School social workers aim to protect students' mental health and safety to ensure their success.
Learn about the essential services school social workers provide in K-12 settings and how individuals can jump-start their school social work careers. This guide also outlines opportunities for workers in this field and career growth opportunities. Keep reading to learn more about this increasingly valuable social work career.
What Is a School Social Worker?
School social workers offer essential support to students, families, teachers, and administrators. Increasingly in demand, school social workers can find employment at K-12 schools in both public and private settings.
These social workers evaluate the various social, educational, emotional, and community elements impacting student success. This field involves numerous responsibilities, including crisis counseling, evaluating school-wide training, facilitating interactive groups to teach students social skills to cope with life and bullying, and acting as advocates for students.
School social workers typically have expertise in dealing with trauma and know how mental health can impact individual students and the school community. These professionals also work with families and students to ensure they have access to various resources, social services, and after-school programming.
Steps to Become a School Social Worker
While specific requirements to become a school social worker vary among states, you typically have to meet academic and professional requirements to ensure you have the skills needed to thrive in a professional environment.
Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's Degree
A bachelor's degree in social work offers essential foundational knowledge and can bolster your graduate school application. A bachelor's in social work can usually be earned in four years.
During the degree program, social work students complete about 120 credits before graduation. Alongside general education requirements, students complete core social work classes focused on diversity, social work research, and social work practice. Many programs also encourage students to complete an internship or practicum experience within their communities.
Step 2: Complete a Master's Degree in Social Work
Earning a master's degree in social work ensures individuals have the skills needed to support their clients. A master's in social work (MSW) typically takes about two years to complete. Throughout their coursework, students complete 45-60 credits and engage with foundational and specialized social work topics.
Common master's classes include social welfare policy, poverty and inequality, and interventions in clinical social work. Alongside classroom-based learning, students also complete hundreds of hours' worth of supervised clinical instruction. This hands-on learning experience offers the opportunity to practice theories and methods learned in the classroom.
Step 3: Earn Social Work Licensure
Before securing school social worker certification, individuals must obtain their social work licensure offered through their state. As requirements vary among states, prospective school social workers should closely examine state-based licensure rules.
According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), individuals interested in securing school social work credentials must have at least two years of supervised professional experience in a school setting. Additionally, prospective school social workers must hold a Council on Social Work Education-accredited master's degree in social work.
Step 4: Continuing Education and Professional Development
Most social workers enter the field because they want to join a helping profession. That does not mean, however, that social work is devoid of ways to enhance career options and increase earning potential.
In addition to earning licensure and school social work certification, these professionals can boost their resumes through additional certifications, graduate certificate programs, and other continuing education opportunities.
Earning a doctoral degree in social work can help professionals develop additional clinical expertise and research skills while expanding their access to various teaching and leadership positions. In clinical settings, those in managerial or leadership roles tend to secure the highest salaries.
School Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers earned a median salary of about $50,390 per year in 2021. The top 10% of earners made more than $82,840 annually.
Additionally, the BLS projects that social work careers should grow by as much as 12% between 2020 and 2030 — this equates to about 89,200 additional social work jobs. Earning potential can vary depending on location, and the highest paying states include Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Washington.
FAQs on Becoming a School Social Worker
Working in public and private K-12 educational settings, school social workers function as part of the support services team and use their expertise to counsel students, parents, teachers, and administrators.
In addition to providing both individual and group counseling services to students, school social workers may also consult with teachers on handling students with emotional, behavioral, social, or mental health challenges. They also regularly meet with students' families to identify issues in their personal lives that may be impacting how they perform at school.
School social workers support students, families, and teachers, and their work can be stressful. As with teachers, it's not uncommon for school social workers to experience burnout if they do not receive the proper support and care.
That said, many school social workers also take great pride in their work and feel very fulfilled by helping K-12 students work through social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Not every social worker is cut out to work in schools, making it important for those considering this option to think carefully about how to proceed.
The most effective school social workers possess skills that help them weather difficult days, empathize with students, and maintain perspective throughout their careers. These professionals must be able to communicate with many kinds of people and participate in active listening at all times.
Cultural competence also plays an important role, as school counselors work with students from many different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. Lastly, organization is also critical since school social workers often have many open cases at any given time.
Resources for School Social Workers
- School Social Work Association of America: This professional membership group provides members access to resources, continuing education programming, advocacy, certifications, and in-person and online events.
- Social Workers in Schools Occupational Profile: NASW's Center for Workforce Studies & Social Work Practice put together this document that provides an in-depth look at the career.
- School Social Work Network: This free online resource provides access to research, industry tools, and resources to help these professionals improve their skills and knowledge.
- inSocialWork Podcast: The University at Buffalo provides this acclaimed podcast that talks about common issues in social work, including those that school social workers encounter.
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