Guide to Applying Systemic Practice in Social Work

One of the key purposes of understanding what a systemic social work theory entails is to help practitioners focus on relationships.

Another key purpose is to guide social workers in understanding how individuals are embedded within their social context.

A systemic approach is essential in social work practice as it helps shape the way social work practitioners interact with families, how they build strong trusting relationships, the point of view they take and the solutions they try to find to achieve the best outcomes for vulnerable people using a collaborative approach.

Systemic practice promotes the belief that families and people have the ability to change in most cases.

The approach focuses on problems which are seen to exist in relationships and the wider family context rather than within individuals.

Within a systemic theory, social workers learn to look at what surrounds an individual. This may be the community, professional involvement, family or any support network they may have.

Establishing this helps social workers gain a better insight into an individual’s unique situation to help gain a deeper understanding of how best to support them in achieving the outcomes they wish for themselves.

This article contains:

  • What is systemic theory in social work?
  • What is an example of a system theory in social work?
  • What are the benefits of systemic theory in social work?
  • What are the limitations of systemic theory in social work?
  • What are the key systemic principles?
  • What is the systemic approach systems theory?
  • What are 4 components of systems theory?
  • What are the five types of systems theory?
  • What are the three 3 types of systems?
  • Who created systemic theory?
  • What is systemic conflict theory?
  • What is a systemic approach technique?
  • How can systemic practice be used in social work?
  • Systemic practice tools examples

What is systemic theory in social work?

Systemic theory is an approach which looks at how a system of relationships interact and how change can be managed within such systems.

This involves looking at the relationship between social workers, service users and their support networks to identify problems, find solutions and create better outcomes for individuals.

The aim of this approach is to ensure that people are supported in the most constructive way for their situation.

Systemic theory also considers the uniqueness of each individual’s circumstance and looks at how individuals interact with one another and their environment in order to create change.

Social workers gain a greater understanding of how people may be affected by their surroundings, relationships and community, which helps them develop interventions that can have a positive impact.

Overall, systemic theory in social work provides a holistic lens through which practitioners can view and work with service users to ensure the best possible outcomes for all involved.

By understanding both individual and collective systems, social workers can gain greater insight into how to provide the most effective forms of support and interventions.

This approach is invaluable in helping vulnerable people gain access to the resources and help they need in order to lead a better quality of life.

What is an example of a system theory in social work?

One example of a system theory in social work is the Family Systems Theory.

This approach looks at how families interact and how those relationships can be managed for positive change.

It focuses on the way family members perceive themselves and each other, and how individuals may behave differently depending on the context within which they are interacting.

Family Systems Theory takes into account the way in which family members act and react to each other, as well as how external factors can affect family relationships. It also looks at the cycle of communication within and how this affects problem solving.

This approach is particularly useful for social workers when working with families to help them resolve issues and build stronger relationships.

Overall, systemic theory in social work provides an invaluable approach for social workers to use when understanding and working with vulnerable people and families.

By providing a holistic lens through which practitioners can view situations, interventions can be tailored to the individual’s needs and help facilitate positive change.

In this way, systemic theory ensures that individuals are supported in the most appropriate and effective way for their circumstances.

It is important to remember that the systemic theory is just one approach to social work, and social workers must also know other approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, Karpman drama triangle, person centred practice, psychodynamic theory and solution-focused therapy, among others.

Each individual situation will require its own tailored approach in order to achieve the best outcomes.

Systemic theory is an important part of social work and provides a comprehensive framework to help practitioners properly understand the complexities of individual cases.

By employing systemic approaches, social workers can provide valuable support to those in need.


What are the benefits of systemic theory in social work?

Systemic theory in social work provides numerous benefits, such as:

  1. A comprehensive understanding of how people interact with their environment, family and support networks. This can be beneficial when designing interventions that will have the most positive effect on service users.
  2. An appreciation of the complexity of each individual situation, which helps social workers provide tailored and effective interventions.
  3. A greater understanding of the long-term impact of social work interventions, as systemic theory takes into account both current and future circumstances.
  4. The ability to identify potential problems in a family or other system before they become too difficult to manage or solve.

Systemic theory is a valuable tool for social workers as it helps them better comprehend and work with complex situations.

By utilising systemic theory, practitioners can provide more effective interventions that can ultimately result in improved outcomes for their service users.

What are the limitations of systemic theory in social work?

Systemic theory in social work has some limitations, such as:

  1. It may be difficult to evaluate the impact of interventions when using this approach, as it often focuses on long-term changes.
  2. It can be challenging to identify and measure all the factors that could potentially influence a family or other system.
  3. In some cases, systemic theory does not take into account the impact of external factors, such as poverty or discrimination.
  4. It is important to remember that systemic theory is just one approach to social work, and practitioners must be aware of other approaches in order to ensure effective interventions.

Despite its limitations, systemic theory provides an invaluable approach for social workers when providing support to vulnerable people and families.

By understanding the complexities of each unique situation, social workers can provide tailored interventions that have the greatest potential for positive outcomes.

As a result, Systemic theory is an essential part of social work practice and can help practitioners create meaningful change in their clients’ lives.

What are the key systemic principles?

The key systemic principles include:

  • Interconnectedness – understanding that individual behaviour is influenced by the wider environment, family and support networks.
  • Relational dynamics – recognising how relationships between people can affect how they interact with one another and their environment.
  • Self-determination – acknowledging that individuals have the capacity to make decisions that will affect their circumstances.
  • Feedback loops – realising how actions and interventions can have an impact on the future of a family or system.

What is the systemic approach systems theory?

Systems approach systems theory is a way of looking at how different elements within a system interact to produce the outcomes that they do.

It seeks to understand how individual behaviour, relationships and environmental factors influence one another in order to create different results.

It suggests that by understanding the interactions between these elements, practitioners can identify potential problems before they become too unmanageable and design interventions that will have the most positive effect.

What are 4 components of systems theory?

The four components of systems theory are:

1. Interactions – Recognising how different elements within a system, such as individuals or organizations, interact with one another.

2. Boundaries – Identifying the parameters of the system and understanding the impact of external factors on it.

3. Dynamics – Understanding how the different elements of a system interact and change over time.

4. Equilibrium – Acknowledging how interventions can affect the stability of a system in either positive or negative ways.

By understanding these four components, practitioners can develop interventions that are targeted at specific issues within a given system and have the greatest potential for success.

What are the five types of systems theory?

The five types of systems theory are:

1. General Systems Theory – A holistic approach to understanding relationships between elements within a system.

2. Cybernetics – A method of studying communication and control systems in order to better understand how they interact with one another.

3. System Dynamics – An approach to understanding the dynamics of complex systems, such as stock markets or financial ecosystems.

4. Chaos Theory – Exploring the unpredictable behaviour of nonlinear systems in order to gain insights about how different elements interact with one another.

5. Complexity Theory – Understanding the complexity of interconnected systems and managing it in order to improve efficiency and productivity.

What are the three 3 types of systems?

The three systems of social work are the direct practice system, the administrative system, and the macro-system.

Direct practice involves working with individuals or families to address their specific needs, such as providing counselling or therapy services.

The administrative system focuses on developing policies and procedures related to social service delivery.

Lastly, the macrosystem is concerned with understanding how large-scale societal factors, such as poverty or racism, can impact the lives of individuals.

Who created systemic theory?

Systemic theory was developed by the German biologist and philosopher Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the mid-1900s. He proposed that all phenomena can be understood as systems, with different elements influencing one another to create a whole. His work has been used in many fields, including social work, psychology, ecology, and medicine.

What is systemic conflict theory?

Systemic conflict theory is an approach to understanding how different elements of a system interact with one another in order to produce certain outcomes.

It suggests that the configuration of power within any given system will inevitably lead to tension and disagreement between various elements, which can then be further analyzed in order to identify potential solutions.

This theory has been applied in a variety of different contexts, including social work and politics.

What is a systemic approach technique?

One of the systemic approach techniques is open dialogue.

This technique involves engaging in a non-judgmental and collaborative conversation with clients in order to identify their needs, goals, and issues related to their problem.

It also involves using systemic questions to help the practitioner tie up pieces of information.

This type of communication allows for an exchange of ideas that can help provide practitioners with a more comprehensive understanding of how the client’s environment is impacting their situation and what interventions could be most beneficial in addressing it.

Open dialogue also helps to create a space for clients to feel heard, respected, and supported throughout the process.

Systemic approaches also use other techniques, such as systems mapping, which involves visualising different elements of an issue in order to identify patterns and relationships between them.

Systemic practice tools examples

Essential tools in working systemically will involve:

  1. Dedicated area – the social worker should meet with the client in an area free from distractions.
  2. Initial thinking – this may involve brainstorming to gather initial thoughts on the problems.
  3. A clear understanding of the background information – the social worker may use tools such as a genogram or eco-map to help them understand any patterns of belief and behaviour which may be tracked through generations. These patterns of belief and behaviour may have resulted in problems in daily life. These patterns can also be a source of strength and resilience.
  4. Agreeing on what needs to be done – the social worker may want to agree on timelines and goals with the client.
  5. Explain next actions – the social worker should make the client aware of what they can/cannot do moving forward – this will involve setting clear expectations.

How can systemic practice be used in social work?

Systemic practice theory can be used in the field of social work in child protection cases, where close attention can be placed on the child’s network of support.

Other social work theories such as crisis intervention model, socio-ecological model, narrative approaches, attachment theory and Jean Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory which explores the stages of development can be used alongside systemic theory.

Using an interdisciplinary approach, a social worker can unpick what is happening in a young person’s complex world.

Systemic practice in social work: Conclusion

Effort would have to be made by professionals to help families and individuals achieve the outcomes they wish to achieve.

An understanding of the interconnectedness of individuals, families, and society can help professionals seek solutions to problems.


1. Social Work Today. (2019). What Is Systemic Theory in Social Work? Retrieved from

2. Ricketts, S. (2014). What is Systemic Practice? Retrieved from

3. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2018). Systemic Theory and Practice in Child Welfare Services: An Overview of the Components of Systemic Practice. Retrieved from

4. Quinton, D., & Ringer, S. (2020). Introduction to Systemic Social Work: Theory and Practice in Context (1st ed.). Sage Publications Ltd. Retrieved from

5. Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme. (2017). Systemic Practice: What is it? Retrieved from

6. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). (2017). Systemic Theory and Practice: An Overview. Retrieved from Useful Resources

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