Social Work Theories And Techniques

a social worker having a cool chat with a nurse

Social work has a meaningful role in people’s and communities’ emotional and mental health. Social workers analyze the relationships, environment, systems, and policies that affect their clients. They work to help overcome abuse, poverty, mental illness, trauma, and addiction. They identify the problems their clients have and find solutions such as therapy, relocation, or employment assistance. 

Social work theories and techniques are essential to modern practice.  

Social workers understand how different backgrounds affect emotional and mental well-being and possible response to treatment. 

They recognize the particular needs of their clients and interact respectfully with them. They meet with clients and assess their situations and needs then develop plans to help them achieve their goals. They give support for challenges, such as unemployment, and refer clients to other specialists or advisory services when needed.  

For those interested in a social work career, Cleveland State University offers a master’s in social work online. Students with a bachelor’s degree in any field can choose from two specializations — Clinical Social Worker or Advanced Generalist Social Worker. 

Studying online can work well for people who work or have other responsibilities. Lectures are recorded so they can be watched at a convenient time, and studying can fit in with other demands. Students interact through virtual communication and provide support to one another. Studying while working as a social worker can mean applying what you learn to your work in the real world. 

Social work theories are statements supported by evidence developed through scientific methods. A theory can explain human behavior by describing how people interact. 

Psychosocial Development Theory

This theory was developed by Erik Erikson and is the main principle of social work. It maintains that people develop personality in stages, according to the environment and relationships with family and community. Everyone passes through eight stages of development: hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom. Each stage is split into age ranges, from infants to older adults.

Systems Theory

This theory describes people’s behavior as being like complex systems. It is founded on the idea that effective systems are based on individual expectations, rewards, needs, and the features of people inhabiting the system. 

The theory states that couples, families, and organization members take direct action to solve problems, even if it is an individual’s issue. Social workers can examine all the factors that have affected a client or been affected by them, and by understanding these systems, they can form a picture of what influences the client’s choices and behavior. 

Social Learning Theory

This stems from Albert Bandura’s belief that learning occurs through imitation and observation, and new behavior will continue if it is reinforced. Instead of just hearing a new concept and using it, the learning process is more effective if the new behavior is modeled. This theory has four processes that describe the acquisition of new behavior: 

  • Attention: the degree to which we notice the behavior
  • Retention: how well we remember the behavior
  • Reproduction: the ability to perform the behavior
  • Motivation: the will to emulate the behavior 

Psychodynamic Theory

This was developed by Freud, and it describes personality as conscious and unconscious forces. Freud thought people’s behavior could be understood by processes outside of a person’s conscious awareness and related to their childhood. It states that the personality consists of the id (follows basic instincts), the superego (follows rules and behaves morally), and the ego (moderates the id and superego). 

Transpersonal Theory 

This theory proposes extra stages beyond the adult ego. Positive influences are used as a model for realizing potential. People are encouraged to realize their inner capabilities. There are five components: spiritual, emotional, physical, creative, and intellectual, and all are addressed equally in treatment. 

Rational Choice Theory

This theory is based on the idea that every choice is made after considering the risks and benefits of making that decision. Choices that seem senseless to one person can seem reasonable to another because of their own desires. It states that all individuals use self-interest to make choices that will benefit them the most. How each person decides what is best for them is down to individual preference.  

Skills And Techniques

Social work involves working with people with diverse needs. Individuals in this field must develop a robust skill set that will allow them to perform effectively at work. Social workers need empathy and emotional intelligence to understand their clients’ views, emotions, and communication styles. These skills can help in understanding client needs and asking the right questions. 

Social work can be a demanding field to work in and it is important to have a work-life balance. Social workers must be able to set boundaries based on availability to clients and other professionals.  

Social workers need good communication skills when working with clients and colleagues. Active listening is essential when interacting with their clients. This skill helps social workers determine exactly what their clients’ concerns are. Active listening helps to build good relationships, establish trust, and convey respect. 

It also allows for communicating with other professionals. Social workers advocate for their clients and promote social justice, and represent their clients in their use of other services and support organizations. 

Critical thinking skills are needed when evaluating different client cases. The social worker will work with individuals and families, assisting them in accessing the best solution or resources. They need to make well-informed judgments, find the best resources, and have a strategy to serve clients without bias. 

Social workers need cultural competency to work well with diverse groups. They should examine their own background, beliefs, and values, have an open mind towards others, and uphold social work ethics and values. 

Social work involves paperwork and record keeping. It is important to have files updated, keep progress reports, and develop management plans. Organizational skills help when working on multiple cases at the same time. Social workers use paper and electronic records, and these need to be updated. Time management skills are required to manage a large caseload and give everyone the time they need. 


Social work theories and techniques underpin good practice and help social workers to perform effectively. With demanding work, it is essential to keep up to date with current evidence-based approaches and practice models. Social workers advocate for their clients and ensure they receive the help they need. Social work serves those in need and does a service to society.