Theoretical approaches in social work: Systems theory

The goal of social work is to empower individuals and communities to overcome challenges and live fulfilling lives. In order to achieve this, social workers may focus on a particular approach or framework.

Systems theory focuses on context rather than a particular issue or individual, which can help to shed light on the interconnectedness of various components within a system. It is based on the premise that addressing systemic issues can lead to improvements in wellbeing.

What is systems theory in social work?

Systems theory posits that behavior is influenced by a variety of factors that work together and form a system. These can include an individual’s familial and social relationships, their environment, economic status, or sexual orientation. Social workers can apply systems theory to uncover how those factors — alone or in combination — influence people’s thoughts and actions. 

By observing and analyzing the systems that contribute to a patient’s behavior and welfare, social workers can work to improve those systems according to the individual’s unique situation.

The program cards/tables featured on this page were last updated in November 2022. For the most current program information, please refer to the official website of the respective school. 

Sponsored online social work programs

University of Denver


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Customizable pathway options include Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.

Simmons University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 9 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 9 months


What issues are addressed by systems theory?

Think of a system as a machine made up of smaller parts. Those parts represent the individual factors that impact a person’s overall wellbeing. Systems theory looks at how each part contributes to the ways an individual functions within society, and how those parts might interact and compound issues. By adopting a complete view of a person’s situation within their environment, social workers have greater context to develop effective interventions.

Some of the issues that can be addressed a systems theory approach to social work include:

  • School Trauma: According to the School Social Work Association of American (SSWAA) general systems theory, along with theories of human behavior, can help school social workers assist students affected by the complex interrelated factors associated with traumatic issues occurring in the school setting that impact childhood development and educational advancement.
  • Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and Anxiety: The systems theory approach can be helpful for these types of mental health conditions. Family systems therapy in particular has also been shown to help individuals and family members cope with these issues that impact relationship and household dynamics.
  • Eating Disorders: Research has shown that family behaviors and rituals can contribute to the development of eating disorders. These systems can reinforce disordered eating patterns, however, through family-systems-theory approaches, families can make positive changes that support recovery and remission.
  • Risky Behaviors: Individuals who exhibit risky behaviors, such as drug abuse and unprotected sex, can work with professionals to come up with safer alternatives. This may be performed in conjunction with other social work theories, which can help patients develop stronger self-esteem, more effective decision-making skills, and increase their social awareness.

Intervention with systems theory

Interventions serve as a strategic plan to guide patients and families toward positive outcomes when handling systemic challenges. Social workers can take one of three general approaches when preparing for an intervention:

Structural approaches: Social workers observe the interactions and behavior patterns within a family or system to identify problematic situations, identify solutions to interrupt them, and come up with different behaviors that can lead to better outcomes.

Strategic approaches: Social workers work with clients to uncover family or individual perceptions that can impact how issues arise and are handled. Over time, problematic interactions can be solved through applied cognitive therapy.

Systemic approaches: Social workers view the system as a whole to discover the rules and ideologies that sustain dysfunctional behavior patterns. By encouraging the family to change its way of thinking, individuals can find more effective support within that system.

Elements in systems theory

Sponsored online social work programs

Howard University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The online Master of Social Work program from Howard University School of Social Work prepares students for advanced direct or macro practice in culturally diverse communities. Two concentrations available: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice. No GRE. Complete in as few as 12 months.

  • Concentrations: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice
  • Complete at least 777-1,000 hours of agency-based field education
  • Earn your degree in as few as 12 months

Syracuse University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program does not require GRE scores to apply and is focused on preparing social workers who embrace technology as an important part of the future of the profession. Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks are available.

  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks
  • No GRE required
  • Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice

Case Western Reserve University


Master of Social Work (MSW)

In as few as a year and a half, you can prepare for social work leadership by earning your Master of Social Work online from Case Western Reserve University’s school of social work.

  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • Complete in as few as one and a half years


Systems theory allows social workers to tailor their approach to the context surrounding an individual or community’s challenges. While each situation requires different approaches and solutions, there are several key elements involved in implementing systems theory:

Systems theory case study

Professionals can learn a lot from case studies and their documentation. Case studies provide real-world examples of how interventions can be applied, which gives social workers valuable insights into findings that can help others in similar situations. 

Take, for instance, the case of “Jennifer,” a 15-year-old patient who showed signs of depression at school:

Academically excelling and generally a “good kid,” Jennifer’s teachers and guidance counselor noticed that she frequently appeared “down” and rarely happy. She had difficulty relating to many of her classmates and had trouble creating meaningful friendships.

Jennifer shared with her counselor that she often felt rejected by her peers, and wondered what was wrong with her. The counselor worked with Jennifer to identify patterns and life events that may have contributed to Jennifer’s feelings of sadness and anxiety. Jennifer saw her mother as needy, often complaining about her marriage. Jennifer felt sorry for her mother, and was frustrated with having to spend so much time with her. There were blowups. Jennifer’s mother would then cry and leave, her father would then yell at her for disrespecting her mother, then Jennifer would withdraw at school.

Even though her parents were not involved in her counseling, Jennifer was able to make progress. Through the systems theory approach employed by her counselor, Jennifer gained an enhanced perspective around her familial relationships and developed a healthy level of self-awareness and insight.

Case studies like Jennifer’s offer social workers the ability to witness treatment from a holistic perspective. Professionals can gain important insights into different approaches, learn how interrelated systems contribute to individual and group dynamics, and explore treatment outcomes.

Why is social work systems theory important?

Systems theory is important to social work because it allows social workers to take into account the various factors that contribute to an individual’s wellbeing. Everyone is part of a system, including family systems, community systems, and other social systems. With better insight and tools, clients can better overcome the challenges specific to their life and paradigm.

If you’re interested in working in social work, explore online master’s in social work programs to start or advance your career.

Last updated: November 2023