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Benefits of Using an Ecomap in Social Work

June 6, 2023

Social workers strive to center their clients to better understand and support their unique needs. One way they can do this is by growing beyond the traditional approach, where interventions are oriented around individuals, and placing a greater emphasis on clients’ relationships to obtain a more holistic and integrative picture of their clients’ lives.

Using a tool known as an ecomap, social workers can visualize their clients’ relationships to determine the best services to offer them. Ecomaps in social work are a valuable means for analyzing how clients’ unique web of relationships affect their lives, for better or worse.

Individuals considering enrolling in a Master of Social Work program can benefit from learning about ecomaps and how social workers use them to help vulnerable populations.

What Is an Ecomap?

So, exactly what is an ecomap? Social Work Portal, an online resource for social work professionals, defines an ecomap as a tool used by a social worker to visually represent the significant people, organizations and systems affecting a client’s life. For example, ecomaps can reflect individuals’ connections to their friends, workplaces, schools, social service agencies, extended families and medical providers.  

When creating an ecomap, a social worker places their client’s name in a circle in the diagram’s center. In the surrounding area, they add circles representing the people and organizations with whom the client has a relationship. 

The styles of the connecting lines the social worker draws between the client circle and the circles that surround it convey the types of relationships (strong, weak, stressful) the client has with each of those people or organizations. When completed, a social work ecomap can reveal important insights about how various relationships affect a client’s life and well-being. 

History of the Ecomap

The ecomap is a product of social work research. Researcher Ann Hartman developed the ecomap in the 1970s. 

Hartman’s objective was to visually depict the environment in which a client lives and interacts with others. Her ecomap design mimicked the solar system, with the client as the sun, and all the other people and groups in the client’s life orbiting around the client like planets.

Hartman found clients gained helpful insights about their relationships from seeing them represented on ecomaps.

How Social Workers Use Ecomaps, and the Benefits Ecomaps Offer

Today, social workers use ecomaps to identify their clients’ positive and negative life influences. This process can help them better assess their clients and implement effective interventions.

Specific Uses of Ecomaps in Social Work

 Social workers use ecomaps to identify and assess: 

  • Potential growth areas
  • Potential resources 
  • People or organizations who can support a client’s care plan
  • Community connections
  • Systems of social support
  • Family dynamics 
  • Deficits and gaps in services 
  • Quality of relationships 

All of the insights gleaned from ecomaps can inform how social workers develop interventions to improve their clients’ lives.

Benefits of Using Ecomaps in Social Work

Social workers and their clients derive many benefits from using ecomaps. For example, ecomaps can enable social workers to do the following:

  • Collect information efficiently. Creating an ecomap is an efficient way for social workers to collect information when they begin working with clients.
  • Begin counseling discussions with clients. Social workers can use ecomaps as a starting point in discussions with clients; ecomaps also enable social workers to ask appropriate questions. 
  • Build relationships with clients. Completing ecomaps together with clients allows social workers to get to know and create rapport with their clients.
  • Identify changes to a client’s environment over time. Comparing ecomaps created at different times can help identify changes in a client’s relationships or support structure.

Ecomap Examples in Social Work 

Social workers can use online templates or special software to create ecomaps, but they also can make ecomaps with just a paper and pencil. Two ecomap examples in social work are described below.

Example of an Ecomap for an Individual

The Social Work Portal offers this example of a social work ecomap for a client named John:

  • A social worker places a circle containing John’s name in the center of the page. 
  • Based on information from John, the social worker adds smaller circles surrounding the center circle and labels them with the people, support services and other factors that influence John’s life. For example, these circles could represent John’s:
    • Employer
    • Church
    • Friends
    • Book club
    • Food bank
    • Hobbies 
    • Medical and mental health services 
    • Social services 
  • As the social worker discusses each of these relationships with John, the social worker draws connecting lines between the center circle and the other circles using:
    • A solid line to indicate a positive relationship
    • A dashed line to indicate a weak relationship
    • A jagged line to indicate a stressful relationship

Example of an Ecomap for a Family

Ecomaps can also be a useful tool for assessing family dynamics. Clinical social workers may employ them to obtain a detailed picture of their clients’ family relationships and review the mapped areas looking for isolation or disconnection that can occur in unhealthy families.

Diagramming software firm Edraw offers the following example of a social work ecomap for a family: 

  • A social worker places the names of family members in circles at the center of the page. 
  • Based on discussion with the family, the social worker adds smaller circles surrounding the center circles and labels them with the names of people, support services and other factors that influence the family members’ lives. For example, these circles could represent:
    • Employers of family members
    • Sports that family members participate in
    • The family’s church
    • Family friends
    • Schools that family members attend
  • The outer circles may be connected to more than one family member in the middle of the diagram. For example, multiple family members may attend the same school.
  • As in the previous example, the social worker indicates the nature of each relationship by using a particular style of connecting line.

Improving Lives Through Social Work 

Using ecomaps in social work enables social workers to chart a course for meaningful client intervention. Individuals who have an interest in working in the social work profession can explore Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work Program format to learn how the program can help them achieve their career goals. Offering an evidence-based, trauma-informed approach, the program can set the stage for a rewarding social work career. Where will VCU take you?