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Being able to integrate both theory and practice is an important aspect of social care work. Across an educational programme students learn about many different theories, approaches and perspectives, drawing on disciplines from the social sciences such as sociology and psychology. Theory can help us to understand or make sense of someone's situation or behaviour. Sometimes students (and practitioners!) can identify a number of theories that might 'fit' in relation to a particular situation. That is because there is no one cohesive theory underpinning the work, rather a plethora of theoretical insights, research findings, methods, models and approaches which help workers to engage in the complex process of sense-making. As human beings, we are meaning-making creatures. Theory helps us to understand where the person might be coming from and what their experience might have been, while also offering a conceptual framework on which to hinge intervention on.


Collingwood (2005) draws a useful distinction between 'theories to inform' versus 'theories to intervene' in his Three-Stage Model. 'Theories to inform' are theories, perspectives and approaches that help us to understand where the service user is coming from or how their experience may have shaped their behaviour. 'Theories to intervene' refer to those we can use to intervene appropriately and underpin evidence informed interventions. The same theory might be used to inform and intervene. For example, imagine you are working with a young person in out-of-home care who is going through a difficult time and engaging in behaviours that are challenging to us. You may look at their behaviour through an attachment lens, helping you to understand the impact that relational trauma has had on this particular young person (this is your 'theory to inform'). You may also tailor interventions around these unmet attachment needs, such as providing consistency and routine, attuned and sensitive care-giving, access to therapeutic support and so forth (this is your theory to intervene).


There are a multitude of theories and approaches that can shed light on where a service user might be coming from. You may have learned about resilience, feminist theory, bio-ecological systems theory, attachment theory, conflict theory, critical race theory, to name but a few. However, It is important to remember that life is messy and complex, and no one theory offers the entire truth, rather a lens through which you can examine, explore, sense-check. People that we work with are experts of their own experience and may have a lot to share with you about what that experience has been for them and where they might be coming from. You may have also learned about evidence informed approaches such as solution focused work or strengths based practice. Often in the context of the work, your approach is rarely purist, and workers integrate many approaches all at once. This links back in with the 'toolbox' of the social care worker, which you can read more about in the 'self' section. 

If you are interested in reading more about applying theory to practice you can check out some resources here:

  • Collingwood, P. (2005). Integrating theory and practice: The Three-Stage Theory Framework. Journal of Practice Teaching, 6(1), 6-23. 

  • Gentle-Genitty, C., Chen, H., Karikari, I. & Barnett, C. (2014). Social Work theory and application to practice: The students’ perspective. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice, 14(1), pp. 36-47

  • Grey, M. & Webb, S.A. (2013). Social Work Theories and Methods, 2nd Ed. Sage Publications

  • Another tool that can be useful in identifying relevant theories and approaches is Murdoch's Fishbone diagram, a visual and collaborative tool for problem solving. Available from: ​

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