13 Social Work Theories for Career Success

Social work is critical to communities’ and individuals’ mental and emotional health. Social work professionals help people going through challenges such as unhealthy relationships, addiction disorder, poverty, domestic violence and rape.

Social workers attempt to describe and explain the individual problem faced through social work theories based on studies, research and scientific evidence. The theories uncover the ‘why of human behavior’ and reveal how they affect their lives.

What are social worker theories?

Social work theories are broad explanations that have evidence derived using scientific methods and explain how something occurred. A theory could describe how people interact with or respond to various stimuli to explain human behavior. Social workers put the theories into practice and use them as a roadmap to assist their clients.

If you find pleasure in helping and supporting individuals, families and communities needing assistance, then venturing into the social work career would be wise. However, you might encounter problems in identifying your clients’ problems and finding effective solutions if you do not have adequate training.

Social work courses such as the online advanced standing MSW program from Florida State University equip you with a deep understanding of the human psyche and development. The training enables you to understand the best social work practices built on the foundation of evidence-based theories. The knowledge helps you to explain and categorize human experience and find tangible solutions to complex social problems.

Why social work theories are important

Through social work theories, social workers can study cases, understand their clients, design interventions, foresee intervention outcomes, and assess outcomes. Social workers can investigate the origins of behavior by referring to social work ideas employed in the past, even if the theories are always changing as new data is discovered.

With evidence-based data, they can then assist their clients in identifying the ideal treatment options. Learning about diverse social work theories aids in reminding social workers that during social work practice, their opinions and preconceptions should be put on hold.

Instead of using their attitudes, reactions and moods while working with clients, social workers should use theories supported by data to explore problems and guide their practice toward offering the best services to their clients.

Social work theory enables social professionals to plan their work as their starting point. It is a research-based lens that guides them to address their clients’ challenges. It provides a better understanding of complex human behavior and how it affects individual lives and problems.

Social work professionals’ uphill task is choosing the correct theory for each situation.

Assigning a single theory to a client facing complex issues is challenging, as it usually requires drawing multiple theories to design suitable interventions. 

Different social worker theories 

Psychosocial theory

Psychosocial theory, also known as person-in-environment theory, was developed in the 1950s by Erik Erikson. He believed that a person develops their personality in stages based on their relationships with their family, friends and the environment. He then came up with the eight-stage theory of psychosocial development, which includes the following:

  • Industry versus inferiority.
  • Autonomy versus shame and doubt.
  • Generativity versus stagnation.
  • Identity versus confusion.
  • Trust versus mistrust.
  • Intimacy versus isolation.
  • Integrity versus despair.
  • Initiative versus guilt.

According to the theory, humans go through stages as they age. Therefore, a social worker can identify the stage of development that their client is going through to understand their struggles better.

 Systems theory

Systems theory operates on the belief that individuals do not operate in isolation. It assumes that human behavior results from a complex system of several elements.

Social work professionals use system theory to understand how the system influences their clients to behave in a certain way. They observe them in multiple environments to fully understand their behavior.

They identify where systematic breakdowns affect the client’s behavior and choices. For instance, living in extreme poverty can affect how a person behaves. Based on the poverty system, a social worker can develop the best treatment plan for their client.    

Cognitive behavioral theory

Cognitive behavioral theory focuses on how beliefs and emotions shape behavior and how self-destructive actions can result in psychological issues. Social workers who employ cognitive behavioral theory techniques assist clients in recognizing self-destructive ideas and negative behavior that bring unpleasant feelings.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is mostly used for people with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The treatment guides them to understand their behavior and the processes leading to it. Social professionals who use cognitive behavioral therapy assist their clients in eradicating harmful attitudes and behaviors and averting their consequences.

Crisis intervention model

The crisis intervention approach is utilized for clients going through a crisis or trauma, including victims of domestic abuse or rape, and individuals who need help to stop physical harm, suicidal thoughts, or alcohol addiction.

Social workers employ crisis intervention theory to treat and stabilize the mental and emotional health of their clients who are in a crisis. Here are the seven stages they employ during treatment:

  • Examine the psychosocial and lethality state.
  • Quickly build rapport.
  • Determine the main source of the crisis.
  • Give the client a chance to express their feelings.
  • Create and research secure coping mechanisms.
  • Make a strategy of action.
  • After the intervention, follow up.

Narrative theory

Narrative theory separates a person from their issues by assisting them in realizing that they can alter their life story or narrative. In narrative therapy, patients learn to recognize that they are not the problem. Rather, they are separate from the problem and have the power to solve it when viewed from the outside.

Social workers help their clients define their stories and identities. They help them create new narratives with numerous positive actions. For instance, they can help a person who sees themselves as a criminal view themselves as someone worthy of saving.

The narrative theory places the client as the expert in their life and protects them from blaming others. As a result, clients are aware of the past behavior that has caused them harm and can find ways to avoid it.

Task-centered practice

Task-centered practice is a type of social work that helps people develop goals and achieve continuous improvement in their lives. It is a social work therapy that offers treatments that are time-limited and help people get closer to success as they complete tasks.

When using a task-centered practice, a social worker divides a problem into doable tasks. The client commits to meeting the timeframes for completing the assignments.

Social workers who employ task-centered practice concentrate on the present and how people’s work on certain tasks favorably affects their future rather than the past.

For instance, a social worker can help their client develop problem-solving skills by breaking down the task into several segments, such as identifying the problem, coming up with ideas, choosing a solution, implementing it, and analyzing how it performed.

Solution-focused therapy

In solution-focused treatment, the client and social worker jointly identify a problem and develop a solution based on the client’s strengths and capabilities. It’s a short-term practice strategy that focuses on assisting clients in employing particular behaviors to deal with challenges.

Solution-focused therapy involves altering a client’s behavior in specific circumstances to produce more beneficial results, instead of focusing on changing who a client is.

The therapy focuses on finding solutions, and the client and the social worker collaborate to find the solutions. The client is given center stage in steering positive change as they were part of developing or suggesting them.

Attachment theory

According to attachment theory, a psychological tie between people impacts how relationships progress and how people act toward one another throughout a person’s life. An invisible tie that forms in relationships is sometimes referred to as attachment.

In the beginning, this is between parents or other caregivers and the children they watch over, and it is noticed as a tendency for the child to want to be close to a chosen caregiver during stressful or anxious periods.

They display behaviors such as making eye contact, smiling, crying or clinging. A child can feel secure enough to confidently face the outside world if they can build good attachments. Children, however, exhibit maladaptive behaviors that affect development when the bond is inconsistent or destroyed.

Social workers try to understand the relationship between attachment and brain development when assessing attachment. It helps them comprehend the child’s development cycle, the impact of negligence on children, and how to communicate effectively with a child.

Behavioral theory

Behavioral theory explains human behavior by examining the antecedents, consequences and learned connections that an individual has formed due to prior experiences. The theory believes that individuals learn behaviors through conditioning.

The theory also suggests that a person engages in behavior reinforced by an unfavorable or natural result. Social professionals use behavioral therapy techniques to treat their patients. For instance, therapists may use conditioning strategies to assist clients in changing undesired behaviors, as behavioral therapy treatments frequently combine behavioral theory with cognitive elements.

Psychodynamic theory

Psychodynamic theory, sometimes referred to as psychoanalytic psychotherapy, aids patients in comprehending their feelings and unconscious behavioral patterns. Clients better understand themselves and learn how to make better decisions for themselves by discussing these feelings and behaviors with a social worker.

Sigmund Freud, the creator of psychoanalysis, introduced psychodynamic theory. The foundation of this hypothesis is that people have a biological need to seek pleasure. According to the hypothesis, people act in this way due to unconscious processes that have their roots in early life events.

This urge impacts daily behavior and motivates such behaviors as violence, sex and self-preservation. Social workers examine how every childhood experience has influenced an individual’s behaviors today.

Social exchange theory

Social exchange theory was first developed in 1958 by American sociologist George Homans, who created a framework based on a synthesis of behaviorism and fundamental economics. The theory states that a relationship between two people is developed through cost-benefit analysis.

In other words, it’s a statistic created to assess an individual’s commitment to a person-to-person connection. Data from measuring a relationship’s positives and negatives may be used to assess whether someone is investing excessive effort in their connection.

Each person aims to get the most out of their benefits and is expected to give back for the benefits they have received. Relationships may end if the risks outweigh the possible rewards. It is expected that the individual with more personal resources in a relationship will also have more power.

Through social exchange theory, social professionals try to understand their clients’ relationships and why they maintain or abandon them. They develop ways to help them deal with beneficial relationships from the information collected.

Transpersonal theory

According to transpersonal theory, developmental stages extend beyond the adult ego and involve feelings of connectedness with things that are thought to exist outside the ego’s borders. These developmental phases can foster the best aspects of humanity in healthy people, such as kindness, creativity and intuitive knowledge.

These encounters, however, can cause psychosis in people who have not experienced healthy ego growth. Social workers integrate transpersonal theory into their practice and use meditation, hypnotherapy, or mindfulness practices on their clients.

Motivational theory

Motivational theory looks at how the motivation that someone possesses influences their behavior. In other words, it addresses what pushes an individual to act. There are several motivational theories, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The theory states that individuals seek higher goals only when pressing needs are met. Social workers use the theory to help their clients manage change effectively.


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