What Is A School Social Worker?

Around the turn of the century, public schools in the United States began to make attendance compulsory. With that legal impetus in place, the concept of truancy was created, and attendance officers were hired to bring truants back into the classroom.

What they found, though, was that there was often more going on than a childish rejection of organized education. Instead, many cases of truancy were rooted in the social ills of community or family. Dealing effectively with the problem required reaching beyond the strict outlines of education and into social support and advocacy.

Today, those findings and early efforts have evolved into a well-accepted and respected role in the education system: the school social worker. Dealing with old problems like poverty and new ones like video game addiction, they carry on the work of ensuring a safe and nurturing environment is available for learning to all students, regardless of social status or background.

How ABA Intersects with School Social Work

Although all social work is being impacted by the advent of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a scientifically-validated treatment approach for issues ranging from autism to aggression and anger management, school social workers are involved with the trend more than most.

Behaviorism is big in American education today, largely due to the effectiveness it has shown in dealing with rising trends in the diagnoses of ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). Working within and offering ABA-driven Individual Education Plans (IEPs) is an everyday activity for most school social workers today, making the practice of ABA and certification in the field highly relevant.

What Does a School Social Worker Do? – School Social Worker Job Description

If teaching isn’t exactly your thing but you enjoy working with kids and making a difference, school social work could be the field for you.

School social workers are more independent, enjoy more one-on-one interaction with kids, and can make a huge difference in the arc of their lives at an early age.

Children are susceptible to the same sort of economic pressures, medical issues, and mental health difficulties that face anyone in modern society. On top of those, they face unique issues such as school bullying, academic pressures, and physical and mental vulnerabilities that adults don’t have. Worse, their still-developing minds can be permanently affected by traumas that they experience at a young age.

School social workers stand between that vulnerable population and the many ills that can afflict them.

The days for school social workers can start early and run late. They might make a point of meeting kids coming in for the day to get a sense of their mood or head off problems in classrooms before they have a chance to get started. After school, they may accompany a student home for an impromptu discussion with parents or a check of the home environment.

In larger or more urbanized districts, each school may have one or more dedicated social workers. In rural areas, a district might have only a handful or a single social worker to cover every school, and their time will be divided between those schools.

In either case, most school social workers spend quite a bit of time on the road, whether it’s between job sites, or checking in on kids at home.

Social workers in schools are expected to stay up to date with trends in both society and child psychology. Their work can also verge into medical issues, at times, particularly with respect to supporting students with disabilities and their families.

Much of the day at school, however, is oriented around finding and solving problems that prevent students from learning. Sometimes that means dealing with a student who has personal issues disrupting their studies; other times, it means intervening with a student whose outbursts are causing problems for the rest of their class. Close, collaborative work with teachers, administrators, and other specialized support professionals such as behavior analysts is an important part of such interventions.

It takes a delicate touch to be able to connect with kids while still maintaining the clinical detachment necessary to gather information about and analyze their problems. A school social worker may be the only friendly face some kids see in the course of their day.

As a trusted confidant, social workers have to have the stomach to listen to some horrific stories of abuse told directly by the victims, while both maintaining compassion for the child and using their advanced training and knowledge to determine the best possible course of intervention for the situation. And they have to be familiar with both their legal obligations and the resources available for those interventions.

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How To Become A School Social Worker

It only makes sense that getting into the field of education is going to require some education up front, so the first step in becoming a school social worker is to figure out what degree you will need.

Education Required To Become A School Social Worker

Although you’ll start your path with a bachelor’s degree like most college graduates, in most states you will eventually need a master’s degree from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited school. CSWE accreditation not only ensures that your degree will meet the current educational standards of the social work community, but also that it will be accepted by your state licensing board when it comes time to get credentialed for your work.

But the master’s in social work (MSW) you will earn is a lot more than just a step to clear for licensure. You’ll study important concepts in psychology, socioeconomics, and clinical social work. You’ll get a deep training in the ethical and legal aspects of the work, and learn something of the history of the field. You will probably engage in some independent research, and you will undergo an intensive supervised course of field experience, getting real world, hands-on training while you work directly with real clients.

Many MSW programs allow for a concentration in school social work, so you can hone your experience with the kinds of coursework and practice that will best prepare you for the job. This is increasingly requiring some training in applied behavior analysis (ABA), the therapy of choice in most educational settings for common issues such as autism, ADHD, or developmental delays. Understanding the process of making behavioral assessments, developing and implementing IEPs, and coordinating with behavioral therapists makes the school social worker’s job much easier in today’s schools.

How Do I Earn a License to Work As a School Social Worker?

Each state maintains separate laws and requirements for individuals seeking to become licensed or certified school social workers. In some, you may need to pursue additional coursework after graduating from your MSW program; you will also need to accumulate a certain amount of on-the-job experience before being allowed to take the necessary tests.

Every state uses the Association of Social Work Boards national examination for their license tests; most school social workers will be taking the Master’s, Advanced Generalist, or Clinical test. Additional testing specific to a state’s legal and ethical standards is usually required.

Some states have a distinct license for school social work, such as Oregon’s Initial and Continuing School Social Worker licenses, with distinct education requirements. Others, like Colorado, may license social workers more generically, but then require a separate certification process for working in schools. Much depends on both the state and the particular requirements of the job, so this is something to research carefully for your intended area of practice.

Do I Also Need to Earn Some Kind of National Certification?

While not required for such positions, independent, national certification can improve both your resume and your skills. The Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS) from the National Association of Social Workers is one option, requiring an MSW, two years of documented professional experience, and a current master’s-level state social work license or exam-based school social work license. It was the first specialized credential offered by NASW, reflecting both the importance and distinction of school social work as a field of practice.

Should I Earn a BCBA to Become a School Social Worker?

It’s becoming more and more important to have a deep understanding of applied behavior analysis when undertaking school social work, and there is no better way to demonstrate expertise in the field than to earn a Board Certified Behavior Analyst credential from the BACB (Behavior Analyst Certification Board). With verified experience, education, and demonstrated expertise through examination, BCBAs play a big role in American education already.

Outside of enrolling in a dual master’s program, school social workers have generally been unable to get a BCBA since social work requires an MSW, and the BCBA requires a master’s in education, applied behavior analysis, or psychology to qualify. But as of 2022, that’s changing…

The BACB is opening up the credential to master’s holders in other fields, such as social work. All you have to do is complete a post-graduate Verified Course Sequence (VCS) certificate program. Some of those programs are already accepting MSWs today in anticipation of the coming change.

The BACB is removing the degree restriction because it believes that this will help introduce ABA expertise in more fields that can use it, as well as offering the opportunity for more diversity and other perspectives in the BCBA world.

Going through a VCS program will give you the additional, in-depth exposure to concepts like token economies, discreet trial training, and pivotal response therapy, allowing you to play an even more important part in the ABA work taking place in your school.

Common School Social Worker Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks school social workers within the broader category of Child, School, and Family Social Workers. Elementary and secondary school social workers make up only the fourth largest segment of that category, with around 43,000 employed nationwide.

But although they may be fewer in number, they command far greater salaries than their counterparts working outside of schools. The annual mean wage for 2021 for school social workers was $54,880 per year, or $26.39 per hour.

Geographic location can have a major impact on your expected salary as well. New Jersey was the top-paying region overall, with an average annual wage of $75,410. Connecticut, District of Columbia, New York, and California come in close behind.

BLS also tracks wages for specific metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas. California dominates that list, taking four out of the top ten top-paying regions of the country, and Connecticut comes in first for nonmetropolitan areas.

With solid compensation and the chance to work with kids and make a difference every day, school social work is a both lucrative and rewarding career path.

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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Child, Family, and School Social Workers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.