School Social Worker Career and Degree Programs

What is a School Social Worker?

If you think about the development of children, their parents and home life, as well as their teachers, peers, and school life, are among the most important influences in their lives. That can be difficult to navigate for many children, especially if there are difficulties at home, at school, or both.

A school social worker is a highly-trained mental health professional whose role is to provide a bridge between home and school as well as school and the community. That being the case, a school social worker serves as a guide for students, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders to ensure that every student has the resources they need to be successful.

What is the Role of a School Social Worker?

To say that school social workers have many varied job duties is an understatement. In fact, it might be appropriate to say that they have among the most diverse roles in a school environment. That’s because school social workers don’t just attend to the needs of students, but also for the families of students, for teacher and administrators, and to other stakeholders in the educational system as well.

As it pertains to their role with students, school social workers are often the point people for children with disabilities. That is, a school social worker will develop a plan to ensure that the school meets the child’s specific needs, be that accommodations for a physical disability, counseling for children with an emotional disorder, or assisting in the development of individual education plans (IEPs) for special education students.

Additionally, school social workers are often tasked with crisis intervention. For example, social workers would be asked to meet with grieving students in the wake of a death or other serious event that’s impacted the school community. Likewise, if a student has had an angry or violent outburst, a school social worker would likely be brought in to work with the child and develop strategies for the child to better control and express his or her anger.

Related Reading: How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

School social workers work as liaisons with parents and other family members as well. This often takes the form of helping families access programs that will help their child to function more effectively at school and at home. There is usually an educational component as well, with school social workers providing families with tools and resources that will help them better support their child and their child’s short-term and long-term goals.

Teachers, administrators, and other school personnel can also benefit from the assistance of a school social worker. Given their advanced knowledge of child development, cultural influences, social pressures, and so forth, a social worker is an invaluable resource for school personnel to develop programs that target the specific needs of individual students and particular groups of students as well. For example, if a teacher has a student in class that has a developmental disability, a school social worker would work with the teacher to develop lesson plans that have achievable goals for that student to attain.

Are School Social Workers in High Demand?

School social workers enjoy a very robust job market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers in social work are projected to grow at a rate of 16 percent between now and 2026, meaning they will be in much higher demand in the coming decade than most other workers.

A primary reason for there being high demand for social workers is increasing enrollment in schools. With more children in school, the need for highly trained social workers to help meet students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs is likewise on the increase. Many schools employ social workers to work directly with special needs students, and the population of special needs kids is also on the rise.

What Do You Learn in a School Social Work Degree Program?

Typical social work degree programs will require students to complete courses in:

  • Psychology – Courses in psychology give social workers greater insight into human behaviors, the causes of human behavior, how behavior changes over the lifespan, and how to help people change their behavior as well.
  • Sociology – Sociology offers a larger context for human behavior as it pertains to how and why groups of people behave the way they do.
  • Human Development – Courses in human development shed light on the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical changes that people undergo at each point in their lives from birth to death.
  • Social Work Theory – Theory-based courses offer social workers an understanding of various schools of thought when it comes to explaining human behavior.
  • Social Service Systems – Coursework in social service systems examines the different types of systems that provide social services (i.e., state or federal government, churches, schools, etc.) and their roles in helping people become more self-sufficient, competent, and otherwise successful.
  • Social Work Methods – Since social workers typically meet with clients in a one-on-one or group setting, they must have a solid grasp of counseling and therapeutic techniques. Courses in social work methods give students the knowledge and skills required to communicate effectively, solve problems, and build relationships with their clients.
  • Statistics – Statistics courses focus on developing the ability to collect and interpret data, particularly by using descriptive and inferential statistics.
  • Research – Research-based courses seek to help students build the scientific skills required to identify problems, formulate solutions, identify interventions, and assess the success of those interventions.
  • Cultural Diversity – People of all walks of life suffer from social, emotional, economic, and other types of problems. As a result, courses in which students learn how to be sensitive to the needs of different cultures are a common requirement for school social work degree programs.

What are the Requirements to Become a School Social Worker?

Educational Requirements

The minimum required level of education for a school social worker is a bachelor’s degree in social work. These four-year programs can be considered as an introduction into social work that typically prepares students for entry-level positions. In that regard, the aim of a bachelor’s degree is not just to help students develop foundational knowledge about social work, but to also prepare them to enter the workforce.

Typically, school social worker positions require applicants to have a master’s degree in social work. A master’s degree is a more advanced set of studies that allows students more opportunities to apply their social work knowledge to real-world scenarios. That is, in addition to having traditional classroom-based learning, master’s students are usually required to participate in practicum and internship experiences. These experiences place students in schools where they learn how to apply their knowledge to working with students. These experiences are supervised by an experienced school social worker and serve as a final stepping-stone to graduating.

A master’s degree in social work involves additional studies beyond the four years needed for a bachelor’s degree. Some master’s programs take just one year to complete while others can take up to three years.

Licensure Requirements

As is the case with many mental health professions, the licensure requirements for school social workers vary from one state to the next. What is common, however, is that school social workers must be licensed by the state in which they work by virtue of the fact that they are working within the state’s educational system. For most states, a master’s degree in social work is required for licensure, though some older workers with a bachelor’s degree might be grandfathered in. Additionally, social work licensure usually requires that applicants have a degree from an accredited institution.

School Social Worker Certification

Just like teachers, school social workers can earn certifications in specialized areas as a means of professional development that furthers their ability to deliver services to students. For example, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers a Certified School Social Worker Specialist program that provides extended learning opportunities in the areas of crisis management, intervention strategies, advocacy, human development, and other topics that increase one’s ability to meet the needs of students. Though certifications like these are usually optional, being certified is just one more way for school social workers to develop further expertise.

How Long Does It Take to Become a School Social Worker?

At a minimum, a school social worker needs to have a bachelor’s degree, which as noted earlier, typically requires four years to complete. In addition to the appropriate degree, school social workers must be licensed by the state board of education, which is a process that can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months.

However, many school social work positions require a master’s degree, which involves from one to three years of additional study after a bachelor’s degree is completed. That means that most school social workers will need between 5-7 years of schooling before they can enter the workforce. In addition to educational and licensure requirements, some school social work positions also require certification. As with licensure, the process of obtaining certification can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending upon the requirements.

What Does It Take to Be a School Social Worker?

Because the job duties of a school social worker are so varied, it’s necessary to possess a wide range of hard and soft skills, personality traits, and qualities. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Understanding of Assessment – School social workers must learn the methods required to assess the functioning or behavior of a student and use the information gleaned from their assessment to develop a plan for assisting the child in functioning better at school and/or at home.
  • Intervention Techniques – One of the most important hard skills social workers should have is the ability to design and implement interventions that help address specific problems, such as facilitating a behavior change in a child or devising strategies that help a student with an anxiety disorder to cope with the stressors of school in a healthy manner.
  • Evaluation Procedures – Not only do school social workers need to be able to evaluate students (i.e., evaluate a child to determine if they have a cognitive disorder), but they must also be able to evaluate the efficacy of their own work and make adjustments as necessary to better serve their clients.
  • Understanding of Psychopathology – Understanding human behavior is not enough. Instead, school social workers need to also understand the etiology of behavioral, emotional, and mental disorders and the methods and treatments that can be used to overcome those issues.
  • Hard Working – School social work is a hard job and requires a drive and dedication to do one’s work well.
  • Team Player – Not everyone is adept at working with others to achieve a common goal. However, to be a successful school social worker, one must possess the ability to be part of a team and contribute accordingly to common goals.
  • Empathy – School social workers often have child clients that are facing extremely difficult situations in their lives. As such, it’s necessary to be able to understand the world as the client sees it.
  • Compassion – Effective social work revolves around building a connection with the client. Whether it’s working with an elementary school student, a high school student, or something in between, school social workers must have the ability to feel and express compassion for the students with whom they work.
  • Communication Skills – Some children will be completely forthright and open; others will be closed off. School social workers must possess the ability to use different types of communication that are best suited for the child with whom they are working. This includes having excellent active listening skills.

What are the Pros and Cons of Being a School Social Worker?

There are many benefits of working as a school social worker. Of course, there are some negatives to consider as well. These pros and cons include:

  • Helping others – School social workers have a key role in the development of children. Having a hand in helping kids acquire new skills and develop into well-functioning adults is certainly a benefit of the job.
  • Excellent work schedule – Most school social workers are employed on a traditional school schedule, with evenings, weekends, and summers off, in addition to vacations for holidays.
  • Good compensation – School social workers earn good salaries, which often have full benefits attached, including full state retirement.
  • Fun work environment – Schools can be vibrant, energetic, and fun places, and school social workers get to experience that youth and vitality each day at work.
  • High job satisfaction – Many school social workers report being highly satisfied with their job. This no doubt has much to do with being able to help others and see children overcome obstacles in their lives.
  • Array of job opportunities – School social workers have the benefit of being able to work in elementary schools, middle schools or junior highs, high schools, alternative schools, and so forth.
  • Emotionally draining – Working with children that are facing problems at home, at school, or both can be very emotionally draining work.
  • Large caseloads – It’s not uncommon for school social workers to be required to see an enormous number of students – potentially into the hundreds depending on the size of the school in which they work. Having so many children on their caseload can lead to a lot of job-related stress.
  • Potential for violence – Unfortunately, school social workers sometimes have to work with children that have a proclivity for anger, aggression, or even violence. In some cases, this could pose a risk of injury as social workers often work one-on-one with their clients.

What is the Average Salary of a School Social Worker?

According to a May 2017 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, school social workers can expect to make around $58,490 per year. That represents a middle ground in the pay band for social workers as a whole. For example, the highest 10 percent of earners make nearly $80,000 per year while the lowest 10 percent of earners make $29,560 per year, on average.

This wide variation in pay range is the result of many factors, including the level of education the social worker has achieved, the type of school in which they work, and the geographic location in which they work.

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