School-Based Social Workers
School closures and distance learning made clear to more people something many teachers and families have long known: The student’s experience at school and at home are not the separate worlds they may seem.
What happens in one makes an impact—often direct and consequential—on the other.
And school-based social workers are trained professionals on the educational team who bridge the gap between the two.
Decades of research reveal a strong correlation between a child’s success in school and the extent to which their families encourage learning, set high but realistic expectations, and take an active interest in what goes on during school days.
When students aren’t getting that support, school-based social workers strive to secure it for them, both at home and in the wider community. They advocate and open doors for students, especially those with special needs or who are considered at risk because they face urgent challenges in accessing their education.
At Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), our social workers focus on students receiving related services and special education in school districts and charter schools throughout the greater Delaware Valley.
In a variety of ways, our school social workers enhance students’ emotional and physical well-being, support their academic performance, and connect them to resources that can lift them to the next level of educational success.
What School-Based Social Workers Do
Case manager and counselor, advocate and mediator, identifier and distributor of resources, sometimes even calendar coordinator and truancy officer—school social workers play many roles. But in all they do, they aim to help students function and learn, to succeed both scholastically and socially in school.
School-based social workers identify and advocate for students’ best interests. Here are some specific shapes that general mission can take:
- Assessing students’ biopsychosocial well-being
The biopsychosocial approach attends to an individual in their fullest context: biological, mental, and relational. This holistic model allows school social workers to treat students and promote their well-being in multidimensional ways.
- Evaluate students’ most pressing challenges and identify viable treatment strategies
Today’s students face exceptional social forces threatening their educational success, from the availability of harmful substances to the prevalence of bullying (in person and online). School social workers assess students at risk and, as needed, design and implement treatment to increase their self-determination.
- Make home visits
Observing the student’s natural environment firsthand is critical to any accurate evaluation of the student’s needs. Domestic conditions and family dynamics shape not only how the student behaves and performs at school but also what interventions social workers can implement and what services they will seek to make available. Whether to find out why a student is chronically absent or to open lines of communication with families, home visits are central.
- Provide case management services
School social workers learn and navigate often complex networks of school and community resources and supports. They refer students and their families to other agencies and collaborate with other professionals to ensure students’ physical, mental, emotional, and social needs do not go unmet. They monitor how the service packages they arrange perform, making adjustments as needed.
- Facilitate student and family access to financial and healthcare assistance programs
Upon referral, school-based social workers can help students and their families avail themselves of wraparound programs to meet essential such concrete needs as food, clothing, medical care, and economic assistance. The social worker is the essential link between the school and outside sources of support.
- Deliver direct support and therapy to students
One-on-one, in small groups, and with families, school social workers counsel students who face mental health challenges, adverse circumstances, and other barriers to their educational progress. Self-care and problem-solving skills, mastering social skills, regulating emotion in healthy and constructive ways, and setting positive goals may all receive attention in therapy sessions.
- Stage crisis interventions
School social workers can deliver physical and psychological aid to students in emergencies and extremely adverse circumstances. They can help students exposed to violence at school or at home, for instance, or who struggle with suicidal or homicidal ideation. Social workers can also support the whole school community after campus violence or other disasters, assessing individuals’ safety and nurturing resilience.
- Educate and train others in the value of school social work
Through workshops for school administrators, in-service training for teachers and staff, and direct consultation with parents and families, school-based social workers promote a better understanding of their role and skills.
School-Based Social Workers and the Multidisciplinary Team
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) considers social work services among the many related services to which students with disabilities and disorders may be entitled in order to benefit from their education.
School social workers will often serve on student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams, alongside parents, teachers, administrators, and such other professionals as school psychologists and school counselors. They contribute information they’ve gathered about the student through observation and conversation, and specialized knowledge of and ability to mobilize school and community resources to support the student.
Education and Training School-Based Social Workers Need
A bachelor’s degree—ideally in social work, though degrees in psychology and sociology are also relevant—is the minimum requirement for getting a school-based social work position. Many require a Master of Social Work degree (MSW), approved by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and other credentials.
Specific criteria for becoming a licensed social worker vary by state. Check each state for details about obtaining licensure, as well as any additional certification required for working in schools.