You asked; What is an eco-map in social work?
An ecological map or ecomap is a diagram showing the social and personal relationships of an individual.
It gives a visual representation of the key relationships a child or an individual has based on a strength based and person-centred perspective.
Ann Hartman developed these ecological maps (or ecomaps) in 1975 to depict the ecological system that encompasses a family or individual (Hartman, 1995).
As part of her systems approach to social work, Professor Anne Hartman wrote:
“The ecomap is a simple paper and pencil simulation that maps in a dynamic way the ecological system is represented. Included in the map are the major systems that are part of the family’s life. It pictures the important nurturant or conflict–laden connections between the family and the world. It shows the flow of resources, or the lacks of deprivations”.
A social work ecomap helps form relationships through which a child, parent or family is empowered.
In a presentation by Brown and Pittard (2020), they also highlighted that the purpose of the ecomap is to understand the families’ ecology and their environment.
It is an assessment of their ecology.
In addition, using ecomap symbols as part of ecomap creation gives social workers a comprehensive picture of many things.
This includes family dynamics, connections to their social systems and the community, the family unit’s level of connection to the external world, areas of deprivation where resources may be needed or strengthened, and areas of service duplication.
Ultimate Guide on How to Use Social Work Ecomaps
How do you make an ecomap?
During initial assessments, social workers will usually focus on learning about the service user’s or client’s significant life events, important relationships, professional support, which relationships are working or not working so well.
This helps social workers determine the best intervention strategies for a child and their family.
A social work ecomap may be used by social workers via visual tools (diagrams or pictures) to engage with service users and elicit the required information.
Ecomaps can be made using basic materials (pen, paper, sticky notes).
What does energy flow mean in an ecomap?
- It shows important nurturing or conflicts in relationships.
- It shows the flow or resources or a lack of it.
- Horizontal line shows an intimate relationship (crossed out when the relationship is over)
- Thicker (darker) lines mean stronger relationships
- Curvy or red lines mean that the system is a stressful relationship
- Arrows pointing to the client mean that the system primarily influences the client
- Arrows pointing to the system mean that the client primarily influences the system
- Arrows pointing each direction depicts a two-direction flow of influence
The Wikipedia page here shows the difference connection lines for family relationships and different emotional relationships.
Ecomap activity with children and families
A social worker may start an ecomap creation activity with a child, teenager or family.
A useful way of completing an eco-map is to use sticky notes based on the information gathered during an assessment or initial contact.
You can get this in a multitude of shapes, colours and sizes up to A3 and even the size of a flip-chart pad.
The advantage of using this approach is that the sticky notes can be moved around the paper before drawing any lines.
Other useful equipment include;
- Face paint
- Graft kit
What should I put on my ecomap?
What you put on your Ecomap will depend on the structure of the individual’s ecological system.
- The individual or family goes in the centre of the ecomap, and the various parts of the network go around them.
- These are systems of the individual and parts might be professional services, individuals, families, or communities.
- The links between them show the nature of the relationships; how significant and how positive.
- Short annotations can be useful in explaining the nature of the connections.
- The arrows in the ecomap show which direction the effect occurs.
- If a professional helps a service user, then the arrow would point to the service user.
- If it involves a family member in a dispute, then the arrows may go both ways.
What is an ecomap example?
The type of social work ecomap you create will depend on the person’s systems or network.
Below is an ecomap example in social work.
What is an ecomap of family?
Creating an ecomap is a graphic and useful way of identifying all the systems at play in the family’s life.
The ecomaps are an assessment tool and gives social workers or other professionals such as nurses a detailed picture of:
- dynamics within a family
- formal, informal and immediate support available
- each individual family members’ connections to their formal system (community resources; example social worker, therapist, school)
- each individual family members’ connections to informal support system
- quality and nature of those relationships
- areas of deprivation where resources may need to be put in place or strengthened;
- and areas of service duplication.
How do you create a family ecomap?
When creating a family ecomap, you look at the sources of support.
Informal support or connections (mother, father, step, adopted family, friends, grandparents) and formal (assigned to work with us, we often pay them to work with us examples, doctors, intervention programmes, day-care or school)
Between the formal and informal support, there are institutions we choose to be involved with examples are the workplace, clubs, faith organisations, charity and religious organisations.
When we draw an ecomap, we look at these realms of life to find support for the parent or child.
You start by putting the person in the middle of the circle and draw circles around them.
You ask important questions such as who is important in the person’s life. Then where does she/he spend most of her time example school.
What group activities or memberships do you belong to (example activist, goes to church)
Is there anyone missing, are there any other groups or anyone else she spends time with.
Then you discuss how the person relates to everyone and their connections.
Ask questions to determine whether the relationship is strong, reliable or pebbly?
You then explore the quality of the relationships–are they strong, weak, one sided or reciprocal, weak or strenuous.
Ecomap generators or ecomap builders are drawing tools you can use to work with children, teenagers, and families.
They are quick diagram templates and flowcharts.
This means you can get a perfect layout in minutes.
A useful tool to help you generate your ecomaps is smart draw.
Example of a family ecomap
I will base this example on an ecomap with teenager Bella.
Bella is in the middle of the circle and has a thick line pointing to her parents and arrows pointing both sides.
This means that she receives love from her parents and gives back love (this is reciprocal). Her relationship with her father is stronger.
A straight line between her and the school counsellor and therapist show she receives energy from both of them.
However, if she argues a lot with her friend, strips can be put in the line to show it is a strenuous relationship.
A dashed line–this could indicate a relationship with a neighbour.
The dashed line means the relationship is significant and not active, but gives her peace of mind to have someone to go to in case of a fire or other pressing things.
For social work professionals, it is important that we see a balance.
If the individual gives a lot of energy and does not receive much back, there is no balance and it becomes draining and vice versa.
It is important to think about the impact such imbalance could have on the individual or relationships.
What is the importance of family ecomaps?
Family ecomaps are important because it;
- Gives an excellent overview of the dynamics of a someone’s relationships.
- Shows what groups they belong to.
- What support they have within each group.
- Where there is a possible to grow support network.
- Meaningful dialogue between the social worker, parent or child.
- Making an ecomap together with a family will give you an understanding of a family’s social environment and evaluate connections together.
Remember to date the ecomap activity because over time relationships will change.
How can you use the ecomap for intervention?
If you give the Bella strategies on how to work on her relationship with her friend and make friends at church, you have empowered her and next time you make an ecomap with her, it will show.
It should be noted that even though social network relationships may exist, they can just as easily be sources of stress as of support.
How do you draw an ecomap?
When starting an ecomap, it is important to remind the family or person that they do not have to discuss anything they don’t want to discuss.
You can explain that you want to learn more about the family in order to help you work on what will benefit them the most.
So, for example, you can say “I would like to know more about your family, the support system you may already have or what support I can connect you to in the community to help you meet the outcome you set”.
Have basic materials such as papers, pencils, ecomap key or legend available.
- The first step is to draw the service user or client in a large circle in the middle.
- Next step is to draw smaller circles around the service user or client.
- These circles will represent both informal and formal support.
- Write the name of each individual or group of people in the circle.
- The last step is to have a discussion using open-ended questions to find out the type of connections between the service user or client and each of the units in the smaller circles around them.
Using the legend, you can show a visual representation of the strength of each connection.
Arrows can show the flow of energy.
For example, a healthy relationship between child and father is likely to be represented by an arrowhead on both ends, showing the reciprocity of the relationship, while one-sided relationships would have an arrowhead pointing in only one direction.
Questions for ecomap development
What questions can you ask to build the ecomap?
Ecomap interview questions should always be in the form of open – ended questions.
- Who is important in your life?
- Who do you spend most time with?
- What groups, activities or memberships do you hold or belong to?
- Who do you talk to when you’re there?
- What is your source of income?
- Who is your emergency contact?
- Do you join any groups?
- Are there any clubs or places you visit during the week?
- Is anyone missing?
You can ask questions to determine what informal support is available. For example;
- Who lives in the home with you and your child?
- Are there any siblings in the home?
- If there are siblings, how old are they?
- Do you have a family that lives close by?
- Are your parents alive and together?
- Do you have any siblings?
- Who will you go to if you wanted to share some good news about your children?
- If you had bad news, who will you share this with?
- Tell me about your neighbours.
Determine formal support
- Is your child receiving any support from services?
- What level of support do they receive and how often?
- Who is your doctor?
- What sort of financial support does your family receive?
- Do you have carers?
- Is there anyone paid to be nice to you?
Determine immediate support
- What does your family do on Sunday mornings?
- Do you work outside of the home?
- Do you have any hobbies?
- What do you do?
- What does your family like to do in your free time?
Determine levels of support
- How often do you see or talk to family and friends?
- Do you get along with them?
- How much influence do they have on you?
- Do you see your relationship as positive?
- Do you like this person?
- Why do you like or not like them?
Why are Ecomaps important?
As an assessment tool, the ecomap helps determine the family’s strengths, resources, needs and deficits.
An ecomap helps the family and children understand the various systems in which they interact and gives professionals the opportunity to encourage them to build upon their network for support if necessary.
Differences between genogram and ecomap
- Genograms show family (biological or otherwise) while the ecomap is broader in scope, including professional and community networks that have significance (positive or negative) in the service user’s life.
- Ecomaps show the network as it now (although it may show distant relationships that have previously been close), while genogram is clearer at showing historical family relationships.
- Genograms lay out the mechanics of people’s relationship (niece by adoption, third cousin once removed, etc.) while ecomaps emphasis the qualitative nature of those relationships.
Similarities between genogram and ecomap
- Both genograms and ecomaps are rooted in a systems theory approach to social work
- Both help the social worker explore the wider context of a service user’s life and networks around them.
- You are able to identify what support systems are working or not working well for a service user or client.
How does a genogram or ecomap help your social work practice?
- A genogram and ecomap both show key themes of a family structure.
- It reminds you of who everyone is!
- Provide a starting point for your conversation with a person and their family.
- Provides a framework for discussing family relationships and family history.
- Helps you stay organised at the start of an assessment
- It shows you areas of confusion
- It shows you where there are gaps in your knowledge
- Helps you identify the most important people in a person’s life
- Helps you identify what further information you need to gather from a person you are supporting.
- Supports you to identify themes emerging from the nature of different relationships within and around a family.
Below is an example of an eco-map template
Ecomap example pdf
Download a Free Ecomap pdf template here
Aga M Buckley, Writing Analytical Assessments in Social Work, 2nd edn, Chris Dyke, The British Journal of Social Work, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcaa142
Hartman, A. &.Reid, J. (1984). Family-Centered Social Work Practice. New York: Free Press.
Jackson, M. (2020). Chris Dyke, Writing analytical assessments in social work. Journal of Social Work. 20. 146801732091876. 10.1177/1468017320918767.
(2020) The child’s world (3rd edition). The essential guide to assessing vulnerable children, young people and their families, European Journal of Social Work, 23:4, 721-722,
SmartDraw. Ecomap [Internet]. San Diego (CA): Smartdraw Software, LLC Available from https://www.smartdraw.com/ecomap/