It’s easy for social workers and other professionals to misunderstand the nature and purpose of a chronology, mainly due to the learning and working culture around them that can see producing a chronology as an administrative ‘chore’. Chronologies are actually an essential part of any good assessment, a vital foundation for analysis, and a useful tool to help a social worker develop rapport with service users.
Why you should do a chronology first
I’ve never understood it when a social worker says “I’ve done my assessment, now I have to do a chronology” – how can you write the one without the other? For me, the chronology is the start, and heart, of a good assessment.
How much of a chronology to write at the start, and in what format, depends on the context. In a non-emergency setting, with some discretion about how to spend your time, I’d see a chronology as the first action upon receiving a case. It provides a useful focus for so many other, vital tasks: reading the case files; planning visits; planning interviews; planning who else to contact.
But even in a ‘duty desk’ scenario, with a matter of minutes between receiving the case and having to rush out on an emergency, I’d always make the time to produce some kind of rough chronology (likewise a rough draft genogram/ecomap). This would often be handwritten and might result from only 20 minutes skimming through key case files – this might be all the time you have before having to be at the hospital, for example, if there are concerns about a non-accidental injury.
The frequent argument against this is: ‘who’s got the time?’ A chronology seems like a luxury when faced with an urgent situation, an injured child and a ticking clock – surely you have to set the ‘paperwork’ aside and get on with the ‘real work’? The problem is, when you get to the hospital, you (along with the police and your managers) will have to make a major decision, about what to do next. Making a high-pressure decision ‘against the clock’ is even harder if it’s an uninformed decision.
When you have more time available, it makes sense to start compiling a more formal chronology, typed in the same format that you’ll use when you present it to a wider audience (as ever, imagine this audience includes a judge, and always remember that the document needs to make sense to a service user).
Creating the chronology at the start provides points of reference for your visits and other investigations – the partial chronology from your initial reading highlights gaps in your knowledge, or any apparent contradictions or obvious mistakes (eg dates of birth that don’t add up).
Preparing a chronology at the start of your work with someone isn’t just a re-statement of the importance of reading their files in advance – the act of listing what you know chronologically is valuable precisely because it lays out events in order and helps identify which themes are the most persistent, rather than which themes are the most predominant in reports. Turney et al (2011) found poorer assessments typically lacked this comprehensive filling-in of information gaps.
Doing this work first also helps counter some cognitive biases. We’re all prone to a ‘pictorial superiority effect’ (Nelson et al, 1976) where what we see with our own eyes becomes more prominent in our thinking that what we’ve read about in some dry document. It’s easy to become preoccupied with, for example, the conditions we’ve seen in a family home, when we should be more focussed on events that happened within it but are unlikely to ever see first-hand. Linked to this, we also suffer an ‘availability heuristic’ (Tversky and Kahneman, 1973) where we privilege the information that is immediately available to us, rather than the information gathered by other people. Social workers (and all professionals) can become fixated on relatively insignificant details because they represent first-hand information they obtained themselves.
Observation skills and interviewing skills are vital to good social work practice, but so are the skills of absorbing and analysing what other people have observed and heard.
While we’re all prone to these cognitive biases, we can partly counteract them by processing the ‘dry’, second-hand information first, so that this frames how we plan and approach our visits.
This also helps us to look beyond the referral information and into the underlying and long-term issues within a household.
But creating a chronology at the start is useful for more than analytical purposes – by ‘front-loading’ your exploration of family history, you’re laying the ground for a more useful working relationship. Those initial hours spent developing a chronology are time well spent, given the impact on your first impression with a service user.
Nelson, DL; Reed, US and Walling, JR (1976) ‘Pictorial superiority effect‘, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning & Memory, 2, pp. 523-8
Turney, D. et al (2011) Social work assessment of children in need: what do we know?
Messages from research, Department for Education
Tversky, A and Kahneman, D (1973) ‘Availability: a heuristic for judging frequency and probability‘, Cognitive Psychology, 5(1) pp. 207-233