In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Task-Centered Practice

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Manuals
  • History and Development
  • Critiques and Debates
  • Core Principles, Strategies, and Techniques
  • Applications to Families and Groups
  • Applications in Management
  • Teaching and Supervision
  • International Applications
  • Evaluation and Research Strategies

Social Work Task-Centered Practice
Tina L. Rzepnicki
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0150


The task-centered approach to social work, developed by William J. Reid (b. 1928–d. 2003) and Laura Epstein (b. 1914–d. 1996) at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration in the 1970s, directly challenged traditional notions of psychodynamic practice and became one of the most influential practice models in the period that followed. A prototype of what today is called “evidence-based practice,” its research has been central to its emergence and ongoing evolution: first, by calling on the practitioner to make use of empirical knowledge in practice and to evaluate systematically the outcomes of problem-solving efforts; and second, by designing the model in such a way that its operations and outcomes could be systematically evaluated and the model revised. The central principles of task-centered practice have been folded into basic social work textbooks, even as it continues to develop as a discrete model and to be disseminated internationally. It is a brief, structured, and systematic approach to help clients resolve problems in living. Its hallmarks include these principal features: placing the social worker and the client on more equal footing by addressing a limited set of target problems of high interest to the client and eliciting the client’s agreement on desired outcomes and means for achieving them; action-based problem-solving steps that are carefully planned and implemented between sessions; regular problem/task review and evaluation; and planned termination. The task-centered model has been built on basic tenets of eclecticism, drawing on a range of theories limited only by their ability to help in defining and assessing clients’ problems in living, to guide efforts to resolve these problems, and to be testable. The task-centered approach has been implemented and tested in a broad range of settings and with diverse client groups.

General Overviews

Overviews of task-centered practice abound, and most are authored by the originators of the model or their first-generation students. Because of the prominence of the approach, a model overview is included in every important social work reference. Fortune, et al. 2009; Fortune and Reid 2011; and Kelly 2009 are cases in point. Peter Marsh (Marsh 1991, Marsh 2008) offers overviews from a British perspective, although he distinguishes British from US practice as necessary. Some pieces include interpretation regarding the place of task-centered approach in the current context of practice (Kelly 2009) and its fit within a generalist practice framework (Tolson 2001). Issues and limitations in its use are fully acknowledged in Marsh 1991, Marsh 2008, and Fortune and Reid 2011. Reid 1997 focuses on research conducted on the task-centered model to give the reader an understanding of the model’s empirical foundations and contributions.

  • Fortune, Anne, and William J. Reid. 2011. Task-centered social work. In Social work treatment. 5th ed. Edited by Francis J. Turner, 513–532. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Underlying assumptions regarding the nature of psychosocial problems, action as a change strategy, the nature of the practitioner-client relationship, and the importance of contextual change are presented. Overview describes central problem-solving activities and adaptations for families, groups, and case management, then closes with discussion of situations suitable and unsuitable for the approach and a review of the effectiveness research. A brief case example is provided.

  • Fortune, Anne E., William J. Reid, and Deborah P. Reyome. 2009. Task-centered practice. In Social workers’ desk reference. 2d ed. Edited by Albert R. Roberts, 227–240. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A detailed but concise overview of task-centered hallmarks, principles, and strategies, with examples. Includes an interview outline for each phase of intervention and an expanded case illustration.

  • Kelly, Michael. 2009. Task-centered practice. In Encyclopedia of social work. 20th ed. Edited by Terry Mizrahi and Larry E. Davis, 197–199. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Kelly does a masterful job of providing an overview of key practice principles and evolution of the approach. Particularly enlightening is his analysis of why task-centered practice does not seem to get the prominence it deserves in the larger social work community, as well as his perspective on the relationship of the task-centered approach to evidence-based practice.

  • Marsh, Peter. 1991. Task centered practice. In Handbook of theory for practice teachers in social work. Edited by Joyce Lishman, 157–170. London: Kingsley.

    In addition to describing the hallmarks of the task-centered approach, Marsh provides the most extensive discussion to date of limitations and issues in its use.

  • Marsh, Peter. 2008. Task-centred work. In The Blackwell companion to social work. 3d ed. Edited by Martin Davies, 121–128. Oxford: Blackwell.

    The task-centered model is presented as a theoretically coherent set of principles, including basic underlying assumptions: for example, that true engagement is voluntary and has complications; that effective work typically combines several services for one client; and that problem solving builds on client strengths, often involves more than one person, and requires collaboration.

  • Reid, William J. 1997. Research on task-centered practice. Social Work Research 21.3: 132–137.

    DOI: 10.1093/swr/21.3.132

    A concise summary of research findings that have informed ongoing model development. The task-centered model is conceptualized in relation to social work practice in general; the author discusses the plethora of research that has been conducted since its inception, including research on the structure of the model (especially its brief time limits), and correlates of positive outcomes. Reid offers future directions for the model, involving broader dissemination to various client populations.

  • Tolson, Eleanor R. 2001. The task-centered model. In Theoretical perspectives for direct social work practice: A generalist-eclectic approach. Edited by Peter Lehmann and Nick Coady, 203–220. New York: Springer.

    As in other overviews, a brief history, key assumptions, problem-solving activities, applications, and common criticisms are presented. Highlighted is compatibility with the generalist-eclectic framework, especially with regard to problem-solving structure and theoretical openness, holistic assessment and multisystem focus, attention to the therapeutic relationship, and fit with current perspectives on empowerment, diversity, and strengths focus. An excerpt from an interview transcript is included.

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