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CREATIVITY IN SOCIAL WORK

Creativity: A Necessity in Social Work Education and Practice


Emilie Miazga
Buffalo State College

Authors Note
Emilie Miazga, International Institute of Creativity, Buffalo State College

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Abstract
Creativity is a skill that has long been acknowledged as one as being vital to successful social
work education and practice. However, it is also a skill that is not taught to or encouraged
enough in those that work in the field of human services. Creativity can help a social work
practitioner to better assist their clients and can also benefit the clients themselves directly. There
are various examples of how to better incorporate creativity in this field from an educational
standpoint as well as in hands-on field work. These examples should be the basis for more social
work education programs and organizations to help creativity flourish in the field.

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As a social worker, it is expected that one is creative and able to think of novel solutions
in the here and now, as quickly as possible. Social workers also have the added pressure that
their solutions are not just for themselves, but to be used within the context of another persons
life. As a former social work student and someone who currently works in the field, I can attest
to the fact that people in helping professions need to creatively solve problems on a daily basis.
While many in the field recognize how important creativity is in social work education and
practice, it is rarely taught or encouraged. I have researched reasons why creativity is not in the
forefront of necessary social work skills, how creativity could benefit social work practitioners
and their clients, and ways that educators or leaders/managers can teach and encourage creativity
throughout their school or organization.
Throughout the research, one main reason for why creativity is not taught or practiced
enough in daily work is an emphasis on proven theories and competence. Lymbery (2003) states
that there is a focus on following procedures and technical aspects of the social work profession,
rather than on a social workers professional judgment and critical thinking ability. Social
workers are pushed to achieve results and follow deadlines, which can make the worker more
likely to use proven methods and ideas in order to quickly accomplish their work. Walz and
Uematsu (1997) discuss how another factor that may keep creativity out of social work education
and practice is that creative thinking and problem solving can take more time and energy to
achieve. Social work educators may be focused on semester timelines or grading students work
and could be lacking the time and energy to incorporate creativity into aspects of their course and
subject material. Social workers themselves may be bogged down with large caseloads and
attempting to stick to strict guidelines, so they too may put creativity in the back of their minds
rather than applying it on a daily basis. Walz and Uematsu (1997) also put forth the idea that

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social workers may believe one of the most common myths about creativity, that it cannot be
taught. Giving social work educators and professionals creative problem solving tools and
processes to utilize could help prove this myth false, but in a profession where one is constantly
working in the context of the system and seeing clients who may be experiencing recurring
problems or issues, it is easy to see why those in the field might think there is not an inherent
creativity in every person.
There are numerous ways that creativity could not only help social workers in their daily
practice but could also directly help the clients themselves. Social workers are constantly faced
with situations that are unpredictable and must quickly synthesize information that is relevant to
the problem at hand (Lymbery, 2003). They also come in contact with a wide array of individual
differences among clients and diverse populations (Walz & Uematsu, 1997). Enhanced creativity
skills could allow social workers to be more comfortable at spontaneously generating solutions
in situations without a clear outcome and could help them better accumulate and understand the
information they are given about a specific case. Creative practice could also boost social
workers morale and improve the image of social services. If workers are coming up with novel
ways to solve age-old problems, they will not only feel positively about the work that they are
doing, but can also help others outside the field to recognize the profession as one where great
strides are being made (Lymbery, 2003). Giving social workers creative tools could renew their
energy and enthusiasm for their work, which in turn could change peoples perceptions of social
services and those that practice in the field. Social work is also notorious for having limited
funding and resources, and creativity could help workers do more with less (Walz & Uematsu,
1997). Workers would be able to think of more novel ways to work with what resources they do
have, or could use creative thinking to find new resources for their clients.

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One of the main ways that creativity could directly help a client is by helping the client to
be included as part of the problem-solving process (Ringel, 2003). Creative problem solving is
based on the belief that every person has creative potential. If a social worker is using a clients
creative potential as part of the therapeutic intervention, it makes the workers job easier and also
gives the client confidence that they too can be creative in improving their own lives (Peile,
1993). Ringel (2003) also says that creativity can foster a better worker-client relationship and
can create a better environment in which to solve problems. Creativity involves humor,
playfulness, and curiosity all of which could make a client feel more supported by a worker,
and more comfortable in speaking and working with someone in the human services field. If a
client feels less threatened by the idea of participating in the problem-solving process, he or she
is more likely to learn valuable skills that he or she can use in the future. This would then help
clients keep from reentering the system, because they would already have problem-solving skills
to use in their daily lives. This relates to Kirkendall and Krishens (2015) statement that
creativity fosters independence. Social workers strive to empower their clients and could better
do so by infusing creative practice into their work and helping clients learn to creatively think of
solutions on their own.
So then, if creativity is such a necessary and beneficial component of social work
education and practice, how can it be taught and encouraged? Johnston (2009) says that social
work educators and leaders need to challenge their students and workers and push them outside
of their comfort zone. Social workers need to be able to see things in new ways that they are not
used to and be pushed to use those new viewpoints in their practice. Lymbery (2003) says that
educators and leaders need to stop viewing social work practice only through a lens of
competency and instead apply a view that puts social work practice on a continuum of

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competency and creativity. This continuum would be based on the level of predictability in a
given situation as well as the level of complexity to determine whether a social worker should
rely more on competence or creativity in any given situation (Lymbery, 2003). Walz and
Uematsu (1997) also state that creativity must completely permeate an entire school or
organization in order to be fully realized in practice. It is not enough for one or two people to
utilize creativity; everyone must follow the same vision in order for it to be successful. Ringel
(2003) says that social workers must be taught and encouraged to practice self-reflection in order
to enhance creativity. Thinking through ones practice can help a social worker envision even
more possibilities for a client and numerous ways of solving a problem. Another way to infuse
creativity into education and practice is to create multidisciplinary teams of students or workers
that can help one another with various aspects of their respective jobs (Kirkendall & Krishen,
2015). By having people from different backgrounds talk and work with one another, social
workers can get new ideas that they may not have considered as appropriate solutions to social
work problems. Kirkendall and Krishen (2015) also state that if educators and leaders can bring
creativity to social workers in a way that fosters interpersonal and emotional connections, those
workers are more likely to remember what they learned and utilize it in their practice. If social
workers absorb the knowledge and skills in a more successful way, they will then be able to
better transfer those same skills to their client base. Peile (1993) says that the most important
thing for social work educators and leaders to do is to help other social workers see every
process (such as the therapeutic process) as one that is creative. Educators and leaders should
also affirm every attempt that a worker makes in creativity, even if that idea does not initially
work or if a better solution is eventually found (Peile, 1993). In this way, there will be a culture

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of creativity created in the school or organization and social workers will be more apt to use it in
their everyday work.
In my research, I found two examples of ways that social work educators and leaders are
embedding creativity in the work that they do, which is then trickling down to their students and
employees and to clients. Johnston (2009) gives an example of a class in human behavior where
the instructor used creative methods to help the students in the class view social work practice in
a more creative way. The teacher did not simply have the students write papers as class
assignments. Instead, students were asked to read three different non-fiction books and answer
questions designed to help them make connections to the characters in the book and to the issues
portrayed in literature (Johnston, 2009). The students also had to use a creative medium to show
their understanding of a societal issue, such as painting an artwork or writing a poem (Johnston,
2009). Finally, students had to independently attend an event in the community that was far
outside their comfort zone and report on how the experience made them feel and changed their
idea of certain places or people (Johnston, 2009). These methods showed students that there is
more to social work practice than learning theories and evidence-based practice and showed
them how to infuse novelty into social work.
An example of a community leader using creativity in human services is Sarah
Hemminger, who cofounded Thread in the Baltimore area (Bornstein, 2016). Thread is an
organization that targets at-risk youth. These are students who are performing the lowest
academically, are having behavioral issues, come from impoverished families, and so on. Thread
connects each teenager with a network of five volunteers who are dedicated to helping that
young person 24/7 for up to ten years. Even if students agree to the program and then decide that
they want to quit, volunteers stay by their sides and provide assistance and do not give up

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(Bornstein, 2016). While the people connected with Thread are volunteers and not paid social
workers, the implications of such a program for social work practice are huge. This organization
creatively found a way to help teenagers thrive and keep them out of trouble. A program such as
Thread shows that while there are program guidelines and rules, people can find creative ways to
accomplish their goals. Thread volunteers may help a young adult apply for jobs, or might stop at
their house early in the morning to wake them up for school. These novel solutions to problems
that have plagued social services for years are examples of how creativity can improve peoples
lives in new ways.
Creativity can and should be incorporated into every level of social work education and
practice. There are clear examples of how creativity works in a social work setting and how it
makes the therapeutic or helping process better for works and for clients. It is my hope that
creativity becomes an inherent part of social work education and practice as a way to better the
image of the human services field and prevent social workers from experiencing such high
burnout rates. Research shows that there are easy ways to teach and encourage creativity in
social work education and practice.

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References
Bornstein, D. (2016, March 8) For vulnerable teenagers, a web of support. The New York Times.
Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/08/for-struggling-kidsunconditional-support/?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0
Johnston, L. B. (2009). Critical thinking and creativity in a social work diversity course:
Challenging students to think outside the box. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social
Environment, 19, 646-656. doi: 10.1080/10911350902988001
Kirkendall, A. & Krishen, A. S. (2015). Encouraging creativity in the social work classroom:
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10.1080/02615479.2014.986089
Lymbery, M. E. F. (2003). Negotiating the contradictions between competence and creativity in
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Peile, C. (1993). Determinism versus creativity: Which way for social work?. Social Work, 38
(2), 127-134.
Ringel, S. (2003). The reflective self: A path to creativity and intuitive knowledge in social work
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Walz, T. & Uematsu, M. (1997) Creativity in social work practice: A pedagogy. Journal of
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