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Social work is a profession that deals with a wide variety of situations and people. Because of this variety, social work draws from numerous theories, models and practices. Working with individual clients has always been a key focus of social work; however, it was not until the early 1900’s that group work practice was introduced as a viable treatment method. Group work is considered an effective practice because it provides members with a sense of acceptance, mutual-aid, and a setting for socialization (Toseland ; Rivas, 2012).
History of Group Work Practice
Group work practice started to gain recognition first in America and Great Britain, where it was utilized in settlement houses and asylums. By the early 1900’s, group work classes began appearing in the professional schools of social work and social workers began using group work in their practice. Joseph Pratt was of the first to utilize group work practice, while working with clients that were diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1905. Although many were already utilizing group work in their practice, it was not until 1935 at the National Conference of Social Work that group work practice was formally accepted into social work (Toseland & Rivas, 2012).
Group work gained popularity after World War II because of the large population of veteran soldiers needing assistance and the shortage of workers. Because of this shortage of professionals, social workers would lead group therapy to accommodate more than one individual at a time. Later into the 1960’s, group work practice began to decline; this can be attributed to the increase in popularity of education and work programs. In an attempt to bring more attention to group work practice, social workers gathered together in 1979 to attend the First Annual Symposium for the Advancement of Group Work (AASWG). Although the AASWG has recently grown into an international organization, its efforts to popularize group work has not been successful. Although group work has continued to decline into the 21st century, it is still used in the practice of many social workers (Toseland ; Rivas, 2012).
Historically Important Models of Group Work
Group work practice has been influenced by three major historical models: the social goals model, remedial model, and reciprocal model. The social goals model focuses on socializing the group members, as well as making them socially conscious and responsible to their community. The worker serves as a role model to the group and empowers the members to play their part in society. This model also emphasizes member autonomy; therefore, social workers must ensure they are not setting goals for the members but empowering the members to achieve their own goals (Toseland ; Rivas, 2012).
The remedial model focuses on the restoring group members through identifying and correcting dysfunctional behaviors. According to this theory, members will overcome their issues by building effective coping skills. The social worker takes a leadership role, intervening and providing step-by-step treatment plans for the individual. This type of practice tends to be a short-term group and is seen most often in inpatient and outpatient treatment facilities (Toseland ; Rivas, 2012).
Lastly, the reciprocal model recognizes the dual responsibility of an individual; they have the responsibility to influence their environment but are also directly influenced by their environment. The social worker serves to help members find a balance between their personal needs and the demands of society. This model focuses on building adaptive skills and attempting to make the outside environment more responsive to the member’s needs (Toseland & Rivas, 2012).
Important Theories in Group Work Practice
Along with the different models that have shaped group work practice, it has also been influenced by various social work theories. Social workers tend to utilize multiple theories and frameworks in their practice, instead of limiting themselves to one specific theory. Some of these theories include the systems theory, psychodynamic theory, social exchange theory, and narrative theory.
The systems theory recognizes groups as social systems made up of various interdependent individuals. As the environment around system changes, the goal of the group is to adapt to the change and remain at equilibrium. To remain at equilibrium, the system must complete four tasks: integration, adaptation, pattern maintenance, and goal attainment. Integration refers to maintaining a healthy group dynamic; adaption addresses the need to react to external change; pattern maintenance guarantees that the group remains constant in its structure and purpose; and goal attainment ensures that the members focus and achieve their goals. In addition, group workers can practice adaptational skills with the members, in hopes they will react to change effectively in the future (Toseland & Rivas, 2012).
The psychodynamic theory is based of the work of Sigmund Freud. This theory focuses mostly on the behaviors of the individual; however, it has been applied to group work practice as well. According to this theory, the way members act or react is rooted in unresolved past experiences. For example, a group member may become defensive with the group leader because of a past experience with someone in a leadership role. The worker can use these reactions to help sort out and overcome unresolved issues in the past (Toseland & Rivas, 2012).
The social exchange theory focuses on how an individual behaves in a group setting. This theory suggests that each person acts in such a way that will maximize their benefits and minimize their consequences. For example, group members may initiate a conversation because they believe they will be rewarded with acceptance. This theory has received criticism because it portrays humans as solely rational, only performing a certain task for the reward it may bring (Toseland & Rivas, 2012).
Lastly, the narrative theory claims that individuals use their past experiences to create a life-story. These narratives can tend to focus on the negative life events and ignore any positive events or relationships that may have occurred. The worker focuses on empowering the group members to overcome their negative life-narratives and rather focus on their unique qualities. Narrative theory-based activities, such as journaling and mediation, have been found effective in increasing self esteem when implemented in group work (Toseland & Rivas, 2012).
Although group work is losing popularity in the United States, its success in treatment goals has remained constant. Group work practice has been inspired through countless theories and models, providing it with many different perspectives. Group members can benefit, not only from the guidance of the social work, but by gaining insight from fellow peers as well. The effectiveness of this practices lies in the sense of community and mutual aid brought to the group members.

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