Social Work

The 6 Social Work Theories That Inform Social Work Practice

The 6 Social Work Theories That Inform Social Work Practice
Social work theory is vital to the practice of social work. It differentiates social work from professions that provide non-scientific methods of help. Image from
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Alfred Heekin February 28, 2023

Social work explores complex systems with evidence-based practice to consider human behavior through the lens of social environments. Social work practice models empower social workers to solve client problems. This article covers the six most prominent social work theories.

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Social work derives its structure from evidence-based theories and practice models, using a more holistic model of intervention and assessment than other mental health practices. Social work seeks remedies that consider human behavior and their social environment.

Social workers must understand the principles and theories that inform social work practice. Social work theory provides these professionals with the tools to address client problems. This article covers the six social work theories that inform social work practice, along with the following topics:

  • The importance of social work theories and practice models
  • Resources for learning more about social work theories

The six social work theories that inform social work practice

Social work employs six core theoretical frameworks:

  • Systems theory
  • Transpersonal theory
  • Psychosocial development theory
  • Social learning theory
  • Psychodynamic theory
  • Cognitive behavior theory.

Systems theory

Systems theory observes human behavior from the perspective of the individual in the context of complex and interrelated systems. In systems theory, a social worker considers all the system factors impacting the client and works to make that system healthy and supportive.

Participants in the system include the client, members of the client’s family, networks, and communities. Members include friends, counselors, teachers, mentors, classrooms, schools, and religious connections. Systems theory also considers the effect of societal values on individuals.

From a mezzo and macro perspective, systems theory helps contextualize how young men in America suppress their emotions to exhibit an idealized version of masculinity. A systems theory approach might be ideal for a male client with difficulty managing feelings, anxiety, or relationships. Similarly, a systems theory assessment can benefit LGBTQ+ individuals with challenges caused by an unsupportive environment. Both scenarios offer opportunities for remediation via a systems therapy modality.

Systems theory can also be beneficial in assessing why adolescents act out. For example, are the teens suffering from abuse or neglect, or are they calling out for attention? What are their support systems? Assuming no underlying psychiatric disorder exists, this treatment plan would involve changing the relationship between the children and their parents.

Transpersonal theory

Transpersonal theory, developed by Carl Jung, considers the spiritual nature of human development and change as a treatment focus.

According to the psychology publication Good Therapy, transpersonal psychology theory “integrates the spiritual, social, emotional, intellectual, physical, and creative being into one complete element and addresses the six components equally for treatment. It strives to discover divinity through our humanity and is a byproduct of a person’s growth and development.” The transpersonal theory purports that we all experience spiritual and cosmic strivings for meaning in life. The absence of a healthy ego and alignment with such spirituality can lead to mental illness.

Treatment driven by transpersonal theory involves wisdom, acceptance, and forgiveness. Transpersonal theory offers peace and a sense of well-being. It’s often ideal for creative and spiritual people who aspire to a higher level of being. Individuals needing acceptance and forgiveness may also benefit from this modality.

Psychosocial development theory

Psychosocial development theory emanates from Erik Erikson ‘s work on human development and identity. Erikson asserts that every individual passes through eight interrelated stages of life:

  1. Hope—which establishes trust
  2. Will—a crisis of autonomy versus shame
  3. Purpose—which coincides with the development of initiative
  4. Competency—which leads to self-worth and determination
  5. Fidelity—which fosters identity
  6. Love—which establishes the need for compassion
  7. Care—a later period in life that requires introspection and self-care
  8. Wisdom—which is the end stage and involves ego integrity and despair

From infancy to age 65 and older, each stage reflects a psychosocial crisis individuals encounter at some point in their development. These stages form a basis for understanding human behavior.

Erikson’s theory provides a developmental timetable for understanding the maturation of the self. Social workers use Erikson’s stages as reference points for clients’ life cycles and derive context by addressing stage-appropriate concerns and issues.

Social learning theory (also known as social cognitive theory)

Social learning theory was established by Albert Bandura, who developed a behavioral model of change based on B. F. Skinner‘s early behavioral theories. Bandura advanced Skinner’s work by theorizing that individuals learn behavior from observation and modeling of that behavior. For example, a young child who sees a parent abuse a partner or sibling will likely emulate that behavior. Conversely, a child who sees a parent behave kindly and appropriately observes a positive behavior to imitate.

Social learning theory is critical in helping social workers address destructive behaviors and habits. It offers opportunities for learning and imprinting new behaviors based on modeling healthier responses. The goal is to alter behavioral patterns to reduce or eliminate unhealthy thoughts and actions. Cognitive therapies treat behavioral disorders where the original behavior is dysfunctional.

Psychodynamic theory

Psychodynamic theory was originated by Sigmund Freud. It suggests that the conscious and unconscious mind impacts all human behavior and feelings. Freud posited that the unconscious is made up of the id, the ego, and the superego, theorizing that all three determine thinking and behavior. He gleaned insights from what his patients shared during talk therapy sessions and worked to resolve their conflicts.

In psychodynamic theory, the id is the primal part of our personality that seeks pleasure, avoids pain, and lacks filters. An example of pure id is a toddler in the throes of a tantrum. Young children have yet to develop the superego, which imparts impulse control and integrates societal expectations. Freud identified the ego as the mediator working to strike a healthy balance between the id’s primal tendencies and the superego’s regulatory forces.

Under Freud’s teachings, psychodynamic theory aims to offer clients insights into the internal conflicts in play and to change behavior and feelings with those insights. The social worker guides clients in identifying, confronting, and resolving their disputes. Psychodynamic theory focuses on the unconscious and the past. However, the theory does not support introducing more practical interventions for the present and future, a shortcoming that limits its utility.

Cognitive behavioral theory and therapy (CBT)

CBT relies on a cognitive model that connects how people experience, perceive, and interpret events to their emotions, behaviors, and psychological functioning. For example, people who share negative, obsessive, and distorted thinking often develop thoughts and behaviors that cause them severe psychological stress and physiological responses, such as obsessively washing their hands.

Treating individuals who develop distorted thinking patterns is notoriously tricky. Thinking patterns like these reflect an intractable psychiatric condition and include a biological component. One example of a disorder that falls under CBT theory is anorexia nervosa. Patients with an eating disorder experience body dysmorphia, seeing themselves as overweight no matter how little they weigh. Changing those perceptions is crucial to saving the patient. However, the distortions are so powerful that, even in treatment, patients find ways to starve themselves.

CBT is a highly specialized, task-oriented treatment that changes people’s distortions and irrational thinking through behavior modification. The goal is to help patients learn to identify their imaginary and distorted thoughts and to correct their thinking to the reality of a situation. CBT is often used to help people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, trichotillomania, agoraphobia, misophonia, and other anxiety-driven disorders.

The social worker, as a therapist, guides patients to identify distortions and triggers (patients may avoid an object or person because it is associated with a negative experience). They then assign the patient behavioral tasks to confront their thinking. Because many individuals experience aversions and phobias, a component of this therapy involves aversion therapy. Patients may be required to touch something they believe will cause them harm or rearrange objects placed a certain way to symbolize safety and control. Having felt an object and not experienced any harm, the patient works with the therapist to validate that experience and reality.


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The importance of social work theories and practice models

The stigma of mental illness is slowly abating as our society normalizes psychoanalysis and other mental health treatments. Patients enter therapy for many reasons, from depression and anxiety to grief. But solution-focused therapy is just one tool in the social worker’s toolkit. Unlike psychotherapy, social workers must treat clients within their social environments. In this way, social workers treat clients more holistically.

Remember that as a social worker, you may wear a clinician’s hat and utilize clinical theories in one moment and then an administrator’s hat in the next, helping a client apply for welfare benefits. It’s difficult to lift someone out of depression if they lack access to housing and healthcare.

The hallmark of social work practice and theory is the ability to provide therapeutic counseling and intervene on behalf of a client in their environment. Moving in and out of these practice spheres is commonly known as micro, macro, and mezzo social work.

  • Micro social work focuses on the individual
  • Mezzo social work focuses on families, schools, and organizations
  • Macro social work focuses on organizational and societal issues

Social work theory applies to all three areas.

Social work theory is vital to the practice of social work. It differentiates social work from professions that provide non-scientific methods of help. In addition, social work theory provides social workers with the conceptual and theoretical tools to be competent in their approaches.

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), clinical social work “is the professional application of social work theory and methods to the treatment and prevention of psychosocial dysfunction, disability, or impairment, including emotional and mental disorders. It is based on knowledge of one or more theories of human development within a psychosocial context.” In short: theory is essential to the practice of social work.

Utilizing social work theories can help social workers:

  • Develop a baseline starting point for treatment and goals
  • Assess and understand a client’s situation and feelings, and predict their behaviors
  • Formulate a treatment plan
  • Keep therapeutic work focused and goal-oriented
  • Organize practice work around clear steps and interventions to reduce the many ways in which therapy can meander or become chaotic
  • Provide social workers with theoretical tools and frameworks for treatment
  • Help social workers be accountable for their work and actions

Resources for learning more about social work theories

One of the best ways to learn about social work practice and theories is to read trade publications dedicated to the field.

Helpful publications and journals:

Finally, visit a local accredited social work program in your area and ask to sit in on core clinical social work classes.

Countless individuals, couples, and families enter therapy hoping to remediate their mental illness, reduce conflict, or lessen their pain. Therapists endeavor to deliver on that promise of healing by applying the correct social work theory to the right problem. Of course, using one approach over another is left to the practitioner’s discretion. But trying to determine what will work best—and provide well-being—is at the heart of social work.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: Social WorkSocial Work & Counseling & Psychology