Self-Determination and the BSW, LMSW, and LCSW ASWB Exams

Self-Determination and the BSW, LMSW, and LCSW ASWB Exams

When it comes to the foundation of social work, do not underestimate the concept of self-determination.  Self-determination in social work is at the core of what we, as practitioners, do in the field. It is also an important element of the Bachelors, Masters, and Clinical level ASWB exams that reinforces the importance of a client making their own decisions and choices regarding their own lives.

So, what is self-determination in social work? Here is what social workers practitioners and ASWB test takers need to know:

Self-Determination in the Field 

According to The Social Work Dictionary, self-determination can be defined as, “An ethical principle in social work that recognizes the rights and needs of clients to be free to make their own choices and decisions.”

An example of self-determination in social work could be aging in place. Does a senior have the self-determination to elect to stay in their own home? Overcoming hurdles and challenges to meet these goals demonstrates the level of self-determination that a client or individual has.

According to the NASW Code of Ethics: “Social workers treat each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers promote clients’ socially responsible self-determination. Social workers seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs. Social workers are cognizant of their dual responsibility to clients and to the broader society. They seek to resolve conflicts between clients’ interests and the broader society’s interests in a socially responsible manner consistent with the values, ethical principles, and ethical standards of the profession.”

Social workers must audit themselves to prevent projecting their own objectives, aims, and wishes onto the client, as it simply may not be a shared goal.  Stick to strength-based, client-centered practice and you should be able to reveal your client’s ambitions and recognize when you are engaging in transference or projection.

Self-Determination Social Work Exams 

A social worker projecting or forcing their own opinions on the client is not just a breach of ethics, it is also against the law. Instead, practitioners should put focus on ensuring the client understands all options available to them, as well as the consequences of these choices. Informing the client can reinforce their own self-determination and help guide them toward making their decision. In this way, we empower the client by helping them to make a decision based on what is important to them.

As far as social work exams, always be thinking about the response that supports this mindset. Which answer or option best reinforces the client’s own self-determination? Keep this in mind when taking the test and read each question carefully.

Industry experts offer a tip to those studying for their exams, such as the BSW, LMSW, or LCSW: Rule out any answers that do not support self-determination. Some will be easy to recognize. Never choose a choice that is solely reflective of the social worker’s opinion of the situation; this is unethical in practice and does not reflect client self-determination. Naturally, the social worker does play a significant role in client self-determination by providing information related to potential options to the client that can be helpful in them garnering their own decision.

Final Thoughts About Self-Determination 

Self-determination is an ethical principle. For this reason, it will be covered and questioned in your ASWB examination. Remember that the Code of Ethics recognizes the rights and autonomy of the social work client to make their own decisions and choices that relate to their life regardless of whether you, the social worker, agree with them or not. If you outline options, resources, and potential repercussions to the client, the choice should be theirs to make.

While projecting your own opinion on the client is unethical, it also does not support the concept of self-determination. As far as choices that could have dangerous or criminal consequences, social workers are mandated reporters and are bound by the obligation to report such occurrences to the proper authorities in certain and very specific situations.

Self-determination is a component of social work practice, and you can expect to see it covered in a social work exam. If you are studying for an upcoming social work exam, visit Agents of Change. We help social workers prepare for their licensing exams through a comprehensive course that includes hundreds of practice questions and 2 live study groups per month.


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About the Instructor, Meagan Mitchell: Meagan is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has been providing individualized and group test prep for the ASWB for over five years. From all of this experience helping others pass their exams, she created the Agents of Change course to help you prepare for and pass the ASWB exam!

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Disclaimer: This content has been made available for informational and educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical or clinical advice, diagnosis, or treatment


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