11 Important Social Work Theories and Methods

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A social worker talks with a client.

Social work plays an important role in the mental and emotional health of individuals and communities. Social workers serve clients who are in crisis, who may have addiction disorders, who are in unhealthy relationships, or who are housing or food insecure. While social work is a thoroughly modern profession, its roots date to the 19th century, with the passage of laws aimed at improving the condition of poor and vulnerable communities.

Social work theories and methods are crucial to the modern practice of social work. Accredited Master of Social Work (MSW) programs teach these important theories to prepare students for a career as a licensed social worker.

The following 11 social work theories and methods are some of the most important principles in the field today:

1. Psychosocial Theory

Psychosocial theory, which Erik Erikson developed in the 1950s, is the main principle of social work. Also referred to as person-in-environment (PIE) theory, psychosocial theory posits that a person develops a personality in stages, based on environment and relationships with family and community.

As children, teens and adults, humans go through successive stages, acquiring autonomy, initiative, identity, creativity and a capacity for intimacy. However, at every stage, the chance exists that people will instead develop a capacity for mistrust, shame, guilt, isolation and despair. For example, in the identity vs. role confusion stage, teens undergo conflict as they work out their identity in relation to the expectations of their parents, teachers and community.

2. Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is one of the best-known theories that provide a framework for social workers to understand human behavior. Attachment theory holds that babies have innate behaviors whose purpose is to ensure that caregivers meet their needs. These behaviors include crying, making eye contact, clinging and smiling. The development of healthy attachments lets a child be secure enough to meet the world with confidence. However, when the attachment is inconsistent or broken, children develop maladaptive behaviors that impact development.

3. Systems Theory

Systems theory provides a framework for understanding why a person behaves in a certain way. Social workers can investigate all the factors that impact or have been impacted by a client, and by understanding all these systems, they can put together a picture of what drives a client’s behavior and choices.

For example, systems theory provides an understanding of adolescent risk-taking behavior. Researchers who studied Swiss teenagers reported in 2021 that teenage boys were more likely to engage in risky behavior because their drive for sensation seeking outpaced their drive for self-regulation.

4. Behavioral Theory

Behavioral theory, or behaviorism, holds that people learn behaviors through conditioning. A person performs an action that’s reinforced through a natural consequence or a negative consequence. Social workers often use behavioral therapy techniques to treat patients. For example, therapists may use conditioning techniques to help clients modify undesirable behaviors. Behavioral theory is often used in conjunction with cognitive components to form cognitive behavioral therapy treatments.

5. Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory holds that emotional responses come from thought processes. Social workers can use cognitive theory to help patients identify the thoughts that trigger a certain behavior. They can help patients reframe these thought processes to overcome negative behaviors. Cognitive theory and the associated social cognitive theory can be used to help patients overcome phobias, such as social phobia.

6. Cognitive Behavioral Theory

Social workers use cognitive behavioral methods to help clients reframe limiting or negative behaviors. They guide individuals through steps to understand their behavior, including the thought processes leading up to it. Social workers may use exposure therapy, meditation, journaling or other tools to help clients overcome anxiety and fears. Clients with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) respond well to cognitive behavioral methods.

7. Motivational Theory

What pushes a person to act? Many types of motivational theories seek to answer that question. One of the most famous is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: This theory states that only when the most pressing needs (food, shelter, safety) have been met can people seek higher goals (love, learning, art). One example of motivational theory in practice is motivational interviewing. In this technique, a social worker guides and empowers clients to manage change. The technique is collaborative and respectful and can be applied in a variety of settings.

8. Empowerment Theory

Empowerment theory is a central tenet of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, as part of the profession’s commitment to social justice. Empowerment theory holds that social workers must support clients and their communities in building connections, fighting injustice and creating grassroots organizations. Empowerment theory, like conflict theory, aims to change society rather than provide a treatment model for individuals.

9. Task-Centered Model

The combination of social work theories and methods provides a powerful toolkit for social workers. Based on the theories presented here, social workers have numerous methods for working with patients.

For example, social workers may use a task-centered model to help their clients develop problem-solving skills. The goal of a task-centered practice is to help individuals achieve autonomy. The social worker guides clients through the five stages of problem-solving: (1) defining the problem, (2) brainstorming ideas and running through scenarios, (3) choosing a solution, (4) applying the solution, and (5) analyzing how well the solution worked.

The task-centered model can seem simplistic, but as social workers and their clients often discover, learning to be effective problem-solvers is harder than it looks.

10. Crisis Intervention

Social workers have been at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic, just as they are during other natural disasters. Social workers employ crisis intervention techniques and methodologies to treat and stabilize the mental and emotional health of people in crisis. They work in the community, in hospitals and in other healthcare facilities. Social workers treat clients suffering from illness and grief. They also mobilize community responses and help already marginalized individuals and communities receive resources and treatment.

11. Narrative Method

Narrative methods recognize that we all tell stories about ourselves and others. Social workers use narrative therapy to help clients define their stories and identities. For example, this narrative technique can help change an individual’s self-perception as a  criminal to someone worthy of redemption. The narrative method centers clients as the experts in their own life and avoids blame. It focuses on helping clients change behaviors that’ve injured them in the past.

Make a Difference: Explore the MSW Program at the University of Nevada, Reno

Social work is an evidence-based profession with a long history of research and publication in human psychology. Social workers have a vast toolkit with which to treat individuals and help heal communities. If you’re drawn to a career that uses proven theories to help those in need, learn more about the online MSW program at the University of Nevada, Reno. With a curriculum grounded in these social work theories and methods, it offers graduates an excellent foundation for a future in social work.

Recommended Reading:

What Does It Take to Be an Effective Social Worker?

Social Worker Jobs: Skills and Careers in This Crucial Field

Social Worker vs. Therapist: Which Career Path Is Right for You?


Critically Infused Social Work, Narrative Therapy

Healthline, “9 CBT Techniques for Better Mental Health”

Indeed, 15 Social Work Theories for You to Know

Motivational Interviewing, “Understanding Motivational Interviewing”

National Association of Social Workers, Read the Code of Ethics

Oxford University Press, “Measuring Instruments for Empowerment in Social Work: A Scoping Review”

PositivePsychology.com, “10 Fascinating Social Work Theories & Models”

PositivePsychology.com, “20 Most Popular Theories of Motivation in Psychology”

Practical Psychology, “Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development”

Scientific Research Publishing, “The Role of Social Work and Social Work Leadership in Pandemic Crisis Intervention”

Simply Psychology, “Aversion Therapy”

Social Work Haven, “5 Social Work Theories to Understand Before You Graduate”

SpringerLink, “An Evaluation of Dual Systems Theories of Adolescent Delinquency in a Normative Longitudinal Cohort Study of Youth”

Verywell Mind, “History and Key Concepts of Behavioral Psychology”

Verywell Mind, “How Cognitive Theory Is Used in Phobia Treatment”