Private practices. Mental health clinics. Child welfare service agencies. Occupying a variety of professional settings, social workers are united by a shared mission: helping others live better lives.
In order to do that, they must first understand what makes their clients tick. As a social worker, studying different social work theories and social work practice models can help to bring you closer to your clients — equipping you with actionable insights that inform empathetic, evidence-based service.
Inspired by the scientific method, social work theories uncover the why of human behavior, while social work practice models reveal how you can effect change for individuals, couples, families, and communities at large.
List of Theories Used in Social Work
As a social worker, more knowledge can lead to a more informed approach, and more effective client interactions. Here, we’ll dig into decades of research to share a comprehensive set of social work theories and practice models, including:
- Systems Theory
- Behaviorism and Social Learning Theory
- Psychodynamic Theory
- Developmental Perspective
- Rational Choice Perspective
- Conflict Theory
The 1950s were a decade of global innovation. From barcodes to credit cards, commercial computers to video cassette records, cutting-edge inventions were taking the stage. Around the same time, a new social work development was making its debut: systems theory.
Inspired by major advancements in the fields of psychology, communication, and psychiatry, systems theory is based on the belief that individuals don’t operate in isolation. Rather, the theory positions people as products of complex systems: influenced by a variety of external factors, including other individuals, families, communities, and organizations.
Ecological Systems Theory
Developed by the American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, ecological systems theory emphasizes the importance of observing people in multiple environments, or systems, to fully understand their behavior. In his theory, Bronfenbrenner outlines five distinct systems:
- The microsystem is someone’s small, immediate environment. For a child, this usually includes direct family, teachers, peers, and caregivers. Relationships in the microsystem are bi-directional—for instance, a parent treating a child with kindness will likely affect how the child treats the parent in return. For this reason, some consider the microsystem to be the most influential level of the ecological systems theory.
- The mesosystem consists of interactions between the different parts of a person’s microsystem. For instance, between a child’s parent and teacher. A social worker using this theory in everyday practice might ask themselves: “Are the different parts of my client’s microsystem working together towards a positive impact or working against each other?”
- The exosystem is an individual’s indirect environment. Consider a child whose father is an active duty soldier. Though the military isn’t a part of that child’s direct environment, it still influences them mentally and emotionally, and can impact their thoughts, relationships, and behavior.
- The macrosystem is a society’s overarching set of beliefs, values, and norms. This system often has a cascading effect on behavior in all the other systems, serving as a filter through which an individual interprets their experiences. For instance, a child might grow up thinking their socioeconomic status is a limiting factor in life. This macrosystem-level belief may cause them to behave differently in school — for positive or for negative, depending on the individual.
- The chronosystem includes major changes that influence an individual’s development overtime. This could include changes in family structure, employment status, or address, as well as large societal changes like wars, civil rights movements, or economic flux.
Family Systems Theory
Family systems theory was developed in the mid-1950s, while American psychiatrist Murray Bowen was working at the National Institute of Mental Health. Based on his knowledge of family patterns and systems theory, Bowen believed that the personalities, emotions, and behaviors of grown individuals could be traced back to their family interactions. The family, he suggested, is an emotional unit and can therefore play a formative role in development.
Within social work, professionals may enable families to try out different ways of doing things, such as teaching a parent on how to maintain appropriate boundaries with their child. The family is identified as a social system and therapy engages that concept to support the growth of clients.
Contingency theory explains that individual outcomes are contingent on a variety of specific situational factors. In the realm of social work, contingency theory can inspire you to seek understanding by considering all of the internal and external influences that are contributing to a client’s problem.
Systems Theory Related Resources
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) – Systems-Based Practice
- Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research
- The Bowen Center
- The Ecology of Human Development by Urie Bronfenbrenner
- Effective Social Work with Children, Young People and Families: Putting Systems Theory into Practice
- GoodTherapy – Systems Theory/Therapy
- New England Association for Family and Systemic Therapy (NEAFAST) – What is Systems Theory?
- Psychology Today – Family Systems Theory
- Systems Theory in Social Work
Behaviorism and Social Learning Theory
What drives human behavior? It’s a question that’s been asked for decades on end — and one that’s particularly relevant to the field of social work. Both behaviorism and social learning theory provide social workers with a useful framework for understanding clients.
By learning how past experiences influence present-day behavior, you can develop a research-backed approach to providing targeted care.
Social Learning Theory
Social learning theory was developed by the influential Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura. In 1961, Bandura conducted his most widely known experiment: the Bobo doll study. In this experiment, children watched an adult shout at and beat a Bobo doll on television.
Later that same day, the children were left to play in a room containing a Bobo doll — and those who’d seen the film were more likely to torment the doll, imitating the behavior they’d been exposed to earlier. As a result, social learning theory posits that learning occurs through observation and imitation.
Learn more about Social Learning Theory in Social Work.
Behaviorism and Behavioral Theory
According to behaviorism, all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. By adding in a conditioned stimulus before an unconditioned stimulus that leads to an unconditioned response, the conditioned stimulus will lead to a new conditioned response. In his famous experiment, Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov conditioned dogs to produce saliva at the sound of a metronome. By consistently introducing the metronome before feeding time, he found that the sound alone would lead to salivation — in anticipation of feeding time.
Similarly, humans can be conditioned to respond to specific stimuli. For instance, a child may work harder in school if they are promised a reward for receiving good grades.
Cognitive Theory in Social Work
Cognitive theory uncovers how a person’s thinking influences behavior. This theory places emphasis on dysfunctional thought patterns that influence problematic behaviors — what we tell ourselves after an event. Social works may utilize this approach in therapy sessions to link dysfunctional thoughts that occur after and before behaviors.
Behaviorism and Social Learning Theory Related Resources
- American Psychological Association (APA) – “Albert Bandura to receive National Medal of Science”
- Association for Psychological Science (APS) – What Happened to Behaviorism
- Berkeley Graduate Division: Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center – Behaviorism
- BMC Medical Education – Using Social Learning Theory to Explore the Process of Learning from Role Models in Clinical Settings
- Psychology Today – Behaviorism
- Psychology Today – Social Learning Theory
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Behaviorism
- Social Learning Theory – By Albert Bandura
- Social Learning Theory in Social Work
- Youtube Video from The Curious Classroom – Bandura and Social Learning Theory
Originally introduced by Sigmund Freud, psychodynamic theory has a storied history within social work. This theory is based on Freud’s belief that humans are intra-psychologically driven to seek gratification and that these impulses largely influence our everyday behavior. Psychodynamic theory has four major schools of thought: drive theory, ego psychology, object relations theory and self-psychology.
This psychodynamic theory is based on Freud’s belief that humans are biologically driven to seek gratification of their endogenous drive — and that these impulses largely influence our everyday behavior. Per Freud, these primary drives include sex, self-preservation, and aggression. Impositions on these drives may be external or internal via superego and ego; psychic structures introduced by Freud. Social workers who approach clients with theoretical orientation on drive may posit that a client’s actions are based on an innate suppression of, otherwise, socially unacceptable actions.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), ego psychology is an approach that emphasizes the functions of the ego in controlling impulses, planning, and dealing with the external environment. Freud believed that the ego is weak in relation to one’s id. Ego psychology combines biological and psychological views of development by understanding the influences of socio cultural impacts on function.
Object Relations Theory
Object-relations theory is a branch of psychodynamic thought that suggests relationships are more critical to personality development than individual drives and abilities. Accordingly, social workers may want to study the interactions between a client and the people who played a significant role in their life in early childhood.
Self psychology was introduced by Austrian psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut in the early 1970s and has since become one of social work’s most significant analytic theories. According to self psychology, humans have a distinct set of development needs and transferences: mirroring, idealizing, and alter ego. If a parent fails to meet those needs in childhood, an individual may wind up unable to regulate self-esteem — and therefore, may be overly dependent on others to provide those functions. In the realm of social work, this calls for a careful understanding of early occurrences and shortcomings.
Psychodynamic Related Resources
- PsychCentral – Psychodynamic Therapy
- Psychodynamic Theory – By Kathleen Holtz Deal
- Psychology Today – Psychodynamic Therapy
- SAMSHA/CSAT Treatment Improvement Protocols – Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies for Substance Abuse – Brief Psychodynamic Therapy
Growth. Change. Consistency. By adopting a developmental perspective, social workers can start uncovering the patterns of a person’s life. A large portion of developmental theories focus on childhood, since this is such a formative time.
Psychosocial Developmental Theory
Inspired by the earlier work of Sigmund Freud, German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson developed an eight-stage theory of identity and psychosocial development. According to Erikson, everyone must pass through eight stages of development throughout their life cycle: hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom. As a social worker, you may find it useful to identify a client’s current stage to pinpoint what challenges they’re currently facing.
Transpersonal theory suggests the existence of stages beyond the adult ego. These stages contribute to creativity, wisdom, and altruism in healthy individuals—but can lead to psychosis in those lacking healthy ego development. In social work, transpersonal theory may be used to treat anxiety, depression, addiction and other mental health concerns. Typically spiritual approaches as used such as meditation, guided visualization, hypnotherapy and more.
Developmental Perspective Related Resources
- A Lifespan Developmental Perspective on Psychosocial Development in Midlife – By Tara L. Kuther and Kaitlyn Burnell
- Liberty University – Theories of Psychosocial Development
- Midlife Eriksonian Psychosocial Development: Setting the Stage for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Late Life – By Johanna C. Malone, Sabrina R. Liu, George E. Vaillant, Dorene M. Rentz, and Robert J. Waldinger
- Psychosocial Theory: Erikson – By Doug Davis and Alan Clifton
- Psychology Today – Our Hierarchy of Needs
- Psychology Today – Transpersonal Therapy
- A Review of Transpersonal Theory and Its Application to the Practice of Psychotherapy – By Mark C. Kasprow, M.D. and Bryce W. Scotton, M.D.
- Social Work and Social Development – Edited By James Midgley and Amy Conley
Rational Choice Perspective
Rational choice perspective is based on the idea that people calculate risks and benefits before making any decision, since all actions are fundamentally rational in character. Studying this theory can help social workers better understand client behavior. For instance, an action that seems objectively irrational to some, may make more sense upon closer examination of the individual’s context.
Social Exchange Theory
Social exchange theory dates back to 1958, when American sociologist George Homans published the paper “Social Behavior as Exchange.” According to Homans, any two-person relationship can be viewed in terms of cost-benefit analysis—what am I giving, and what am I getting in return? The APA defines social exchange theory as a concern of social interactions in exchanges where all participants seek to maximize their benefits. Within social work, professionals may utilize their theory to better understand interactions with their client and others around them — diving into the intrinsic rewards they may receive.
True. False. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. In social constructionism, these are all relative concepts, entirely dependent on the person who is interpreting them. This concept abandons the idea that one’s mind represents a mirror of reality—rather, it suggests that each of us creates our own world from our individual perceptions and interactions with others in the community.
Symbolic interactionism positions communication as the central way in which people make sense of their social worlds. American psychologist Herbert Blumer introduced three premises of symbolic interactionism:
- Humans interact with objects, institutions, and other individuals based on ascribed meanings.
- These ascribed meanings are inspired by our interactions with others and society.
- The meanings are interpreted by individuals in specific circumstances.
Imagine, for example, that your client professes a love for baking. Adopting a lens of symbolic interactionism, you may dig deeper into the ascribed meaning behind this act. Perhaps your client makes meringues because they used to help their mother do so in childhood — and for them, escaping to the kitchen is an act of comfort and safety.
Rational Choice Perspective Related Resources
- Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) – Behavior Analysis and Social Constructionism: Some Points of Contact and Departure by Bryan Roche and Dermot Barnes-Holmes
- Cornell University ILR School – Social Exchange Theory of Emotions by Edward J. Lawler and Shane R. Thye
- Iowa State University – Social Exchange Theory by Mark V. Redmond
- Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services – Rational Choice and Routine Activities Theory
- Rational Choice Theory: Advocacy and Critique – Edited by James S. Coleman and Thomas J. Fararo
- What is Social Constructionism? – By Tom Andrews
Conflict theory explains how different power structures impact people’s lives. In this theory, life is characterized by conflict—whether that’s oppression, discrimination, power struggles, or structural inequality. In addressing these asymmetrical power relationships, social workers can strive to reduce tensions between different groups.
Practice Models Used in Social Work
- Problem Solving Model
- Task Centered Practice
- Solution Focused Therapy
- Narrative Therapy
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
- Crisis Intervention Model
Read on to discover how these practice models are used by social workers in a variety of settings.
Problem Solving Model
Proposed by Helen Harris Perlman in her book Social Casework: A Problem-solving Process, the problem solving model. Ms. Perlman posited that “success could be achieved by partializing – or separating into manageable segments – a client’s intertwined problems and focusing on one specific issue the client and social worker agreed needed to be resolved at a given time”, according to The University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Utilizing this model, social workers are employed to address one concern of a client as to be resolved, at any given time. This allows for therapy for clients to be more manageable.
Beginning at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, task-centered practice (TCP) is a four step process that trains social workers to work with clients in establishing specific and achievable goals based upon their concern for therapy. Through this model, social workers empower clients to drive their therapy by asking what they most want to work on to address their problems.
Solution-focused therapy was developed out of necessity, as a brief theory, in an inner city outpatient mental health setting bySteve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their colleagues. This approach focuses on finding solutions in the from the past, for the present — in hopes of achieving quicker problem resolution. Social workers may use this theory when focusing more on the present and future, asking questions like “What would you be doing this weekend that supports your therapy goals?”.
Narrative therapy can be an effective way of separating a client from their problems. By examining a person’s life story, this social work practice model externalizes struggles, allowing individuals to adopt a new perspective and see the bigger picture. From a distance, they may be able to reframe their situation—recognizing that their self-worth and purpose are separate from their problems. When told from a third-person perspective, a story of hardship may transform into a story of resilience.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of the leading treatments for many mental health conditions. This social work practice model focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—encouraging clients to identify patterns of irrational and self-destructive thoughts and behaviors that impact emotions.
Crisis Intervention Model
Crisis intervention includes seven stages: assess safety and lethality, rapport building, problem identification, address feelings, generate alternatives, develop a plan of action, and follow up. This social work practice model is used when someone is experiencing an acute crisis — and is commonly used with clients who are expressing suicidal intent.
If you would like to become a social worker, but are not sure what degree options are available for you, explore our list of accredited masters in social worker online programs.