Practicing Group Work Strategies

Aligning our Group Work with the IASWG Standards for Social Work Practice with Groups

Mark J. Macgowan, PhD, LCSW, Professor of Social Work & Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, Florida International University, Miami

Why is this topic important in group work practice?

​The IASWG Standards help group workers align themselves with the core elements of Social Work with Groups as defined by Social Work's only organization dedicated to group work. The Standards represent the perspective of IASWG, “on the value and knowledge and skill base essential for professionally sound and effective social work practice with groups and are intended to serve as a guide to social work practice with groups” (IASWG, 2006, p. 1). Therefore, all social group workers should know about the Standards and be able to do them in practice.  Yet, despite being published over a decade ago, the Standards are neither well known nor utilized.

Following an evidence-informed approach to group work Macgowan (2008) developed and validated an instrument based on the Standards that group workers can use to measure their confidence in doing the Standards in practice (Inventory of Competencies in Social Work with Groups, ICSWG). The measure can be used both to assess proficiency in the Standards and as a benchmark to assess progress in learning over time.

What theory supports this topic in group work?

The Standards were developed by the Practice Committee of IASWG, with the first edition appearing in 1998 and the second edition in 2005 (Cohen & Olshever, 2010). The Standards incorporate essential theories and perspectives at the foundation of Social Work with Groups, such as values, mutual aid, collaboration, and the work that occurs during the different stages of group development.  

What are a few essential reading on this topic?

There are a number of recommended readings related both to the history and use of the Standards in various contexts (Cohen et al., 2013; IASWG 2006) and to the development and use of the Standards-based Inventory in teaching (Macgowan, 2012; 2013; 2015; Macgowan & Vakharia 2012; Macgowan & Wong, 2017). An additional reading provides the foundation for the notion that our group work should be based on the best available evidence (Macgowan, 1998), which the Standards reflect. Here are the readings:

  • Cohen, C. S., Macgowan, M. J., Garvin, C., & Muskat, B. (Eds.). (2013). IASWG Standards for Social Work with Groups: Research, teaching and practice [Special Issue of Social Work with Groups] (Vol. 36). New York: Routledge. IASWG. (2006). Standards for social work practice with groups (2nd ed.). Retrieved from
  • IASWG. (2006). Standards for social work practice with groups (2nd ed.).   Retrieved from, M. J. (2008). A guide to evidence-based group work. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Macgowan, M. J. (2012). A standards-based inventory of foundation competencies in social work with groups. Research on Social Work Practice, 22(5), 578-589. doi:10.1177/1049731512443288
  • Macgowan, M. J. (2013). Development and application of a standards-based inventory of foundation competencies in social work with groups. Social Work with Groups, 36(2/3), 160-173. doi:10.1080/01609513.2012.753836
  • Macgowan, M. J. (2015). An inventory of standards for the practice of social work with groups: An empirical test in Scotland. Groupwork, 24(3), 6-25. doi:10.1921/13701240302
  • Macgowan, M. J., & Vakharia, S. P. (2012). Teaching standards-based group work competencies to social work students: An empirical examination. Research on Social Work Practice, 22(4), 380-388. doi:10.1177/1049731512442249
  • Macgowan, M. J., & Wong, S. E. (2017). Improving Student Confidence in Using Group Work Standards: A Controlled Replication. Research on Social Work Practice, 27(4), 434-440. doi:10.1177/1049731515587557

What are a few examples of how to implement this topic in group work practice?

The Inventory was developed as a practical tool to assess user’s confidence in doing the Standards (for a free copy, send an email to Dr. Mark Macgowan at [email protected]). To develop confidence in doing the Standards, users can self-assess their confidence in the Standards. Then, based on items rated “low” in confidence, users can do some readings and engage in practice exercises related to those items (Macgowan & Vakharia, 2012).  Clinical supervisors can use the measure to help identify learning needs and in setting goals for group worker skill development in the Standards.

For example, one of the areas that respondents often have little confidence in doing is helping members “mediate conflict in the group” (item 54 in Inventory). As defined by Northen and Kurland, “conflict is behavior in which there is disagreement between two or more persons” (2001, p. 214) and is a natural and helpful part of group development (Northen & Kurland, 2001, p. 214; Toseland & Rivas, 2012, p. 343). Models of group development, such as the Tuckman model (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977), include “storming” as a part of normal group development. As Northen and Kurland note, “the resolution of major conflicts cannot occur until a group has developed to the point that the basic consensus within the group is solidly built” (Northen & Kurland, 2001, p. 217).

Although the worker could manage the conflict alone, this item in the Standards suggests that the worker helps members to “mediate” conflict. There are different roles that group workers might assume in resolving conflict in the group. One of them is to help members mediate the conflict. Mediating skills are used “when two or more members are in conflict and action is necessary to help them reach an agreement and resolve the dispute” (Toseland & Rivas, 2012, p. 123). The role as mediator “resolves disputes, conflicts, or opposing views within the group or between a member and some other person or organization; takes a neutral stand and helps members arrive at a settlement or agreement that is mutually acceptable” (Toseland & Rivas, 2012, p. 285). Thus, workers should use strategies to help members engage in conflict resolution, and not necessarily always directly intervene.

After applying such techniques in role-plays and in genuine groups under supervision, group workers can build skill in fulfilling the Standards in practice. At the end of the learning experience, users or supervisors can re-assess confidence using the Inventory to determine if confidence has improved. Used as a gauge of proficiency in the Standards, the Inventory is a useful tool to help apply the Standards to practice situations.

For more information on the Inventory or the studies referred to in this entry, and for a reference list of readings related to increasing skill related to other items in the inventory, please contact Dr. Macgowan at [email protected].

Additional References

  • Cohen, C. S., & Olshever, A. (2010). Overview of the Survey on the AASWG Standards for Social Work Practice. Retrieved from
  • Corey, M. S., Corey, G., & Corey, C. (2014). Groups: Process and practice (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.
  • Cournoyer, B. (2014). The social work skills workbook (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
  • Forsyth, D. R. (2014). Group dynamics (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.
  • Jacobs, E. E., Masson, R. L., & Harvill, R. L. (2012). Group counseling: Strategies and skills (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Brooks/Cole.
  • Northen, H., & Kurland, R. (2001). Social work with groups (3rd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Toseland, R. W., & Rivas, R. F. (2012). An introduction to group work practice (7th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Tuckman, B. W., & Jensen, M. A. (1977). Stages of small-group development revisited. Group & Organization Studies, 2, 419-427.