School Social Worker

A school social worker can be one of the most influential resources in a child's life. In addition to working directly with students in a classroom setting, school social workers advocate for the whole child, assess the social-emotional and psychological influences that can affect a child's academic progress and well-being, and work closely with teachers to identify at-risk students. They also collaborate with parents, families, and school administrators to address students' needs in the classroom and at home.

School social worker jobs are projected to grow by 16% over the next decade, much faster than other occupations in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), school social worker jobs are projected to grow by 16% over the next decade, much faster than other occupations in the U.S. Read more about the day-to-day role of a school social worker and what it takes to become a licensed professional.

The school social worker plays an active role in helping teachers identify students with social, emotional, and other psychological factors affecting their academic performance and overall well-being. These barriers may stem from behavioral, cognitive, or social problems at school or at home, and are often a combination of the two.

Once a school social worker identifies a student as "at-risk," she will typically spend time observing that student in the classroom or another school setting. A school social worker may then follow up with one or more conversations with the student and administer psychosocial tests to help assess challenges or barriers affecting his performance. Throughout this process, social workers arrange meetings with teachers and guardians to discuss their findings and to collaborate on potential solutions. For example, if a student quickly loses her temper with peers, a school social worker may work with that student to come up with calming exercises to help her deescalate in the moment.

In addition to supporting social and academic life-skill development, a school social worker may work with parents to help them implement environmental adjustments at home. In some cases, a social worker may also recommend a student to an external organization such as Big Brothers, Big Sisters, or to a medical professional for further diagnosis and assistance.

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

School social workers and school counselors both work with students, but they are two distinct positions. Most schools employ counselors, but not all schools employ social workers. Social workers are more common in urban locations and low-income schools, and they're generally employed by a district and serve students at more than one school.

While issues that counselors and social workers work through with students tend to overlap (e.g., behavioral problems, learning disabilities), counselors focus more on a student's academic progress whereas social workers also confront issues at home. For example, social workers may intervene if a student and his family lack adequate housing or food; they also may investigate child abuse.

At the master's degree level, counseling involves working directly with clients to help them overcome personal issues through psychotherapy and other methodologies.

Counseling and social work share the foundation of understanding human development and psychology, but the advanced degree paths differ. Bachelor's programs are available for both counseling and social work, though counselors and social workers may also receive their undergraduate degree in a related area like psychology. At the master's degree level, counseling involves working directly with clients to help them overcome personal issues through psychotherapy and other methodologies. While counseling students makes up one aspect of a social worker's job, she also must understand the social policies and systems and how these both support and hinder children and their families.

Education Needed to Become a School Social Worker

Both counselors and social workers often earn master's degrees. Some states allow professionals with a bachelor's or associate degree to work in entry-level social work positions, provided they are supervised by clinically-licensed social workers. Social workers employed by districts are often unsupervised and have obtained both a master's degree and clinical certification.

Internships in social work are usually offered to undergraduate students who are deciding whether they want to work in the field. At the graduate level, both counseling and social work programs require a commitment to completing multiple fieldwork experiences. Social work practicums may be offered in different environments such as a healthcare facility, private office, or school. While clinical licensing requirements for social workers varies by state, most states require that a student graduate from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) before applying.

Social workers interested in advancing their education and experience after earning their master's degree in social work (MSW) can also find public and private post-fellowship opportunities through their school's career services office.

Bachelor's Degree
An on-campus or online bachelor's degree in social work provides students with exposure to a number of specializations, from mental health to school social work. Students typically select an area of concentration and determine if they'll pursue advanced study through an MSW and clinical certification.
Master's Degree
A master's program in social work allows students to complete extensive fieldwork in their chosen concentration. MSW graduates are eligible to apply for clinical licensure in their home state. A master's degree also paves a path for further study in a doctoral program or post-graduate fellowship opportunities, and it can lead to a higher school social worker salary.
Doctoral Degree
If you're considering teaching and researching at the college level or pursuing a leadership or administrative position, then a doctoral degree in social work may be a logical career choice. Doctoral programs emphasize independent research with advanced courses in social theory, policy, and research methods.

Accreditation for School Social Work Programs

When choosing a bachelor's or master's program in social work, ensuring that a program is accredited should be at the top of your checklist. While it's important to earn your degree from a college or university with institutional accreditation, programmatic accreditation functions as a seal of quality for a particular program. CSWE is the leading professional body issuing programmatic accreditation for social work programs with curricula, instructional approaches, and administrative processes that meet established industry standards.

Attending a CSWE-accredited program online or on campus remains important if you intend to become a licensed clinical social worker, as the first step in application is generally graduating from a CSWE-accredited program. Federal financial aid and many scholarship opportunities are also predicated on whether a student enrolls in a programmatically-accredited program.

Licensure and Practicum Requirements to Become a School Social Worker

First, school social workers need to obtain their state-level social work license, which often requires a MSW, and must work for at least two years in a supervised school setting before applying for their certified school social work specialist (C-SSWS) credential. Graduates may find career opportunities through their school's career services department or by networking through a number of professional organizations.

Types and levels of social work licensure vary by state, ranging from a certified social worker to a licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW). Regardless of state requirements and level of licensure, applying for a license requires taking and passing the appropriate Association of Social Work Boards exam. In addition to paying for the exam (roughly $250 per session), you'll pay for your licensing application, a fee that varies by state. Social workers are generally required to renew their license every two years and complete a set number of continuing education hours.

Most states offer different levels of licensure, depending on education and area of expertise. For example, some states offer licensure for students who have earned an associate degree or high school diploma with documented supervised practice, while other states only grant licensure to professionals who have completed a master's degree. Researching your state social work requirements for licensure remains an important step in planning your career path before or during your enrollment in a social work program.

While your social work licensure may transfer to another state, every state requires that social workers re-apply for their state license once establishing residency. Social workers cannot practice in a private or public setting without a state-issued license. While dependent on level of licensure and certification, expect to renew your social work license every other year and complete a state's required number of continuing education hours.

Depending on level of licensure and years of experience, school social workers can find job opportunities in most K-12 schools. In some cases, a public school may require that a social worker earn his state-level teacher certification, though usually being a licensed social worker with at least one or two years of experience suffices.

Some school social workers may find that their job title overlaps with or fulfills the position of school counselor. The more specific role of school adjustment counselor and social worker may also be an option in some states, with social workers working with school counselors to help students and families adapt to middle or high school.

Over the last few decades, the number of college students choosing education as their major has decreased by about 5%. This decrease in qualified educators, along with a large number of retiring teachers this decade, has caused a teacher shortage across most of the U.S. Federally funded programs like the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant offer financial rewards to encourage educators to serve high-need populations in low-income public or private schools.

Average Salary by Experience for School Social Workers
Entry Level (0-5 Years) $45,000
Mid-Level (5-10 Years) $50,000
Experienced (10-20 Years) $53,000
Late (20+ Years) $62,000

How to Find a Job as a Licensed Social Worker

When it comes to building your resume, consider your audience. If you're applying for a job as a licensed school social worker, flesh out your resume with school-based practicum and work experiences, relevant volunteer experiences working with youth or families, and any involvement with professional social work organizations. Read a school social worker job description carefully to find out the qualifications or skills it requires.

In addition to having a C-SSWS credential, school social workers who complete certifications in special education or English as a second language will qualify to work with a range of populations.

Social work organizations like The Network for Social Work Management and the Society for Social Work and Research provide networking opportunities, useful resources, and events. The International Federation of Social Workers boasts thousands of global members and allows social workers to explore opportunities and issues in different parts of the world.

The BLS projects that the overall demand for social workers across industries will grow by about 16%

At present, most social workers are employed in individual and family services or through state government organizations, which include schools. The BLS projects that the overall demand for social workers across industries will grow by about 16% over the next decade, which is much faster than the national average.

In addition to organizations, professionals may keep abreast of current issues in the field through reputable social work blogs and Twitter feeds. For example, the Social Work Podcast and Blog interviews experts in the field of social work education, research, and policy monthly; and Social Work Today tweets regularly about related issues and events.

Child, Family, and School Social Workers by Industry
Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Individual and Family Services 76,480 $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 Schools 39,940 $62,690
Other Residential Care Facilities 9,670 $38,540
  • School Social Work Association of America The SSWAA provides school social workers with resources, research, professional development opportunities, and information on advocacy work through coalitions and partnerships. SSWAA members also receive professional liability insurance and access to health insurance plans.
  • American Council for School Social Work Members of ACSSW receive access to research-based journals and articles covering latest research. Members can also find state, regional, and national conferences that may qualify as continuing education and allow for professional networking.
  • National Association of Social Workers The NASW is the world's largest professional social work organization, with over 12,000 members worldwide and local chapters across the U.S. Resources include a career center, awards, and free and discounted continuing education.
  • International Association for Social Work with Groups This non-profit organization represents social workers engaged in groupwork in 22 countries. Members can join a number of international or local committees, participate in ongoing projects, and attend one or more international conferences.
  • Council on Social Work Education In addition to granting program accreditation, the CSWE provides a wealth of resources geared toward social work educators and research-based journals and publications. Becoming a member of CSWE provides the opportunity to become nominated for a leadership role on a CSWE committee or council.