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Neurobiology  and  Social  Work    
Jane  F.  Gilgun,  Ph.D.,  LICSW  
University  of  Minnesota,  USA,  Twin  Cities  

Advances   in   understanding   the   human   brain   have   implications   for   social   work  
practice  with  children  and  families.  The  following  discussion  provides  information  on  the  
interactive  nature  of  brain  development  and  implications  for  how  social  workers  provide  
services.    
Fundamental  Ideas  
Biology   and   experience   shape   brain   development.     Put   another   way,   biology   and  
experience  co-­‐construct  brain  development  and  how  the  brain  works.  
Inner  working  models  develop  from  the  interactions  of  the  biology  of  the  brain  and  
experience.   Inner   working   models   (IWM)   are   encoded   in   brain   circuits.   Inner   working  
models   are   like   road   maps   and   templates.   They   shape   expectations   and   interpretations.  
From  earliest  life,  inner  working  models  become  part  of  brain  development.      
Emotions,  cognitions,  and  behaviors  arise  from  the  interactions  of  nature  (biology  of  
the   brain),   nurture   (experiences,   especially   relationships   with   care   providers),   and  
interpretations,   as   nature   and   nurture   shape   them   (inner   working   models).     Emotions,  
cognitions,   and   behaviors   become   part   of   the   system   of   interacting   factors   that   shapes  
brain  development.  Figure  1  below  shows  these  relationships  
Figure  1:  The  Interactive  Nature  of  Human  Development  
   
Key  Ideas  for  Social  Work  Practice  
Biology  
Brains   have   foundational   neural   circuits   or   “wiring”   during   fetal   development   and  
therefore  at  birth.  
A   key   “wired”   process   is   self-­‐regulation   or   the   capacity   to   seek   what   you   need   in  
order   to   feel   comfortable.     Examples   in   infants   are   crying   when   hungry   or   need   a   diaper  
change,   turning   away   when   interactions   with   others   start   to   cause   stress,   relaxing   when  
held,   and   seeking   playful   interactions,   often   by   mirroring.   These   behaviors   appear   to   be  
innate,  or  biological.  Self  regulation  involves  capacities  to  express  emotions,  communicate  
wants,   and   manage   responses   to   life   events.     In   order   to   live,   to   develop,   and   to   grow,  
infants  require  relationships  with  care  providers.  
Experience  
The  most  significant  experiences  that  children  have  are  with  other  people.      
Human   development,   including   brain   development,   is   relational.     Sensitive,  
responsive   parenting   leads   to   optimal   development.     Mutual   attunement   and   the   processes  
of   connection,   breakdown,   and   repair   characterize   parent-­‐child   relationships   that   lead   to  
optimal  child  development.  
Optimal  child  development  includes  the  construction  of  inner  working  models  of  
self,   others,   and   how   the   world   works.     How   care   providers   respond   to   infants’   innate  
capacities   to   self-­‐regulate   is   central   to   development.   The   circularity   of   relationships   to  
others,  the  development  of  inner  working  models,  and  brain  development  is  important  for  
social  workers  to  understand.  Circularity  here  means  mutual  interactions,  where  processes  
influence  each  other.  In  this  sense,  relationships  are  co-­‐constructed.    
Parental  psychological  availability  and  their  capacities  to  help  co-­‐construct  relations  
are  shaped  by  parents’  inner  working  models  and  their  interpretations  of  multiple  past  and  
present  environmental  events  that  are  part  of  families’  and  parents’  social  worlds.  
Note   that   in   much   writing   about   human   development,   the   words   used   are   nature-­‐
nurture  and  genes-­‐environment.  Here  I  am  using  biology  and  experience.  
Behaviors,  Cognitions,  and  Emotions  
Behaviors,   cognitions,   and   emotions   arise   out   of   interactions   between   biology,  
experience,   and   inner   working   models   and   themselves   become   part   of   the   circular  
processes   already   discussed.   See   Figure   1.   Templates   or   inner   working   models   for   these  
processes  are  encoded  in  brain  circuits.  
Intervention  Guidelines    
Based  on  Principles  of  Infant  Mental  Health  
• Social   workers   assist   service   users   in   obtaining   resources   that   meet   basic   human  
needs  for  safety,  food,  clothing,  shelter,  and  medical  care.  
• Parents  require  emotional  support  and  often  their  own  therapy  in  order  to  become  
sensitively  responsive  and  emotionally  available  to  their  children.  
• Social   workers   serve   children   when   they   understand   the   inner   worlds   of   both  
parents   and   children.     A   significant   component   of   parents’   and   children’s   inner  
worlds   is   how   they   have   interpreted   events   in   their   past   and   how   they   interpret  
present  events.  Think  of  inner  working  models.  Help  parents  and  children  to  discuss  
their  own  lives.  This  can  take  time.      
• Social   workers   must   understand   the   multiple   past   and   present   events   and  
influences   that   may   affect   parental   functioning.   It’s   important   to   understand   that  
social   workers   have   a   great   deal   of   general   knowledge—though   still   incomplete—
but  they  know  nothing  about  how  individual  clients  experience  and  interpret  their  
own  lives.    They  have  to  learn  about  individuals.  
• Parents   may   require   education   about   child   development.     One   way   to   understand  
what  parents  know  is  for  social  workers  to  observe  parents  and  children  together.  
During   this   time   together,   social   workers   can   ask   parents   about   their   feelings   as  
they  interact  with  the  children  and  ask  parents  to  verbalize  what  they  are  thinking  
as  they  interact  with  their  children.  Any  frustrations  or  confusions  can  be  dealt  with  
on  the  spot.  Parents  often  need  help  in  adjusting  their  expectations  (inner  working  
models)  for  how  their  children  are  supposed  to  behave.    
• Social  workers’  inner  responses  to  parents  and  children  are  an  important  part  of  our  
practice.     For   example,   we   sometimes   mirror   parents’   affect.   We   may   need  
supervision  with  this  in  order  to  maintain  our  analytic  stance  but  also  to  understand  
what   is   going   on   with   parents.     Often,   we   understand   through   such   intuitive,   gut-­‐
level  responses.  
Discussion  

Effective   social   workers   obtain   and   integrate   a   great   deal   of   information   from   many  
sources.    In  work  with  children  and  families,  knowledge  of  the  interactive  nature  of  biology,  
experience,   interpretations   (inner   working   models),   emotions,   cognitions,   and   behaviors   is  
a  step  toward  practice  effectiveness.    The  next  step  is  to  learn  about  children  and  families  
and  to  build  upon  what  parents  and  children  are  ready  to  receive.  
Finding   resources   is   a   significant   part   of   practice.     Effective   practice   requires   that  
social  workers  first  help  clients  meet  basic  human  needs.      
Just  as  human  development  is  based  on  relationship,  so  is  social  work  practice.  We  
build   relationships   with   service   users   through   sensitive   attunement   to   them,   to  
understanding   their   inner   worlds,   and   to   having   general   knowledge   about   the  
environmental  influences  with  which  individual  clients  are  dealing.  This  can  be  difficult.    
Sensitive   attunement   to   our   own   responses   to   clients   can   provide   useful  
information  for  how  to  proceed.    We  often  are  reactive  and  thus  we  mirror  client’s  affect.    
Understanding   ourselves   can   lead   to   deeper   understandings   of   clients   and   effective  
services.  
Finally,   we   are   not   alone   in   our   work   with   clients.     When   clients   do   well,   social  
workers  may  have  made  important  contributions,  but  many  other  factors  are  at  play,  such  
as   clients’   willingness   and   capacities   to   engage   in   services,   quality   and   availability   of  
services,  cooperation  of  other  services  providers,  and  changes  in  circumstances  in  clients’  
lives.    
Sometimes,  the  negatives  are  so  monumental  that  social  workers  may  not  be  able  to  
help   clients   through   difficult   situations.     We   may   not   be   able   to   form   relationships   with  
clients.   Services   and   other   resources   may   be   unavailable   or   inappropriate.   Collaborating  
professionals   may   be   uncooperative   and   even   undermine   treatment   plans.   Policies   and  
court   decisions   may   result   in   actions   that   we   view   as   harmful.   Even   when   we   do   have  
working  alliances  with  clients,  these  other  factors  may  block  optimal  outcomes.  
The   first   obligation   of   social   workers,   even   in   the   face   of   such   barriers,   is   to   be  
prepared   as   possible   to   deal   with   the   many   difficult   issues   that   our   work   presents.  
Education   about   human   development   is   part   of   this   preparation.     Knowing   we   did   all   we  
could   and   seeking   support   when   our   work   affects   us   negatively   will   keep   us   emotionally  
available  and  sensitively  attuned  to  our  clients  and  to  others  in  our  social  worlds.  
About  the  Author  
Jane  F.  Gilgun,  Ph.D.,  LICSW  is  a  professor,  School  of  Social  Work,  University  of  Minnesota,  Twin  Cities,  USA.  
See  Professor  Gilgun’s  other  articles,  books,  &  children’s  stories  on  Amazon  Kindle,  scribd.com,  and  iBooks.    
Professor  Gilgun  does  research  on  human  development  under  conditions  of  adversities,  the  meanings  of  
violence  to  perpetrators,  child  sexual  abuse,  and  factors  associated  with  good  outcomes  in  social  services.