How Social Workers Apply Their Skills to Help Students

Master of Social Work opens many doors — including the one to the schoolhouse. Professionals who read between the lines and care unconditionally can find great satisfaction in school social work, providing critical guidance to the next generation of students.

Positioned on the front lines of school-based mental health care, school social workers assess challenges from the student’s point of view. They work with teachers, administrators, family members and other adults to help shape each student’s development. By engaging all parties and “hearing” what goes unspoken, school social workers connect the dots and guide the way to life-changing solutions. 

Some guidance is rendered in an office setting, but the duties of a school social worker are not confined to any one place. Work may be performed anywhere on the school campus or in the community, where social workers encounter a demographically diverse environment with varying family units and different racial and ethnic groups. 

School social workers also influence the institutional factors that affect students. They train school staff and help structure programs to meet students’ emotional needs, operating in an interdisciplinary context with school psychologists, counselors, nurses and other support personnel. At faculty meetings, social workers are a leading voice to articulate ways the school can programmatically aid students.

The perception, planning and forethought of school social workers help prevent difficulties from escalating to crises. When the inevitable crisis does erupt, their training and professionalism help pacify an unstable situation and regroup the parties around the imperative to act in the student’s best interest.

School social workers assess students’ mental health, behavioral patterns, emotional well-being and academic performance holistically, encouraging them to change what is under their control while also advising students’ family and social networks about ways to modify their own behavior to most effectively serve the students. Appreciating the interconnectedness of school, home and community, social workers chart a plan of prevention and intervention to support students in all aspects of their lives.

When a child has a cold that won’t go away, the family knows to go to the doctor. Emotional health is no different, but sometimes families don’t recognize the urgency of timely intervention. The job of a school social worker is to identify that a student is distressed and needs treatment. The basic act of naming and diagnosing conditions can provide tremendous relief to students and families, who may be suffering from circumstances they accepted as normal and permanent. A trip to the doctor may entail out-of-pocket costs, but that’s generally not the case to see a school social worker. For the most part, care is free to patients because the social worker is a salaried employee of the school district.

By strengthening the student body one child at a time, school social workers help raise the quality of the overall school experience. High-performing schools are springboards to ensuring students find success and become productive adults. With so much instability in children’s lives, school social workers are tasked with critical functions. Through their day-to-day work, they become positive influences that inspire students to overcome challenges and achieve their potential.

School social workers typically possess a Master of Social Work. Coursework covers a range of topics common to the discipline in general, as well as specific training for school social work. Areas of study incorporate psychology, sociology, systems theory and cultural diversity. MSW candidates who focus on school social work take specialized courses related to the practice in school settings and school-based violence, among other topics. 

For professionals who earn an MSW and choose school social work, the need is tangible and the rewards are many — from the simple gratitude of a bright-eyed child to a stronger social fabric in a stressful world. Learn more about the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s online MSW program that can prepare social workers to practice in schools. Our Department of Children, Youth and Families specifically allows students to focus their studies on adolescents and school-aged children. To learn more about the MSW@USC, please visit the curriculum page or request more information.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture used under CC BY / Cropped from original.