Important theories and models of practice in social work. (2023)

By Editor

Posted on Dec 02, 2020

reviewed byMelissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

Social workers are employed in a variety of settings, mentoring people from all walks of life. Regardless of the context, social workers can draw on some basic theories and practical models to help clients across the industry.

Each of the social work theories we describe below applies toMicro, Mezzo and Macro Practice Balls🇧🇷 In other words, social work professionals working with individuals, groups or entire systems can apply these theories to their practice. Furthermore, many of these theories have their roots in psychological and sociological research. This guide presents some of the most common theories and models practiced in this field.

Common theories and models of practice in social work.

Social work is a science in many ways. Social workers can guide their clients, but they do not carry out their practice based on their own opinion and/or style. Rather, social workers study specific research-based clinical theories to inform how to methodically implement clinical practice. In fact, clinical social workers must earn a bachelor's and master's degree to fully understand these theories and master models of therapeutic practice.

In essence, social work focuses on the person-in-environment (PIE) theory. This views clients in their psychosocial context and makes connections at the micro, mezzo and macro levels of social work practice. This guide explores how each model of theory and practice works within PIE theory.

Social workers learn about these theories during their training. You can learn more about these academic programs from these resources: A Guide toBachelor's Degree in Social Work,masters, youonline teachers.

Why is theory important in social work?

As any social work professor can tell you, understanding clinical theories is an essential part of a social worker's job. It allows social workers to investigate the specific origins of behavior using evidence-based approaches. Social workers also draw on these theories and practices to address clients' problems with research to support their practice. This is particularly important as social workers must avoid personal assumptions or biases that interfere with effective treatment plans.

Learning about these theories can also help social workers implement effective solutions instead of reaching for straws. When a particular therapeutic approach doesn't work, social workers can investigate the reasons and use what they've learned to try a different approach.

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Common Social Work Theories.

Social workers can incorporate components of different clinical theories into their work with clients. Some popular approaches for social workers are systems theories, social learning, psychosocial development, psychodynamic, transpersonal, and rational choices.

Many of these theories have been developed over the last century, and some are based on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud. Some of these theories take a broad perspective (such as systems theory), while others focus on specific conflicts (such as psychosocial theory). Not all social workers use all theories, while some social workers may use elements of each. Below you will find more information about the most common social work theories.

systems theory

Systems theory postulates that human behavior is the result of a larger system composed of multiple elements, including the relationships between these elements and external factors such as its environment. These factors can affect a person's family, peers, school, work, or community. Sociologists have identified many different types of systems, including microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems, and macrosystems.

Social workers study how the systems their clients live in affect their behavior. For example, living in a poverty system can have a significant impact on how a person makes decisions. Social workers can use these systems to strategize to provide a more accurate treatment plan for their clients.

Social learning theory

Social learning theory, developed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s, explains how the behavior of other people can influence one's behavior. Bandura argued that people acquire behaviors by observing and imitating those around them. Unlike behavioral theories, social learning theory proposes that people actively mentally process other people's behavior before imitating it.

Social workers can consider social learning theory when working with children who engage in aggressive or violent behavior, for example. Children can imitate their parents or other important adults in their lives. When social workers can identify the source of a child's behavior, they can develop an effective treatment approach.

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theory of psychosocial development

Influenced by Freud's seminal work, psychologist Erik Erikson proposes various stages of development related to a person's ego identity, personal identity, and social and cultural identity. Erikson's theory holds that people face specific conflicts at different stages of their lives. These conflicts include:

  • Trust versus distrust in childhood
  • Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt in Early Childhood
  • Initiative vs Guilt in Preschoolers
  • diligence vs. school age inferiority
  • identity vs. teenage role confusion
  • Intimacy versus isolation in young adulthood
  • Generativity versus stagnation in mid-adulthood
  • Ego integrity versus despair in later life

Erikson's theory suggests that by effectively managing these stresses at all stages of life, people can develop a healthy ego. Social workers can take these conflicts into account when working with their clients. It is important to note that each stage relates to an emotional stage, which can also conflict with a developmental stage.

Psychodynamic Theory

Psychodynamic theory, introduced by Freud in the early 20th century and popularized by Carl Jung, Melanie Klein and Anna Freud, holds that our personality develops as a result of various internal forces. Freud wrote that our personality is largely formed during our early childhood and our personality consists of three main parts: id (drive), ego (decision making) and superego (conscience). Psychodynamic theory also prioritizes a person's unconscious thought process as the root of their behavior.

Social workers can use psychodynamic theory to help clients examine the underlying causes of certain behaviors, often taking clients' childhood into account to explain why they behave in certain ways. Social workers can provide different types of therapies based on psychodynamic theory, including dream analysis and transference.

Transpersonal Theory

Transpersonal theory approaches people with a holistic philosophy, taking into account factors such as spirituality, the relationship between body and mind, and consciousness. Psychologists generally do not consider transpersonal theory to be scientific, but many therapists or mental health professionals incorporate elements of transpersonal theory into their practice. They may use meditation, mindfulness practices, or hypnotherapy with their patients.

rational choice theory

Rational choice theory argues that people make decisions and perform behaviors based on their own rational thought processes, especially when those decisions end up benefiting the individual. This theory directly contradicts some other clinical theories that suggest that people make decisions based on unconscious thought processes.

Although rational choice theory is commonly found in economic theory, social workers can apply these principles to their work as well. To understand why clients make certain decisions, social workers can examine how clients believe their decisions would benefit them. Social workers can also develop solutions and suggest resources to help clients achieve their goals.

Common Practice Models in Social Work

Although social workers incorporate various clinical theories into their practice, they may also implement specific therapeutic models. The above theories can explain the causes of a person's struggles; However, practice models allow social workers to undertake specific approaches to dealing with these struggles.

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The following section describes some of the more common practice models, including cognitive behavioral therapy, the crisis intervention model, narrative therapy, problem solving model, solution-focused therapy, and task-focused therapy. Some of these methods overlap or share common characteristics, but each has a purpose for specific clients and circumstances.

cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) identifies unhealthy thinking patterns and attempts to rewrite those patterns.

People are usually convinced that their often distorted thoughts are true. CBT forces people to question and confront these distortions. For example, someone may dread social situations because they imagine the worst case scenario in which they will demean themselves. CBT urges this person to review these assumptions and instead consider new scenarios and perspectives.

People struggling with anxiety and depression often find CBT helpful, and many clinical social workers incorporate CBT into their therapeutic practice.

Crisis intervention model

The crisis intervention model is basically what it sounds like: in times of distress or acute mental need, social workers and mental health professionals intervene before the crisis turns to harm. Albert Roberts and Allen Ottens propose seven steps to crisis intervention. This includes conducting a safety assessment, making psychological contact, identifying key issues, helping the patient explore their feelings, finding new coping mechanisms, creating an action plan, and planning follow-up actions.

Social workers can use the crisis intervention model with clients suffering from severe trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, or suicidal thoughts, among other things. This crisis intervention model works on a voluntary basis, which means that clients must be open to the process.

narrative therapy

Narrative therapy is based on the theory that people transform their personal experiences into stories. In other words, they create narratives of their own lives. This type of therapy is based on four fundamental principles: "objective truth" does not exist; Reality is a social construction; Language can affect the way we see reality; and narratives help us organize our personal realities.

Narrative therapy encourages clients to step back from their personal experiences, taking on the role of the storyteller and rewriting the script. This can help them change harmful and disturbing thought patterns, especially those shaped by trauma.

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problem solving model

Helen Harris Perlman proposed the problem-solving model specifically for the field of social work in the 1950s. At the time, many social work theories and therapies were based on psychotherapy; Instead, Perlman argued that social workers could help clients more effectively by focusing on one issue at a time.

Focusing on smaller issues allows clients to develop and implement action plans to deal with these issues in a manageable way. This method, also called "biasing," would make therapies more manageable for both social workers and clients, and Perlman's suggestions are still used by clinicians.

Solution Focused Therapy

Solution-Focused Therapy, or Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, focuses on a person's present and future situation. This therapy involves moving away from psychodynamically biased theories that focus on a person's past and childhood.

Solution-focused therapy proposes immediate and manageable solutions that allow patients to better manage their problems. A psychiatrist or social worker using this type of therapy can challenge a client to imagine their future life without the problem, or can help people better identify and use copying mechanisms they are already using. Social workers can provide solution-focused therapy for teens with behavior problems or struggling families, to name just a few examples.

Task-focused practice

Task-focused practice shares many principles with the problem-solving model and solution-focused therapy, but tends to take an even more focused and accelerated approach. Task-based practice typically lasts only 8-12 sessions, with clients focused on achieving measurable goals. Clients and social workers create action plans with specific tasks, and then clients carry out those tasks.

Social workers can incorporate this type of therapy in many different types of settings. You might work with students with disruptive behavior issues, hospitalized patients close to discharge, or elderly clients in nursing homes.

Reviewed by:

Important theories and models of practice in social work. (1)

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Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW

Melissa Russiano is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice who has organically grown into a specialty working with caring professionals. Russiano has a proven track record of helping practitioners avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughs, tears, scathing (but highly supportive) comments, and whimsical analogies based on solid theoretical research. Russiano practices exclusively in a virtual environment in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Additionally, Russiano is a professor and shares her experience and knowledge online with future social workers in a graduate program at Simmons University.


Why are theories and models important in social work? ›

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 is theories in social work practice? ›

Social work theories are general explanations that are supported by evidence obtained through the scientific method. A theory may explain human behavior, for example, by describing how humans interact or how humans react to certain stimuli. Social work practice models describe how social workers can implement theories.

How many social work theories are there? ›

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 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 importance of theories to 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 three models of social work practice? ›

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.

What are the 3 main social theories? ›

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 5 theories? ›

At a glance. There are five primary educational learning theories: behaviorism, cognitive, constructivism, humanism, and connectivism.

What are the 7 principles of social work practice? ›

These principles set forth ideals to which all social workers should aspire.
  • Value: Service. ...
  • Value: Social Justice. ...
  • Value: Dignity and Worth of the Person. ...
  • Value: Importance of Human Relationships. ...
  • Value: Integrity. ...
  • Value: Competence.

What are the 6 domains of social work practice? ›

PCF Domains and overarching statements
  • Professionalism.
  • Values and ethics.
  • Diversity.
  • Rights, justice and economic well-being.
  • Knowledge.
  • Critical reflection and analysis.
  • Intervention and skills.
  • Contexts and organisations.
Feb 8, 2021

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 are the 5 social process theories? ›

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.

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 are theories and models? ›

Theories are plausible explanatory propositions devised to link possible causes to their effects. Generally, models are schematic representations of reality or of one's view of a possible world, constructed to improve one's understanding about the world and/or to make predictions.

What are the importance of theories in the society? ›

Theories help to organize relevant empirical facts (empirical means they can be observed or measured) in order to create a context for understanding phenomena.

What are the different types of 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 more important theory or practice? ›

Theory teaches you the experience of others. Theoretical knowledge can give you a deeper understanding of a concept through seeing it in the context of understanding the why behind it. of practical knowledge is very wide, there are some things you can only learn through doing and experiencing.

What is meant by theory to practice? ›

Theory-to-Practice approach means that the overall course balances theoretical, practical and practitioner education and is linked, for instance, to real-world cases.

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.

Which are the models of social action? ›

Direct mobilization model, dialectical model and the conscientization models are the sub-types of social action.

What are community practice models in social work? ›

Marie Weil, DSW. Conceptual models for community work are schemas that shape and define an approach to practice. Models knit together theoretical concepts and connect them to guidelines for action; and as such, serve as powerful teaching, planning, analytic, and self-evaluation tools for community practice.

What are social theories examples? ›

These include Conflict, Functionalism, Symbolic Interactionism, and Social Exchange Theories; second, Middle-Range Theory, which is a theory derived from specific scientific findings and focuses on the interrelation of two or more concepts applied to a very specific social process or problem.

What are the theories of social group? ›

According to social identity theory, social behaviour is determined by the character and motivations of the person as an individual (interpersonal behaviour) as well as by the person's group membership (i.e., intergroup behaviour). People generally prefer to maintain a positive image of the groups to which they belong.

What are the major theories of social conflict? ›

Conflict theory focuses on the competition among groups within society over limited resources. Conflict theory views social and economic institutions as tools of the struggle among groups or classes, used to maintain inequality and the dominance of the ruling class.

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 some theories examples? ›

Examples of scientific theories in different areas of science include:
  • Astronomy: Big Bang Theory.
  • Biology: Cell Theory; Theory of Evolution; Germ Theory of Disease.
  • Chemistry: Atomic Theory; Kinetic Theory of Gases.
  • Physics: General Relativity; Special Relativity; Theory of Relativity; Quantum Field Theory.
Jun 30, 2013

What are the 4 main development theories? ›

Four main theories of development: modernization, dependency, world-systems, and globalization. / Reyes, Giovanni E.

What are the 10 social work competencies? ›

Page 1
  • Competency 1: Professional Identity.
  • Competency 2: Values & Ethics.
  • Competency 3: Critical Thinking.
  • Competency 4: Diversity & Difference.
  • Competency 5: Social & Economic Justice.
  • Competency 6: Research.
  • Competency 7: Human Behavior & the Social Environment.
  • Competency 8: Social Policy.

What are the 9 social work competencies? ›

  • 9 Core Competencies in Social Work Education. ...

What are the four dimension model of social work? ›

This includes physical, emotional, community, and spiritual well-being when providing support to clients. The integrative social work model believes that if you do not recognize all of the above dimensions in your practice, it will undermine the whole.

What is best practice in social work? ›

In social work, best practices most often refers to recommendations regarding the practices most appropriate for routine use in service systems with particular populations and problems (Roberts & Yeager, 2004).

What are 7 different types of social workers? ›

  • Child and Family Social Worker. Do you have a heart for children and families? ...
  • Community Social Worker. ...
  • Criminal Justice Social Worker. ...
  • Disability Social Worker. ...
  • Environmental Social Worker. ...
  • Gerontological Social Worker. ...
  • International Social Worker. ...
  • Medical Social Worker.

What are the core values of social work practice? ›

Integrity. Social justice. Competence. The importance of human relationships.

Why is it important for you to know the social theories? ›

In the same way, as other scientific theories explain the world, sociological theories provide us with a framework for explaining the social world around us. They might ask questions about the nature of social order or about the kinds of processes that influence social change.

What is the importance of social theories? ›

Social theory guides scientific inquiry by promoting scientists to think about which topics are suitable for investigation and how they should measure them. Selecting or creating appropriate theory for use in examining an issue is an important skill for any researcher.

Why is social practice theory important? ›

Social Practice Theory provides a framework for guiding and analysing the processes by which a complex intervention is evaluated in a clinical trial, and has the potential to guide context-specific implementation strategies for clinical practice.

Why is it important to select a theory or model in research? ›

The researcher's choice of a theory provides structure to the entire dissertation. It provides a common world view or lens from which to support one's thinking on the problem and analysis of data.

What are the 3 main theories of sociology? ›

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 3 purposes of theory? ›

Interpretation is one of the three main functions of theory—explanation, prediction, and interpretation.

What is the most important theory in sociology? ›

Functionalist Theory

The functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. It has its origins in the works of Emile Durkheim, who was especially interested in how social order is possible and how society remains relatively stable.

What is an example of practice theory? ›

Bourdieu uses the concept of field instead of analyzing societies solely in terms of classes. For example, fields in modern societies include arts, education, politics, law and economy. Cultural capital is also part of practice theory and is directly related to strategy.

Why is theory more important than practice? ›

Getting theoretical knowledge has no value until students can apply it for practical purposes. When you do something with your own hands you remember better. Practical work promotes experiential learning. Practical work encourages self-learning.


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