Difference Between School Social Worker and School Counselor

The Basics

If you walk into a public or private school, the chances are good that you’ll find a school social worker and a school counselor working with students.

Both of these professionals are highly trained to work with kids of all ages and ability levels. However, there are many differences in what school social workers and school counselors do as part of their jobs.

In this guide, you’ll learn what school social workers and school counselors do, how their jobs differ, the educational requirements for each job, and much more. Let’s get started!

What is a School Social Worker?

A school social worker is a trained mental health professional that specializes in working with school-aged kids. They work in elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools to help further the educational opportunities of children.

School social workers often work with children that have social, emotional, behavioral, or developmental disabilities. For example, a school social worker might work with a student that’s been acting out in class to develop more appropriate means of expressing their emotions. As another example, school social workers often work with students that have developmental disabilities to ensure they have the appropriate services and accommodations in their classrooms.

These professionals don’t work independently. Instead, they are part of a much larger team – teachers, parents and guardians, administrators, and community resources – whose goal is to promote student success at school, at home, and in the community.

What is a School Counselor?

Where school social workers tend to work with at-risk children, school counselors tend to work with the entire student body. Like school social workers, you often find school counselors in elementary, middle, and high schools.

School counselors not only provide academic advising like helping high school students plan for and take the ACT or SAT, but they also often provide counseling services to students in need. For example, a school counselor at a high school might help one student with finding scholarships for college, conduct a therapy session with another student whose parent recently passed away, and then visit a classroom to help a teacher present an anti-bullying lesson.

So, again, just like school social workers, school counselors provide all sorts of resources for students as well as their colleagues at school, parents and guardians, and community members as well.

What are the Differences Between Job Duties for School Social Workers and School Counselors?

As noted above, school social workers often work with specific students for a long period of time. For example, a student that is on an individualized education plan (IEP) might work with the same social worker on setting and attaining academic goals each year they are at a particular school. This might include weekly or monthly meetings with the social worker in addition to yearly IEP meetings, small group activities, and even home visits.

By contrast, most school counselors have a much larger focus. While many school counselors provide therapy services to students, it is usually not long-term. Additionally, where school social workers often have to develop treatment plans or action plans for specific students, school counselors typically focus on larger groups of students, like a classroom, a specific grade, or even the entire student body.

For example, a school counselor might consult with 9th-grade teachers to develop a curriculum about how to deal with peer pressure. The school counselor might provide insights into effective teaching strategies, topics to discuss, and provide resources. In some cases, they might even go into 9th-grade classrooms to deliver all or part of the curriculum.

In addition to the size of the audience that school social workers and school counselors work with, there is a significant difference in the extent of services provided.

The purview of school social workers extends beyond the boundaries of school. For example, if a student has been identified as at-risk because they come from a low-income family, a school social worker might do a home visit and consult with the child’s parents about local resources that they can rely on to improve the quality of the home life, like a food pantry where they can procure healthy food.

A school counselor, on the other hand, tends to focus on school-based issues alone, providing resources for students to help improve their social, emotional, and academic success. Now, this isn’t to say that school counselors can’t or don’t do work outside the school, but it is a much rarer occurrence than it is for social workers.

How Do You Become a School Social Worker?

To work as a school social worker, you must first get a bachelor’s degree of social work (BSW). This is a four-year program that helps build a foundation of understanding about social work practices and principles.

BSW programs are extremely popular. They can be found at most four-year colleges and universities in both on-campus and online formats. In many cases, these programs include practicum or internship experiences that allow you to see how social work is done in the real world.

But to become a school social worker, a BSW is just the start. You’ll need to continue your education in graduate school and get a master of social work degree, or an MSW.

Usually, MSW programs take anywhere from one to three years to complete. The time of completion depends on the number of credits required (which varies from university to university), whether you attend school part-time or full-time, and a host of other factors.

Related Reading: Top 6 Reasons to Attend a Social Work School

MSW programs are much more advanced than BSW programs. They focus on fewer topics in much greater depth while also giving you additional practicum and internship opportunities. In that regard, an MSW program helps you build much more refined knowledge and skills as it pertains to the practice of social work.

Once you graduate with an MSW, you’ll need to be licensed as a school counselor. Licensure is controlled at the state level, so the requirements can vary. However, in most cases, school social workers must:

  • Have an MSW from an accredited institution
  • Complete a period of supervised practice
  • Pass a licensure examination
  • Pass a background check

All told, you can expect to spend anywhere from five to seven years in college to get the necessary degrees to become a school social worker.

How Do You Become a School Counselor?

To become a school counselor, you must first complete a bachelor’s degree program. Where most MSW students first get a BSW, master’s degree students in school counseling can come from many different backgrounds.

For example, in a cohort of school counseling master’s students, some might have undergraduate degrees in education, science, math, psychology, communications, or any number of other degrees.

Typically, students that have undergraduate degrees in counseling, human services, social work, or a related field will be the most prepared for a master’s program in counseling and will likely not have to take prerequisite courses. Other undergraduates might have to complete some basic coursework in psychology before being fully admitted to a master’s degree program.

Master’s degrees in counseling vary in their length and can take anywhere from one to three years to complete. Like master’s degree programs in school social work, the coursework in a counseling master’s program is very detailed and practice-focused, that way upon graduation you have the skills needed to implement counseling strategies in a school setting. This includes practicum and internship opportunities in which you can work in a school setting under the supervision of an experienced school counselor.

Since school counselors work within the realm of a school system, they must be licensed by the state. In some cases, you might also need to hold a certification. For example, teachers must be certified in their area of specialty (e.g., secondary social studies education). Similarly, school counselors might have to be certified as school counselors by the state Board of Education.

What is the Difference in Salary for School Social Workers and School Counselors?

According to PayScale, the average yearly salary for a school social worker is $49,541. The pay range for this position extends from a low of about $39,000 per year up to about $68,000 per year.

Of course, your level of education and experience, the specific school system in which you are employed, and even the geographic location in which you work can all have a significant effect on what your yearly salary will be as a school social worker.

The same is true of school counselors. On average, school counselors make $51,476 per year with the pay range extending from about $39,000 per year up to $74,000 per year. However, many factors influence what pay is earned, not the least of which is your level of education and job experience.

What is the Job Outlook for School Social Workers and School Counselors?

The job outlook is good for both school social workers and school counselors.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the field of school social work will experience 13 percent growth through the end of the decade. This represents much faster growth than all occupations.

Similarly, the BLS predicts that school counseling will grow by 11 percent by 2030. Again, this is a much faster rate than average.

This means that if you’re interested in applying social work or counseling principles to a school environment, the next decade or so should present you with many opportunities to do so – provided that you get the right education first.

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