Social Work Test Prep Theory

Many social workers are intimidated by the use of theory and may wonder how theory applies to the social work exam. Theory helps us understand two basic concepts that apply to the social work exam and to social work itself: 1) how people develop problems 2) how to help them with their problems. Taking those two concepts into consideration, we are able to see that theory applies to the following content areas of the exams: 1) human growth and development 2) human behavior in the social environment 3) treatment planning and 4) interventions or psychotherapy (depending on your level of exam).

While all theory has something to offer the social work practitioner, probably the most important theories for the social work candidate to know are: 1) systems theory (extended family systems {Bowen}, the Satir method, structural and strategic) 2) cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and 3) solution focused therapy.

As an example of how theory addresses human development and interventions to help clients change, Murray Bowen would assess the family, or the individual’s family system, using the genogram to deduce what kind of patterns have been passed on through the multi-generational transmission process. The therapy looks at what kinds of conflicts, triangles and emotional fusion, or cut-offs unconsciously affect the client in their functioning. Interventions to help the client change could include interpretation of patterns revealed by the genogram, teaching the client to differentiate their thoughts from their feelings, and working with them on separating themselves from dysfunctional family patterns. Note how human development, human behavior in the social environment, and treatment are all addressed by the application of this theory.

Another theory the social work test candidate is likely to encounter is solution-focused therapy. While solution-focused therapy is less concerned with human development as some other theories, it is very popular and likely to be featured in a number of social work exam questions. Solution-focused therapists start out by helping the client develop a vision of their desired future. They then encourage clients to find instances in their past when the problem did not occur and to figure out what was different at that time, and perhaps, apply some of the strategies that helped them then to their current situation. The therapist is on alert for instances in the present when the client does not have the problem. The therapist then helps the client recognize what they are doing that actually works for them and to do more of it! The solution-focused therapist works with the client to determine what it is that enables these “exceptions” to happen, and to actualize their internal strengths to live a life more in line with their envisioned ideal life. Exam content areas that are related to this theory are: treatment planning, human behavior in the social environment and interventions/psychotherapy.

Not only can knowledge of theory help you pass your social work exam, it also makes you a better social worker! Each theory provides a tool-kit that gives the practitioner practical skills to help real-life clients. Having a knowledge of multiple theory tool-kits allows the social worker to “switch out” techniques from different theories, depending on the client’s needs. Although the social worker may have a “home-base” in a particular theory, it’s always important to be willing to adapt one’s approach if needed to help a client whose problems don’t lend themselves to your preferred theory.

Rather than let theory-phobia interfere with your test preparation, treat learning theory as an opportunity to not only be a better exam candidate, but to be a better social worker as well.

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