How to Become a School Social Worker
Whether you’re already a social worker or want to get into the field, one position that might be of interest to you is a school social worker. Whether you end up working at a small school or prestigious university, this career gives you the opportunity to help children and adolescents improve their health and well-being while also reaching their full academic potential. In this guide, you’ll learn what it takes to become a school social worker.
What is a School Social Worker?
A school social worker is a mental health professional who has received extensive training. You can earn a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or Master of Social Work (MSW) to gain the education necessary to start this career. In this position, you’ll be the link between the school, home, and the broader community. Your services can be provided to students and their families for the purpose of helping students improve their social and academic standing.
The exact qualifications you need depend on the school you apply with. Along with a bachelor’s degree, you may be expected to earn a license from the state you work in. The job responsibilities you’re tasked with performing can vary as well. For instance, you’ll likely be expected to perform assessments of a student’s social and academic history. You may also need to determine if students are experiencing peer pressure, substance use, or notable obstacles to academic performance. Your everyday responsibilities can involve:
- Implementing treatment plans
- Providing therapeutic services to students and their families
- Consulting with administrators and faculty members
- Helping special needs students
- Administering crisis management services
- Performing home visits
- Conducting community outreach
- Helping staff members make improvements to their teaching methodologies.
Where School Social Workers Work
Even though most school social workers are hired to work in schools, it’s also possible for you to work in a private practice or office. In this scenario, the school would refer students to your practice. In schools, social workers provide therapeutic services to tend to a wide range of different school-related issues, which include everything from bullying to being frequently absent from class.
If you choose to work outside of the school setting, you could help develop local, statewide, or nationwide education systems that help provide students with easier access to the mental health care they need. In this role, you could work for the government or on behalf of lobbyists.
Instead of being hired directly by a specific school, you could be hired by a school district to provide them with recommendations about district-wide policies that could be implemented. If you gain enough experience and have a strong reputation as a school social worker, you can open your own private practice, which means that you’ll likely be contracted by the school for your services.
Every type of social worker is almost always in high demand. The same is true for school social workers. According to BLS, the social work industry is expected to grow by around 9% over the next decade, which is faster than the average rate for all industries. Another 64,000 people are estimated to enter this profession by 2031.
As of 2022, more than 344,000 people were employed as child, family, and school social workers in the U.S. Around 51,550 of these workers are employed in elementary and secondary schools. Employment is highest in states like California, New York, and Texas.
The median salary for this position is $56,680. However, different states pay better than others, which you should consider when deciding if you should relocate for your job. The top paying states include:
- New Jersey – $75,590
- Connecticut – $71,970
- New York – $70,690
- District of Columbia – $69,980
- Maryland – $66,850
How to Become a School Social Worker
The exact path to obtaining this job differs with each state. Since school social work is often considered to be a social work specialization and career advancement opportunity, you’ll likely need to earn a Master of Social Work as well as the right license.
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
When you wish to start a career that involves social work, your first step involves earning a bachelor’s degree. Even though most jobs will require an MSW degree, a BSW teaches you about the basics and most important components of social work. Obtaining this degree is also a requisite for most MSW programs.
Consider State Requirements
Since most school social workers are employees of schools or school districts, you’ll need to obtain authorization from your state’s board of education if you want to practice this type of social work in the community. Because licensing requirements can vary substantially, it’s essential that you do your research to understand what steps you need to take to enter this field.
As an example of a state-specific social work license, anyone who wants to apply for this job in California must first earn the Pupil Personnel Services credential, which comes with such requirements as obtaining a bachelor’s degree to completing at least 45 graduate-level academic units.
Think About Earning a Higher Degree
Even though state requirements can vary when it comes to licensing, nearly every state requires these social workers to have an MSW that’s CSWE-accredited. The topics your curriculum should cover while you’re completing your education requirements include school violence prevention, child welfare, and adolescent mental health.
In order to be admitted into an accredited MSW program, you must first complete a bachelor’s degree with a minimum GPA, finish coursework that relates to social work, and have several letters of recommendation. You must also provide a personal statement about why you want to be a social worker and what this career means to you. The primary courses you’ll take during an MSW program include:
- Principles and theories of youth interventions
- Human behavior in social environments
- School social work
- The juvenile justice system
If you enter an accredited MSW program, you’ll likely need to complete around 900-1,200 practicum hours in hospitals, schools, and social service agencies. The experience you gain while in the field allows you to have a better understanding of how to provide care to real people while being overseen by a field instructor. If you want to start this career, you should begin by working at a local school when completing your practicum. Keep in mind that many states require applicants to finish a certain number of their practicum hours in some type of school.
Once you’ve received approval from the state and have obtained your license, you can begin to apply for jobs at schools and school districts in your vicinity. As with nearly every profession, the application process can be highly varied. In general, however, you’ll want to submit a comprehensive list of your credentials alongside letters of recommendation and a well-written cover letter. In most cases, you’ll complete one to two interviews before being hired.
Day in the Life
A standard day in the life of school social workers depends on where you work and the type of school you work for. Your day will invariably be different when working at an elementary school than it would be if you worked at a university. However, there are some things that nearly every social worker does during the day.
To begin, you could act as a greeter who welcomes students when they arrive at school. If you work at an elementary, middle, or high school, you could take some time to speak with some of the parents who drop off their children, which will give you more insight into the students you’re expected to treat. While you might not speak with parents every day, doing so provides you with a great opportunity to make sure you’re serving the needs of the student body.
Once school starts, you may be tasked with creating behavioral plans and academic progression schedules for students who need to improve their academic or social lives. If there are students who routinely display behavioral problems, you can spend a considerable portion of your day with these students and their teachers.
You could also meet with parents in one-on-one sessions to ensure the intervention strategies you use are customized for the students you treat. School social workers often provide parents and families with resources they can use to help their child make the necessary improvements. These resources involve everything from food assistance to speech therapy. If you have the right credentials in behavioral therapy and counseling, you can administer these services without needing to request assistance from another social worker.
Your day-to-day responsibilities could involve training staff about how to communicate with family members and manage student behavior in the classroom. During a session, the discussions you have with staff members can include everything from implementing school safety techniques to managing traumatic events.
When it comes time for students to take their mid-year or end-of-year exams, school social workers might help with test preparation and administration. School social workers can also go over testing results and help the student learn how to improve their performance on the next test. A traditional day for school social workers can end by meeting with administrators or holding parent conferences.
Licensure, Certifications, and Continuing Ed
Every state has unique requirements for licensure, certifications, and continuing education. Before you can earn a license, you must first request that you be allowed to complete the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) exam. This exam must be passed before you can receive your license. If the state approves this request, it’s possible for you to register to take the ASWB licensing exam. Registration fees for this exam amount to $230.
Once you’ve obtained an MSW, you’re able to apply for certification or licensure in the state you currently live in. Before you receive your license, you’ll need to provide pertinent documentation alongside your application. Keep in mind that it’s common for individual states to have more stringent requirements. For instance, you could be required to complete a certain amount of field education before you’re able to work as a school social worker.
Certain states also require that applicants complete an additional skills-based exam. You’ll need to conduct research on the requirements in your state before you apply for a license. Most states require license holders to complete around 40 hours of continuing education on two-year intervals to maintain their license.
Some school social worker positions ask for applicants to have extra credentials, which could be something like the Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS). By obtaining this certification, you’re showing potential employers that you’re going above and beyond to improve your resume and become qualified for any position.