Professionalism, education, and competency are cornerstones of the social work profession. In order to continually build practice knowledge and skills, licensed social workers must complete continuing education throughout their career.
This guide covers the purpose of continuing education, formats in which continuing education credits are offered, and how to find relevant learning opportunities.In this guide
Social work continuing education
In the field of social work, continuing education refers to formal learning opportunities that are available after earning a social work degree in order to continually improve one’s knowledge, training, and experience. Continuing education opportunities are intended to encourage professionals to further expand their foundations of knowledge taught in a formal social work program and to stay current on new developments in the field.
Many practitioners earn their social work license after completing stringent requirements set forth by their state’s licensing board. Earning a social work license opens the door to additional career opportunities and pay increases, including the opportunity to open a private therapeutic practice, if desired. Continuing education is a requirement to renew a social work license. Practitioners must complete a certain number of hours of continuing education training and sometimes in specific topics in order to become licensed and then renew their professional license every few years.
Continuing education credits are offered by approved continuing education providers. These providers have submitted their course materials to a licensing board and have been approved after demonstrating the course material is of high quality, reflects the current professional standards and meets licensing requirements. Continuing education providers can be professional associations such as the National Association of Social Workers, accredited schools of social work or private continuing education companies.
Continuing education is tracked via credits. These are often called ‘units’, and a common acronym is CEUs, which stands for Continuing Education Units. In social work continuing education, a single unit or credit is often equivalent to 1 contact hour of training. Thus, a 6-hour workshop would equate to earning 6 credits. CEs can be earned through a variety of formats, including:
- Conference sessions (Note that most conference registrations do not include the cost to earn continuing education credit. This is an additional fee that must be paid on top of the conference registration fee.)
- Independent study – reading a book or journal article and passing a short test
Why is continuing education necessary?
Despite having undergone extensive formal education to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) or Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) degree, social workers must continue to learn throughout their career in order to maintain and improve their current practice as well as translate new knowledge into their practice.
Since social workers provide care to diverse populations with a myriad of concerns and provide their services in an ever-changing world, it is critical that they are properly trained and are aware of resources available for the populations with which they work. Social workers must stay abreast of new evidence-based treatment modalities in order to provide relevant, effective care.
The general public and regulatory agencies such as state licensing boards expect that professional social workers will act in a professional, ethical manner and provide care that is safe, effective, equitable and patient-centered. In order to protect the public from those who are incompetent, unprofessional or unauthorized, each state has developed social work licensing boards. These boards designate specific requirements necessary to demonstrate high standards of professional performance and to achieve licensure including education, sufficient hours of supervised practice and the passing of an examination.
Once a social worker is licensed, their license must be renewed every few years. Requirements and timelines for re-licensure are also set forth by each state licensing board. By ensuring that the stringent requirements are met during the licensing and renewal process, the board has a level of confidence that the social worker is competent and knowledgeable and can therefore provide adequate care to the public.
When are social work continuing education credits needed?
Continuing education credits are needed throughout a social worker’s career. Some states require certain continuing education courses be completed as part of the initial licensing process in addition to passing the social work board examination. All states require some form of continuing education requirements at certain time points after the initial social work license has been granted. Below are some examples of requirements by different states.
Continuing education social work requirements in California
- Licensees are required to complete 36 hours of continuing education every two years. All credits can be completed via self-study or online if desired.
- During the first license renewal period, licensees must complete 7 hours in HIV/AIDS training.
- At least 6 of the 36 hours must cover law and ethics every two years.
- A one-time completion of 6 hours in suicide prevention and intervention is also required.
Continuing education social work requirements in Florida
- Licensees are required to complete 30 hours of continuing education every two years. All credits can be completed via self-study or online if desired.
- Two hours of the required 30 hours must cover medical error prevention.
- Three hours of the required 30 hours must cover ethics or telehealth.
- Every third renewal year, licensees must complete 2 hours training in domestic violence and 3 hours in Florida laws.
- Supervisors must complete 4 hours of supervisor training every three renewal periods (every 6 years).
Continuing education social work requirements in Iowa
- Licensees are required to complete 27 hours of continuing education every two years. Twelve of those credits can be completed via self-study or online if desired.
- Licensees who are mandatory reporters must complete 2 hours in identifying and reporting child abuse and abuse of dependent adults. For all subsequent license renewals, 1 hour of recertification training is required every three years.
- A minimum of 3 of the required 27 hours must be in ethics.
- For licensees in supervisory roles, 3 of their required 27 hours must be completed on the topic of supervision.
Continuing education topics
There are a variety of continuing education topics available for social work practitioners, and you can choose to further develop existing skills, learn about new topics and complete the necessary requirements for your state’s licensing boards. Next, we will review a few of the common topics that are required for most states along with some other topics that may be of interest.
Social workers are called to follow the Social Work Code of Ethics, a set of standards established by the National Association of Social Workers to guide professional conduct. Thus, in order to become and remain licensed as a social worker, continued ethics training is required. Topics that may be covered in ethics continuing education courses include establishing and maintaining professional boundaries, knowing when to transfer a client, the ethics of practice across state lines, and ethics related to the digital age, such as telehealth practices and electronic documentation.
Domestic violence continuing education courses include the recognition, documentation and reporting requirements for domestic and interpersonal violence and child or elder abuse. These courses may also teach evidence-based interventions that are effective for survivors of violence.
Suicide prevention continuing education courses cover suicide awareness, assessment and interventions. These trainings can be further specified by discussing populations such as the chronically ill, LGBTQ+ individuals and the elderly.
Examples of other topics
CEs are provided for a variety of other topics suitable for general practitioners, school social workers, medical social workers, addictions counselors, gerontologists and military social work, to name a few. Below is a brief overview of a few different continuing education topics available to social workers.
Motivational Interviewing is a technique that is appropriate and effective with a variety of mental health and substance use issues. Continuing education courses can describe motivational interviewing, why it is important, how to respond to client discord, and assessing client verbalizations for change talk.
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
The FERPA act covers privacy and rights of students enrolled in educational institutions in the United States. School social workers in particular must understand this Act and how it impacts their work, communications and interactions with students and their family members. FERPA continuing education courses can range from high level overviews to deeper reviews complete with case studies.
Every social worker will encounter clients that come from a radically different background from their own. Therefore, it is critical that social workers learn how to identify their biases and learn more about different backgrounds and cultures in order to respectfully interact with and treat clients. Course topics that assist social workers in improving their cultural competence can include becoming more culturally aware, mental health for gender minority youth and adults, working with refugees and immigrants, and developing cultural humility.
Finding continuing education opportunities
There are a number of ways in which you may learn about continuing education opportunities:
- Your state’s licensing board website may have listings of approved courses or links to approved company websites.
- Professional social work organizations often offer CE to members watching webinars or attending conferences. This can include, but are not limited to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the Association of Oncology Social Workers (AOSW), the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA) and the Society for Social Work Research (SSWR).
- The Association of Social Work Boards has a spreadsheet of approved continuing education offerings that can be downloaded. At present, the spreadsheet contains more than 850 classes and describes the course title, the number of credits offered, and the format in which each course is offered along with a website to register for that particular course.
- Accredited schools of social work will often offer CE opportunities to their alumni and local practitioners. Information about these options can be found on the school’s website and/or social media pages.
- Word of mouth – asking colleagues about CEs that they’ve recently earned and would recommend is an excellent way to learn about additional options.
Frequently asked questions about social work continuing education
- How do I know what CEs I need to complete?
- The best resource will be your state’s licensing board website. This will provide in detail the types of content that is required and how often it must be renewed. The website will also list how many CE elective credits are required and how to submit documentation to the state licensing board for social work.
- Are all CEs the same?
- No. Continuing education credits vary by cost, format and content. Be sure to read the descriptions of each class to know exactly what it covers and how much it costs. Also be sure to confirm that it is approved by your state’s licensing board.
- How do I decide which CE opportunity is right for me?
- The first thing to do when considering a continuing education course is to confirm that it would be accepted by your state licensing board.
- Consider which topics you’re interested in learning more about and skills you’d like to develop.
- Review the course description to determine if the content is applicable to what you are looking for and provides a higher level of learning on the topic that what you currently have. The purpose of continuing education is to expand your knowledge and skills, so taking a beginner level class in a topic with which the basics are already understood would be a waste of time.
- Review the format of the training (online? In person?) and costs to determine if it is a good match.
- How can I track my CE requirements and when everything is due?
- Tracking can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like. A basic spreadsheet can be created that lists the required state courses and includes columns to track attendance and tally credits that are earned with each class.
- Alternatively, NASW offers a low cost CE Tracker that automatically tracks completed programs and suggests available content to complete the state’s mandated requirements. This program is available regardless of NASW membership status.
- Some states even have self-service portals where licensees can enter their CE information and submit documentation to their state licensing board for review.
Continuing education is critical to ensure that social workers are receiving updated and relevant training to best serve their clients. A multitude of options and programmatic formats are available to social workers to build their knowledge base and skill sets. Earning CEs help to fulfill state licensing requirements and indicate that a social worker is practicing at the top of their profession.
Association of Social Work Boards. (n.d.). ACE: Approved Continuing Education. https://www.aswb.org/licenses/ace-approved-continuing-education/ . Accessed June 29, 2021.
Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Planning a Continuing Health Professional Education Institute. Washington DC: National Academies Press (US); 2010.
National Association of Social Workers. (n.d.). CE Tracker https://www.socialworkers.org/Careers/Continuing-Education/CE-Tracker . Accessed July 1, 2021.
National Association of Social Workers (n.d.). Read the Code of Ethics. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English Accessed June 29, 2021.