By gaining an understanding of these factors, social workers can pinpoint the cause of behavioral changes and determine what kind of care and resources are needed for improvement.

In “The Ecology of Human Development,” Urie Bronfenbrenner discussed four systems to consider when using the ecological perspective theory for social work. Each system describes how humans are influenced by their surroundings.

  • Microsystem: A person’s immediate surroundings, such as the location of their home and their communication with the family members they live with.
  • Mesosystem: A person is influenced by the behavior and beliefs of others, often within the family and inner circle of friends.
  • Exosystem: How the decisions and behavior of others can indirectly change the behavior of someone else, especially for children. For example, changes in a parent’s work schedule may lead to communication disruptions within the family, which can cause behavior changes for children.
  • Macrosystem: How a person reacts and adapts to changes taking place outside of their family, community and inner circle of friends. Political and economic changes are categorized in this system.

When referring to the ecological perspective theory, social workers must keep in mind the idea that behavior is ever-changing, and people are constantly reacting and adapting to their surroundings. According to Michael Unger’s article A Deeper, More Social Ecological Social Work Practice, “the social work discipline has expanded this perspective to explain that an individual is ‘constantly creating, restructuring and adapting to the environment as the environment is affecting them.”

Person-in-Environment (PIE) Theory

Developed in the early 20th century by one of the founding leaders of the social work industry, Mary Ellen Richmond, the PIE theory strives to explain an adult’s behavior based on their current and past environments. Combining all of the systems considered through the ecological perspective theory, the PIE theory views each as a component of one main system.

In her research, Richmond found that an adult’s behavior and actions often reflect the social environment of their childhood and current living situation. To determine the source of negative behavior, along with the appropriate solution for each individual and family, Richmond’s theory explores certain factors of a person’s life, including:

  • Family dynamic as a child and an adult: Many adults choose to either mirror or oppose the beliefs and practices of their parents based on their own childhood experiences.
  • Education: Advanced education leads to more career opportunities and higher income, which may lead to a more comfortable adult life. Those with less education may struggle financially and have a lower quality of life.
  • Career: A person’s career may dictate their daily routine, income, and location of residence, all of which are social factors to consider when analyzing behavior and attitude.
  • Health: Physical health can often play a role in a person’s mental health.
  • Changing political and economic policies: Disagreeing with newly elected politicians and laws may cause a person to act out and display behavior that is typically out of character.

The PIE theory combines these factors to help social workers understand the roots of an individual’s behavior through an illustration of their childhood and adaptation into adulthood. By providing a large-scale view of an individual’s life experiences and social status, the PIE theory offers social workers the vital insight necessary to determine the best plan of action to make positive changes in the lives of their clients.

Use a Holistic Approach to Social Work in Your Career

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted the field of social work will expand 16 percent by 2026, making this industry one of the fastest growing in the country. The Bureau also lists Kentucky as one of the most popular nonmetropolitan areas for social work professionals, and the industry expansion will lead to thousands of new careers in the state.

Campbellsville University serves aspiring social workers in Kentucky and all over the world with its online Bachelor of Social Work and online Master of Social Work degrees. Available fully online through an interactive learning platform, both degrees deliver evidence-based instruction, the expertise you need to succeed as a social worker, and the flexible course options your busy schedule demands.

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Education

Enhancing Education with Digital Tools in the Classroom

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Especially now, with the rise of technology in the classroom, teachers have practically unlimited methods for teaching, assigning, and grading student work. Features within forums such as Google Classroom, Flocabulary, Read180 Universal, PowToon, NewsELA, etc., allow for student choice, engagement, and differentiation. While the options and methods are seemingly unlimited, there are a few things to consider when it comes to utilizing classroom technology effectively.  

To ensure that the digital classroom is an asset, instead of an obstacle, for students and parents, educators will want to address the following concerns before planning and implementing:

Is the technology adding to the student’s understanding of the material, or is it simply technology for technology’s sake?

If teachers cannot readily identify how the digital tool is adding a layer of complexity, relevance, choice, or differentiation, then the tool may be better utilized for another task. What we do not want is for the learning to be secondary to the digital forum. For example, if students are using PowToon or Prezi for an assignment, then the objective should be something related to summarizing, paraphrasing, simulating cause and effect, etc., since those are skills that the digital tools support. Those two particular digital tools are more geared towards public speaking or presenting, so an objective for speaking and listening should be a component, as well.

How much scaffolding or frontloading will the technology involve?

As teachers, we know that time is limited, as we are constantly moving students from one skill to the next. A worst-case scenario would be for the digital tool to become a “time-suck” in the unit. More than anything, the technology should be comprehensive and user-friendly, so that it does not become an obstacle for students to demonstrate mastery.

How much of the student’s grade will be determined by the proper use of the technology?

Again, if the objective is for students to relay research that they have gathered in a focused and organized way, then the technology feature is simply a small aspect of that task. Consequently, if the objective is for students to construct a timeline of a story and present the animation, then the technology becomes more of a vital component.

Can the use of the digital tool be optional?

Another recommendation when considering student choice is to provide the option to not use the technology to demonstrate mastery. For some students, technology can be scary because of their unfamiliarity with it. For others, computer or internet access at home may not be a possibility. Teachers should be wary of only using digital creations or submissions, as this would mean that some students can only work on an assignment or project in the classroom—not at home.

Are my digital posts, grades, and assignments easy to access and displayed clearly?

When using a digital classroom like Google Classroom, teachers should be sure to make their digital forum as accessible and transparent as possible. At open house or parent conferences, teachers should consider inviting parents to sign up to the virtual classroom. This provides parents with their own means of logging into and monitoring the virtual classroom. Guardian access also allows parents to set email alerts anytime a new announcement, assignment, or grade is posted.

This means that parents receive notifications in real time, as opposed to having to wait for their child to bring home the new assignment or rubric. Guardian access also allows teachers to post entire lessons, documents, and reading to the classroom. This type of transparency provides parents with a peek inside the day’s activities and lessons. With documents posted, there will also be a backup option for parents if their child has lost or forgotten the paper copy.

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Education

New Year’s Resolutions for Students

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It’s that time of year again — the new year when many of us set impossible goals or make empty promises to ourselves about “bettering” something in our lives. Do you know there’s a better way to set achievable goals?

When I instruct my students about reflecting and goal setting, I use the popular SMART goals method, an acronym which helps direct us to make goals that are, well, smart. The same directives we use in the classroom to set SMART goals can be easily applied to students’ papers about New Year’s resolutions, a short writing task I give my students on the first day back from winter break. I, too, will use the SMART goals method to set and reach my own personal New Year’s resolutions this year. But how, exactly, can we weave SMART goals into resolutions for students?

Let’s take a look!

SMART

The acronym varies slightly among teachers and educational resources, but the basic expectations of SMART goals are seen below:

Specific (simple, straightforward)

Measurable (meaningful, monitored)

Achievable (attainable, agreed upon)

Relevant (reasonable/realistic, results-oriented)

Timely (trackable, tangible)

Specific, Simple, Straightforward

Much like setting SMART goals, students’ New Year’s resolutions should be specific or straightforward, meaning “Do better in school” would not make the cut. We must prompt students to specify exactly what they hope to change or achieve. Ask questions like, “In which class or classes do you want to see improvement?” “What grade do you consider to be ‘better’?”

Measurable, Meaningful, Monitored

A measurable or monitored resolution should be quantifiable; it must involve progress which can be tracked. Ask students how they plan to track or measure the progress, and how often they should check-in, evaluate, or adjust based on the measured progress. For instance, if a resolution is to improve their timed mile run by dropping 30 seconds, encourage them to keep time logs, workout schedules, and other exact measures of their progress.

Achievable, Attainable, Agreed Upon

An achievable resolution is one within the realm of reality — and students need to be aware of this fact. Resolutions must be attainable and realistic. While we teachers should not dash dreams or cut anyone short of their highest potential, we also need to help students realize what is and is not achievable in the manner or timeline they have allotted. If a student’s resolution or goal is to win the state’s 1st place mile, but they have never run any sort of distance race, their aim is set much too high. This is not to say they cannot one day reach that level, but this resolution should detail smaller steps in an effort to reach that point in the future.

Depending on a student’s age, the achievable factor should be agreed upon, meaning a parent or other adult figure is “in” on the accountability of the resolution. Relevant resolutions should be goals that matter on a larger scale. If a student wants to focus on family time, a resolution might be to keep the cell phone off and away during meals, gatherings, and other family activities. This goal is certainly achievable; there are no outside factors which could disrupt the goal. The student simply has to be mindful of his or her presence during family time. It is relevant because the cell phone is a likely distractor during conversations and meals.

Timely, Trackable, Tangible

Finally, a timely resolution is one that has a definitive starting point and incremental check-ins. When writing a New Year’s resolution, students should ask themselves, “What can I do today to work towards this? What can I do two weeks from now? Two months from now? What would this resolution look like in 6 months?” Working towards the resolution or goal should start right away — as we all know, procrastination is a surefire way to derail our progress.

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Education

Family Team Time

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It will come as no shock to most parents that a significant amount of time per week is spent running children from point A to point B and back again. What may be shocking, however, are the actual statistics surrounding the average family’s carpooling and chauffeuring routine. Research shows that, by the time children reach adulthood, parents will have spent almost 200 days behind the wheel running their kids from place to place.

Now, as much as educators, parents, and students embrace the notion of extracurricular activities, there are alternative ways to shape interests, take part in cooperative learning, build relationships, and experience new things. Perhaps it is time to consider putting a halt to the daily grind with family team time.

What is Family Team Time?

Not to spoil the concept of extracurricular activities — as a teacher, I know that extracurriculars can truly change students’ lives — but there are also some factors to consider when it comes to the many activities children participate in. Clubs, sports, camps, classes — all these activities add up, both monetarily and in terms of time commitments. For families with multiple children, the desire to keep kids consistently “doing” can prove to be a costly, time-consuming, and even stressful undertaking. Family team time, substituting extracurriculars with engaging family activities could be a great alternative to try this winter. Simply put, family team time is anything the family does together for enjoyment. Below are options to try in place of signing up for another round of extracurricular activities this winter

Museums & More

Considering our proximity to D.C.’s many museums, theaters, and other cultural hubs, there are countless engaging options for your family to experience together this winter. Especially as the holidays approach, options will be plentiful: festivals, concerts, plays, ballets, and other performances. Consider taking in a show, visiting a museum, or simply touring the neighborhood’s Christmas lights. Plan ahead by checking Groupon and other sites for deals on attractions, discounted events and performances, and student rates. Museum visits are a great free option to explore art and history with the whole gang — not to mention, they are a great place to escape from the bitter winter weather while still stretching your legs.

Family Entertainment

Afternoon matinees can prove to be a wonderfully inexpensive way to get the family together for a few hours of entertainment. Another option is to have a weekly family book club, in which every member of the family reads the same book. Once a week, make some popcorn, get comfy in the living room, and discuss the recently read chapters. Once everyone has finished the book, consider renting the movie version, as many young adult and family novels have been adapted to film. After the movie, encourage a mock-film study, in which you talk about how the movie and the book are similar or different, and which one each person preferred. Then, allow someone else to choose the next novel/movie combination. Keep the weekly book talks going until everyone has had the chance to select a novel for the family. To save money, consider checking books out at the local library or purchase used books online. For struggling readers, consider an e-book or audiobook version so children can follow along while listening to the book aloud.

Physical Activity Fun

Ice skating, bowling, or an afternoon at the trampoline park can provide much-needed exercise when cabin fever starts to hit in the winter months. As opposed to chauffeuring each child from activity to activity, family team time allows for one trip, to one agreed-upon activity, all together as a family. Want to stay in? Try a competitive Top Chef-inspired cooking challenge, in which each member chooses a flavorful pancake topping, unique pizza toppings, or quesadilla fillings. An impartial blind taste-tester is all you need to settle the sibling rivalry or family food feud!

Volunteer as a Family

As opposed to hustling from a game, to a recital, to a playdate on a busy weekend, consider volunteering as a family. Clean out the toy room and closets to donate to children in need. These gestures show children the holidays are not only about receiving, but also giving. Decide as a family to demonstrate the spirit of giving by helping out at an animal shelter, soup kitchen, book drive, etc. After volunteering, discuss each family member’s favorite moment of the day — what was the best part of volunteering? What did you learn?   

This season, take a break from the constant flurry of extracurricular activity and give your family the gift of time together.

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