The Vital Role of Social Workers in Education

school social worker with student
school social worker with student

Across the country, school social workers serve as essential team members who help students succeed both academically and personally. While social workers have long worked in educational settings, there are now more of them than ever before—and the number of roles for school social workers is expected to continue growing.

As mental health service providers, school social workers are needed to help the 18 to 20 percent of students who struggle with mental health issues significant enough to impair primary life functions. Research shows that students with disabilities, students from low-income households, and students of color are less likely than their peers to receive the mental health services they need. When left untreated, mental health issues can lead to poor educational outcomes, including low grade-point averages and students dropping out.

School social workers seek to identify and meet the needs of students who may be struggling academically, socially, or at home. In doing so, these professionals help create a more equitable educational experience within the schools and districts they serve.

To further illuminate how these individuals make a difference in the lives of students, schools, and whole communities, consider the answers to a few key questions about school social workers:

  • What does a school social worker do, and what are their social worker responsibilities?
  • How does one become a school social worker?
  • What is the job outlook and projected salary for these professionals?
  • What is driving the demand for more school social workers?
  • What are the challenges and rewards of the profession?

School Social Worker Role and Responsibilities

The School Social Work Association of America defines school social workers as “trained mental health professionals with a degree in social work who provide services related to a person’s social, emotional and life adjustment to school and/or society. School Social Workers are the link between the home, school and community in providing direct and indirect services to students, families and school personnel to promote and support students’ academic and social success.”

As that “link” between home, school, and community, school social workers may provide services directly to students, parents, families, school personnel, and the school district. They also work with community programs and agencies to gather resources and support for students in need.

School social worker responsibilities often include:

  • Providing individual and group counseling to students
  • Intervening in crisis situations
  • Conducting assessments and developing treatment plans
  • Advocating for students
  • Collaborating with school staff and community partners

Many challenges may result in a student needing support from a social worker. Consider some of the issues that school social workers help students work through and how they might do so:

  • Bullying: School social workers may support students who have suffered as targets of bullying, teach positive social skills to instigators, interface with parents whose children are involved in bullying incidents, and empower students who witness bullying and want to improve their school’s culture.
  • Mental health challenges: School social workers may provide evaluations and assessments, conduct individual and group therapy sessions, and collaborate with outside mental health agencies to ensure comprehensive support.
  • Learning disabilities: School social workers may work with students, parents, and teachers to ensure that students with learning disabilities receive the services and assistance they need through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504. They may also provide training to teachers, educate parents on relevant legislation or services, and help facilitate placement of students with disabilities in the proper classroom or program.

Social workers may also intervene when students show signs of abuse, live in poverty, or face food insecurity. They advocate for students in myriad ways, connecting with community organizations and other support systems to facilitate student safety and success.

school social worker with students

How to Become a School Social Worker

Individuals must meet specific educational and licensure requirements to become a school social worker. While some schools will hire a social worker whose highest level of education is a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), most districts require a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.

In an MSW program, aspiring social workers engage in comprehensive coursework that includes topics such as:

  • Social work ethics
  • Practice within diverse populations and across individual differences
  • Human bio-psycho-social-spiritual development
  • Social systems
  • Assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental health conditions

MSW students also participate in field placements to hone their social work skills in the real world, allowing aspiring social workers to spend hundreds of hours working with patients while receiving feedback and oversight in a workplace environment.

The requirements for social work licensing vary across states. Aspiring social workers who pursue licensure as clinical social workers will likely have more significant opportunities for career advancement. To take the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensing exam to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), individuals in most states must earn an MSW. Some states also require additional coursework in certain areas. ASWB provides an in-depth guide to education and licensure requirements for social workers by state here.

Job Outlook and Demand for School Social Workers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects significant growth in roles for social workers between 2022 and 2032. Child, family, and school social worker roles are expected to grow by five percent in that period, representing 18,900 new jobs. As students and families seek to find stability after the COVID-19 pandemic, a high number of children and teens are facing mental health struggles, and schools are attempting to implement more social and emotional learning, school social workers are needed to fill a critical role.

The following states hire the most child, family, and school social workers:

  • California: 49,310
  • New York: 23,740
  • Texas: 20,770
  • Pennsylvania: 19,819
  • Illinois: 15,810

The BLS reports a mean annual wage of $50,820 for child, family, and school social workers as of May 2022. The following are the top-paying states or districts for these professionals:

  • New Jersey: $75,590
  • Connecticut: $71,970
  • New York: $70,690
  • District of Columbia: $69,980
  • Maryland: $66,850

Challenges and Rewards of Being a School Social Worker

Social work in schools is a career field full of meaning and purpose. It also includes challenges that aspiring school social workers must be aware of and prepare to encounter. Some of these challenges include:

  • Working with difficult students and families: While school social workers continually endeavor to help students and families, not everyone wants to be helped or is ready to receive support.
  • Dealing with paperwork and bureaucracy: Many challenges students and families face are nuanced and call for specialized responses. While protocols and guidelines exist for positive reasons, they can become cumbersome for social workers whose primary interest is helping someone as quickly as possible
  • Witnessing trauma: School social workers will inevitably work with children experiencing significant suffering such as neglect, abuse, or loss of a parent. While entering these situations with support and guidance is a meaningful part of the social worker’s job, it can also be personally upsetting, highlighting the need for regular self-care and personal support systems.

While these challenges are important and should not be ignored, the rewards of a social work career are plentiful. Among others, some of those rewards include:

  • Making a difference in students’ lives: Whether through an encouraging word on a difficult day, a long-term therapeutic relationship, or comprehensive support at the family level, social workers regularly make an impact with long-term positive effects.
  • Seeing students succeed: By addressing emotional, behavioral, and mental health concerns, social workers often get to be part of empowering students to thrive academically and socially.
  • Building relationships with students, families, and school staff: Social workers often work as connectors and collaborators, getting to know many people and programs to serve students as well as possible. This can be profoundly meaningful for the school social worker as their professional life is rich with purposeful relationships.

licensed clinical social worker

Prepare to Meet the Needs of Students, Schools, and Society

School social workers make a positive difference in the lives of students on a daily basis. Discover how you can provide mental health services in schools by learning more about Keuka College’s CSWE-accredited online master of social work programs.