By Staff Writer
Published on December 02, 2020
Social workers are employed throughout a variety of settings and guide people from all walks of life. Regardless of their context, social workers can leverage some core theories and practice models to help clients throughout the industry.
Each of the social work theories we outline below apply to micro, mezzo, and macro practice spheres; in other words, social work professionals working with individuals, groups, or entire systems can apply these theories to their practice. Additionally, many of these theories are rooted in psychological and sociological research. This guide introduces some of the most common theories and models practiced in the field.
Common Theories and Practice Models in Social Work
In many ways, social work is a science. Social workers can guide their clients, but they don't carry out their practice based on their own opinion and/or style. Instead, social workers study specific clinical theories that are grounded in research to inform how they implement clinical practice in a methodological manner. In fact, clinical social workers need to obtain both a bachelor's and master's degree in order to fully understand these theories and master therapeutic practice models.
At its core, social work focuses on "person-in-environment" (PIE) theory. This considers clients within their psychosocial contexts, and it connects to micro, mezzo, and macro levels of social work practice. This guide explores how each theory and practice model functions within the PIE theory.
Social workers learn about these theories during their education. You can learn more about these academic programs with these resources: a guide to social work bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and online master's degrees.
Why is Theory Important in Social Work?
As any social work professor can tell you, understanding clinical theories are an essential part of a social worker's job. It allows social workers to explore certain origins of behavior with evidence-based approaches. Social workers also lean on these theories and practices to address client problems with research to back up their practice. This is especially important, as social workers need to avoid personal assumptions or biases from interfering with effective treatment plans.
Learning about these theories can also help social workers implement effective solutions rather than grasping at straws. If a certain therapeutic approach does not work, social workers can examine the reasons and use what they've learned to try a different approach.
Common Social Work Theories
Social workers can incorporate components of several different clinical theories in their work with clients. Some popular approaches for social workers include theories of systems, social learning, psychosocial development, psychodynamic, transpersonal, and rational choice.
Many of these theories have been developed within the past century, and several draw upon Sigmund Freud's theories of psychoanalysis. Some of these theories encompass a broad outlook (such as systems theory), while others focus on specific conflicts (like psychosocial theory). Not every social worker uses every theory, while some social workers might use elements of each one. You can read more information about the most common social work theories below.
- Systems Theory
Systems theory assumes that human behavior is the result of a larger system comprised of several elements, including the relationships between these elements, as well as external factors like their environment. These factors could involve a person's family, peers, school, work, or community. Sociologists have identified many different types of systems, including microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems, and macrosystems.
Social work professionals examine how the systems in which their clients live affect their behaviors. For instance, living in a system of poverty can have a significant impact on how a person makes decisions. Social workers can devise strategies based on these systems in order to provide a more concise treatment plan for their client.
- Social Learning Theory
Developed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s, social learning theory accounts for how the behavior of other people can affect somebody's behavior. Bandura argued that individuals pick up behaviors by observing and imitating the people around them. Unlike behavioral theories, social learning theory proposes that people actively and mentally process other people's behaviors before imitating them.
Social workers may take into account social learning theory when working with children who take on aggressive or violent behaviors, for example. The children may mimic their parents or other significant adults in their lives. When social workers are able to identify the origin of a child's behaviors, they are able to effectively create a treatment approach.(Video) Social Work Theories and Approaches
- Psychosocial Development Theory
Influenced by the seminal work of Freud, psychologist Erik Erikson proposes several stages of development relating to a person's ego identity, personal identity, and social and cultural identity. Erikson's theory argues that humans struggle with specific conflicts throughout different stages of their life. Those conflicts include:
- Trust vs. mistrust in infancy
- Autonomy vs. shame and doubt in early childhood
- Initiative vs. guilt in preschool age
- Industry vs. inferiority in school age
- Identity vs. role confusion in adolescence
- Intimacy vs. isolation in young adulthood
- Generativity vs. stagnation in middle adulthood
- Ego integrity vs. despair in maturity
Erikson's theory suggests that if humans effectively navigate these tensions at each stage of their life, they can develop a healthy ego. Social workers may consider these conflicts when working with their clients. It is important to note that each stage correlates with an emotional stage which could also be in conflict with a developmental stage.
- Psychodynamic Theory
Introduced by Freud at the turn of the 20th century -- and popularized by Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, and Anna Freud -- psychodynamic theory argues that our personalities develop because of various internal forces. Freud wrote that our personalities are largely shaped during our early childhood, and our personality consists of three main parts: id (impulse), ego (decision-making), and superego (conscience). Psychodynamic theory also prioritizes a person's unconscious thought process as the root of their behaviors.
Social workers may use psychodynamic theory to help clients examine the underlying causes of certain behaviors -- often considering the clients' childhood -- to help explain why they act a certain way. Social workers may offer different types of therapies based on psychodynamic theory, including transference and dream analysis.
- Transpersonal Theory
Transpersonal theory approaches humans with a holistic philosophy, and considers factors like spirituality, the relationship between the body and the mind, and consciousness. Psychologists generally do not consider transpersonal theory to be scientific, but many therapists or mental health professionals integrate elements of transpersonal theory into their practice. They might use meditation, mindfulness practices, or hypnotherapy on their patients.
- Rational Choice Theory
Rational choice theory argues that people make decisions and carry out behaviors based on their own rational thought processes, especially if those decisions ultimately benefit the individual. This theory directly opposes some other clinical theories that suggest people make decisions on unconscious thought processes.
Although rational choice theory is often found within economic theory, social workers can also apply these principles to their job. To understand why clients make certain decisions, social workers can examine how those clients believed their choices would benefit them. Social workers also can develop solutions and suggest resources to assist clients with achieving their goals.
Common Practice Models in Social Work
While social workers integrate various clinical theories into their practice, they can also implement specific therapeutic models. The theories above may explain the causes of a person's struggles; however, practice models allow social workers to carry out specific approaches to treat those struggles.
The section below outlines some of the most common practice models, including cognitive behavioral therapy, crisis intervention model, narrative therapy, problem-solving model, solution-focused therapy, and task-centered therapy. Some of these methods overlap or share characteristics with each other, but each serves a purpose for specific clients and circumstances.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) identifies unhealthy patterns of thinking and attempts to rewrite these patterns.
People often convince themselves that their frequently distorted thoughts are true. CBT forces individuals to question and confront these distortions. For instance, somebody might find themselves in fear of social situations, because they imagine a worst-case scenario that they will humiliate themselves. CBT pushes that person to examine these assumptions and instead consider new scenarios and outlooks.
People who struggle with anxiety and depression often find CBT helpful, and many clinical social workers incorporate CBT into their therapeutic practice.
- Crisis Intervention Model
Crisis intervention model is much what it sounds like: in times of acute psychological strain or distress, social workers and mental health professionals intervene before that crisis turns into harm. Albert Roberts and Allen Ottens propose seven steps to crisis intervention. These include conducting a safety assessment, establishing psychological contact, identifying the major problems, helping the patient explore their feelings, looking for new coping mechanisms, creating an action plan, and planning follow-ups.
Social workers can use the crisis intervention model for clients suffering from major trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, or suicidal thoughts, among others. This model of crisis intervention works in a voluntary manner, which means that clients must be open to the process.
- Narrative Therapy
Narrative therapy is based on the theory that individuals turn their personal experiences into stories. In other words, they create narratives of their own lives. This type of therapy relies on four major principles: "objective truth" does not exist; reality is a social construct; language can influence how we view reality; and narratives help us organize our personal realities.
Narrative therapy encourages clients to distance themselves from their personal experiences by taking on the role of a narrator and rewriting the script. This can help them change harmful and disruptive thinking patterns, especially those shaped by trauma.(Video) Social work theory: Back to the basics (Connect Webinar 17)
- Problem-Solving Model
Helen Harris Perlman proposed the problem-solving model in the 1950s specifically for the field of social work. At the time, many social work theories and therapies relied on psychotherapy; Perlman instead argued that social workers could more effectively help clients by focusing on one problem at a time.
Focusing on smaller problems allows clients to develop and follow through with action plans to confront those issues in a manageable way. This method -- also called "partializing" -- would make therapies more manageable for social workers and clients alike, and professionals still use Perlman's proposals.
- Solution-Focused Therapy
Solution-focused therapy, or solution focused brief therapy, concentrates on an individual's present and future situations. This therapy involves a departure from psychodynamic-influenced theories that focus on a person's past and childhood.
Solution-focused therapy proposes immediate, manageable solutions that allow patients to better cope with their problems. A mental health professional or social worker employing this type of therapy might challenge a client to imagine their future life without their problem, or they might help individuals recognize and better harness copy mechanisms that they already use. Social workers might implement solution-focused therapy for adolescents with behavioral problems or families with conflicts, to name a couple of examples.
- Task-Centered Practice
Task-centered practice shares many principles with the problem-solving model and solution-focused therapy, but it tends to follow an even more focused and quick approach. Task-centered practice usually only lasts 8-12 sessions, and clients concentrate on achieving measurable goals. Clients and social workers create action plans with specific tasks, and then clients carry out those tasks.
Social workers can integrate this type of therapy into many different types of settings. They might work with students with disruptive behavioral issues, soon-to-be-discharged hospital patients, or older clients at nursing homes.
Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW
Melissa Russiano is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice that has organically developed into a specialty working with helping professionals. Russiano has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Russiano practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Additionally, Russiano is a professor imparting her experiences and knowledge in the field to future social workers in a graduate program through Simmons University online.
The theories help social workers better understand complex human behaviors and social environments, which influence their clients' lives and problems. A good grasp of theory helps guide social workers by providing them with a sense of direction, purpose and control by using research-based scientific evidence in theory.What are the main theories of social work? ›
Social workers can incorporate components of several different clinical theories in their work with clients. Some popular approaches for social workers include theories of systems, social learning, psychosocial development, psychodynamic, transpersonal, and rational choice.What is the difference between social work theories and models? ›
Social work practice models describe how social workers can implement theories. Practice models provide social workers with a blueprint of how to help others based on the underlying social work theory. While a theory explains why something happens, a practice model shows how to use a theory to create change.How do you apply theory to practice in social work? ›
Using theory in practice can help social workers create a treatment plan, increase sense of security, and explain and predict occurrences in the client's life. Having knowledge of various theories and how they apply to different clients and situations can help social workers determine a course of action with clients.What is the importance of theory and practice? ›
The connection between practice and theory is important as it demonstrates your ability to use evidence to increase your understanding of key concepts, justify your decision making, and inform future practice.What are the 7 principles of social work practice? ›
- Value: Service. ...
- Value: Social Justice. ...
- Value: Dignity and Worth of the Person. ...
- Value: Importance of Human Relationships. ...
- Value: Integrity. ...
- Value: Competence.
Social work employs six core theoretical frameworks: systems theory, transpersonal theory, psychosocial development theory; social learning theory, psychodynamic theory, and cognitive behavior theory.What are the 3 main theories of social life? ›
These debates merit attention to those within the field, however, sociologists would generally state that the profession is primarily focused on three theoretical orientations. These three theoretical orientations are: Structural Functionalism, Symbolic Interactionism, and Conflict Perspective.What are the four types of social theories? ›
Four Major Sociological Theories. The four main theoretical perspectives are symbolic interactionism theory, social conflict theory, structural-functional theory, and feminist theory.What is the practice model? ›
A Practice Model is an organizing framework that describes an agency's approach and strategic direction. Practice Models within child welfare agencies can be powerful mechanisms for translating values and principles into discrete practice behaviors and strategies for the child welfare workforce.
The social process theories include differential association, social learning theory, social control theory, and labeling theory. Each of these theories has a specific explanation for why individuals engage in criminal acts, but they all hold that socialization is the key to understanding crime.What are the 5 methods of social work? ›
Social work has six methods of working with people (casework, group work, community organisation, social action, social welfare administration and social work research).What are three social theories explain each? ›
The three major sociological theories that new students learn about are the interactionist perspective, the conflict perspective, and the functionalist perspective. And each has its own distinct way of explaining various aspects of society and the human behavior within it.What are the importance of theories and models? ›
For researchers, theories and models provide explanations for research hypotheses, a guide for selecting research variables, and a framework for discussing research findings. Furthermore, theories provide the link for understanding connections between research studies.What is the difference between theory and practice? ›
Practice refers to the actual observation, operation, or experiment. Practice is the observation of disparate concepts (or a phenomenon) that needs explanation. A theory is a proposed explanation of the relationship between two or more concepts, or an explanation for how/why a phenomenon occurs.What does a theory of practice provide us? ›
Bourdieu's theory of practice has been used in social and healthcare researches. This theory emphasizes that an individual's everyday practices are not always explicit and mediated by language, but instead an individual's everyday practices are often are tacit and embodied.What are the 6 domains of social work practice? ›
- Values and ethics.
- Rights, justice and economic well-being.
- Critical reflection and analysis.
- Intervention and skills.
- Contexts and organisations.
- Social justice.
- Dignity and worth of the person.
- Importance of human relationships.
There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.What are the 10 social work competencies? ›
- Empathy. Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand another person's experience and point of view. ...
- Communication. ...
- Organization. ...
- Critical thinking. ...
- Active listening. ...
- Self-care. ...
- Cultural competence. ...
Social work's nine competencies ensure that social workers employ critical thinking and adhere to professional behavior in service delivery to advance human rights and meet clients' needs.What are the two main types of social work? ›
The field is divided into two main categories: clinical and direct service. Clinical social workers are specifically responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of mental, behavioral and emotional issues, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explains.What are the different theories? ›
There are five major theories, also called grand theories. These are Behavioral, Psychodynamic, Humanistic, Cognitive, and Biological. Psychodynamic theories, popularized by Sigmund Freud, focus on the unconscious mind and its drives as a motivator for human behavior.What is an example of a social theory? ›
An example of a sociological theory is the work of Robert Putnam on the decline of civic engagement. Putnam found that Americans' involvement in civic life (e.g., community organizations, clubs, voting, religious participation, etc.) has declined over the last 40 to 60 years.What are the 4 elements of social learning theory? ›
- Attention. Children can't learn if they aren't focused on the task. ...
- Retention. People learn by internalizing information. ...
- Reproduction. We reproduce our previously learned behavior or knowledge when it's required. ...
Social action by the state generally takes an indirect form, and its aim is to benefit the people with or without their participation. The approach is parliamentary, representational, bureaucratic and elitist.What are the four basic theories? ›
There are four basic theories of myth. Those theories are: the rational myth theory, functional myth theory, structural myth theory, and the psychological myth theory. The rational myth theory states that myths were created to explain natural events and forces.What are the 4 main theories of development? ›
Four main theories of development: modernization, dependency, world-systems, and globalization. / Reyes, Giovanni E.What is a best practice model? ›
Best practice is the description of the best way of working based on the situation in hand. Such a description can be used by (future) professionals. The term 'good practice' is also in use. A model is the presentation in schematic form, often in a simplified way, of an existing or future state or situation.What are models of good practice? ›
The documented models of good practice provide decision makers in companies and other organisations with experience and knowledge on how workplace health promotion programmes can be successfully implemented to suit their national and structural requirements.
There are three types of practice, each of which yields particular results in acquiring skills: deliberate, blocked, and random.What are the three main models of social welfare provision? ›
Based on a review of social policy development worldwide, three social policy models can be identified: redistributive, developmental and productivist.What are the 3 models of culture? ›
Attempting to discourage cultural stereotypes, the Three Cultures Model illustrates the existence and inter-relationship of three cultural dimensions, namely national culture, organizational culture, and personal culture.What are the 3 approaches to social welfare? ›
There are four primary theoretical approaches to welfare: the New Right, the Social Democratic approach, Marxism, and Feminism.What are the types or models of social welfare policy? ›
He outlined three models of social policy: the residual welfare model; the industrial achievement-performance model; and the institutional redistributive model (Titmuss 1974).What are the 7 Theories on culture? ›
Seven theoretical perspectives are reviewed: individualism-collectivism; ecological systems; cultural-ecological; social identity; ecocultural and sociocultural; structure-agency; and multiple worlds.What are the four models of culture? ›
There are four types of corporate culture, consisting of clan culture, hierarchical culture, market culture, and adhocracy culture.What are the 4 basic types of culture? ›
They identified 4 types of culture – clan culture, adhocracy culture, market culture, and hierarchy culture.What are the two biggest social welfare programs? ›
Some of the major federal, state, and local social welfare programs are: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)What are the four types of welfare? ›
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Child's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
Psychosocial theory, which Erik Erikson developed in the 1950s, is the main principle of social work. Also referred to as person-in-environment (PIE) theory, psychosocial theory posits that a person develops a personality in stages, based on environment and relationships with family and community.