There has never been a more urgent time to bring communities together towards a mutual understanding and a respect, not just for humanity, but for the planet as a whole.  Social group work can create security where there is uncertainty, a feeling of belonging where there is alienation, and a vehicle for a positive communal action where there is a sense of helplessness. It has been used to unite and give voice to people in the aftermath of conditions that seemed beyond repair. Through social group work, nations, communities, and individuals can repair.

Group work practice is a essential part of the social work profession’s practice repertoire. Social workers deal with many types of groups such as socialization groups, cognitive behavioral therapy groups, therapy groups, support groups, supervisory groups and administrative groups. Common skills are needed to work effectively with these groups which are all integral parts of the social work with group landscape.

Origins of Group Work

Early group work practice was viewed as a social movement. In the turn of the twentieth century, group work played a significant role in dealing with population shifts to urban areas because of immigration and the industrial revolution. The settlement house movement, camping and recreation programming, and Jewish communal services provided the context where group workers promoted “social reform, social responsibility, democratic ideals, and social action as well as social relatedness, and human attachment” (Anderson, 2001, p. 47). The group was seen as an effective vehicle meeting individual, group and community needs. The settlement movement viewed individuals’ participation in groups as part of the problem-solving approach for improving their position in society.

Grace Coyle, a pioneer in group work, recognized the value of promoting recreational activity as a means to meet the needs of both the group and the individual. Coyle (1947) acknowledged “one of the principles upon which group work rests is its conviction that one of the chief sources of positive fulfillment for individuals lies in the deep delight available in the mutual interactions of a democratic and creative group”. This early understanding of group work highlighted its power to positively impact individuals’ lives.

Contemporary group practice encompasses the goals of such services as preventative, educational, counseling, training, recreational, and therapeutic groups. The term “group practice” refers to a wide range of treatment models embraced by various mental health professions that utilize a group format to help individuals with a variety of issues Research has demonstrated that group treatment is as effective as individual intervention across a variety of populations in diverse settings.

Mutual Aid & Group Work Practice

Group work promotes social exchanges in a group setting which have the potential to empower individuals and ultimately their understanding of a problem. Mutual aid processes in a group setting can provide a fertile and safe environment in which clients can explore roles, exchange information, and identify their strengths. Mutual aid is the primary reason to develop a group. Mutual aid is a set of dynamics present in groups which help members help one another.

Inherent in this process are underlying beliefs that (1) all individuals have strengths, information, experiences, and opinions that can be cultivated to help others, (2) individuals with common needs and goals have great potential to help one another and (3) helping others provides help to the helper. Evidence indicates that mutual aid enhances an individual’s self-esteem, improves problem-solving capacities, and helps alleviate shame and isolation.

William Schwartz (1961) was the first to introduce the concept of mutual aid to the social work profession by highlighting group as an “enterprise in mutual aid, an alliance of individuals who need each other in varying degrees, to work on certain common problems”. Later, Papell & Rothman presented their “mainstream model” of group work, which attributed mutual aid systems as inherent in all social group work practice.

The mutual aid construct reflects social work’s core practice base. Group work’s two-client model focuses on both the individual group member’s needs as well as the group as a whole, underscoring the importance of psychosocial practice and interdependence between the individual and their environment.

Additionally, the mutual aid approach takes a holistic view of the person acknowledging the importance of bringing both their strengths and vulnerabilities into the group arena. The emphasis on an individual’s strengths and capacity to promote change satisfies an important mandate of the social work profession. Furthermore, the belief that the group is responsible for making decisions and participating in a democratic process mirrors the value of self-determination.

Wurzweiler School of Social Work’s Commitment to Group Work

Currently, Wurzweiler is the only school that offers group work practice as a major. Wurzweiler has a long history of commitment to both the scholarship and practice of group work. This legacy includes Wurzweiler faculty and alumni such as Dr. Martin Birnbaum, Dr. Ronnie Glassman, Dr. Jay Sweifach, and Dr. Catherine Papell.

If you would like more information on group work resources and course options, please contact Dr. Sari Skolnik

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