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    5 Social Work Theories That Inform Practice

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    Learning the theories behind psychological practices can be a valuable tool for any social worker. Understanding why people act the way they do can be a step toward helping them break bad habits and exhibit behavior that helps them succeed in life.

    Popular Social Work Theories

    Social workers should familiarize themselves with five different psychological theories that play a role in social work practice.

    PSYCHOSOCIAL THEORY

    Posited by Erik Erikson in 1959, psychosocial theory draws on and is influenced by the earlier work of Sigmund Freud. However, psychosocial theory focuses on the ways that individuals are shaped by and react to their social environment.

    According to Erikson’s theory, individuals’ sense of self grows and evolves as they come into contact with a number of social crises throughout their life, each of which forces the individual to react and adapt. These social crises include trust versus mistrust, which occurs in infancy and informs how an individual trusts; industry versus inferiority, which informs qualities like work ethic, competency and self-worth; and intimacy versus isolation, which provides the basis for love.

    Each of Erikson’s social crises inform how individuals see themselves, how they react to the world and people around them, and what skills they develop in life. Taken together, these crises form a “maturation timetable” that social workers can use to inform how they treat clients, what services they provide and in what ways a particular client differs from what’s expected.

    PSYCHODYNAMIC THEORY

    Started by Freud and continued in the work of Erikson and others, psychodynamic theory seeks to understand the reasons why people behave the way they behave. Unlike behavioral psychology, which uses scientific methods to determine causal relationships between people’s behavior and their environment, psychodynamic theory focuses on the individual’s inner world, which is divided into the id, the ego and the superego.

    In psychodynamic theory, the id comprises the primal drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain; the superego consists of societal expectations, social mores and conscience; and the ego tries to find realistic ways to seek pleasure and avoid pain, balancing the two. The unconscious mind (the id and the superego) are in constant conflict with the conscious mind (the ego), and this creates anxiety and causes an individual to adopt defense mechanisms to better deal with the stress of inner conflict.

    For social workers, it’s important to remember that this conflict does exist, and that nobody exhibits behavior without a reason. Finding that reason can help a social worker better assess the needs of  situations and clients, providing them with the services they require.

    TRANSPERSONAL THEORY

    Although it’s not fully recognized as a scientific field of study, transpersonal theory and its emphasis on healing and aspiration can make it useful in a social worker’s toolkit. Pioneered by Carl Jung, transpersonal theory “uses positive influences, rather than the diseased human psyche and our defenses, as a model for the realization of human potential,” GoodTherapy says. That is, the theory uses saints, artists, heroes and other similar figures — people who have strong ego identities that others can strive to emulate — as aspirational examples.

    Transpersonal theory is a study of human development, and its goal is to help people develop stronger ego identities as they grow older, becoming more like the saints and heroes they aspire to be. The theory is spiritual as well as psychological and, though it lacks the credibility of other fields of psychology, it can be a useful way to help a client overcome adversity and develop good habits.

    SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY (SOCIAL COGNITIVE THEORY)

    In social learning theory, Albert Bandura builds upon B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theories. Behavioral psychology focuses on the effect of the environment and reinforcement on behavior, but Bandura adds two important distinctions: that mediating processes happen between stimulus and response, and that individuals can learn behavior through observation.

    Social learning theory puts forth the idea that people often model behavior that they observe in their environment, particularly when they observe that behavior in those similar to themselves and when that behavior is reinforced in others. For example, a young boy observing behaviors in his father that are rewarded by society — earning a living, displaying little emotion, fixing things with his hands — is likely to emulate those behaviors. If those behaviors are then rewarded, they become reinforced and the individual is more likely to repeat them.

    This, of course, can happen with problematic behaviors as well. An individual who observes a model treating others badly and being rewarded for it may follow the same path. Social workers can use social learning theory to discern the person a client might be using as a behavioral model and use that information to help correct destructive behavior.

    SYSTEMS THEORY

    Systems theory states that behavior is influenced by a variety of factors that work together as a system. A person’s parents, friends, school, economic class, home environment and other factors all influence how a person thinks and acts. Seeking to help correct missing or ineffective parts of that system can have a positive impact on behavior. The reverse, of course, is also true.

    In one case study, a client was engaging in risky behaviors such as drug abuse and unprotected sex. Upon examining her environment, it was found that she hadn’t had contact with her father for five years, and some of her only memories of him were of drug abuse and arguing with her mother. This led the client to self-medicate with drugs when things went poorly and also provided a poor social model for relationships and little emotional support.

    In systems theory, a social worker must observe and analyze all of the systems that contribute to an individual’s behavior and welfare, and work to strengthen those systems. This may take the form of providing positive role models, therapy or other services to help create a more supportive system for the individual.

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    How Social Workers Can Practice Trauma-Informed Care

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    Sponsored Article by Adelphi University

    Over the past few decades, there has been increasing recognition of the widespread and profound impact of trauma on individuals and communities. The results of an international mental health survey suggest that traumatic events have affected over 70 percent of the population, and can lead to prolonged physical and psychological harm.

    These findings have transformed the field of social work, shifting the focus of education and training onto practices that recognize, support, and empower survivors of trauma. Referred to as “trauma-informed care,” this framework is especially important for social work professionals who have a high likelihood of encountering people with a history of trauma in practice settings.

    Expanding the Definition of Trauma

    Trauma-informed care starts with an understanding of the intricacies of trauma, and how it impacts individuals and communities. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

    For most people, the concept of trauma conjures up images of soldiers who have survived violent combat. Others may think about people who have been exposed to physical abuse, sexual assault or natural disasters. While these are some of the most distressing experiences that an individual can endure, trauma isn’t defined by an extreme event—it’s what the event means to the individual.

    Trauma-informed social workers must take the time to understand a person’s unique perception and response to an event, taking into account the complex layers of identity, power, and oppression that contribute to trauma. Adopting this framework, researchers have expanded the definition of trauma to include the following categories:

    • Complex trauma: The result of being exposed to repeated, ongoing, or simultaneous traumatic events, such as chronic neglect from a caregiver or long-term exposure to war conflict.
    • Intergenerational trauma: This type of trauma is passed from those who directly experience trauma onto subsequent generations.
    • Historical trauma: A type of intergenerational trauma that is experienced by specific racial, ethnic or cultural groups that accumulates across generations. Some experiences most commonly associated with historical trauma include the colonization and forced migration of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans.
    • Institutional trauma: This is a type of trauma that occurs when institutions take actions that worsen the impact of traumatic experiences; for example, when a university covers up a sexual assault violation.
    • Secondary trauma: Many helping professionals experience this type of indirect trauma, through hearing or witnessing the aftermath of a traumatic event experienced by a survivor. In addition to expanding the definition of trauma, the social work field has begun to outline some essential components of trauma-informed care.

    Promoting a Sense of Safety

    Trauma-informed social workers recognize that clients may have a history of trauma and prioritize creating an environment that feels physically and psychologically safe. Physical safety can be ensured by keeping areas well lit, monitoring who is entering and exiting the building and providing clear access to exits. Psychological safety involves a client’s feelings of trust in their relationship with the social worker, and can be ensured by modeling respect, consistency, acceptance and transparency.

    Acknowledging and Reinforcing Patients’ Strengths

    Many social service and healthcare professionals focus on diagnoses and interventions, framing symptoms as problems or weaknesses. Trauma-informed social workers, on the other hand, recognize that these symptoms are coping strategies in response to trauma. These practitioners highlight resilience and acknowledge strengths, cultivating hope for recovery and change.

    Creating Opportunities for Choice

    Trauma survivors often feel a sense of powerlessness, resulting from a loss of control and predictability in their experience of trauma. Trauma-informed social workers attempt to return the client’s sense of control by offering them choices and actively involving them in goal-setting and decision-making. As clients practice making decisions in the social work setting, they develop coping strategies and self-advocacy skills that support their functioning in the outside world.

    Applying Your Knowledge

    To maximize your impact as a social work professional, you need an extensive understanding of the latest theoretical perspectives, including trauma-informed care. An online master of social work program can help you acquire the conceptual knowledge and hands-on field instruction that you can apply to improve clients’ lives and achieve your professional objectives.

    The Adelphi University Online Master of Social Work program brings decades of expertise and a legacy as a leading social work school to a flexible curriculum designed for working professionals. As a graduate student in the program, you’ll have the opportunity to engage with faculty members at the forefront of research on trauma-informed practices. Our graduates complete the program prepared to become Licensed Master Social Workers and fill the need for a skilled trauma workforce.

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    Project-Based Learning for the Virtual Classroom

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    Project-based learning (PBL) may not be the first thing that teachers consider when planning for remote or hybrid lessons. However, with a little creativity and an organized approach, project-based learning can engage students in a way that may be lacking during typical virtual instruction. So what is it, exactly? PBL, simply put, is an approach to learning through exploration of a real-world problem or question. Ideally, students choose to investigate a problem or challenge that means something to them – something that impacts their daily lives. Then, through research, collaboration, and exploration, students gain a deeper understanding of the issue or challenge and how they can contribute to a solution. Even more important is the fact that, through project-based learning, students gain a better understanding of who they are as learners and critical thinkers. With being said, let’s look at how instructors can utilize PBL in virtual settings.

    How to Organize PBL for Remote Learning

    “Embrace the chaos of now” by asking students to discuss what is currently troubling them. When students have a vested interest in their classwork, they will obviously be more inclined to engage in the work and follow through on the assignment. Ask about challenges or problems they’ve been having, such as:

    • What has been your biggest struggle with adapting to virtual/remote learning?
    • What needs are not being met in this “new normal?”
    • How has your daily routine changed since the start of the pandemic?
    • What is a problem that you see your peers, neighbors, teachers, community struggling with?

    After students have identified an issue or challenge that they personally recognize in their day-to-day lives, ask them to do a little preliminary brainstorming about the problem using a standard KWL chart. The KWL chart is an old favorite in the classroom for any sort of introduction to a new topic, concept, or unit. For project-based learning, the KWL chart provides students with a visual starting point and a trajectory for where their research is headed. The graphic organizer, for those who have not used it before acts as a simple t-chart to organize what students already know (K) about the topic, what they want (W) to know about the topic, and what they learn (L) throughout their research process. This simple visual aid acts as the foundation for critical thinking by visually, yet simply, organizing a student’s thoughts.

    Next, you can help students with backward design or backward mapping by outlining objectives first. Again, project-based learning is all about allowing students to explore a challenge and identify a resolution or fix for the problem. In order to adequately lay out the groundwork, students must have a clear and definitive end goal. Therefore, in planning for success, teachers need to help students employ backward mapping strategies by beginning with something like a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Timely.) goal—then working backward from there to achieve that goal.

    Instructors can also utilize haptic engagement or hands–on learning by encouraging students to physically try out or experiment with their ideas. Teachers can model this experiential learning by choosing their own PBL to focus on while kids are working. Show students that, in order to truly solve a problem, people must occasionally get their hands dirty. It is also important for teachers to note that success stories are almost always trial and error—a sound solution will not come right away. By testing hypotheses and modifying approaches, students truly understand the value of hands–on, experiential learning. Not only are these demonstrations helpful for getting closer to a solution, but haptic engagement also teaches students about grit, perseverance, and strategies around error analysis.

    Another great skill set that students may develop while participating in PBL classroom activities involves retrieval practice. Since students are focusing their work on one primary challenge, they are able to hone their focus and truly absorb new information as they learn. Teachers can help foster retrieval strategies with activities such as Cornell note-taking, peer teaching, and Socratic seminars, in which students take the lead in delivering information to one another.

    Try some of these PBL strategies out in your next lesson, whether it be virtual or in-person, and see the results for yourself.

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    New Preschool Program in Oregon is a Model for the Nation—But Challenges Remain

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    By Mary King and Lisa Dodson

    In November 2020, voters in Multnomah County, home to the city of Portland, resoundingly approved the creation of a new, universal preschool program—a program that could serve as a model for desperately needed preschool and childcare investments for the entire country. All three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah county will be able to attend a free, year-round, universal, high quality preschool program that meets their needs as well as those of most families, providers and staff, and local businesses. Key elements include a wide range of choices for families as well as living wages and professional supports for providers and workers. The program is slated to be equitably funded by a local income tax on the highest income households.

    Two big challenges remain: ensuring that families with “non-traditional” work schedules are included, and significantly increasing public investment in facilities to allow preschools to expand well beyond church basements and providers’ homes. Those working non-traditional hours are disproportionately low-income, women, people of color, and often “essential workers” without whom our society and economy would not function. Federal childcare initiatives must address the needs of families with such work schedules, or the families that most need public child care will be left out.

    A Universal Model that Serves Diverse Needs

    Universal preschool programs benefit all children and lead to better outcomes than means-tested programs for the most disadvantaged children. Means-tested programs such as Head Start seek to deliver services only to households with low incomes. Although means-tested programs “target the poor,” universal programs bring children and families from across the socioeconomic spectrum together, challenging ongoing race, ethnic and class segregation that erodes democracy. Universality also inspires broad support to maintain adequate funding. After fifty well-regarded years, Head Start is still available—but only for a fraction of eligible families, and even then, often only part-time and part-year. High quality preschool and child care is out of reach for the large majority of families who already face the high cost of housing, health care, and student debt with stagnating wages. Importantly, universal preschool is both a two-generation anti-poverty program and a powerful boost to economic development, because it returns $9.45 to the community for every dollar spent.

    Families raising young children are diverse and need a wide range of options. Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will offer choices of:

    • language and cultural contexts, including Afro-centric and other alternatives,
    • types of setting, including family childcare providers, public schools and free-standing centers, and
    • schedules, including school year and year-round, full and part-time, weekend days as well as week days, with up to 50 hours a week for families that need or want longer days

    Children with disabilities will be included, facilitating earlier identification of health issues and treatment. Expulsions, now too common in preschool settings particularly for children of color, will be prohibited, requiring that the system provide supportive interventions to meet all children’s needs.

    Fair Pay and Professional Support for Providers and Workers

    Currently, U.S. family childcare providers, preschool teachers, and childcare workers earn poverty wages with few benefits and often cope with difficult working conditions. The result is high turnover; the loss of skilled, experienced and dedicated workers to jobs that better support their families; and damage to the quality of care. High quality child care depends on the ongoing relationships caregivers develop with families, children, and co-workers.

    Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will pay teachers comparably with kindergarten teachers, doubling their current salaries. The wage floor for assistant teachers and other classroom staff will be set at nearly $20 an hour when the program starts in Fall 2022, with pay levels adjusted to reward increasing skills, training and experience. Continuing professional development will be geared to the schedules of the low-income working parents who are over-represented among preschool workers. Should workers wish to join a union, employers will be required to remain neutral.

    Funding universal high quality child care is within reach. Over the past 40 years, U.S. economic gains have been concentrated on an ever smaller group of the wealthy, while responsibility for paying for our infrastructure and public services has been shifted from the affluent to the working and middle classes. Reversing such trends, Multnomah County’s preschool program is to be funded by a county income tax on approximately eight percent of households at the top. Combined federal, state, and local income tax rates for such households will still fall far below the top tax federal income tax rates in place for the much of the 20th century, from the 1930s through the 1970s.

    Unmet Challenges

    Multnomah County intends to offer preschool up to ten hours a day and on weekend days, but has not committed to other “non-traditional” hours. Employers demand “non-traditional” work schedules for the three occupations expected to add the most jobs between 2019 and 2029: home health and personal care aides, fast food and counter workers, and restaurant cooks. Many retail and hospitality positions also entail low wages and employer insistence that workers maintain “open availability,” and healthcare, construction, and gig workers struggle with work schedules that make it very difficult to find child care.

    Multnomah County will pay fair wages to everyone working in the classroom, but will not supplement the pay of people working in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs that pay too little to retain skilled people in the face of a more attractive alternative. The county plans to support some infant and toddler programs, but won’t be able to overcome the severe shortage of affordable, quality care for these age groups, likely to be exacerbated by competition from a preschool system offering better compensation. Finally, preschool and child care is now crowded into inexpensive or public spaces; serving all children well will require a significant investment in physical facilities.

    Despite such continuing challenges, Multnomah County’s Preschool for All offers a national model, with its variety of choices to families, living wages for all classroom staff, and an equitable approach to public funding. Each of these aspects needs to be included in any new federal program. In addition, a new federal program should aspire to offer high quality child care to families struggling with difficult work schedules, until labor legislation is revised to place limits on such unpredictable schedules. Strategies will also need to be implemented to improve the wages of workers in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs.

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