The Role of School Social Workers

School social workers see major obstacles to learning in the schools where they work — including the stress and anxiety blossoming in their young clients.

It’s easy to see why. Increased pressure to perform well in school “…engenders fear, leading teens to avert possible failure at all costs,” wrote psychologist Dr. Lynn Margolies on PsychCentral.

“This level of stress propels homework avoidance, compromises executive functions, inhibits curiosity and new challenges, and increases lying,” Margolies highlighted.

Meanwhile, a study published in Clinical Psychological Science found that U.S. teens who spent more time on social media and smartphones from 2010 to 2015 were more likely to report mental health problems. The number who felt “useless and joyless” surged by one-third.

So did the number of teens who committed suicide during that time.

And schools are responding. Traditional school counselors are still present for a range of services, helping students with course schedules, working out problems with bullies or guiding their students through the college admissions process.

But the increase of students with more extensive social or emotional needs — and a greater recognition of those needs — has created an important role for social workers at school.

The role of a school social worker is to support school counselors by providing targeted emotional and social support to individual students.

School social workers are there “making sure families have basic needs met so that when their child comes to school they can just focus on what they have to do [there] and not on all of the chaos and need that they have outside of school,” said Cristina Dobon-Claveau, the wellness and prevention coordinator for Oakmont High School in the Roseville Joint Union High School District in suburban Sacramento, California.

What is a school social worker?  

A school social worker is a vital asset to the school community: a link between students, parents, school staff and the school district.

The role of a school social worker involves wearing many hats, including truancy officer, case manager, student and parent advocate, student mediator, counselor and distributor of resources. Typically, they are the only social worker on site, and they serve a unique role within their schools.

Some of the services school social workers provide include:

  • Advocating for the child and mobilizing family, school and community resources to enable the child to learn as effectively as possible.
  • Participating in special education assessment meetings as well as individual educational planning meetings.
  • Working with problems in a child's living situation that affect the child’s adjustment in school.
  • Preparing a social or developmental history on a child with a disability.
  • Helping develop positive behavioral intervention strategies.
  • Helping with conflict resolution and anger management.
  • Helping alleviate family stress.
  • Helping parents access programs available to students with special needs and school and community resources.
  • Assessing students with mental health concerns.
  • Developing staff training programs.
  • Assisting teachers with behavior management.
  • Helping school districts get support from social and mental health agencies.
  • Identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect.

School social workers are also hired by school districts to support students who struggle with mental health, behavior or emotional problems. They help clear obstacles to social and academic success and give students the tools they need to excel in school.

“It's a matter of being more proactive than reactive,” said Dobon-Claveau, who is also the Sacramento-area regional coordinator for the California Association of School Social Workers. “We're trying to problem solve.”

Do all schools have social workers? No, but they are becoming more prevalent. Jobs in all areas of social work combined are growing at a rate of more than twice as fast as the average profession. They are expected to increase 16 percent over the next decade, with 109,000 social work jobs expected to be added by 2026. Many schools, like Oakmont, are opening wellness centers that employ school social workers. With more people becoming comfortable with talking about mental health, the opportunities for social workers are even greater.

School social worker salary

How much money does a school social worker make? It depends on where they live and work.

In 2017, the median salary for all social workers was $47,980. The top 10 percent of earners made more than $79,740, while a school social worker’s salary is among the highest on average by specialty, at $62,690 per year.

The metropolitan area with the highest average wage is Hartford, Connecticut, at $72,430. The highest wages for school social workers are not necessarily in areas where wages for other careers are high. Springfield, Illinois, for example, has the fifth-highest average salary, at $67,130. And Corvallis, Oregon, has the seventh-highest average salary, at $66,530.

In nonmetropolitan areas, southern Illinois has the nation’s highest average wages for school social workers, at $71,860, followed by northeast Louisiana, at $66,650.

How to become a school social worker

The first step to becoming a school social worker is getting a degree. Graduates who earn a bachelor's degree in social work who wish to become school social workers can climb the ladder by working jobs such as case management aides, juvenile court liaisons or community outreach coordinators. Or, they can pursue their teaching license and become teachers.

However, most states require school social workers to hold at least a master's degree from a Council on Social Work Education-accredited social work school.

Students who participate in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program typically complete an internship, practicum or fellowship requiring them to work in the field.

The next step is to get licensed. An MSW degree qualifies social workers to apply for their Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW). Depending on your state, there may be a licensure exam that evaluates how well an applicant understands key principles of social work. There is generally no supervised work experience required after graduation to become an LMSW. Many LMSWs work in nonclinical roles, such as case management or policy issues. An LMSW is the most advanced nonclinical licensure, allowing you to work in private or independent practice.

But to advance in their careers, some social workers aspire to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). To obtain a clinical license, social workers must complete at least two to three years of supervised clinical social work. The LSCW is the highest level of licensure available to clinical social workers, although some states use different titles, including Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW). A clinical social worker typically addresses problems with individuals or families, including substance or alcohol use and prevention, intimate partner violence, crises, trauma or serious illness. Because they can practice independently, they are often found in private practice settings or at schools, hospitals or community mental health agencies.

License renewal almost always requires continuing education. School social workers, for example, may turn to the School Social Work Association, the American Council for School Social Work or a state affiliate for resources.

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Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work at the University of Southern California