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The Principles of Culturally Competent Social Work Practice

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Social workers must demonstrate skills and knowledge to work effectively across cultures. Social workers are required to become culturally competent through continuing education and training. This will enable them to develop cultural awareness, knowledge, and skills for competent practice when working with diverse clients.

The National Association of Social Workers (2018) Code of Ethics (section 1.05) states that:

Social workers should understand the culture and its function in human behavior and society, recognizing the strengths that exist in all cultures.
Social workers should have a knowledge base of their clients’ cultures and be able to demonstrate competence in the provision of services that are sensitive to clients’ cultures and to differences among people and cultural groups.
Social workers should obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, and mental or physical ability.

Social workers must honor the culture and differences of all clients and avoid imposing their cultural perspectives, values, and beliefs on clients. This may interfere with the client’s right to self-determination. Social workers must instead familiarize themselves with different cultural issues, traditions, health beliefs, attitudes, lifestyles, and values.

The client may not always prefer Western treatment approach and social workers must consider other alternative approaches based on the client’s cultural or religious preference.

When working with culturally diverse clients, social works should consider the following:


  • If language becomes a challenge and the social worker is not proficient in the client’s language (Spanish, Mandarin, etc.), they must obtain a professional translator and/or be willing to refer the client if needed.
  • Clients may nod affirmatively during the session, but may not understand what is being said/explained. Social workers must ensure the client’s understanding.
  • Social workers should speak clearly and pace themselves (not too fast and not too slow) if the client understands a little English.
  • Consider the distance and physical space.
  • Consider how emotional are shown (or not shown) in facial expression across each culture. For instance, a client with a flat affect may be considered schizophrenic.


  • Some cultures may interpret psychological problems in physical terms in order to avoid being labeled with a mental disorder. Social workers should consider the views and beliefs of mental illness/medical healthcare.
  • Consider cultural-bound syndromes. There are several cultural-bound syndromes such as “koro”, “latah”, “dhat”, among others. Abnormal behavior (Hallucinations, delusions) may be interpreted as relating to evil spirits, voodoo, etc. These symptoms are seen as normal even though symptoms are consistent with schizophrenia.
  • When assessing the causes of illness, social workers must consider cultural as well as individual components.


  • Social workers must consider the client’s spiritual belief that provides the meaning of life and individual sources of strength.
  • Social workers can collaborate with traditional healers, religious leaders to help move the client towards feeling motivated and fully participate in treatment.

The excerpt is taken from Envision Pass “Tackling the Social Work Clinical Study Guide and Workbook”

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