Many social workers find theory intimidating and may wonder how it applies to the social work exam. However, theory is crucial for understanding two key concepts in social work: how people develop problems and how to help them. By considering these concepts, we can see that theory applies to several content areas of the exam, including human growth and development, human behavior in the social environment, treatment planning, and interventions/psychotherapy.
Although all theories have value for social work practitioners, some are especially important for social work candidates to know. These include systems theory (such as the Bowen method, the Satir method, structural and strategic approaches), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and solution-focused therapy.
For instance, systems theory addresses human development and interventions to help clients change. Murray Bowen's approach involves assessing the family or individual family system, using the genogram to identify patterns passed down through generations. Interventions may include interpreting these patterns, teaching clients to differentiate thoughts from feelings, and helping them separate from dysfunctional family patterns. This theory addresses human development, human behavior in the social environment, and treatment.
On the other hand, solution-focused therapy is less focused on human development but is still popular and likely to appear on social work exams. This approach helps clients develop a vision of their desired future, then identifies instances in their past when the problem did not occur and applies those strategies to the current situation. The therapist helps the client recognize what works and do more of it, and works with them to actualize their strengths and ideal life. This theory relates to treatment planning, human behavior in the social environment, and interventions/psychotherapy.
Knowing theory is not just important for passing the social work exam; it also makes social workers better at their job. Each theory provides a tool-kit of practical skills for helping clients. Having knowledge of multiple theories allows social workers to use different techniques depending on the client's needs. It's essential to be adaptable and willing to switch approaches when necessary to help a client.
Don't let theory-phobia hold you back from preparing for your exam. Learning theory can help you not only be a better candidate but also be a better social worker in the future.