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How Social Workers Help Children with Behavioral Health Challenges

August 22, 2022

Social workers are instrumental in supporting vulnerable people of all ages — including children. Like adults, children can experience a range of social, emotional and mental health challenges, from depression and anxiety to anger issues and hostility toward others. When children experience behavioral health challenges, social workers can provide vital assistance.

Learning how social workers can support children’s behavioral health — and how an advanced degree in social work trains graduates to perform early interventions — may be an important first step toward improving health outcomes among children.

Behavioral Health and Social Work

In social work, behavioral health encompasses a person’s actions, activities and habits. Professionals who study the subject research the connection between behavior and a person’s ability to function.

Behavioral health includes eating and drinking habits, exercise, social activity and addictive behavior patterns. When adults struggle with behavioral health, it can manifest as substance misuse, eating disorders and gambling addiction, to name a few examples. Children can also experience these same issues, though other behavioral health disorders are more common among young people.

Children’s Behavioral Health Challenges

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines a childhood behavioral disorder as “a pattern of disruptive behaviors in children that last for at least six months” that cause problems in school, at home or in social situations.

Common behavioral disorders in children include:

  • Attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Conduct disorder (CD)


ADHD can manifest as hyperactivity and impulsive behavior, difficulty sustaining attention or a combination of both. The disorganization, restlessness, poor attention regulation, impulsivity, distractibility, low frustration tolerance and emotional overactivity that children with ADHD experience can cause social and behavioral problems that, for many, persist into adulthood.

According to the Mayo Clinic, childhood behavioral health issues in children with ADHD include:

  • Higher rates of accidents and injury compared with children without ADHD
  • Struggles with paying attention and focusing in classroom environments, leading to academic underperformance and social judgment
  • Difficulties interacting with and being accepted by adults and peers
  • Lower rates of self-esteem compared with children without ADHD
  • Increased risk of alcohol and drug use

Untreated ADHD correlates with many negative health outcomes in adults, according to WebMD. People with ADHD suffer higher rates of relationship failures, unemployment, substance misuse, motor vehicle crashes and sexually transmitted infections. They’re also at higher risk for suicide.

Social workers can help children with ADHD in many ways. They may be the first members of a treatment team to come into contact with a child with ADHD and thus take on the role of explaining some of the common signs of ADHD to parents and family members who may not understand why a child is struggling in school or missing developmental milestones. They may provide referrals for medical evaluations, which can help children and families access clinical options for treating and managing ADHD through medication. In addition, social workers can also teach behavioral skills to help children with ADHD, and they can teach guardians effective parenting techniques that may work better for children with ADHD.


ODD is a type of disruptive disorder in children that primarily involves problems with the self-control of behaviors and emotions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) reports that people with ODD display a pattern of anger and irritability in conjunction with defiant behavior and/or vindictiveness.

According to the DSM-5, children who engage in at least four of the following behaviors for a majority of days over a six-month period may have ODD:

  • Losing their temper
  • Becoming easily annoyed
  • Displaying anger or resentment
  • Arguing with authority figures
  • Actively refusing or defying requests to follow rules
  • Deliberately annoying other people
  • Blaming others for one’s mistakes or misbehaviors
  • Displaying spite or vindictiveness

Social workers deploy multimodal treatments of children with ODD involving the child, family, school (if the child is school-age) and the community. They may teach skills training and parent management training, work with teachers to provide school-based interventions, and conduct individual child therapy and family therapy. Social workers may also need to provide support for comorbidities, such as ADHD and anxiety.


Like ODD, conduct disorder (CD) involves conflicts with authority but tends to be more severe. Going beyond anger and annoyance, children struggling with CD may routinely exhibit physical aggression, property damage (including arson), deceit (including stealing and lying) and rule violation (e.g. truancy from school).

Because of the nature of their symptoms and the potential danger they pose, there is a greater urgency in treating children suffering from CD. The interventions for children who exhibit these behaviors are different from those used for children who act out or exhibit bad behavior rarely. Social workers may seek to understand what risk factors a child has that may have contributed to the development of CD. According to the Child Mind Institute, risk factors for this disorder include:

  • Experiencing bullying, abuse or neglect
  • Having a biological parent who has ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression or schizophrenia
  • Having a parent or sibling with CD

A social worker’s interventions for children with CD will vary by age, symptoms and general health. Children with CD tend to need psychotherapy or behavioral therapy for many years. Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests the following treatments, which involve the child, their family, teachers and community all helping to support the child’s improvement:

  • Family therapy to improve communication skills and healthy family interactions
  • Peer group therapy to help children develop better social and interpersonal behaviors
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy to teach children how to manage stress, solve problems and control their anger and impulses

How to Support Children as a Social Worker

Social workers advocate for the health and well-being of their clients — and children are no exception. Social workers assess children to determine their needs and provide counseling and resources. They also act as important guides for children who are struggling. The following are a few of the ways social workers can support children with behavioral health challenges.

Naming and Explaining Behaviors

Children’s behavioral health issues can be difficult to describe and conceptualize. Social workers can help children and families understand what behaviors might require additional support and what options are available to help children experiencing behavioral health issues.

Connecting Children With Resources

Whether social workers are assembling a treatment team, referring a child to a clinical professional for diagnosis or recommending after-school programs, they can connect children and families with community services designed to help.

Fostering Family and Community Relationships

With the help of a social worker, behavioral health issues in children that put a strain on families can be healed and redressed. Social workers can provide guidance for families to navigate conflict, change dysfunctional family dynamics and foster emotional support.

Learn How Social Workers Lead Early Intervention in Children’s Behavioral Health

Social work behavioral health interventions may vary on a case-by-case basis, but social workers know the importance of early intervention for supporting children. Because behavioral health stems from habits (of feeling, perceiving, processing one’s emotions and interacting with the world), social work interventions are most effective when they can disrupt an unhealthy pattern of behavior early in a child’s life. As the first line of support for many families, social workers are uniquely positioned to help children develop into healthy, thriving adults.

Are you passionate about supporting children’s health? Learn more about the highest-ranking school of social work in Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work. In VCU’s online Master of Social Work, students gain the experience needed to become clinical practitioners through evidence-based and trauma-informed approaches to care. The program provides support for graduates to become licensed practitioners — all with the flexibility of online learning. Discover how to take your social work career to the next stage at VCU.