Social work aims to help people overcome their challenges and ease their problems. Its goal is to relieve children, families and individuals needing further help through welfare. Social work can take on many forms such as therapy, community work, family help, and healthcare.

Key Theories:

While there are many theories that social work uses and practices, four common ones are discussed below. Not one approach is right, but rather a combination of multiple theories. A social worker would look at each of these theories and see how best to overcome the problem the client is facing. The theory allows the social worker to use the most effective approach of care for the child, family or individual.

Systems Theory:

This theory is founded on the principle that human behavior is influenced by a combination of things that create a system. A system can include families, organizations, businesses, or any group of people. If the individual encounters a problem with one of these systems, the other systems may be affected.

Effective systems involve individuals, the environment, families, and organizations that all work together. For instance, a person has a family, goes to school, has a job, friends, exterior family members, and a church they go to; all these people and organizations make up that individual’s system.

Systems are created by the individual; it will not be the same for everyone. All the people and organizations that are in a person’s life will help dictate how they will act and think. A social worker looks to see where the problem lies in the system and how to make it work for the individual again. They analyze and see where to strengthen and alter the system to be beneficial to the individual, for example receiving counseling in school. Using a genogram is another common intervention in system’s theory. A genogram creates a visual representation of the individual’s family tree. It helps both the individual and the social worker to see medical and psychological patterns, connections and relationships within the family.

Social Learning Theory:

Social learning theory is the idea that you learn through observing others and following what they do. It also involves positive and negative reinforcement and how that affects human behavior. When a behavior is being reinforced, it will be continued. People learn to behave through actions more than listening.

Albert Bandura was the inspiration behind this theory, along with B.F. Skinner. Skinner focused on the reinforcement part of behavior and how the environment does shape individuals as well. Bandura added to that by showing that people will model the behavior they see in their environment. When an individual imitates a behavior they see in their home and are reinforced from it, they will be more likely to repeat that particular behavior.

Social workers analyze and observe what is happening in the home and the individual’s environment to see what behaviors are being watched and then imitated. This will help them to fix the problematic behaviors and reinforce positive behaviors.

Psychosocial Development Theory:

This popular theory was developed by Erik Erikson, who believed that a person’s identity and life develop in an eight-stage pattern. These stages change throughout an individual’s life, from birth to death. The overlying idea by these stages is that a person is shaped by their social environment.

There are two paths a person can take in each stage, one being good and the other being worrisome. The eight stages are as follows: trust versus mistrust, autonomy versus shame and doubt, initiative versus guilt, industry versus inferiority, identity versus role confusion, intimacy versus isolation, generativity versus stagnation, and integrity versus despair.

Because of the stages from Erik Erikson, social workers need to look at how an individual’s social environment is affecting how the individual views themselves and the world around them. The stages also show a timeline and can see where on that timeline their client falls and how to help them achieve the more desirable option for the stages.

Psychodynamic Theory:

Psychodynamic theory was introduced by Freud. Social workers use this theory to explain that people’s character has three different parts: id, superego, and ego. The id refers to the individual’s pleasures and desires. The superego is the rule keeper and attempts to behave morally, and the ego is often referred to as the mediator because it continually tries to balance the two out. The id and superego are both the unconscious parts of our lives, and the ego is conscious. There is a constant conflict between the three, while the ego tries to find a balance.

This theory shows how inner thought processes, either conscious or not, motivates human behavior. In social work, this theory is applied by focusing on the feelings of the client and how that drives their behaviors. They dissect the individual’s behaviors according to the id, superego, and ego.

Freud teaches us about how unconscious thoughts and desires often do drive our behaviors as well. He also discussed how early childhood experiences do play a role in an individual’s behavior throughout their lives.


Even though people face the same types of challenges, there is no right or wrong way to help someone. Each will need specific help tailored to them. Four theories that social workers most often used were discussed, but there is a myriad of others to look on. Social workers are trained to handle multiple theories to find what will best help you in your time of need.

People will always have struggles and need further assistance. Social workers are trying to find the reason behind the struggle and supply them with the services they need to become the best version of themselves and live happy lives.

Katlynne T.

Bachelor of Science, Psychology | Brigham Young University – Hawaii

September 2019

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