Social Learning Theory And Its Importance To Social Work
Social workers in every field face the obstacles and challenges that come with trying to understand human behavior. Gaining this insight is a complex and layered process, and social workers employ a variety of theories to achieve positive results for their clients. One such theory is called social learning theory.
Originating in 1977 with psychologist Albert Bandura, social learning theory explains that human behavior is learned through observation and imitation. Bandura demonstrated the effects of observation and imitation with his famous Bobo doll experiment, where children demonstrated increased aggression after watching the behavior of adults. According to the theory, the learning process involves observing and experiencing new behaviors that are reinforced through other people — or models. As a result, new behaviors are either continued or stopped depending on how those behaviors are reinforced internally and externally within a social environment.
A social worker who understands social learning theory can better utilize practice models to handle behavioral conflicts no matter the setting — whether it’s teaching in a high school, counseling people struggling with mental illness or rehabilitating men who abuse their partners.
Social Learning Theory Intervention
No matter their specialty, social workers will face issues and conflicts that are a result of problematic social or behavioral reinforcements. For example, school social workers encounter issues such as substance abuse, bullying, school attendance, violence, poor academic performance and psychological issues that affect student socialization. All of these issues could originate or be influenced by situations that can be understood with social learning theory.
Consider a school social worker who has a student with aggressive behavior issues that interfere with the ability of other students to learn. The social worker could employ social learning theory, assessing role models and stimuli the student is regularly exposed to that could be reinforcing aggressive, disruptive behavior or discouraging positive, pleasant behavior. After determining what may be causing the disruptive behavior, the social worker can use social learning theory to identify patterns of dysfunctional thoughts that are influencing the student’s emotions and behaviors.
Through the use of gradual therapy techniques, such as positive modeling, symbolic coding, stress management, vicarious reinforcement and systematic desensitization, new behavior can be shaped by changing the positive or negative reinforcement associated with the stimuli at the root of the problem.
A Case Study
In Craig W. LeCroy’s book Case Studies in Social Work Practice, social learning theory is brought to life with the story of Donald Scott.
Scott had a phobia he described as “terrified of people.” A social worker spent time with him to observe and talk about his phobia. For most of his adult life, Scott felt uncomfortable around others. He would feel a tremor in his arms and legs whenever he was near people. He avoided parties, restaurants, bank tellers, movies and all situations involving talking directly to or being near people.
Social learning theory was employed to determine how his phobia developed. It had started 35 years earlier when Scott was in the Army. A sergeant mistakenly blamed Scott for something he didn’t do. As a result, he received a face-to-face, loud and public scolding in the center of a filled room. Scott then associated the anxiety he felt throughout the encounter with the stimuli of close proximity to people. Thirty-five years later, the same stimuli — even in non-threatening environments — elicited anxiety and fear.
The principles that explained Scott’s phobia also helped guide his treatment. Through several gradual therapy sessions, Scott was exposed to the same stimuli, but the social, mental, emotional and physical reinforcements were all positive. His social worker started by standing face-to-face with Scott in the middle of a therapy room. Scott initially experienced shakes and profuse sweating, but with encouragement, was able to face his phobia. After 20 minutes, Scott was the most calm he had felt in front of someone in decades. The key was prolonged exposure and positive reinforcement to counteract the anxiety. His therapy gradually got more difficult, realistic and public. With consistent positive internal and external reinforcements, his cognitive and behavioral associations were rewired. Ultimately, his phobia vanished after three years.
Social learning theory is important for social workers to do their best work and achieve the type of growth they seek for the communities they work with. This theory can help explain and treat the identifiable cause of certain behaviors. Social workers can leverage social learning theory in almost every difficult situation to figure out the best solution. Expanding your knowledge of all social work theories and relevant practices can help you to be better prepared for your next challenge in the field.
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