Social workers use theories as a basis for gathering and interpreting data. Theories guide research as well as practice in social work. A variety of theories exist to help social workers develop a comprehensive assessment, treatment recommendations and goals. Some theories are more widely accepted than others. Most social workers use a variety of theories to guide their practice.
Urie Brofenbrenner's widely accepted framework describes the relationship between various ecological systems. This theory describes how ecological systems influence development. For example, the neighbourhood where a child resides, the school she attends and her relationships with extended family members influence a child's well-being and development. Social workers utilise this theory by taking into account a person's environment when conducting an assessment, establishing a diagnosis and formulating treatment plans.
The transtheoretical model refers to fives stages people experience when making behavioural changes. During the pre-contemplation stage, people deny having a problem. During the contemplation stage, people begin to consider the possibilty they may have a problem. The preparation stage leads to developing a plan for change. Throughout the action stage, people make changes. The last stage, maintenance, requires ongoing steps to sustain the change. Social workers utilise different treatment approaches based on a client's readiness to change.
Behaviour theory is based on the idea that behaviours result from conditioning. Behaviour occurs following a stimulus and conditioning occurs when a behaviour becomes linked to the stimulus. Pavlov used this theory when he rang a bell every time a dog was fed. Eventually, ringing the bell caused the dog to drool, even when food was not placed in front of the dog. Social workers often use this theory when teaching parents how to motivate children by offering appropriate consequences for positive and negative behaviours.
Based on the idea that human nature is good, the existential approach provides client-centred treatment. Interventions aim at helping clients increase their self-awareness. Social workers utilising this approach emphasise the clients' ability to be true to themselves. This approach focuses on developing a therapeutic relationship that allows each client to work through issues at his own pace. Clients choose their own goals and direct the treatment.