PRACTICE THEORIES: Quick guide to Theories, Models & Perspectives

practice theory



  • A general theory of action, which provides an explanation of the phenomenon & gives directions & guidelines about how to intervene in a situation
  • Underpinned by a particular set of assumptions about human behaviour & about how behaviour can be changed








Cognitive Behavioural Theory


Grounded in the psychology of learning, behaviour, cognition

Based on Learning Theory which is predicated on the belief that

  • Most behaviour is learned behaviour
  • Undesirable behaviour can be unlearned
  • Desirable behaviour can be learned as an alternative response

Aims to teach people new ways of behaving or acting rather than focusing on the thinking aspect of behaviour or their attitudes

Social functioning can be improved through –

  • Developing awareness of dysfunction
  • Learning new ways of thinking & understanding
  • Practising new ways of behaving
  • Reducing stress & anxiety due to behaviour modification

Systems Theory


·         Origins in ecological perspective

·         Living occurs in complex systems that involve dynamic interactions between constituent parts – this affects behaviour

·         Actions leads to reactions, but there is uncertainty & lack of control over the responses of others

·         Enables workers to understand how individuals relate with each other, form alliances, act out socially-derived roles & how they can do unpredictable things

·         Analyses existing social orders and largely accepts them


Radical or Structural Theory


Assumes that structural disadvantage is the root cause of people’s distress


Purpose is to –

  • Develop a person’s awareness of the structural & environmental forces structuring their life experiences
  • Develop awareness of the links between these forces & their personal experiences & responses
  • Develop awareness of the commonality of their experience with other people in same / similar circumstances
  • Encourage links between the individual & others in similar experiences
  • Encourage collective problem solving



Psychodynamic Theory


  • Purpose is to assist a person to understand how inner feelings, conflicts & processes impact on & structure a person’s functioning
  • Theorises that each person develops strategies to mediate intra-psychic conflicts & meets intra-psychic needs in a socially acceptable manner
  • Function on intervention is to assist a person to become aware of these conflict & needs & their manifestation in a persons life (i.e. anxiety, depression, obsessive behaviour)
  • Through realisation of the source of conflict, catharsis can occur
  • Practice interventions focus on the person’s thoughts & feelings rather than their environment or relationships

Chaos Theory


Postulates that

  • There is an element of chance in the change / reaction process that can lead to a system going into chaos
  • When chaos occurs, there is profound opportunity for creativity & development until the system can re-establish itself
  • Change can occur in disproportionate ways to the original trigger event







  • Differ from practice theories in that they tend to address a specific arena of action or type of task
  • Is a set of concepts & principles used to guide an intervention





Crisis Intervention Model


  • Based on the belief that people are most likely to develop long-lasting behaviour change when in crisis
  • Focus is on crisis intervention
  • Purpose is to address the special needs of a person in an acute crisis
  • People viewed as in crisis when coping methods are insufficient to deal with stressful situations & causes them to feel overwhelmed
  • Deals with immediate needs by developing a plan of action to address underlying causes –
    1. Address immediate presenting problem & basic needs
    2. Alleviate pain / stress experienced in crises
    3. Mobilise a person’s emotional & psychological strengths
    4. Develop a strategy to address the underlying causes




Task-Centred Model


  • Focus is on tasks which can lead to immediate positive results
  • Purpose is to assist person to learn procedures to independently address tasks by breaking them down into smaller sub-tasks
  • Worker assists the person to –
    1. Identify what the client needs
    2. Map out series of steps by which the task can be addressed
    3. Prioritise those steps
    4. Support & encourage person during the task process







Solution-Focused Therapy


  • Can be used with individuals, couples & families
  • Useful to time limited interventions & non-voluntary clients
  • Focuses on solution finding by clients rather than problem solving by workers
  • Worker concentrates on assisting the client to recognise previous successes in finding solutions to problems


Family Therapy


·         Focuses on an arena of intervention, not on task

·         Purpose is to improve the functioning of families by –

1.      Working with the family as a whole system &

2.      Changing the interactions between family members

·         Refutes any approach that singles out an individual as the cause of the problem – instead sees that people operate within a family system & that actions by members result in actions / reactions by other family members or external systems

·         All parties contribute to the development & resolution of problems or issues

Concepts such as role boundaries & system imbalances are used to describe & explain events that lead to dysfunctional behaviour or relationships






Different practice perspectives focus on, highlight or enlarge different features of the context in question.






Generalist Perspective (suitable for beginner practitioners)

Encourage practitioners to

  • approach every situation / client in an open manner
  • apply a broad range of intervention strategies / techniques

Directs practitioner to

  • broadly assess the situation & identify & activate several possible intervention points



  • The focal situation is viewed holistically
  • Assessment of the impact of all factors & systems that contribute to the problem or situation under scrutiny (i.e. client systems)
  • Ranges of client systems –

Micro systems – individuals, couples, families

Macro systems – organisations, institutions, communities,

Regions, nations

Feminist Perspective

  • Focuses on the gendered nature of society, the situation or problem
  • Ensures the impact of gender-based discrimination, stereotyping, power & politics are brought to the forefront
  • Enables worker to assess the contribution of these factors to the presenting problem or circumstance



  • Key concept – power relations
  • Situations/relationships examined in relation to the exercise of power & in particular, the imbalance of male power over the power of females
  • Males / females seen to mostly operate within the boundaries of culturally derived stereotypes of acceptable behaviour



Strengths Perspective

  • Postulates that change is most likely to occur when worker provides clients with ‘unconditional positive regard’
  • Worker is facilitator of change processes



  • Problems, pathologies & issues are not the central concern
  • Encourages client to achieve; focuses on strengths, not limitations
  • Worker builds upon the abilities & knowledge client already has, but not be effectively utilising
  • Client knows their situation best

Ethno-sensitive Perspective

Worker’s attention focused on

·         ethnic or cultural variations among clients

·         the impact of these in interaction with the dominant society

Worker is encouraged to

  • learn about cultural specificity
  • overt / covert cultural hegemony (or domination) on his/her own part
  • the implications of this for client outcomes
  • politics & impact of discrimination at micro, mezzo, macro levels


  • Emphasises the importance of the client’s worldview (i.e. how the person perceives his/her relationship in the world)
  • Issues may stem from clash of cultural values between client & their community
  • Perspective assumes that the ‘problem’ arises from some sort of cultural clash, not from intra-psychic, interpersonal or intra-familial dysfunction

Ecological Perspective

  • Attempts to maintain the workers focus on the person in their environment (person / environment fit)
  • Worker examines both internal & external factors & the interaction between the two
  • Worker needs to identify & assess these transitions & assist people to resolve any emerging problems.



  • Emphasises transactions between a person & their physical & social environment which are dysfunctional, or problematic
  • Employs concepts such as competition, survival, adaptation, niche
  • Tries to improve coping patterns of the person & his environment to achieve a better match between his/her needs & the characteristics of the environment
  • Assumes that many problems are transitional (as people move from one life phase to the next) thus pose problems for the systems in which they interact.



Gerald Cole. (2004). Management Theory and Practice. Oxford