Clinical social work requires that you operationalize what you learn. In other words, now that you know theories and concept definitions, do you know how to put them to use in therapy?

Here’s an example. You are a school social worker and you can recite defense mechanisms in your sleep! You also know that teenagers live in the world of denial. How can you transform that knowledge into an effective intervention plan with your high school students? The school principal submits a referral to you to meet with a 10th grader who has been skipping math class to hang out and smoke cigarettes with his friend during a lunch period that is different from his. You call the young man to your office for the initial conference. Since you are fairly confident that he will deny the principal’s accusation, you know it is a waste of time to start with, “Were you skipping math class to smoke cigarettes with your friends during 3rd period lunch?”

Instead, you might use a probing question like, “Tell me your understanding of why the principal sent you to see me?” Even that non-threatening query could be met with a resounding, “I don’t know!” Your next step is to pull out the referral and read it to the student. “It says here, that the school resource officer found you behind the building smoking cigarettes at 1:00. I checked your schedule and learned that you eat lunch at 11:00 and should be in math class by 12:30.” Then you remain silent for a few seconds and observe the teen’s body language. If you don’t get a response, say something like, “Is this accurate or is there anything else you want me to know?” It’s hard to argue with facts. Plus, you are giving the sophomore an opportunity to fill in any missing information or clarify his side of the story. Both comments send a message that you are concerned about getting accurate information, not just jumping to conclusions.

Your knowledge that teenagers often use denial as a defense mechanism, allows you to plan a strategy of presenting undeniable facts to combat their refuting. You also know that teenagers typically don’t trust adults and think that they are “out to get them.” By asking the student to clarify and even add missing parts to the story can be the start of establishing trust.

Do you have an example of how you operationalized a concept that you learned? Or do you have a question that you would like us to address in a future blog? If so send a response, or email us at

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