Substance use, behavioral disorders and family conflict are among the many issues that students confront daily. Such challenges threaten school success and take a toll on well-being.
School social workers are dedicated to supporting students. Their expertise equips them to help students surmount the various social, environmental and economic barriers that can keep them from thriving.
The School Social Worker Role
The school social worker serves as a counselor, advocate and case manager, as well as a vital link between a student’s school, home and community. School social work aims to improve a student’s:
- Academic success
- Social and emotional well-being
School social workers participate in interdisciplinary teams of teachers and administrators. They help shape discipline policies and play an instrumental role in mental health intervention and crisis management. In a time when at least 1 in 6 students lives with some sort of mental health condition, according to research published in JAMA Pediatrics, these services are critical. Whether assessing students for suicidal thoughts or tendencies toward self-harm, counseling a student through problems with peers and social isolation, or managing a situation of suspected abuse, school social workers safeguard student mental health.
In addition to supporting students, school social workers help parents navigate the educational system. They also point families to community resources that address concerns such as food and housing insecurity, lack of health care, and domestic violence.
School social workers also serve as an invaluable resource to school colleagues who want guidance and information about how to handle student mental and behavioral health issues. Furthermore, the school social worker contributes to programs that support student well-being.
School Social Worker Responsibilities
School social workers deliver a wide range of services that aim to support student and school success.
Many student issues outside a teacher’s training and skill set can interfere with a student’s ability to succeed in the classroom. School social workers tackle these challenges in several ways. For example, they conduct assessments that evaluate students for developmental, emotional and behavioral issues. This allows them to then devise action plans.
Students in crisis also benefit from the help of school social workers who conduct screenings and interventions for suicide, depression, eating disorders and substance use. The school social worker can also conduct wellness checks to find out if a student’s needs are being met.
School social workers help identify cases of abuse and neglect and then report them to the appropriate authorities. They also support students through individual and group counseling, helping them develop the emotional and social skills needed to:
- Manage their anger
- Accept themselves and others
- Resolve conflicts
- Cope with stress
School social workers advocate for services and programs that address chronic absenteeism, teen pregnancy and student health issues. For example, school social workers might spearhead initiatives that make contraceptives available to students or start support groups for students dealing with a chronic illness, such as epilepsy or diabetes.
Families play a significant role in student success. As such, the following services are among those that school social workers administer to families:
- Assistance accessing programs that address the functional needs of students with disabilities
- Help identifying and using school and community resources
- Guidance on how to help children adjust to school
- Counseling and family education on topics including special education processes, child development and child mental health
School Personnel and Community Services
School social workers offer behavioral and mental health expertise, as well as a keen awareness of the social services schools rely on. They deliver the following services, among others, within their school communities:
- Participating in tiered systems of support (improvement frameworks that help educators use effective behavioral and academic strategies to better support various student needs)
- Creating and presenting professional development to teach colleagues about trauma-informed practices, child abuse, and student behavioral and mental health issues
- Contributing to programs and policies designed to help communities within the school that need extra support, including students in foster care, homeless students, LGBTQIA students and English language learners
- Developing programs and resources that address school safety and climate, prevent bullying and nurture positive student behavior
- Helping schools secure needed support from social and mental health agencies
How to Become a School Social Worker
School social workers need the right education and licensure to practice. To start, they must earn a bachelor’s degree in either social work or a related field, such as psychology or sociology.
Having earned a bachelor’s degree, aspiring school social workers can enter a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program. An M.S.W. is the minimal requirement for becoming a school social worker.
M.S.W. graduates then need to earn a license. Licensure requirements vary from state to state but typically include completing supervised work experience and passing an exam.
School Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook
School social workers earn between $33,020 and $85,820 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), with a median annual salary of $51,760 in May 2020; salaries can vary based on work experience and locations.
The BLS projects the demand for school social workers to grow 12% between 2019 and 2029. That’s three times as fast as the average job growth rate for all occupations.
Empower Students and Schools to Succeed
School social workers serve as a lifeline to students, families and schools. By delivering prevention and intervention services, coordinating crisis response and implementing programs that support strategic methods to address student needs, school social workers empower individual students and school communities to succeed.
Explore how Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work prepares graduates to meet the needs of students, families and school communities.
Guernica, “How Three School Social Workers Do Their Jobs in a Pandemic”
Jama Pediatrics, “US National and State-Level Prevalence of Mental Health Disorders and Disparities of Mental Health Care Use in Children”
National Association of Social Workers, School Social Work
School Social Work Association of America, Role of School Social Worker
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers
Virginia Association of School Social Workers, About Us
Virginia Department of Education, School Social Work Services
WestEd, “School Social Work in the Time of COVID-19: When Human-Centered Work Moved Online”