This guide is a deep dive into the background and skills that are necessary to become a school social worker. School social workers are tasked with untangling complicated emotional and behavioral dynamics to help facilitate education and learning.
School social workers fill an important and unique role in schools. Their primary focus is to serve as an expert resource on mental health while assisting students, teachers and staff, and families.
In increasing numbers, social workers are employed at all levels of public and private educational institutions, from preschool to high school. This is part of an increasing awareness that the social and emotional needs of students will impact their ability to learn or function in the school environment.
School social workers promote student success by examining home, school, and community factors that interfere with a student’s learning (such as domestic violence, learning disabilities, hunger, etc.). With this unique perspective, they perform a wide variety of functions — ranging from crisis intervention to school-wide programming.
Social workers also provide direct support to students during the school day, often through individual or group meetings.
Because of the complexity — not to mention the stakes involved — school social work can be a challenging and rewarding career. When considering this profession there is some important information to keep in mind.
How to become a school social worker
- Build relevant background knowledge One of the primary requirements for school social workers is a background and coursework in child development, educational systems, and mental health.
- A bachelor’s degree in social work Or a related field such as education, psychology, or human development and family studies. School social work positions usually require, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in social work or a closely related field with applicable work experience (such as psychology, education, etc.). This allows students to pursue specific coursework and supervised field learning experiences focused on school social work.
- Obtain a master’s degree in social work (MSW) many schools will only hire social workers that have an MSW. This degree increases both employment opportunities as well as the rate of pay.
- Additional certifications in school social work many states offer certificates in school social work for MSW graduates. These state certificates often require the completion of specialized courses during a master’s program or through training after graduation. In some instances, this certification is a job requirement. School social workers can also apply to become an NASW Certified School Social Worker Specialist after completing two years of supervised post-MSW experience as a social worker in a school setting.
- Apply for clinical licensure Schools are increasingly seeking social workers who have obtained licensure as a clinical social worker (abbreviated as LCSW, LICSW or LISW). The specific requirements for clinical licensure vary by state, but generally require at least two years post-MSW experience, passing the ASWB clinical examination, and a specified number of hours of supervision by a licensed social worker. Clinical social workers are recognized as having more in-depth knowledge of mental health. In addition, many school districts rely on MSW or BSW interns to meet the student population’s need for services and these interns must be supervised by licensed clinical social workers.
What is a school social worker?
School social workers perform a wide variety of functions and may serve a number of roles. The overarching connection between the various duties is the social worker’s knowledge of mental health and the ability to serve as a resource to students, school staff, and families.
In this career, individuals use the social worker’s ecological perspective to understand student experiences and apply a social justice lens to problems. This means focusing on the total well-being of each student and assistance that extends beyond academics to socio-emotional support and outside resources.
School social work career begins with a focus on helping students who encounter barriers to learning. This help can involve direct classroom support or facilitating individual or group meetings. The social worker also advocates for the interest of the student if services are necessary or changes are needed within the school.
Some students may need support on a single occasion or others may receive regular services. The social worker acts as a safe haven and key resource for students in crises or who experience ongoing need. This extends beyond the classroom, and social workers can make home visits if required.
For school staff, the social worker is a key part of understanding the mental health needs of students. With increasing frequency, schools are seeking to understand how trauma, as well as how physical and mental disabilities impact students. The social worker is a source of expertise on mental health and interventions, as well as educational laws. Teachers often see school social workers as key resources because of their multi-faceted background, as well as the social worker’s ability to support students’ families.
School social workers often assist families by facilitating referrals for outside services. This could include resources to help the family with food or shelter, mental health support, mentoring programs or other opportunities to help the family improve their well-being. These efforts are often critical in helping improve student outcomes but are often not properly addressed without social workers in schools. As with teachers and staff, school social workers are key educators for parents struggling to understand a child’s health condition or behavior.
The American Council on school social work can be a helpful resource for those wanting to learn more about careers as a school social worker.
School social worker requirements and skills
- Bachelor’s degree in social work or related field is usually a standard employment requirement.
- Masters in social work is frequently required to be competitive in the job market.
- Mental health assessment and interventions
- Child development
- Educational laws, particularly federal laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
- Effective collaboration and communication with students, teachers, administrators, and parents
- Empathy and listening
- Assessing and gathering data on behavioral and mental health functioning
- Written communication, record-keeping, and preparation of written reports
- Cultural sensitivity and awareness
- Advocacy and mediation
- Time management, multi-tasking, and prioritization
- Compassionate and approachable personality
- Strong sense of judgment and ethical decision-making
What school social workers do
There is no “typical day” for a school social worker.
Effective social workers in schools are called to assist students, administrators, and families by examining the factors in the home, school and/or community that impact a student’s educational success.
Below is a hypothetical situation to illustrate the complexity of a school social worker’s day-to-day:
The school social worker is called upon by a teacher after a student becomes upset and tears apart the bulletin board in a classroom. The social worker is tasked with understanding the behavior in the context of all the factors in the student’s life.
The school’s initial focus is on the behavioral outburst, but the social worker begins by trying to better understand what was behind the behavior and meets with the student.
The social worker learns that the child’s parents have separated and the student recently moved into a hotel with his mother. This has made it difficult for him to get a healthy meal in the morning. Moreover, the outburst that morning occurred when the other students were being tasked with making Father’s Day cards.
At this juncture, the school social worker is already moving in three directions. He or she is focusing on the student and tending to their immediate needs, including the provision of emotional support. For a young child, this could be facilitated through play or art, reading a book, or practicing/learning grounding or coping tools.
Here, the social worker is using their knowledge of human development to help the student deescalate and build awareness of their experience. The focus on the child includes tending to other basic needs. For example, federal laws guarantee free meals (breakfast and lunch) for low-income students.
The social worker also begins to consider the need and availability of longer-term support. One such opportunity includes a lunch group the worker facilitates for other children of divorced or separated parents.
In the background, the social worker begins identifying additional resources for the family. Through their training, the social worker knows of laws that require the school to provide assistance with transportation during this time. The worker also identifies resources for the family to promote their wellbeing, such as referrals for outside services, housing or shelters, etc.
Here, the school social worker is keenly aware that these steps are critical to really improve the student’s outcomes.
The social worker also recognized that the student’s outburst was connected to the Father’s Day activity. Educating the student’s teacher about the reasons behind the outburst gives the teacher a better opportunity to understand the behavior. The student’s teacher was not aware the child’s parents separated or of how his instability at home impacted emotional wellness.
At this point, the teacher, the social worker, and the student formulate a plan to better assist the student. This includes informal check-ins and reframing some of the classroom activities in awareness of the student’s experience. The social worker also advocates for the student in the context of the teacher’s proposed disciplinary response to the behavior.
This is just one example of one interaction with one student. A school social worker will generally be asked to intervene in multiple cases a week and will also be managing ongoing activities, such as the lunch support group mentioned earlier.
School social worker job description
A school social worker’s responsibilities include:
- Identify students in need of support
- Assessing students for socio-emotional or learning,
- Performing biopsychosocial assessments that examine the biological, psychological, and social factors impacting a student’s problem
- Creating plans to help students improve
- Providing direct therapeutic support to students in individual or group meetings
- Crisis management and assessing safety
- Participating in a multidisciplinary team for treatment and coordinating support
- Respond to student or school crisis situations
- Advocating for student’s best interests and any necessary services
School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA)’s Elements of School Social Work further details the range of direct and indirect services that can be part of this job.
Additional school social worker special training
Certificates and special training requirements will vary depending on the state, type of school (public, private or clinical) and position. Some states will require that social workers in schools obtain a specific certification.
This may require the completion of certain coursework or additional trainings. Each state’s education department or board of education will detail these requirements.
School social worker career outlook
New social workers benefit from a rapidly expanding job market. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 16 percent growth rate in social work jobs for 2016-2026. This rate is more than double the 7 percent growth rate for all other professions.
Child, family, and school social workers have the added advantage of being part of the largest type of social work employment (children, family, and school social workers) and this area alone is expected to add 45,000 new jobs between 2012-2026.
Despite a growing need for social workers in schools, many school districts face budget restrictions that may limit this projected growth. The future employment opportunities in this area may well be determined by federal, state, and local funding resources as well as educational reform.
There is however, widespread concern and increasing attention to student health in awareness of what could happen absent appropriate mental health support.
The aftermath of shootings, serious bullying, and student mental health crises has motivated schools to prioritize such services. This has led to increasing flexibility in the provision of school social work, including by providing these services to students through social workers hired by organizations outside of the school. Given the need for school social workers and the harm that can result without the inclusion of such support, there is a strong likelihood that the job market will continue to expand as predicted.
School social worker salary
As of September 2019, the annual median salary for child, family, and school social workers was $46,270. A number of variables can significantly impact salary, including the type of degree (such as a bachelor’s degree versus a master’s degree) and clinical licensure.
A NASW study of social workers revealed that social workers with a MSW earn approximately $15,000 annually than those with a BSW, and the nationwide median income for school social workers with a MSW is $60,000.
For those wanting to learn more, NASW’s occupational profile of social workers in schools (kindergarten through 12th grade) further distills these salary variables by geographic region, business sector (government/public/non-profit), and years of experience.