What is an Ecomap?

Download Ecomap TemplateAn Ecomap is a diagram often used by social workers or nurses showing the social and personal relationships of an individual with his or her environment. Ecomaps were developed in 1975 by Dr. Ann Hartman who is also credited with creating the genogram. A cornerstone of the social work profession is joining with clients from a strengths-based and client-centered perspective, forming a relationship in which client and clinician work together toward client self-determination and empowerment. As client and clinician develop a therapeutic relationship in session over time, joining with clients can take many different forms.

In initial sessions, clinicians tend to focus on listening and learning about the client’s biopsychosocial history, important life events, key relationships, resources, and needs. Using visual tools to engage clients in eliciting this information is one way that social workers can effectively join with clients at the early stages of the therapeutic relationship, and ecomaps are one such effective tool.

An ecomap is a visual tool that many social workers use with families and individuals as a participatory way to involve clients in describing and organizing the various elements impacting their lives. Ecomaps are essentially diagrams that place the client (or client system) at the center, and visually display the key social and personal relationships the client has with the external environment. Ecomaps visualize the person-in-environment perspective of the social work profession, and help clients to understand the various systems with which they interact in their current lives, giving a snapshot of the client in “their dynamic ecological system1.”

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Why Use Ecomaps?


Ecomaps are useful assessment tools because they also assist clients in describing, organizing, and understanding the ways in which the client relates to and with each of the systems in their lives. Ecomaps reveal not only the relationships themselves, but the quality of those relationships in the ways that the client chooses to classify them. Clients’ connections to the systems included on an ecomap might be positive or negative, nurturing or damaging, secure or plagued by conflict and stress. Relationships might be depicted as close or distant, strong or weak, one-sided or mutual.

In this way, an ecomap is capable of depicting “the important nurturing or conflict-laden connections between the family and the world; demonstrates the flow of resources, or lacks and deprivations; and highlights the nature of the interfaces and points of conflict to be mediated, bridges to be built, and resources to be explored1.” Thus, as an assessment tool, an ecomap can be helpful in determining the client’s strengths, resources, needs, and deficits, and “a powerful tool for discovering possible sources of depression and anxiety as well as uncovering hidden support systems in friends, neighbors, clubs, professional agencies, charities, and social or religious organizations2.”

How to Draw an Ecomap

The social worker, the client, or both, can draw an ecomap, using simple circles and lines with a key/legend.

  1. The first step is to draw the client in a large circle in the middle.
  2. Next, smaller circles drawn around the client represent each of the people, groups, institutions, and entities with which the client is in relationship. These can be family members, friends, churches, places of employment, educational institutions, etc, with the name of each entity written in the center of the circle.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, client and clinician should discuss and draw the types of connections between the client and each of the external entities in the smaller circles. Different types of lines can be used to denote different types of connections. For example, a dashed line might represent a distant connection, while a double line represents a strong connection – any type of line can be used in the drawing, but the definition of each should be noted in the Ecomap’s legend.
  4. Arrowheads should also be used at the end of each line to indicate the direction in which resources flow or the level of mutuality of the relationship. Arrowheads “indicate the direction of influence for each relationship2.” For example, if one of the external entities included is “Social Security,” the arrow would point to the client, showing that the client receives resources from Social Security. A healthy relationship between mother and daughter would likely have an arrowhead on both ends, showing the reciprocity of the relationship, while one-sided relationships would have an arrowhead pointing in only one direction.

Download a free Ecomap template here.

Example: Ecomap for Nancy

Nancy: Ecomapping Activity, 7 June 2016


Best Practices for Ecomapping with Clients

There are many options when creating an ecomap and the types of lines and figures used can vary, as long as they are identified in the Legend. When using ecomaps in session with clients, the following best practices are recommended:

  • Identify the client and make the ecomap client-centered
  • Be sure to determine and depict all of the important external systems connected to the client.
  • Ensure that the type of relationship or connection is specified.
  • Specify the direction of each relationship.
  • Include a date on the ecomap, “because over time these relationships may change and you may want to re-evaluate or re-map2
  • Include a comprehensive legend to clearly explain all lines, colors, and symbols used

The most important practice to remember in ecomapping with clients is to use this assessment tool as a starting point for discussion, opening opportunities for client and clinician to evaluate connections to external entities and gain understanding of the client’s environment. Ecomapping is a participatory activity that is best accompanied by constant and meaningful dialogue between client and clinician as they work together to visualize and assess the person-in-environment and gain new insights into client relationships.

Reference List:

1Barefoot Social Work. Ecomap activity

[Internet]. England (UK): Barefoot Social Work Blog; 2016 [cited 2016 Jun 7]. Available from http://barefootsocialwork.weebly.com/uploads/3/9/7/4/39743910/ecomap_activity.pdf

2SmartDraw. Ecomap [Internet]. San Diego (CA): Smartdraw Software, LLC; 2016 [cited 2016 Jun 7]. Available from https://www.smartdraw.com/ecomap/

Additional References:

Tennessee Alliance for Children and Families. Genograms and ecomaps: tools for developing a broad view of family [Internet]. Nashville (TN): Tennessee Alliance for Children and Families; 2016 [cited 2016 Jun 7]. Available from http://www.tnchildren.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Genograms-and-Ecomaps.pdf

McCormick, K, Stricklin, S, Rous, B, Kohner-Coogle, M, Nowak, T. Using eco-mapping to understand family strengths and resources [Internet]. Lexington (KY): National Early Childhood Transition Center; 2005 [cited 2016 Jun 7]. Available from http://www.hdi.uky.edu/nectc/libraries/nectc_presentations_research_techniques/using_eco-mapping_to_understand_family_strenghts_and_resources.sflb.ashx