The following guide is about the process of being certified at the state level as a school social worker and how to earn a school social work certification from NASW. It also includes information about how to prepare for a career in school social work and describes university-based certificate programs in school social work. Finally it provides information about continuing education for school social workers.In this guide
- School social work certification
- State-specific requirements
- Specializing in school social work
- Online training
- Continuing education
- Job outlook
School social work is a specialized area of social work practice. School social workers bring unique knowledge and skills to schools, student services teams, and school districts. School social workers are trained mental health professionals who provide individual and group counseling to students within the school setting.
They are integral to developing and administering 504 plans and independent education plans (IEPs) for students with learning disabilities or physical, mental, emotional, or cognitive challenges (read about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act here). School social workers are expected to follow and uphold all standards set for the profession of social work by the National Association of Social Work (NASW).
School social workers are involved in a number of school and districtwide initiatives to combat bullying and prevent violence in schools. They may be involved in developing school anti-bullying initiatives and policies and nitiatives to combat racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other discriminatory behavior by students.
Social workers support teachers and administrators in fostering positive student behavior inside and outside the classroom through social emotional learning curricula and workshops. School social workers may be involved in securing funding for mental health and programs from foundations or government funding sources.
NASW school social work certification
- social work ethics
- program development and management skills
- social work modalities and procedures
- theories of human behaviors and development
- characteristics of student populations
- methods of school social work practice
- multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary activities
- public education
- federal and state laws
State-specific school social worker certification requirements
Each state department of education, rather than a federal agency, sets educational, training, and certification requirements for holding the position of school social worker in that state. Therefore requirements vary from state to state; these requirements are important because they provide clear guidelines for professional competencies, qualifications, and training.
NASW recommends all school social workers hold an MSW, but states ultimately have the power to require a minimum level of education and other certification requirements for the position of school social worker. Most have very rigorous standards and requirements.
For example, to be a school social worker in New York State, you must obtain a provisional, then a permanent, certification. To be provisionally certified, applicants must have a BSW and in the process of earning their MSW. They also must have field experience in a school setting.
For permanent certification applicants must have two years of experience in a school setting, an MSW, and be NYS Licensed Master Social Worker or Licensed Clinical Social Worker. School social workers must also complete several mandatory workshops (e.g., mandated reporting) and undergo a criminal background check.
In Pennsylvania, aspiring school social workers must obtain a state issued Social Worker Education Specialist Certificate. They must have an MSW and hold a current license as a social worker (LSW) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). All candidates must have one year of experience delivering satisfactory school social work services to an educational agency located in the state.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education requires schools of social work to prepare future school social workers to work within the state’s educational framework related to curriculum, instruction, materials and resources for instruction, fair assessments, and appropriate interventions of the state’s educational system.
Candidates also must be educated in and demonstrate knowledge of NASW’s core skills and knowledge for social workers (see listed above). University-based school social work certification programs have been developed in the state to help candidates gain the knowledge and experience they need to be certified..
Smaller states often have requirements for certification similar to what is required in larger states. In Idaho, for their initial “endorsement,” aspiring school social workers must have an MSW and a social work license from the state. They must apply for a pupil services staff certificate from the state every five years to renew their school social work endorsement.
Applicants must have completed a practicum in a school setting during their graduate studies or have extensive post-LMSW experience working with children and families. Applicants must show proof of taking a school social work course at their university and submit a letter of recommendation.
In New Mexico, there is an initial licensing process and then a renewal process. For the initial license, applicants must hold a BSW or MSW and have a social work license issued by the New Mexico Social Work Examiners Board.
The renewal licensing process requires a Superintendent’s Recommendation for Continuing Licensure. There are three levels at which an applicant can renew their license: at level 1 for a 3 year license; at level 2 for 9 years after level 1 is completed, or level 3 for 9 years after 3 years of experience at level 2 (applicant must have an MSW at level).
Specializing in school social work as an MSW student
Social work students are prepared for a career in school social work during their BSW and MSW studies. The NASW has established standards for school social work practice.
At the MSW level, students may specialize in school social work or complete social work courses outside the specialization. In these advanced courses students learn about assessing students, families, communities, as well as about clinical assessment of students. They should gain knowledge of evidence based interventions used with students. Those interested in becoming school social workers may complete field work in a school setting.
Students entering school social work practice are expected to adhere to all of the established standards of the profession at large, including the code of ethics.
School social workers are expected to fight for social justice for students and for educational policy reforms that will benefit their students. While graduate students, students should gain knowledge of the history of, and contemporary issues in educational policy. They also should develop cultural competency in preparation for working with students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.
Online, university-based, school social work certificate programs
MSW students and MSW level social workers can prepare for school social work practice by completing an online or hybrid university-based school social work certificate program.
Certificate programs provide aspiring school social workers with preparation beyond what they would receive in their regular course of studies, and most programs are designed to fulfill state certification educational requirements. They also help participants earn the field hours needed to be licensed in their state.
Some certificate programs have a specific focus such as working with a specific cultural demographic, or bilingual students. Courses vary by program but may include advanced assessment and testing skills, including preparing Functional Behavior Assessments (FBA) and Behavior Intervention Plans (BIP).
Other courses may focus on evidence-based interventions, working with children with special needs, mediation, literacy development, working with traumatized students, social justice, educational policy, and theory. Courses include typical graduate level educational assessment such as exams, projects, presentations, and papers.
Certificate programs generally require a field placed in a school setting which also helps fulfill state requirements for being certified. Students generally can fulfill the field requirement at an agency located in close proximity to where they live. Students may be required to take an integrative seminar to help them integrate classroom learning with what they learn in the field.
Credits required to earn an online certificate range from 9 to 19 credit hours. Per credit tuition generally costs the same as what a student wouldn’t pay for any graduate class offered by the school. Some programs are only offered to students enrolled at that university’s school of social work.
Most are offered to current students as well as professional social workers, but a few are limited to graduates. Current social work students can earn the certificate while they fulfill course requirements for their MSW, and doing so may not prolong the time it takes to complete their graduate studies.
Most programs can be pursued part-time, which is convenient for part-time students and working professionals. Those enrolled in a certificate program full-time may be able to finish the program in as little as a year. Hybrid programs require some time on campus; therefore fully online programs may be more convenient for students who cannot travel or take time off from work. The availability of financial aid for certificate program students varies by program.
Continuing education for school social workers
Like all specialized areas of practice in social work, there are abundant opportunities for school social workers to obtain continuing education and training. State education departments and licensing boards set standards for continuing education.
To move on to the next level of certification school social workers may have to earn a certain number of units or credits of continuing education. Local universities often offer continuing education for school social workers as does the NASW’s online continuing education institute and state NASW chapters. The School Social Work Association of America is another great resource for continuing education and training, as well as for networking and advocacy.
Continuing education topics for school social workers range from anti-bullying practices and initiatives, to student mental health, cultural competency, and trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) also offers valuable information, training, and webinars for school social workers, teachers, and school administrators on recognizing traumatic stress in students and providing evidence based practices and programs that can help traumatized students including Psychological First Aid.
Job outlook for school social workers
Earning a university-based certificate in school social work or the NASW C-SSWS will boost aspiring school social workers’ employability. It adds to their list of credentials and reflects that the individual has been well trained in the standards of quality school social work practice.
University school social work certificate programs provide specialized skills that may not be readily obtainable from the regular social work curriculum. Having experience preparing Functional Behavior Assessments (FBA) and Behavior Intervention Plans (BIP), for example, are skills that are widely sought out by school districts.
NASW describes the many benefits of obtaining the voluntary C-SSWS: “Today the C-SSWS credential attests to expertise, skill and knowledge in the field of school social work; certifies two academic years of post-MSW supervised school social work experience and attests to your agreement to abide by the NASW Code of Ethics, and the NASW Standards for School Social Work Services and the NASW Standards for Continuing Education.”
Earning a state-level school social work certification is not optional, but once the certification is earned, and if it is renewed as required, certification will open many doors for employment with a variety of educational agencies and schools. Check out this career guide for more information about the employment outlook for school social workers.