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A Social Work Student's Guide to the Eco-Map

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Fin is a clinician working in the Central Valley of California. He has a Master's Degree in Social Work from CSU Bakersfield.

An Example of an Eco-Map

An Example of an Eco-Map

What Is an Eco-Map?

An eco-map is a useful tool that can be used to provide a visual representation of how an individual fits into their environment.

As a social worker, the person-in-environment (PIE) model will help provide perspective on how external influences connect with the individual. The outer elements may include other persons or groups, which often serve as supports or triggers in the client system.

The map provides a framework that both the clinician and client can review. The client has an opportunity to describe their social connections, and the framework will offer insight to the social worker on areas worthy of note.

Often, when given this assignment, in my experience, a client will be reluctant at first. He or she did not come into the office expecting to draw diagrams. Many clients will initially struggle to understand what is meant by connections. A prompt by the clinician who asks, "what sort of social connections do you have?" will elicit a response such as "what do you mean? I have friends, I go to school...." and you have to encourage the client to put that down on paper.

With a little prompting, this can be a very successful session that is not only therapeutically engaging but encourages rapport which is essential in the client/clinician relationship. Soon, the client will be making all sorts of circles and squares connected by various lines and saying out loud, "I didn't know I had this many things in my life..."

Systems Theory

One of the ways to interpret the eco-map is to use a systems theory approach. This theoretical design has been used to explain how the movements in a discipline operate in relationship to one another and then develop various outcomes.

I don't want to get too much into its history other than to say that in the mid-20th century, it had prominent business and data applications that allowed practitioners to predict outcomes and then develop approaches to achieve what was desired.

It was adopted as a framework in social work practice and became a prominent perspective in the '60s and '70s. Models examining family systems became of particular interest because they allowed for the exploration of relationships between members of the system, and because of those relationships, identities were often adopted. And with the idea of identity, roles, expectations, and other dynamics were brought to light and could be further examined.

For example, Millie may identify as a daughter, but she is also a sister and a mother. The generational model of grandparent, parent, and child operate in relationship to each other. There are various roles and expectations from each level, and certainly, bonds and tensions occur within these relationships.

In addition, the family operates in a larger social system—such as the city, social organizations, a church, maybe—and there are dynamics within that inner system that may influence the familial model with the groups around it.

But before I digress and get too complicated, let's take a look at a simple system, a basic eco-map that focuses on a single client and their place in the world.

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Connections and Discoveries

I usually try to start very basic, with the client in the middle and then some general areas, which I have them list around their name in the center. I try to keep this as non-specific as possible.

For example, instead of someone saying "my pastor" or "church," I use the label "spiritual." Instead of "my wife," I use "family." It may take a bit of thinking on how to figure out the right label, and there may be a bit of patience required to get the client to accept the titles. I put circles (or other geographic shapes) around the words and then connect them with lines.

I came up with a key (it is cut off in the photo) on the type of line drawn to stand for the type of relationship. Again, what I used are examples, and you may want to hold off on this for a bit into the session. Ordinary lines will work initially.

The main object of this part of the exercise is to get a layout of the client in order to encourage dialogue. Eventually, you can elaborate more on the listings, such as "family" or "hobbies," as you see in the image. Right now, just get some things out on paper.

Inner Worlds and External Influences

Certainly, one of the expected outcomes is to get the client to identify themselves in relation to those areas of life around them. For example, Mary may have a connection to a husband, and the relationship defines her as a wife. She may have a connection to St. Jude in her spiritual area, and that could make her a devotee (let's just say). She may have a potluck event in her work area, and that makes her an appreciated cook. And so forth.

It is important to understand that the way we define our internal selves to the world around us also reflects a dynamic of our position in that system. As Nietzsche said, "You look into the abyss, and the abyss looks at you" (paraphrase). We sometimes believe we are the center of the universe—and honestly, from our perspectives, we are—but there are people and places that also relate to us.

From the earlier examples I gave for Mary above, those areas could be seen as strengths. But if we look at Mary's social circle and see that she enjoys karaoke, this sheds light on a talent she may have and the people she goes to the bar with.

But it also lets us be aware of triggers. Mary may have a struggle with drinking or with other substances that come about in circles similar to the karaoke bar she goes to with her friends. That might shed light on some other areas of concern.

Maps for Directions and Clarity

One of the benefits I've found using this tool is that it really does bring some awareness to the client. I was working with a client on one occasion, and she had several groups she was connected to. She was very surprised when she was done and went back and found several other individuals and actives with which she felt a bond.

This gave us a lot to talk about. It broke the ice and opened things up. I found myself learning things as a social worker as well: how to approach a client, for example, sometimes I would emphasize something she said, and she paused and said, "Oh, I don't mean it that way."

I learned how important connections were and to search for patterns. I understood that every relationship said something about the client: a talent they had, a struggle, goals that needed to be pursued.

I hope if you came across this and are a social worker, you found this informative and useful.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Finn

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