Engaging Clients at the Intake Session | Set the Tone for Treatment

With experience and practice, better understanding on the ins and outs of conducting an intake session, and overall confidence with clients, the clinician will be able to form their own practice style. It’s important that we recognize everyone has their own style, so long it abides by ethical and legal evidence based standards. During intake sessions, in accordance to agency protocol and policy, it is necessary to acknowledge and understand that this is where client engagement and rapport building begins. Even if you conduct intake sessions, but do not continue to see the client, being welcoming and empathetic at this session will build engagement between the client and the agency. As social workers and clinicians, we can use the intake session to our advantage, and truly welcome the client to treatment in an open and nonjudgmental approach. How is this practically accomplished though?

Imagine your new client arrives at the agency. You are notified, and make your way to the waiting area to meet them. First impressions matter. Smile, ensure your clothes are colorful, welcoming, and professional, and greet them happily. Introduce yourself, and ask them if they are ready to meet with you. If the client is a child, introduce yourself to the parents, and then get on the child’s level to say hello.

On the way to your office, give the client a mini tour of the facility – note the bathrooms. If you have the means and resources, offer the client a snack and beverage.

As you walk into your office, ensure the seating is comfortable and the space is welcoming. Read on how to make your space comfortable and welcoming here. Before you begin the form intake, typically a biopsychosocial assessment, introduce yourself again and inform the client on what this session will look like and what to expect for future sessions. If you are an intern, be sure to disclose to the client that you’re a student. After explaining your role and the purpose and expectations, ask the client if they have any questions or concerns. This is also a good time to ask the client what their expectations are for the social worker, treatment, and themselves.

Beginning the intake assessment, it is important to have a conversation with the client. Don’t make this feel like another question-answer doctor’s appointment. You are a social worker! Use those social work skills throughout your conversation, such as active listening, reflection, and summarizing. Some agencies may have policy that allows for the social worker to conduct the assessments while using the computer. This is normal practice, but social work school has always taught me to reduce or cease use of computer or note taking in session in order to best engage clients. Because this is very much an information gathering time, using a computer can be handy. To allow the client to feel comfortable, explain to them the need to use the computer, and offer to have the client sit next to or review the intake assessment afterwards to ensure all the information is correct. If you have a good understanding of what a biopsychosocial consists of and you have a solid and detailed memory, absolutely use this opportunity to fully be present with the client. I enjoy using a notepad and occasionally writing notes down for details that I know would otherwise be forgotten.

While having this conversation with the person, make sure your demeanor is open, friendly, and empathetic. Be sure to smile – when it’s appropriate. It is also vital to allow the client control in this session. As social workers, we often go into sessions with our own agendas. We try to get detailed information for the assessment, which is beneficial, but we also need to keep in mind the vulnerability and courage it takes for clients to tell a stranger their deepest concerns. Inform the client that if they are uncomfortable, they do not have to share. The client is in charge. If they seem apprehensive, don’t force it, and move on.

Typically the first information needed is the presenting problem. After exhausting all inforamtion and quetsions here, it can be beneficial to create a timeline of the client’s life beginning from birth/in utero to the presenting problem. This allows gaps to be filled, developmental milestones, school, family, and everything in between to be talked about. Here, the social worker will be able to make connections and potentially see the impact of early life events and childhood on the client presently.

While you’re meeting with the client, it becomes easy to slip into negatives, symptomatology, trauma, and risk factors. Be sure that you are able to highlight the client’s strengths, protective factors, interests, hobbies, and support system. When you highlight these, you could also be identifying motivating factors for the client. These topics can also be great conversation starters in later sessions to warm the client up.

Moreover, as the session continues and the social worker is engaging in active listening and reflection, be sure to consistently check in with the client on their understanding, feelings and thoughts, and if any questions arose. When talking about difficult topics, validate the client’s feelings and experience. Never forget to thank the client for sharing something that is clearly difficult or traumatic.

For the instance that a child is the client or your client brought their children to the session, be sure they are occupied with coloring, play dough, or another kid-friendly activity they accomplish relatively independently as you ask questions. It’s important to engage with the child if they are your client. Throughout the session, include the child on the conversation and ask them questions or compliment what they are doing. With adolescents and teenagers, definitely go the extra mile to ensure the caregiver is not taking over the session and that the majority of questions are directed to the child. If they don’t know, they’ll let you know or ask their caregiver.

At the end of the intake session, thank the client for coming to the appointment and sharing. Let them know that the session is complete, and ask if they have questions or concerns. Here, reiterate to the client what the next steps will be and what treatment will look like. Schedule the client for their next session, and give them a reminder card. As an extra courtesy, smile and walk the client back to the waiting area or exit. Let them know that it was great to meet them and get to know them, and that you look forward to seeing them at their next session. If there are children, high five, first bump, or wave, and really make them feel that you have genuine care for them.

What too many professionals forget is that engagement and rapport begin at the intake session! Even if it is information gathering and paperwork heavy, it can still be a time for fun, openness, and connection. If you have more tips on how to engagement clients during their first session to ensure long term treatment success, leave a comment and let us know!

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