It’s one thing to recognize and appreciate the socioeconomic factors that contribute to a client’s problems, but using this information to determine the best practice model for the client is one of the greatest challenges imposed on social workers. Sometimes, it’s more appropriate to reinforce a client’s support structures and let the problems resolve themselves passively. In task-centered practice (TCP), however, the social worker’s approach is more direct.

Task-centered-practice focuses on actionable solutions to specific problems. It is active, direct and easily measurable. Present in many disciplines, this method was first adapted to social work in the 1970s by two practitioners from the Chicago School of Social Service Administration, William Reid and Laura Epstein. Their process is taught in schools all over the world, though often as a part of other practice models. Since TCP is so adaptable, it is often used “accidentally” by practitioners aiming to address specific client problems. The anatomy of this model is as straightforward as the name implies: identify the client’s problems, outline goals, create and execute a task-centered plan and evaluate the results.

Identify the Target Problem(s)

The problem(s) that clients present may vary greatly depending on the social work practice setting, the region and population served, and several other factors. Regardless of setting, social workers must rely on a range of methods, including intake assessments, counseling sessions, psychotherapy and more, to determine what the target problem or problems are.

In many cases, clients may be unaware, hesitant to explain or dishonest about their problems, especially if it could threaten their parental custody, job status and so on. Social workers must have systems in place to make their clients feel supported and protected, which encourages greater transparency in stage one of the TCP model.

Let’s say that the client has met with their social worker at a private addiction counseling center, and through assessments and private counseling, the two have agreed on two target problems:

  • Prescription opioid addiction.
  • Potential bipolar disorder (undiagnosed).

We will follow this case study throughout the remaining steps. Now that the target problems have been identified, it’s time for the social worker and the client to delineate specific goals for use in the task-centered practice model.

Set Goals Collaboratively

Since we have already identified the target problems, the goals may seem obvious in this case – quitting the prescription opioids and seeking an evaluation for bipolar disorder. These goals need to be more detailed, however, to serve as a proper foundation for the next step, which is to create and execute a task-centered action plan. Simply stating that one wants to run a marathon, for example, doesn’t help a person to formulate a workout and diet plan for that first week of training.

That being said, the social worker would do well to personalize the client’s goals so that every step is specifically designed to motivate that client as they progress towards a realistic and vividly detailed outcome. This is also an ideal opportunity to give the client control – a key component to self-motivating behaviors. When a client can choose their own goals (with the social worker’s guidance), they are more invested in working towards them.

Create and Execute a Task-Centered Action Plan

When properly carried out, the task-centered action plan is a close reflection of the goals established by the social worker and the client. If the goals are the “what,” then the task-centered action plan is the “how.” Given our current case, the action plan could reasonably consist of the following steps:

  • Identify and eliminate client-specific triggers for opioid abuse.
  • Introduce safer, legal methods of pain control and stress/anxiety management.
  • Start a mood diary and review with the social worker to assess possible bipolar symptoms.
  • Eliminate any roadblocks preventing a psychiatric evaluation (no insurance, high copay, no in-network providers in the area, etc.) and refer client to mental health specialist for possible diagnosis.

Generally, the TCP model involves a series of eight or more sessions between the social worker and client carried out for at least six months. Throughout this time period, the client and social worker will assess the client’s progress toward the broader goals stated above by checking off the action steps stated just above.

One of the greatest advantages to the TCP model is the ability to make pertinent adjustments in response to any unexpected developments. If the client in this case reported that the mood diary only worsened their negative thought patterns and mood swings, for example, the social worker may need to pivot to another form of self-assessment or eliminate the step altogether.

Evaluate the Results and Assess Remaining Needs

After the client meets the agreed-upon number of visits and/or time limit for the task-centered plan, the social worker must evaluate its effectiveness. Just like a patient being discharged from a medical facility, if the client needs more care, then it is up to the provider to delineate the nature of this care and refer the client/patient when appropriate.

The assessment should not be undertaken from a “pass-fail” perspective, as this does not adequately reflect the client’s unique set of challenges. For example, in addressing the client’s opioid addiction, perhaps they developed a dependency on sugary snacks to the point that it began worsening their health. This isn’t a failure to address the original addiction, but an unintended consequence that needs to be addressed.

By documenting and reporting the results of a TCP plan (as most social workers are required to anyway), social workers support a constantly growing knowledge base for others in their profession to follow. This is why TCP is considered an evidence-based practice by social work and other practitioners – its continued use allows for others in the field to assess the effectiveness of the many interventions and techniques used within it.

In summary, the TCP model is one of the most broadly applicable techniques available across the social work umbrella and several other disciplines. This method doesn’t differentiate between types of problems (i.e. joblessness, mental health issues, unplanned pregnancy, criminal rehab, etc.), but instead offers a systematic, evidence-based approach for solving any set of problems. Clients and social workers cooperate to identify issues, set goals, develop an action plan and evaluate the results. Because of the flexible structure that can be adjusted by both parties as it is used, we see TCP being utilized by social workers in every conceivable environment: hospitals, schools, mental health facilities, private practices and much more.

Tim Kalantjankos

B.S. Sociology | University of Nebraska at Omaha

A.S. Physical Therapy | Clarkson College

September 2019

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