A Simple (But Detailed) Guide
Best Social Work Theory & Practice


Social Work Theories Cheat Sheet for All Social Workers

Whether you have a social work private practice or work for a government agency or corporation, social work theories and models provide an important foundation to what you do.

Using the best assessment theory in social work will provide you with a proven structure to interact well with clients, and the social work frameworks outlined below will help you gather the right information for developing care plans for clients.

As a social worker, understanding these key social work frameworks will be part of your educational process. The different theories and practice models outlined below provide several examples of best practices in social work.

Without these social work frameworks on how to interact with different client types and navigate various client crises, social workers will be much less effective. When social workers learn all the different social work theories and models, they improve their overall command of social work practice assessment, planning, intervention, and review.

social work theory

Social Work Theory and Practice Notes Used in Social Work Private Practice and Generalist Social Work Practice

Social work practice models provide tools for how to interact with clients based on their situation and give direction as to the steps social workers take in all their client engagements, from interview to follow-up. This guide provides you with everything you need to know.


Table of Contents

In this article on social work theory and social work practice, you’ll gain a comprehensive overview of many different social work theories and practice models. Keep on scrolling down this page to read each section, or click any link below to go directly to that section.

The main topics covered are:

  1. What Are Social Work Practice Theories? What do You Really Need to Know?
  2. Need Great Social Work Tools & Templates to Support Assessment Theory Social Work?
  3. What Are the Key Steps to Social Work Practice Models?
  4. The True Importance of Theories in Social Work
  5. What is Generalist Social Work Practice? Why is This Important?
  6. Overview: Different Social Work Theories (Cheat Sheet for Social Workers)
  7. Detailed List of Social Work Theories & What They Are
  8. Overview: Different Direct Practice Social Work Models
  9. Detailed List of Social Work Practice Models & How They Work
  10. Social Work Theory and Practice Notes Conclusion
  11. Social Work Theory & Social Work Practice – Additional FAQs 

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Before we jump into the social work theories chart and list of social work theories and practice models, we’ll define both of these elements of social work.


What Are Social Work Practice Theories?

When you’re in a generalist social work practice or social work private practice, your main purpose is to help people through various types of interventions.

These interventions may include helping a client work through emotional or mental health problems, in the case of social work practice in mental health. An intervention and client engagement may also involve referring a client to financial or other basic support resources to help them through a short-term difficulty.

Another type of social work practice with individuals and families may involve helping a family through a challenging medical diagnosis of a family member or assisting with educational problems a child may be having.

Throughout all these different types of engagements, social workers need a frame of reference for how to handle each situation.

Social work theories in practice help provide a clinically tested and researched frame of reference. A theoretical framework social work practitioners use can help them see the full spear of influences in a client’s environment that are contributing to a problem.

You can think of a social work theory as a “nugget of wisdom” to inform social work, but one that has been thoroughly tested and that has a background frame of reference that is science-based.


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The section below covers what you need to know about the list of social work practice models. Contact us if you have any more questions about this social work theory guide.


What Are the Key Steps to Social Work Practice Models?

Social work methods of practice can use social work theories within them. But how a social work practice model differs from a social work theory is that it provides a process by which the social worker will interact with the client.

A direct practice social work model may outline the steps a social worker is to take in a client care process, such as:

  • Interview
  • Research
  • Assessment
  • Develop Care Plan
  • Implement & Monitor Plan
  • Review Achievements
  • Terminate Engagement

There are several different social work theories and models to help social workers address different client types and situations.

Social work methods of practice and social work theories go hand in hand. For example, a problem-solving theory social work uses (e.g. the Rational Choice Theory) might be used along with the steps in the problem-solving model for social work client engagement.

An assessment theory social work professionals deploy to help understand an individual may be used within the planned-change social work model during phase 2, the “assessment” phase.

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The section below covers what you need to know about social work theories importance. Contact us if you have any questions about this social work theories cheat sheet guide.


The True Importance of Theories in Social Work

It’s often helpful for social workers to have a social work theories chart that they can refer to for various types of client interactions. Social work practice in mental health, social work practice with individuals and families, and other types of generalist social work practice benefit from the insight of social work theories.

Social work theories in practice provide valuable guidance to social workers and help them understand the various internal and external elements impacting a client’s behavior and situation.

The importance of theories in social work is backed by research-based scientific evidence. Benefits that a theoretical framework social work theory provides to a social worker include:

  • A sense of direction
  • Insight to help with problem-solving
  • Better control of a situation and solution
  • Confidence that an approach is the right one
  • Good examples of best practices in social work

Do you have any questions about theoretical framework social work theories or social work practice assessment, planning, intervention, and review? If so, click here to contact us.


What is Generalist Social Work Practice? Why is This Important?

A common question when studying social work theory and practice is, “What is generalist social work practice?”

Generalist social work practice is not one of the social work frameworks, rather it’s the general type of social work practice that is typically one of the initial courses undergraduate social work students will take.

According to the College of Professional Studies at Humbolt State University, generalist social work practitioners, “work with individuals, families, groups, organizations, social policies, and communities in a variety of settings in pursuit of social and economic justice.”

Skidmore College answers the question, “what is generalist social work practice” in this way, “This means the social worker has an eclectic theoretical base that utilizes a systems framework to assess a variety of points for possible intervention.”

As you can see from both these definitions of generalist social work practice, social work theories and models are an important part of any general practice of social work.

The section below covers social work theories cheat sheet. Contact us if you have any questions about the social work theories chart referenced in this guide.


Overview: Different Social Work Theories (Cheat Sheet for Social Workers)

Next, we’ll review 12 different social work theories. These are those “nuggets of wisdom” about people, families, and communities backed by research that help inform social work engagement.

You can use this list and the definitions in the sections below for a social work theories chart that makes a handy reference as you’re becoming familiar with social work theory and practice.

List of Social Work Theories

  • Anti Oppressive Practice Social Work Theory
  • Conflict Theory
  • Ecological Systems Theory
  • Empowerment Theory
  • Family Life Cycle Theory
  • Functionalist Theory
  • Person in the Environment (PIE) Theory
  • Psychodynamic Theory
  • Psychosocial Development Theory
  • Rational Choice Theory
  • Social Learning Theory
  • Systems Theory
  • Transpersonal Theory

Next, we’ll explain what each of these social work practice theories is about, starting with anti-oppressive practice social work and going through the transpersonal social work theory.


Detailed List of Social Work Theories & What They Are

Following is a social work theories cheat sheet with explanations of each of these different social work theories.

Anti Oppressive Practice Social Work Theory

The anti-oppressive practice social work theory is rooted in the recognition that certain problems an individual may have can be traced back to larger socioeconomic oppression.

Those using the anti-oppressive practice social work theory will critically examine the cultural and political influences that may be creating an environment of discrimination that contributes to the client’s issues.

Conflict Theory

The conflict theory was originated by Karl Marx and is a view that conflict is a human tendency and an inevitability of societies. It doesn’t state that conflict is good or bad, but rather that it can be a catalyst for change.

This social work theory can help social workers understand areas of conflict in the lives or situations of individuals, families, and groups, and potentially look for positive change that can emerge from conflict.

Ecological Systems Theory

The ecological systems theory in social work originated with psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner and it recognizes that a child’s life is a collection of interactions with varying influencing factors (parents, siblings, school, friends, society, etc.).

This social work theory can be applied to clients of any type, not just children, and it helps the social worker connect external influencers with problematic or positive behaviors or situations.

Empowerment Theory

The empowerment social work theory takes the anti-oppressive practice social work theory one step farther.

After identifying that there are external societal factors that may contribute to oppression and discrimination, the empowerment theory emphasizes ways those factors can be overcome. It highlights the strengths and resiliency of those individuals and groups that may have been marginalized.

Family Life Cycle Theory

Social workers use the family life cycle social work theory to understand the natural progression of the family life cycle – independence, marriage/coupling, becoming parents, empty nesters, retirement.

This understanding helps social workers using assessment theory in social work interactions bring in another frame of reference as to life transitions a client or family may be going through.

Functionalist Theory

The functionalist social work theory looks at society as an intricate system of parts that work together to make up a whole. If one of these parts is not in balance with the others it can cause a group to become marginalized or receive fewer opportunities than another. Restoring balance is the goal for a healthier society in this social work theory.

social work theories and practice

Social Work Theories Cheat Sheet

Person in the Environment (PIE) Theory

The person in the environment (PIE) theory is a problem-solving theory social work practitioners use to assess a client’s situation. It looks beyond the mental or emotional state of a person to other factors in their environment that may be contributing to a problem. These factors can include things like (social situation, relationships, income, race, family dynamics, education, and more).

Psychodynamic Theory

Sigmund Freud originated the psychodynamic theory. This social work theory explains that human behavior and feeling are impacted by both the unconscious and conscious mind.

It also notes the different areas of the unconscious mind, beginning with the id, which operates at a basic level to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and ending with the super ego, which is more responsible and integrates societal expectations.

Social workers can use this assessment theory in social work to help a client gain more insight into self-destructive behaviors and how to overcome them.

Psychosocial Development Theory

The psychosocial development social work theory by Erik Erikson lays out eight maturation stages in an individual’s lifecycle.

These stages are:

  • Hope
  • Will
  • Purpose
  • Competency
  • Fidelity
  • Love
  • Care
  • Wisdom

Understanding these maturation phases, which begin when someone is an infant and continue in their senior years, can give social workers more insight into a client that can help them solve a particular crisis that the client is facing.

Rational Choice Theory

The rational choice problem-solving theory social work uses recognizes that individuals will often rationalize their actions, even if those actions may go against societal norms.

The rational choice theory puts more emphasis on the responsibility of the individual for the decisions they make and less on external factors and argues that decisions are made through a person’s rational thought processes.

Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory, which was developed by Albert Bandura, is often used as an assessment theory social work practitioners use with children. The theory recognizes that people may adopt behaviors by watching and imitating the people around them.

This social work theory can be used, for example, to help explain why a child may be bullying others in school, if perhaps they are imitating a parent or older sibling.

Systems Theory

The systems theory is very similar to the ecological systems social work theory. It looks at the systems surrounding a person to help explain that person’s behavior and circumstances.

Influencing factors can be family, friends, school, work, or other community institutions. Understanding these influences helps social workers create more effective care plans.

Transpersonal Theory

The transpersonal theory is one of the few social work theories in practice that highlight the impact of spirituality and religion in a person’s healing process. It emphasizes the connection between mind, body, and consciousness.

Some of the ways this social work theory is used in social work private practice are through the use of hypnotherapy, mindfulness, and meditation.

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Do you know of any social work theories and models that are missing from our lists? If so, click here to contact us.


Overview: Different Direct Practice Social Work Models

Practice models are the social work frameworks that guide social worker engagement with clients. Some of these direct practice social work models are social work methods of practice that can be used for a wide range of client situations. They’re flexible and adaptable.

Others will be specific to a particular client situation or a social work practice in mental health for certain client types. It’s important that social workers know all these social work frameworks, so they can use them as needed in social work practice with individuals and families, or groups.

List of Social Work Practice Models

  • Crisis Intervention Model
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Model
  • Narrative Therapy Model
  • Planned-Change Model
  • Problem-Solving Model
  • Task-Centered Practice Model

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Next, we’ll provide an overview of each of these examples of best practices in social work.


Detailed List of Social Work Practice Models & How They Work

Following, you’ll find details on these different social work methods of practice that social workers use to guide their client engagement process.

Crisis Intervention Model

The crisis intervention social work practice model is specifically used for clients who are in immediate danger or who have just experienced extreme acute trauma.

This social work framework includes the following steps for client engagement:

  1. Take a psychosocial and lethality assessment.
  2. Rapidly establish rapport.
  3. Identify the major cause or causes of the crisis.
  4. Enable the client to express their feelings and emotions.
  5. Generate and explore safe alternatives for coping.
  6. Create an action plan.
  7. Follow up after the intervention.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Model

The cognitive-behavioral therapy model is a social work practice in mental health. It focuses on the client’s thoughts and emotions and how they can cause self-destructive behaviors.

In this therapeutic social work practice, the social worker teaches the client tactics they can use to improve their emotional state and thoughts and thus improve their life and situation.

Narrative Therapy Model

The narrative therapy social work theory and practice model involves helping the client discuss their problems in a story-based format as if it was happening to another person.

This facilitates the person taking an objective view of the situation that helps them identify potential triggers of their problem as well as solutions.

Planned-Change Model

The planned-change model is one of the social work frameworks that is a step-by-step client engagement framework that can be deployed for multiple client and situation types.

The goal of this social work practice model is to identify a problem, create a plan to solve it, and then successfully terminate the engagement once solved.

Steps in the planned-change model in social work include:

  • Engagement
  • Assessment
  • Planning
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation
  • Termination
  • Follow Up

Problem Solving Model

The social work problem-solving model’s goal is to help the client focus on one problem at a time. This is useful when the situation is short-term and there is one key issue that needs to be resolved.

In the case of more than one problem, the social worker can prioritize issues from most to least urgent and use the problem-solving model to address one issue at a time with the client.

Task-Centered Practice Model

The task-centered practice social work model focuses on setting goals for the client and achieving those goals. This can be a helpful social case work process to use to make large issues more manageable by focusing on each step towards a goal, one at a time.

Social work theory and practice notes related to this model include the following steps:

  • Define the problem
  • Establish goals
  • Work on goals
  • Review goals

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Contact us if you have any questions or feedback about this end-to-end social work theory and practice guide.


Social Work Theory and Practice Notes Conclusion

Without social work theory and social work practice models, the engagement a social worker has with a client would be much more subjective and much less science-based.

Social work theories and models gather the collective knowledge base of decades of social work and work in psychology to provide a solid foundation of best practices. Social workers can use these feeling confident that they are backed by research, field studies, and are rooted in science.

We hope our social work theories cheat sheet and details on social work practice models have been helpful for you in your pursuit of knowledge related to the field of social work.


Social Work Theory & Social Work Practice – Additional FAQs

What are social work practice theories?

Social work practice theories provide a clinically tested and researched frame of reference for social work client interactions. They help social workers see the full spear of influences in a client’s environment that are contributing to a problem.

You can think of a social work theory as a “nugget of wisdom” to inform social work, but one that has been thoroughly tested and that has a background frame of reference that is science-based.

What are social work practice models?

Social work methods of practice can use social work theories within them. But how a social work practice model differs from a social work theory is that provides a process by which the social worker will interact with the client.

A direct practice social work model may outline the steps a social worker is to take in a client care process, such as:

• Interview
• Research
• Assessment
• Develop Care Plan
• Implement & Monitor Plan
• Review Achievements
• Terminate Engagement

There are several different social work theories and models to help social workers address different client types and situations.

What is ecosystems theory in social work?

The ecological systems theory (“ecosystems theory” for short) originated with psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner and it recognizes that a child’s life is a collection of interactions with varying influencing factors (parents, siblings, school, friends, society, etc.).

This social work theory can be applied to clients of any type, not just children, and it helps the social worker to connect external influencers with problematic or positive behaviors or situations.

What is empowerment theory social work professionals use?

The empowerment social work theory takes the anti-oppressive practice so social work theory one step farther.

After identifying that there are external societal factors that may contribute to oppression and discrimination, the empowerment theory emphasizes ways those factors can be overcome. It highlights the strengths and resiliency of those individuals and groups that may have been marginalized.


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