School Social Worker

School social workers help students as they face an assortment of challenges. In many cases, students struggle with mental health issues, violent or stressful home environments, or physical disabilities. School social workers work with students to identify, address, and overcome these obstacles. Trained as mental health professional, a school social worker can serve as a trusted point of contact between students and their families, teachers, and school administrators. School social workers work with students who exhibit perpetual tardiness, aggressive or antisocial behavior, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and learning disorders. They perform crisis intervention, counseling, and home visits. On a larger scale, they help schools develop and implement training programs, inform staff of how to manage students’ behavioral issues, and connect schools with mental health facilities and other resources.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the profession to grow by as much as 14% between 2016 and 2026.

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What Does a School Social Worker Do?

A typical day for a school social worker roughly adheres to a normal school schedule. School social workers get to school early in the morning and may stay late to meet with students or make after-hours home visits. If a student does not show up to school, the social worker may visit the student’s home to determine why. Early in the year, school social workers may meet with school administrators to determine at-risk student populations, such as LGBTQ students, homeless students, and students suffering from mental or behavioral disorders. Throughout the year, they may plan and implement programs to educate school staff.

During a typical day, school social workers may visit with students who exhibit mental health, behavioral, or social problems that limit their success in the classroom. Once they identify a problem, social workers may spend less time with the student and more time working with outside people and agencies. They may work alongside the student’s teachers to implement changes that may lead the student to more success or, if the problem occurs in the student’s home, they may visit with the student’s family. If the student suffers from hunger, violence, abuse, or homelessness, they help these students and their families access resources like shelters, food banks, and medical care.

What’s the Difference Between a School Social Worker and a School Counselor?

Although the duties of school social workers and school counselors overlap, the professions differ in a few fundamental ways. Both professions address students’ mental health, but school social workers focus more attention on how to alter the students’ environment to increase his or her academic, emotional, and social wellbeing while counselors rely mostly on individual counseling sessions. School social workers recruit outside services, such as child welfare or substance abuse programs, and make home visits to assess the students’ home environment; school counselors mostly apply psychotherapy. School social workers also work with teachers, school administrators, and entire school districts to implement programs and teacher trainings.

Though school counselors and school social workers both work in schools, some private practice social workers may also work in schools on a contract basis. Both professions typically require a master’s degree. Social workers tend to hold a master’s in social work while school counselors typically hold a master’s in school counseling or psychology.

How to Become a School Social Worker

Step 1: Get an Education

Although some states employ school social workers who only hold a bachelor’s degree, most require that school social workers hold at least a master’s degree from a CSWE-accredited social work school. A master’s degree in social work qualifies social workers to apply for their Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) and, after enough experience, their Licensed Clinical Social Work (LCSW) or Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW). As part of an MSW program, students typically complete an internship, practicum, or fellowship that requires hands-on work in the field. Some master’s of social work programs offer a school social work concentration in which students build skills and knowledge specific to the field. Students in this concentration typically complete their practicum experience in a local school. Some school social worker job descriptions may also require that applicants hold a teaching certification. Some MSW programs address this certification training; others do not.

Graduates who hold only a bachelor’s degree in social work who wish to become school social workers can pursue peripheral jobs that serve as stepping stones, such as case management aides, juvenile court liaisons, or community outreach coordinators. They can also pursue their teaching license and become teachers. However, the most straightforward path to becoming a school social worker requires earning a master’s degree in social work.

  • Bachelor’s Degree in School Social Work: A bachelor’s in school social work serves as a critical step in becoming a school social worker, mostly because it qualifies graduates to enter a master’s of social work program. In a BSW program, students learn the fundamentals of social work, including human behavior and social welfare policy. Some colleges now offer social work schools online.
  • Master’s Degree in School Social Work: A master’s in social work qualifies graduates to earn their clinical social work license and become school social workers. Some MSW programs allow students to concentrate in school social work, gaining field-specific knowledge and skills. Students in MSW school social work programs learn about mental health assessment and treatment, human development, and complete a hands-on practicum or internship experience. Students, including those enrolled in a social work school online, earn valuable field experience through practicums or internships.

Step 2: Earn a License

The second step to become a school social worker involves earning a license. Although social work licensure requirements vary from state to state, most consist of an application, fee, and a passing score on the necessary level of ASWB exam. This computer-based exam costs between $230 and $260, depending on the level of exam, and it consists of 170 multiple-choice questions. Some states also require a background check, official transcripts, and professional references. Higher-level licenses, like the LCSW and LICSW, require documentation of extensive supervised professional experience.

Students and school social workers should check their state’s specific requirements, not only for earning their initial license but also for renewing this license. Most states require social workers to renew their license every two years, although some states require it every year or up to every three years. Between renewals, states require that social workers complete a certain number of continuing education (CE) credits; this requirement varies from state to state but typically ranges from five to 20 CE credits per year. Social workers who wish to practice in another state can often apply for a reciprocal licensure in their new state. Most licenses carry over as long as the original license acquired involves equal or stricter requirements and remains valid.

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School Social Work Job and Salary Outlook

School social workers work in all types of schools, including public, private, and charter schools. They also work with all levels of students, from elementary school children to high schoolers. Some pre-schools, junior colleges, and universities may also hire social workers. In the larger field of school social work, some professionals may specialize in an age group or type of student. For instance, some social workers may work mostly with students who exhibit mental health or behavioral disorders while others may work with students who suffer from learning disabilities. And some may focus on working with students who suffer from a problematic home environment.

As a result of higher student enrollment rates, more schools will need to hire school social workers in the coming years. The BLS projects child, family, and school social work jobs to grow by 14% between 2016 and 2026. However, despite this higher-than-average growth rate, school social worker jobs may suffer from budget limitations at the local, state, and federal levels. The field may therefore fail to reach its projected growth rate and the average social worker salary may also fluctuate.

Child, Family, and School Social Workers by Industry

IndustryEmploymentAnnual Mean Wage
Individual and Family Services76,480$42,300
State Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OES Designation)63,100$48,020
Local Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OES Designation)54,450$54,680
Elementary and Secondary Schools39,940$62,690
Other Residential Care Facilities9,670$38,540
Source: BLS

Average Salary by Experience for School Social Workers

Entry Level (0-5 Years)$45,000
Mid-Level (5-10 Years)$49,000
Experienced (10-20 Years)$52,000
Late (20+ Years)$63,000
Source: PayScale

How Do You Find a Job as a School Social Worker?

Social workers considering school social work should know that elementary and secondary schools serve as the fourth largest employer of social workers behind individual and family services, state governments, and local governments. Of all these industries, elementary and secondary schools offer the highest salary.

School social workers can find jobs through a variety of sources. Social work organizations like the Clinical Social Work Association, SocialWorkJobBank, and the Council on Social Work Education offer job boards and networking opportunities. Some people may also find Twitter accounts like Social Work Today and New Social Worker useful while job-hunting. Blogs like Social Work Helper and Social Workers Speak may also provide valuable guidance. Graduates who want their resume to stand out should consider pursuing a certification in school social work, like the one conferred through the NASW, and their state teaching certification.

School Social Work Resources

  • American Council for School Social Work: The ACSSW supports school social workers and advances the field as a whole. Members enjoy professional development opportunities, an annual conference, educational resources, journals, articles, and news about the field.
  • School Social Work Association of America: The SSWAA empowers school social workers and promotes the profession at large. In addition to professional liability insurance, professional advocacy, and news briefs, members receive discounts on annual conferences, publications, and dues.
  • National Association of Social Workers: As the largest social work organization in the world, the NASW promotes excellence in the industry, advocates for social policies, and helps members develop professionally. Members enjoy access to discounted continuing education, conferences, publications, legal counsel, and free ethics consultations.
  • The Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics: Social workers interested in keeping up-to-date on issues of ethics and moral dilemmas in the field should subscribe to this journal. It also accepts submissions, reviews articles, books, and other publications in the field, and provides historical perspectives.
  • National Rural Social Work Caucus: Designed to examine and address the needs of rural social workers, the National Rural Social Work Caucus connects rural social workers and provides a platform for their unique research. It also hosts an annual conference that provides community and professional development for rural professionals.