Social work isn’t solely about representing the rights of people at risk. It’s also rooted in science, with social workers expected to dig deep into the behavioral patterns of their clients so they can help provide them with the support to achieve their goals.

This work’s complex nature has led to the development of broadly accepted theories and practice models. Given that no two people and their circumstances are ever completely the same, it’s safe to say social workers need to be flexible with whichever approach they choose.

But how do these theories and models work in practice, and what are some of the more popular and effective approaches?

What are social work theories and models?

Human beings are complex by design. We each have desires, dislikes, goals, and fears, which are all influenced by our upbringing and environment. However, that’s putting far too simple a label on social work theory.

Social work models and theories exist to help workers understand how to best manage the needs of the people they support. The most famous models have extensive research, study, and practice backing them; however, as mentioned, the flexible nature of this work demands that workers put their own spin on how they apply these models on the job.

Ultimately, social work theories help us understand why people act and react in certain ways. The models are based on theories which provide concrete evidence for specific behavioral triggers.

Social workers may use theories such as rational choice to find the reasoning behind why their clients make decisions. Alternatively, they may explore psychodynamic theory, which explains that people intrinsically look for gratifying experiences above all else and in all that they do.

Understanding and applying social work theories and models will require specialized education and experience. Enrolling in one of the Masters of Social Work online degree programs will help you access base theories more easily and allow you to practice them thoroughly before entering the workforce.

Institutions such as Cleveland State University give students the opportunity to learn about, appreciate, and experiment with a variety of models in practice via remote learning. With 100% online coursework and 900 experiential learning hours in your local community, a MSW through Cleveland State University offers excellent flexibility for working social workers to study at their own pace. Students also have the choice of full-time or part-time study and can choose between clinical or advanced generalist specializations.

Popular examples of social work models and theories

While the therapy models explored below provide only a small cross-section of wider theory, the following systems are often some of the most effective in social work practice:

  • Narrative therapy

Narrative therapy and theory allow individuals to reframe their experiences as stories. Social workers use this model to help separate people from their problems by laying out their narrative.

Narrative therapy is often popular because it can provide fantastic breakthroughs for people deeply rooted in problematic situations. While some scenarios will require more than simply reframing and reducing overthinking, narrative therapy is highly effective at showing people that they have the power to change that narrative.

This therapy can be useful when breakthroughs largely rely on the individual’s action. For example, an individual suffering from addiction may benefit from seeing the bigger picture in taking the first steps towards rehabilitation.

  • Gestalt therapy

Gestalt is a word derived from the German for forms or patterns. Much like narrative therapy, Gestalt practitioners help clients look more broadly at the bigger picture.

The distinction between these two models is that Gestalt revolves around being in the moment. This means a social worker will encourage their client to think carefully about how they immediately feel about a situation and to gain awareness of their thoughts.

This practice is similar in some ways to mindfulness. Gestalt therapy can be highly beneficial for people who struggle with overthinking tendencies and destructive anxiety or depression. Breaking down negative moments into bite-sized chunks and analyzing them in the moment can, hypothetically, help put bigger problems in perspective.

  • CBT

CBT, otherwise known as cognitive behavioral therapy, is a common practice that helps people understand how their feelings and thoughts lead to behavior changes. It is frequently useful for helping people who are recovering from trauma and those who show self-destructive tendencies.

CBT, a little like Gestalt therapy, helps people to break down moments into smaller and smaller moments. CBT aims to help people address issues in the present rather than those arising from the past.

CBT therapy helps people identify negative thoughts and patterns, and the effects they may immediately have on their behavior, lifestyle choices, and relationships. Ideally, regular CBT practice should help clients to learn how to spot destructive thinking and how to deal with it at the source.

  • DBT

DBT, or dialectical behavior therapy, takes the principles of CBT and focuses a little more on self-acceptance. DBT is, like CBT, a talking therapy; however, it goes a little deeper for people at risk of highly negative thoughts and feelings.

DBT leans towards the more extreme side of negative thought patterns and often requires patients to deeply evaluate their thinking, how they behave and what they can do to change. There’s often greater emphasis on working with others and the social ramifications of harmful behavior.

Social workers may adopt DBT practices in addition to CBT, depending on how their clients respond to the principles.

Why are different social work models so important?

Social work oversees some of the most complex and varied care people can provide. Higher education is a must. While we’ve only touched on a few of the practices here, there’s still lots of reading to catch up on!

It’s important for at-risk people to have multiple channels of support and relief. While extensive alcohol and drugs detox programs are highly beneficial for many, people always need to talk out their problems.

By using evidence-based theories and models, social workers can tap more deeply into why their clients react the way they do and how they can break harmful cycles for good.

The resulting effect is that patients can find psychological relief sooner and start to realize their full potential.