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A Case Study in Applying Theories to Practice

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 2336 words Published: 24th Jul 2017

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The aim of this assignment is to show how a Social Worker would apply a Behavioural Method as an understanding and intervention on the case study supplied. I will do this by explaining what Behavioural Social Work is, how it is used in practice, how it meets the needs of the service user and identify personal challenges along the way. I will try to challenge my own views and ideals on the service user, and how these can be challenged for Anti-Oppressive Practice.

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The History of Behavioural Social Work

“Most of what makes us truly human, most of what makes us individuals rather than ‘clones’, most of what gives us a discernible personality – made up of characteristic patterns of behaviour, emotion and cognition – is the result of learning” (Sheldon and McDonald, 2008). The Behavioural Perspective focuses on the individual and the relationship between stimuli in an environment and how it determines behaviour through learning (Westen, 2001). This is also how Behavioural Social Work is executed, by focusing on behaviour that is observable and changeable. Like other forms of social work methods it has been adopted from other disciplines, and in particular Psychology, but has been adapted to achieve measured outcomes and effective practice for Social Work (Watson and West, 2006).

There are four main Theories that are relevant and used in Behavioural Social Work;

  1. The first behavioural theory is Respondent Conditioning, first introduced by Ivan Pavlov, who used experiments on dogs to discover how to condition a response after the presence of a certain stimuli has been removed.
  2. The second major behavioural theorist is B.F Skinner and his Operant Conditioning, he observed that the behaviour of organisms can be controlled by environmental consequences that either increase (reinforce) or decrease (punish) the likelihood of the behaviour occurring (Westen, 2001). He claimed that the outcome of behaviour was voluntary and goal directed, and always controlled by the consequences the behaviour would lead to.
  3. The next behavioural theory identified is Social Learning Theory, which extends behavioural ideas and claims that most learning is gained by copying others around them, rather than them being reinforced as skinner claimed. That behaviour is shaped by observing others and interpreting it (Payne, 1997).
  4. The fourth behavioural theory is Cognitive Learning Theory and was introduced by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck in the 1960’s, this is a theory that focuses on the way people perceive, process and retrieve information (Westen, 2001). A perception of the environment from previous experience.

It was during the 1980’s that Social Work adopted behavioural theory as a method of working with service users, part of the reason for this was the ability of the theory to achieve realistic outcomes (Watson and West, 2006). The learning theory used in social work is a combination between all four theories listed above; Respondent Conditioning, Operant Conditioning, The Social Learning Theory and Cognitive Learning. These are used to enable the social worker to observe behaviour and therefore intervene appropriately (Watson and West, 2006). The importance of behavioural social work is that the behaviour is learned and can therefore be unlearned. Cognitive learning theory focuses on this specifically and its engagement with cognitive processes which produce thoughts and feelings (Sheldon, 1995). Behavioural social work allows the service user to modify and change their behaviour through a process of reinforcement, both positive and negative, to produce a likeliness of a wanted behaviour occurring (Watson and West, 2006).

There have been criticisms of this form of social work as it involves deciding what ‘normal’ behaviour is. This may lead to discriminatory and oppressive practice, as a perception of ‘normal’ behaviour can come from a range of sources, such as, personal and professional values (Trevithick, 2000). Another criticism is that the social worker may be seen as having significant power in deciding a future for the service user, which may in turn lead to further problems. To overcome these criticisms for an affective and constructive service for users, social workers have to be aware of empowering skills to help the service user help themselves. Informed consent and active participation is also a significant part of behavioural social work (Watson and West, 2006).

How is Behavioural Social Work Used in Practice?

Some of the reasons a behavioural method was chosen for intervention is because it mainly targets problem solving, and anger management, which are some of the problems faced by the family in the case study.

The first stage of Behavioural Social Work is the process of Assessment. This will begin by identifying the service user’s problem(s) (Howe, 1998). It not only identifies the problem behaviour, but how it manifested to begin with, and what can be done to change it.

The first stage of assessment and intervention is to establish the behaviour to work with (Watson and West, 2006). Within the case study, the problem is the behaviour of Jake who is increasingly violent and aggressive towards his parents and siblings. To establish the intensity and occurrence of his aggression it should be recorded and written down. This will provide clarity and understanding of the nature of the violence, which person(s) are present when he does it and what are the consequences of his behaviour (Watson and West, 2006) The problem behaviour has to be described in terms that are observable and measureable (Howe, 1998). To ensure an accurate documentation of behaviour, partnership should be used with the parents and social worker for empowerment (Watson and West, 2006). A contact either written or verbal can be useful in establishing aims and goals for sessions, and an overall aim for behaviour (Howe, 1998).

Operant conditioning is one of the main theories used in Behavioural Social Work; this is put into practice by the ABC Assessment, which uses the identification of Antecedents, Behaviour and Consequences to help shape wanted behaviour (Hudson and Macdonald, 1998 cited in Watson and West, 2006). The Antecedent – what precedes the behaviour, The Behaviour – in this case aggression and violence, and the Consequence – What happens immediately after the violence i.e Is the behaviour being reinforced? Once all the assessment has been carried out and all the information gathered, the social worker and the service user (parents) must work together to plan a method of intervention which promotes a wanted behaviour, this will be a baseline for intervention (Watson and West, 2006)

The next stage in the process of behavioural intervention is the implementation of the plan to change the unwanted behaviour. For this method to be effective it needs partnership of both parents and the social worker to establish roles, tasks and responsibilities (Howe, 1998). The main task for all involved is to develop appropriate strategies to implement within a certain time frame (Watson and West, 2006), which will enable the social worker to evaluate the process and respond by either changing the strategies or the method implemented. In the case study Jake’s behaviour deteriorated after the new baby was born, so the strategies that could be implemented would involve activities and more contact with his mother, and the rest of the family. Consequences of his bad behaviour should be consistent and happen immediately after an event (Watson and West, 2006). The main aim of Behavioural Intervention and Operant Conditioning is to focus on positive reinforcement rather than punishment, this is to positively change behaviour and motivate Jake to complete goals (Watson and West, 2006).

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How Does Behavioural Intervention Meet the Needs of the Service User?

Behavioural Social Work is effective in meeting the needs of the service user as it is specific, simple and structured. It works in partnership with the parents and gives them an understanding into why their son behaves the way he does, and that Jake’s behaviour is the problem and not Jake. Behavioural intervention is also cost effective and doesn’t rely on financial help, therefore can be used immediately to help and support Jake’s parents, as well as Jake’s behaviour. One of the reasons why this method is widely used is because it is time limited; this allows the social worker to assess if the method is effective and if it is not it can be easily altered or changed.

This method is specifically relevant to the case study as Jake’s behaviour is the problem, which has been learned through time. A positive to this is that it can be unlearned with the help of his parents. To avoid oppressive practice this has to be a method that includes Jake, both his parents and the Social Worker. This will ensure empowerment to Jake’s parents; a less likelihood of powerlessness over Jakes behaviour and a more effective outcome.

Some of the negatives of this method if intervention is that it does not tackle the underlying problems to Jake’s violence, but by using skills, values and knowledge the social worker can talk and support Jake to discover other underlying issues.

Challenges working with this service user

Some of the challenges I would face being a social worker for this case is helping Linda and Michael become more involved in changing Jake’s behaviour. There is a new baby in the home and one other sibling besides Jake, and getting time to respond to Jake’s behaviour may be difficult. There is also no other social support outside the home and Linda is very stressed and “at the end of her tether” with Jake, so getting time to spend with Jake alone may also be complicated. Another problem is that Michael is already threatening about having Jake removed from the home as his behaviour is so bad, so Michael’s patience to assess and implement a behavioural intervention may be limited. To resolve these challenges I would have to use skills such as empathy and active listening, as well as appropriate questioning to gain a full awareness of the situation. The next step would be to involve both parents in trying to understand that Jake’s behaviour is a result of learning and can therefore be unlearned in time, to show both parents that I am there to help and support both them and Jake for the sake of the family.

Some personal challenges I would face as the social worker is trying to understand what it must be like to have three children under the age of ten, and being at a crisis point with one of them. To be so stressed that your husband is threatening to put one of your children into care because of his behaviour towards the rest of the family. I can’t help but feel “how could anyone, through choice, want to put their child into care”. Can things get that terrible that some parent’s cannot see any way out rather than this? I couldn’t help but think that Michael is saying this because he is Jake’s step father and not biological father, but then, I do not have children and therefore have never had a child with behavioural difficulties. But I do understand what stress can do to a person, and how it can seem like there is no way out. I must challenge these stereotypical views on Michael and realise he has raised Jake from six years old, and probably knows a lot more about Jake’s behaviour and the family dynamic than I do, as a Social Worker.


A behavioural method for Social Work was chosen for this case study. It enables the social worker and the service user to work in partnership which is fundamental for a behavioural method to succeed. It includes a step by step process with defined roles and responsibilities to alter behaviour. Operant Conditioning is mainly used as its emphasis is reinforcing positive behaviour, but with punishment which should be consistent and applied immediately. Behavioural Intervention provides the Social Worker with a method which can be implemented swiftly, but can also be evaluated after time for its effectiveness. This provides the social worker with the knowledge to alter a method or implement and new one. Values such as anti-oppressive practice and empowerment are vital to implement this method as they provide the service user with choice, roles and responsibilities. By challenging stereotypical views, a social worker can make informed decisions and support the service user effectively. Over all a behavioural intervention is used to alter behaviour, as it is the behaviour that is the problem, not the person.


  • Howe, D. (1998) An Introduction to Social Work Theory. Ashgate Publishing. Chapter 9
  • Hudson, B. and Macdonald, G. (1986) Behavioural Social Work: An Introduction. London: Macmillan cited in Watson, D. and West, J. (2006) Social Work Process and Practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Payne, M. (1997) Modern Social Work Theory: A Critical Introduction. London: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Sheldon, B. (1995) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Research, Practice and Philosophy. London: Routledge
  • Sheldon, B. and Macdonald, G. (2008) A Textbook of Social Work. London: Routledge. Chapter 7
  • Trevithick, P. (2000) Social Work Skills a Practice Handbook. Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Watson, D. and West, J. (2006) Social Work Process and Practice. Palgrave Macmillan
  • Westen, D. (2001) Psychology: Brain, Behaviour and Culture. Boston: John Wiley and Sons.


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