Theories Used in Social Work Practice & Practice Models

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. Practice models provide social workers with a blueprint of how to help others based on the underlying social work theory. While a theory explains why something happens, a practice model shows how to use a theory to create change.

Social Work Theories

There are many social work theories that guide social work practice. Here are some of the major theories that are generally accepted in the field of social work:

Systems theory describes human behavior in terms of complex systems. It is premised on the idea that an effective system is based on individual needs, rewards, expectations, and attributes of the people living in the system. According to this theory, families, couples, and organization members are directly involved in resolving a problem even if it is an individual issue.

Social learning theory is based on Albert Bandura’s idea that learning occurs through observation and imitation. New behavior will continue if it is reinforced. According to this theory, rather than simply hearing a new concept and applying it, the learning process is made more efficient if the new behavior is modeled as well.

Psychosocial development theory is an eight-stage theory of identity and psychosocial development articulated by Erik Erikson. Erikson believed everyone must pass through eight stages of development over the life cycle: hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom. Each stage is divided into age ranges from infancy to older adults.

Psychodynamic theory was developed by Freud, and it explains personality in terms of conscious and unconscious forces. This social work theory describes the personality as consisting of the id (responsible for following basic instincts), the superego (attempts to follow rules and behave morally), and the ego (mediates between the id and the ego).

Transpersonal theory proposes additional stages beyond the adult ego. In healthy individuals, these stages contribute to creativity, wisdom, and altruism. In people lacking healthy ego development, experiences can lead to psychosis.

Rational choice theory is based on the idea that all action is fundamentally rational in character, and people calculate the risks and benefits of any action before making decisions.

Social Work Practice Models

There are many different practice models that influence the way social workers choose to help people meet their goals. Here are some of the major social work practice models used in various roles, such as case managers and therapists:

Problem solving assists people with the problem solving process. Rather than tell clients what to do, social workers teach clients how to apply a problem solving method so they can develop their own solutions.

Task-centered practice is a short-term treatment where clients establish specific, measurable goals. Social workers and clients collaborate together and create specific strategies and steps to begin reaching those goals.

Narrative therapy externalizes a person’s problem by examining the story of the person’s life. In the story, the client is not defined by the problem, and the problem exists as a separate entity. Instead of focusing on a client’s depression, in this social work practice model, a client would be encouraged to fight against the depression by looking at the skills and abilities that may have previously been taken for granted.

Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Social workers assist clients in identifying patterns of irrational and self-destructive thoughts and behaviors that influence emotions.

Crisis intervention model is used when someone is dealing with an acute crisis. The model includes seven stages: assess safety and lethality, rapport building, problem identification, address feelings, generate alternatives, develop an action plan, and follow up. This social work practice model is commonly used with clients who are expressing suicidal ideation.