A school social worker provides counseling and support services to students inside a school setting. They work with children, parents, teachers, school administrators and the wider community to support the mental and emotional health needs of students and their families. The goal of school social work is to provide children and their families with the emotional and behavioral support they need to be successful in the classroom and out of it.
A master’s degree in social work (MSW) provides the essential foundation for a career helping children thrive and grow.
School Social Worker Responsibilities
Education-based social workers are trained mental health professionals who specialize in meeting the needs of children within a school setting. This means they have specific knowledge of children’s mental health and behavioral issues, understand classroom and pedagogical concerns, and have experience in consulting with parents, teachers, school administrators and others to conduct assessments and make recommendations.
Areas of responsibility for school social workers include:
Services to Students
A school social worker provides student counseling services to help students deal with a variety of issues. Common issues include bullying and family crises such as divorce, grief or loss, or homelessness. These may manifest as truancy, anger in the classroom or failure to turn in work.
Social workers meet with students to conduct biopsychosocial assessments, which evaluate students for physical, emotional and mental conditions, and develop strategies to help students succeed. They may help a child build social interaction skills or manage their anger more appropriately.
Services to Staff and Administrators
Besides meeting with children in a therapy setting, educational social workers are a resource for teachers and administrators. They participate in special education meetings and are part of the team that develops Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students with special needs.
They also provide staff development training for teachers and colleagues on psychosocial issues and strategies, and they provide staff with insights into a child’s negative classroom behavior.
Services to Parents and Families
School social workers are advocates for students and their families. They help families understand their child’s behavioral and emotional issues. After conducting a biopsychosocial assessment and interviewing families and guardians, they can share treatment needs with the parents and families. They also help parents identify and access school and community programs their children need to grow and thrive, acting as case managers and coordinating care among different providers.
Services to the School District
School social workers consult with district officials on a variety of legal issues regarding school law and policy. They help develop educational accommodations for students who qualify under federal laws including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which require schools to provide education to students with disabilities tailored to their needs.
Like other school personnel, they are required to identify and report instances of child abuse and neglect.
Services to the Community
School social workers may help school districts gain support from the community to provide students with mental and behavioral health services. They may act as liaisons with outside agencies, including the state education department, health agencies and local government, to advocate for special education and other student needs.
They may be part of the school district’s public relations and policy development initiatives. They may also be responsible for grant writing and other tasks that support the connection between school, parents and the community.
How to Become a School Social Worker
Some social workers have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), but that’s not always the case. While a bachelor’s is required, many social workers are drawn to the career from other fields, and may have a degree in an unrelated area. The following are the steps to becoming a school social worker:
Earn an MSW
A school social worker typically needs at least a Master of Social Work (MSW) to practice. MSW programs include coursework in therapy techniques and practicums as well as other courses to prepare students for a career in mental health.
Each state requires clinical social workers, including school social workers, to pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensing exam in order to practice. Once social workers have been granted approval to take the exam and have passed it, they will also have yearly continuing professional education requirements to remain in good standing with their state’s licensing board. They may have to take exams in another state if they move.
Some states require school social workers to get a school social work certification. Social workers may also get the certified school social work specialist (C-SSWS) certification from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The C-SSWS ensures that social workers have met all the standards required to specialize in providing services in a school setting. Eligibility requirements for the C-SSWS include:
- An MSW
- State social work license or ASWB passing grade (if licensure is in process)
- Two years of supervised experience as a social worker in a school setting
- Direct supervision by an MSW school social worker or other licensed mental health practitioner
The Essential Skills of a School Social Worker
School social workers require a range of skills to perform their jobs as mental health providers and advocates for children, families and schools. They must have training in conducting clinical assessments and developing treatment plans. They need to be able to research resources, evaluate programs and services, and understand the laws protecting children and their rights to an education that meets their needs.
They must be able to identify the unique stressors that children face that impact their ability to focus on schoolwork. Grief, food insecurity, homelessness and abuse can all factor into a child’s mental health. A school social worker must also be able to identify the root causes of such behavior as bullying, truancy, school avoidance and other negative actions that are specific to a school setting.
Another attribute that school social workers must bring to their role as mental health advocate is being good listeners and communicators. Since they work closely with parents, educators, administrators and other mental health providers, they must be good collaborators. Finally, compassion and empathy are central to what they do.
Job Outlook for School Social Workers
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the annual mean salary for elementary and secondary school social workers was $65,080 in 2021. Demand for all social workers, including school social workers, is expected to grow 13% between 2019 and 2029, according to the BLS.
Help Make a Positive Impact on Students
School social workers make positive change for children who are suffering from mental and behavioral health issues. They work with parents and families to help them help their children, and they develop education plans for students with disabilities that comply with federal law.
If you want to make a positive impact in a school setting and help children get an education that broadens their horizons, explore the University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Social Work program. With a curriculum that includes coursework in social work methods, therapeutic interventions with families and social welfare policy, it’s an excellent foundation for a career as a licensed school social worker. Begin your journey today.