“The main elements of task-centred practice are best described as the building blocks which create the complete system. Each one is needed. Therefore each one needs to be understood, and to be integral to the worker’s approach.”

(Davies 2002: 107)

“The task-centred approach is based on the view that we are more likely to act ourselves into a new way of thinking, than we are likely to think ourselves into a new way of acting.”

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(Doel & Marsh 1992: 20)

Task-centred approach is probably one of the most researched approaches and one of the most commonly used approach to problems (Parton & O’Byrne 2000: 159). It was developed out of research into effective social work practice, so was devised specifically for social work. It arose in the late 60’s and challenged the long-term psychodynamic emphasis of social work. As it has influenced social work so dramatically, it is often cited by workers and some elements are now common practice, which was very radical at the time. It is individualist rather than radical tradition and does not call for social change. It has been further-developed through research, and is described as ‘short-term; time-limited; problem-solving’ (Price 2005: 1).


Task-centred practice was originally based on work of an American academic called Bill Reid. There were a series of studies which were carried out. These included:

* Reid & Shyne (1969).

* Reid & Epstein (1972).

* Goldberg et al. (1977, 1985).

* Reid (1978, 1985).

* Doel & Marsh (1992: Adaptation).

These earlier researches by Reid & Shyne (1969) concluded that, often long-term intervention which ran all the way to completion was no more effective than intervention which was stopped early. The users would come to the same conclusion if not earlier. Planned short-term work was as effective as open-ended work.

Reid and Epstein (1972) published the first book describing ‘task-centred practice’. They translated research and designed elements of a Task-Centred Model (Price 2005: 1).

Although early research prompted a change in the way social work agencies delivered services, later research by Goldberg et al. (1977) concluded negative findings in relation to task-centred practice. This will be explored in depth further on.

Theoretical Framework

Task-centred practice ‘borrows from a range of other theories. It can be seen as ‘borrowing from these theories for these following reasons:

* Behavioural Theory: By helping people learn how to develop problem-solving skills.

* Social Learning Theory: By using targets, tasks and rehearse.

* Systems Theory: By acknowledging the impact of the environment.

Task-centred practice borrows and therefore has similarities with other theoretical approaches. It can be seen as having similarities to crisis intervention also. The basis of this may be because majority of the research around the effectiveness of task-centred practice was carried out on users in crisis situations.

Both methods handle significant social, emotional and practical difficulties (Coulshed & Orme 1998: 125).


Reid & Shyne (1969)

In North America Reid & Shyne (1969) carried out a four-year study into brief versus extended case work. Clients in a large voluntary agency dealing with family welfare were offered two contrasting ‘packages’ of social work intervention: one was an experimental brief service of planned short-term treatment (PSTT), consisting of eight interviews; the other was the usual practice in the agency of long-term service lasting up to eighteen months. The result was that the clients in the short-term group improved more than those given the continued service.

Reid & Shyne (1969) hypothesised that once help is extended beyond a certain point, clients may loose confidence in their own ability to cope and become more dependent on the worker or the agency where they have developed a kind of negative attachment (Coulshed & Orme 1998: 116-117). The key points and main vital themes of Reid and Shyne’s experiment was that brief periods of service, concentrating on limited goals chosen by the client, were more often effective and more durable then open-ended work. The basis of this may have been that setting a time limit led to the expectation that rapid change would occur, which increases the motivation and energy of all the people involved.

Goldberg et al.

However, around the time when this approach was being developed in North America, identical research was being conducted in the UK by Goldberg et al. (1977). They had found that the model used by a social service department area in team in Buckinghamshire, applied to only a minority of clients. Those with a need for practical resources who acknowledged that they had a problem were better off. Involuntary/unwilling service users or those with a chronic, complex problem were less amenable.

Doel & Marsh (1992: Adaptation)

In the UK, Doel & Marsh carried out an adaptation to the task-centred approach. They came up with a number of ways to improve the approach.

* The worker and the client should work together and separately on tasks.

* Recommendation of the use of written contracts.

* Emphasis on a clear mandate for action, which to be either the service-users motivation/wishes or from the courts.

Included was a simple diagram to show and assist the overall process of the work and emphasizing the key role of the agreement that specifies problem and goals and the tasks that link the two.

Advantages to Task-centres Approach

There are many advantages to task-centred practice. The main advantage is that task-centred practice does not mean simply assigning tasks, which is most common in behavioural and family therapies. It is a very well researched, feasible, and cost-effective method of working. It also takes into account not only individual, but also collective experiences. The source of the problem is not presumed to reside in only the service-user. Attention is paid to external factors such as welfare rights and housing, and where there is scope to supply ‘power’ it is taken in the form of information and knowledge giving. It also addresses the strengths of people and their networks. And it does not rely on the notion of self-disclosure via a one-way, vertical helping relationship. It attempts to put worker and client on the same level (Coulshed & Orme 1998: 123).

These are some of the various advantages:

* It is very collaborative and user-centred.

* Task focus enables worker to assess motivation, confidence, skills, resources and knowledge.

* Offers hope and enables success to be demonstrated.

* Time-limited.

* Easier to review outcomes.

* Designed for social work.

(Price 2005: 10)


It can be identified easily the advantages to task-centred practice. The disadvantages and drawbacks are not as easy, as they are based on research. Research is important and vital as it enables us to see the drawbacks from within practice. Therefore, it is not only looking at the approach widely and hypothesising disadvantages, but instead actually putting the approach into practice and gathering relevant information to analyse any negative conclusions.

These are the disadvantages to task-centred practice which are mainly drawn from a researched basis. These are:

* As it is so focused and precise, underlying problems or issues requiring longer term approaches may not be uncovered or addressed.

* Requires quite sustained efforts from service-users: who may sometimes unable to do this, due to physical or emotional strength.

* Clients may be overwhelmed by problems and unable to deal with them in a structured way.

* Not easily used with people who do not wish to engage with the social worker.

* Service-users with cognitive impairments, some learning disabilities and mental health problems, may not be able to use this model. It is too structured and focused. Although, in these circumstances, the model might be used with the person’s carer.

Although this is a negative for the approach, there are positive gains for the social worker who overall improved their capacity for clearer thinking and forward planning, which in turn brings on successful intervention. It became more realistic to tackle small, manageable objectives, rather than vague global ones (Coulshed & Orme 1998: 119).

Presently, task-centred practice is dealing with eight problem areas. These problem areas have definite steps which have to be taken in the process of problem-solving.

The eight problem areas are:

* Interpersonal conflict.

* Dissatisfaction in social relations.

* Problems with formal organisations.

* Difficulties in role performance.

* Problems of social transition.

* Reactive emotional stress.

* Inadequate resources.

* Behavioural problems.

(Coulshed & Orme 1998: 118)

Overall, task-centred practice is like activity working. It is combined of key phases to be completed and so requires a structure, dedication and clear and coherent time-scaling. It is like building up levels to acquire the preferred outcome. Each level would have to be completed and planned carefully and fully before enacting this approach.

“The main elements of task-centred practice are best described as the building blocks which create the complete system. Each one is needed. Therefore each one needs to be understood and to be integral to the worker’s approach.”

(Davies 2002: 107)


Coulshed, V. and Orme, J. (1998). Social Work Practice – An Introduction. Hampshire: Palgrave.

Davies, M. (2002). Companion to Social Work. 2nd edn. London: Blackwell.

Doel, M. and Marsh, P. (1992). Task-centred Social Work. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Parton, N. and O’Byrne, P. (2000). Constructive Social Work – Towards a new practice. Hampshire: Palgrave.

Price, J. (2005). Social Work Theory, Methods and Skills – Task-Centred Practice. UK: Brighton University.

Social Work Theory, Methods ; Skills

Social workers can be seen as mediators between clients and the wider state apparatus. The relationship is a double-edged one, consisting of elements of care and control – both potential empowerment and potential oppression. A social work practice which does not take account of oppression and discrimination cannot be seen as good practice (Thompson 2001: 11).

A social workers main priority should be to help people in need and to strive to address social problems. Social workers should respect the unique value and dignity of every person they encounter, irrespective of their family origin, ethnicity, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, age, family status, beliefs, political affiliation, mental and physical abilities, social and economic status or their overall contribution to society.

In relation to the case scenario, a Youth Offending Team has just received a referral of a 16 year old, white British woman named Wendy. The above oppressive and discriminatory factors need to be taken into account and if identified, addressed. When encountering any service user and adopting an approach the social worker should work with an ethical and value base, when working jointly or independently.

Wendy is the client and her mother and her social network would be key people. When receiving a referral it is important to be clear firstly who the client is and any other key individuals.

It is also beneficial to the social worker and the service-user to be clear of the purpose of the referral. It may be the service user’s motivation/wishes or those of the court. It enables successful intervention and a clear, comprehensive, understanding for the service user of why they are there. The YOT has received this referral due to Wendy been given a final warning after admitting a second offence of shoplifting. This has been referred onto the social worker.

When a referral comes through and the client and key individuals have been identified, the next step for the social worker would be to identify main components and problems, significant things which have been observed or said (if contact has been made) and how the problems may be understood or explained. For the social worker this would be a task which would need careful consideration, planning and analysis.

As Wendy has been in the care of social services since she was 13 years old, the social worker has the advantage of a case file which may have relevant history to Wendy’s case at present. Wendy’s case file has a very complex personal history, as she has been in the care of social services for 4 years, due to her mother not being able to care for her because of alcohol use, and she was subjected to physical violence on several known occasions. There has been no contact with Wendy, but a telephone conversation, where she stated she was low in mood. This may be due to a history of drug use (mostly amphetamines) which has now escalated. Significant events which have happened at present would also need to be identified. Due to the fact that Wendy is now 6 months pregnant, will be homeless in a weeks time and is in debt, means that coherent, concise, quick action is needed.

With all this complex information the next course of action for the social worker would be to adopt an approach. The best approach to fit the service user’s needs and the social workers objective would be task-centred approach. It best fits the service user’s needs as it involves working in close collaboration with her, in order to agree specific goals or outcomes and to identify what steps and tasks are needed. It is very structured and person-centred and can be oriented to alleviate the most pressing problems. Wendy needs this structure and time-limited approach, as her needs at present are in the short-term. For the social worker, it means the main objective of determining the causes of Wendy’s offending behaviour and assisting in general support and help to set up a programme of activities, to address her behaviour and prevent further offending can be addressed quickly. In turn, the service users and the social worker’s motivation and determination will increase.

Task-centred approach is the best approach to use because of these reasons, but also because it allows the service user to be independent, learn and improve skills, build on strengths and abilities and also to reflect on the reality of their lives and relationships. Of course there are other approaches which would be applicable to use in Wendy’s situation. A client-centred approach would be applicable as it values all forms of experiences for itself and allows people to find their own way in their own time.

Wendy may feel comfortable with this as there is no time scale. It however, would not help as it focuses strongly on the individual and individual change, and has little recognition of societal influences and pressures. This would not help Wendy as societal influences such as; housing, finance, and social status may have caused her drug use and offending behaviour. On the other hand, psychoanalytic concepts may be useful as they help us to understand human behaviour. This could allow an insight into why Wendy takes drugs, has become pregnant at a young age and reasons behind her offending behaviour. It will not however address again external factors, social causes and cultural influences which may hinder acceptance and the outcome of her case.

The social worker still has to think about how Wendy will act in response to a task-centred approach. A task-centred approach relies on the effort, determination and willingness of the service user to participate. At present, Wendy is willing to participate and receive support and help, as she has reviewed her current situation and is not happy. Although this is the case now, the social worker has to have a contingency plan whereby preparation is made in case Wendy decides not to participate. Although Wendy has no flexibility as she has been referred due to offending and her current situation will falter even more if help is not given, she may be prepared to not collaborate so rigidly and structured.

The social worker will have to assess Wendy’s ability, motivation, skills, knowledge and resources to undertake a particular task or achieve a specific goal or outcome. In the worst case scenario, and it is determined that Wendy does not have these abilities, the social worker can still adopt a task-centered practice, but tailor it to Wendy’s circumstances by, enhancing her capabilities and strengths as a main goal or aim. This will overall empower her. If Wendy does become unwilling, the social worker can engage with her by exploring how it is that others see her as having a problem, or being a problem, by taking Wendy out of the situation. Also to discuss how the situation is affecting her, whether there is something she would like to be changed, and whether there is something she could do that would free her from interference in her life.

A lot of Wendy’s problems are due to social causes such as poverty, unemployment and non-existent housing and support. Therefore her problems will not be easily overcome without social or political change. Task-centred approach can easily lose a social dimension, so it is important that the social worker and service user addresses the social problems Wendy has encountered. Radical social work would view this negatively as the approach grew out of dissatisfaction with approaches that took little or no account of wider social factors, particularly class, poverty and deprivation. It must be recognized that majority of social work clients are likely to be exposed to one or more forms of discrimination. Radical social work and emancipatory practice, should inform the social workers practice, therefore at all times.

After the initial information is gathered and the relevant first course of action is decided and enacted, the social worker would have to decide what the next course of action would be. As the social worker is adopting a task-centered approach, the stages of the social work process are very clear, concise and structured. A mandate for work has previously been established and introduced. The social worker determined who the client was, what areas of compulsion existed, the choices of the service user, what the main issues surrounding the user was and possible ways the user may react to the approach.

The next step for the social worker is to go into depth and explore the problems with the service user. Problems can be defined by Reid (1978) as unmet or unsatisfied wants as perceived by the service user. The best way for this to be established would be through an interview with Wendy. One way to interview is as a ‘conversation with a purpose’. That is the social worker would design it so it meets specific and a pre-determined purpose. Here there needs to be good planning and preparation.

Before the interviewing would take place, the social worker has to make clear her role which is to, make explicit the time-limits to Wendy and any agencies involved, to assist in the problem-search and target and task-setting by which Wendy’s problems would be reduced and solutions found. Wendy’s role would also have to be defined for her, in an easily accessible, comprehensive, understandable way.

Wendy’s role will be to identify desirable and feasible goals and to specify tasks and sub-tasks, and prioritise this in a working agreement with the social worker. Once the roles have been established, the social worker would then move into the initial interview, where Wendy will be briefed on the purpose of the interview. The social worker and Wendy would then explore the problems she is facing, ideally by Wendy but can be identified by the social worker but then discussed. The social worker and Wendy would then formulate the problems clearly, as specifically as possible and try to separate inter-linked problems.

The social worker would then have to address whether or not the problems fall into the specific categories in which task-centred work has been shown to be effective. If not, it might hinder the overall process and outcome. Wendy fits directly into the categories which according to Reid (1978, 1985) would be:

* Role-performance – Becoming a parent and her ability to perform.

* Lack of adequate supportive social networks – Isolation?

* Dealing with formal agencies – Benefits, Housing?

* Transition: roles, circumstances – Change from teenager to parent.

* Inadequate material resources – Financial?

* Behavioural problems – Offences of shoplifting.

* Reactive emotional distress – Depression or low mood as result of problem.

Actual problems in different categories can be inter-connected, such as Wendy’s drug use, unemployment and lack of money.

The social worker has now established a mandate for work, explored problems and issues, and decided how the problems fit into the task-centred approach. The next stage of the social work process according to task-centred practice is to rank and prioritise these problems.

Many potential service users will have more than one want; these are prioritized at the assessment stage and usually no more than three are targeted. Once agreed, these problems become the basis of the goals of the work. Where, when and with whom these problems arise is explored, as are the consequences of behaviors, the meaning the problem has for the person and for significant others, and also the social context.

There are various tools which can be helpful to Wendy and the social worker to clarify the problems and importance of these like Milner & O’Byrne (1998) came up with a problem scale.

Three considerations will arise at this point:

* What needs to be done or changed?

* What constraints make this difficult?

* What tasks will be required of the service user and/or the worker,

* Mainly the service user, in order to begin to improve matters?

The social worker will need various skills during this process, which would entail engaging with the task and the purpose of the interview. A rapport would have to be build with Wendy through empathy and sympathy through self-knowledge and intuition. The social worker will have to confirm what is being said and heard and stick to the point as the interview has a purpose.

As task-centred practice can be tailored to the service user, the social worker has to have a contingency plan for all aspects of the social work process and tailor these on how to deal with what problems might arise and anticipate the best way to deal with any. The social worker will want Wendy to leave with an increased sense of self-confidence, self-respect and energy, because she feels as though she has been heard, and the meanings of her experiences have been understood. Wendy’s hardship and oppression she has encountered may be a limitation to her participation through-out the interview. The social worker must be aware of the power and structural inequalities in the relationship, which may cause un-vocal participation in Wendy, so empowerment is key and essential and Wendy must feel as though her multiple oppression of being young and pregnant are not viewed negatively, but as a sign of her strength.

When the problems have been identified and assessed, the social worker must then review and reflect on the whole interview and ask questions. It must be identified in order to move to the next stage, whether or not Wendy accepts the need to work on the problems acknowledges the problems and is in the position to work on these.

The meeting of a want is equivalent to reaching a goal. It is stressed the need for clearly defined realistic goals that are salient to the service user; however, there may be a tendency among some social workers to busy themselves with tasks and miss out on the work of identifying goals, which in turn makes evaluation difficult. The social worker will have to stay focused and in turn will help Wendy to. The task-centred approach sees the clarification of goals and how these can be obtained as a crucial step in the assessment and helping process.

The next step is task selection. This entails working out with Wendy which tasks could be attempted to bring about change. A wide range of tasks is usually developed, and these are discussed, the social worker and Wendy collaboratively assessing which would be the most useful, which are within Wendy’s capability and, if they are not immediately capable of being done, how much help, coaching and rehearsal the Wendy would need in order to be able to do them. If outside resources are needed, the assessment needs to consider what are they and who should get them.

In this step of the assessment process, decisions are made jointly with Wendy, discussing the task options available and considering:

* The potential benefits of each;

* The work involved in carrying them out;

* Any obstacle that may make a task difficult;

* What practice, rehearsal or guidance may be needed;

* The overall plan for carrying out the task; and

* How and when progress will be reviewed.

It is only at this stage, having made the above preliminary assessment, that tasks can be selected or set.

The social worker and Wendy may decide the best goals to achieve and how they would be prioritized and achieved, based on a task-centred approach would be to:

(1) Housing and Benefits.

* The tasks chosen to enable this goal to be reached would firstly be a reciprocal task, where the social worker will get the relevant information and guidance on benefits Wendy is entitled to, and in turn Wendy will apply for them. This will empower her and also enable independence. The social worker in terms of Wendy’s housing will do all the relevant steps necessary to house her or explore the possibilities and safety of her and the baby moving back with her mother. This is prioritized at number one, due to Wendy currently being in debts and becoming homeless in a weeks time.

(2) Stop her offending behavior.

* This is the basis for her referral. The task chosen may be a Reversal task. Wendy would be responsible for doing the opposite of what she has been doing to tackle the problem, i.e shoplifting. This is prioritized as number two, as if she re-offends this can hinder the whole process, and she can end up in more difficulties. A number of programmes and activities will also be set-up along side this to prevent further offending.

(3) Stop her drug use.

* The task which will be used for this goal to be achieved would be an exploratory task. The social worker and Wendy will examine the problem in more depth and past history. Within a set time-limit they will move onto incremental tasks, where the tasks will increase in difficulty as Wendy builds confidence and skills. The relevant agencies will be notified as Wendy is 6 months pregnant and her drug use can affect the baby. Although this will involve more work, there will be a short-term time scale, due to the long-term affects of drug use, especially amphetamines.

When reviewed, all interventive tasks provide useful information not only about the problem, but also about the most helpful way of addressing it, about the motivation and capacity of the service user and about the likely time and effort that will be required. The final step, therefore, is task review. If the tasks are carried out and some progress is found, the assessment is well on its way to completion; we already know what needs to be done – it is only a matter of estimating how long it will take to complete.

If, however, the tasks are not done, or they have made no difference, we know that further analyses and changes are required. If the tasks are completed but ineffective, this is valuable information that will increase the likelihood those more effective tasks can be and will be designed. So the step of task selection is retaken.

(Milner & O’Byrne 1998: 130-145)

There are a lot of skills needed at all the stages of the social work process, when adopting a task-centred approach. There has to be clear preparation for before the interview, like the time and place, purpose, who is the right person, linguistic sensitivity, and any other people who need to be involved and contingency plans. In conducting the interview a range of skills need to be applied.

There is the importance of active listening. As mentioned earlier, Wendy needs to go away from the interview feeling as though she has been heard and her opinions have been understood. Direction of the interview needs to be focused, and stay in line with the purpose. Partnership and empowerment are the key skills which need to apply at all stages. The social worker can do simple tasks which make a big difference like, boosting her self-esteem, identifying and removing barriers and recognizing discrimination and oppression.

In conclusion, high-quality professional practice needs a cogent and coherent theoretical base, accompanied by a relevant model and relevant techniques. Task-centred work has been a pioneer of the linking of research, practice and policy (Davies 2002: 112). There are a few disadvantages of this approach if it is used to rigorously. The approach does state it is value-free and ‘intrinsically’ non-oppressive, but I believe there can still be further efforts made to address issues of empowerment and anti-oppressive practice.

The best thing about task-centred practice is that it is open to other approaches and services and can link them via tasks. Task-centred practice derived from a research perspective which also has its drawbacks. Researcher bias can enter into data collection and can bias the design of the study. The sources or subjects may not all be equally credible. There is also the fact that background information can be missing and the subject may have been previously influenced and would affect the outcome of the study. Overall, the study group may not represent the larger population.


Milner, J. and O’Byrne, P. (1998). The Handy Tourist Map: Task-centred approaches. In Assessment in Social Work. Macmillan.

Thompson, N. (2000). Understanding Social Work – Preparing for practice. Hampshire: Palgrave.


Adams, R. (1996). Social Work and Empowerment. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Banks, S. (2001). Ethics and Values in Social work. 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Clark, C. (2000). Social Work Ethics. Politics, Principles and Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Coulshed, V. and Orme, J. (1998). Social Work Practice – An Introduction. Hampshire: Palgrave.

Cr�me, P. and Lea, M.R. (2003) Writing at University – A guide for students. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Davies, M. (2002). The Blackwell Companion to Social Work. 2nd edn. London: Blackwell.

Doel, M. and Marsh, P. (1992). Task-centred Social Work. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Milner, J. and O’Byrne, P. (1998). The Handy Tourist Map: Task-centred approaches. In Assessment in Social Work. Macmillan.

Parton, N and O’Byrne, P. (2000). Constructive Social Work – Towards a new practice. Hampshire: Palgrave.

Price, J. (2005). Social Work Theory, Methods and Skills – Task-Centred Practice. UK: Brighton University.

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Trevithick, P. (2000). Social Work Skills. A Practice Handbook. Buckingham: Open University Press.


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