Social Learning Theory And Its Importance To Social Work

Regardless of their specialization, social workers face obstacles and challenges when trying to make sense of human behavior. A cornerstone for any social worker is a solid understanding of relevant theory to inform their practice. Social work practices and interventions are grounded in theory and evidence based-practice. One critical theory that is commonly used in social work is social learning theory.

Social learning theory was developed in 1977 by psychologist Albert Bandura, and remains one of the most influential theories of learning and development. Bandura argued that human behavior is learned observationally through modeling, or by simply observing others. In this way, the observer forms an idea of how unfamiliar behaviors are performed. On later occasions, this knowledge can guide action.

Bandura demonstrated the effects of observation and imitation with his famous Bobo doll experiment, where children demonstrated increased aggression after watching aggressive behavior in adults.

According to social learning theory, the learning process involves observing, experiencing, and imitating new behaviors that are reinforced by other people — or models. As a result, new behaviors either continue or cease, depending on how those behaviors are reinforced internally and externally within a social environment.

Within social learning theory lies three central concepts: individuals have the ability to learn through observation; mental states are a fundamental part of this learning process; and when something is learned, it does not always follow a change in behavior.

A social worker who competently understands social learning theory can utilize practice models more effectively to handle behavioral conflicts or issues regardless of 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

While a solid grasp of social learning theory is essential, knowing how to effectively apply its principles as interventions is even more critical. Gradual therapy techniques, positive modeling, symbolic coding, stress management, vicarious reinforcement and systematic desensitization can be used to shape positive new behaviors by changing the positive or negative reinforcement associated with the root of the problem.

For example, consider a school social worker who has a student with aggressive behavioral issues that hinders 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, sociable 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, then engage appropriate interventions or techniques to support the student in changing their behavioral patterns.

A Case Study

In Craig W. LeCroy’s insightful text Case Studies in Social Work Practice, social learning theory is brought to life with the story of Donald Scott. Scott described himself as being “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 common social situations such as parties, restaurants and banks, that required him to talk directly to people or be near them.

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, 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.

Prolonged exposure and positive reinforcement was vital to counteracting the anxiety. Scott’s therapy gradually became 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 a useful tool for social workers to employ when assessing and assisting clients. This theory can often help identify and treat the identifiable cause of certain behaviors. Social workers can leverage social learning theory in diverse situations to arrive at an informed, helpful solution for the client in question. Expanding your knowledge of all social work theories and relevant practices can help you to strengthen your practice as a social worker.

If you would like to explore your options of pursuing a career as a social worker, consider our list of masters in social work programs online.