Schools are community institutions where students, teachers, administrators, and parents come together to provide education for young people. Social workers can play a vital role in the school setting by attending to the needs of students and their families, as well as the staff responsible for providing youth education. According to the School Social Work Association of America, “School Social Workers are the link between the home, school and community in providing direct as well as indirect services to students, families and school personnel to promote and support students’ academic and social success.”
School social work is a specialized area of practice that requires a separate licensure process that varies by state. This role also requires specialized training in providing school-based support to young people and those interacting with them. In this role, social workers must be prepared to provide a variety of supportive services inside and outside of the classroom, as well as have a comprehensive understanding of school systems, educational practices, behavioral change, and social work practice with children and families.
Social workers who are interested in working with children within an educational setting should consider a career as a school social worker. A school social worker’s role is likely to include the following key areas of practice:
1 to 1 Meetings with Students
School social workers should be prepared to meet individually with students, both on an on-going basis and for brief therapy to address acute problems. Academic difficulties are often a cause for referral to individual counseling, however, school social workers should be prepared to respond and offer support to students experiencing a wide variety of difficulties not necessarily directly related to the educational setting.
Topics addressed in individual counseling sessions might be related to the school environment, addressing adjustment difficulties, positive behavior encouragement, and academic support. Other subjects for discussion in individual sessions might relate to problems and hard times the student is experiencing in their home environment, with their peers or with family members. Some students will also require additional mental health support for diagnosed conditions and disorders, learning disabilities, or health-related concerns.
Group Facilitation and Conflict Mediation
School social workers don’t only practice with students one on one, they often facilitate groups for student support on a range of topics. These groups might be based on shared experiences, like childhood trauma, or identity-based, such as support groups for ethnic minorities or LGBTQ students.
Oftentimes in school settings, conflicts will arise between students that require group counseling or other forms of conflict mediation. In these cases, the school social worker will determine how best to resolve the conflict and who should be present for conflict resolution processes. These group therapy settings might include students, family members, and school staff, and can utilize creative approaches like restorative circles and peer mediation.
Supporting Families of Students
Students within the school system are involved in family systems in some way, though these family systems will take a variety of forms. Students might come from two-parent or single-parent households, or live in foster care settings, with other family members, with adopted parents, as wards of the state, or in other guardianship situations. No matter the shape of the student’s family system, the student as an individual will be affected by what happens in the family system, and vice versa. Thus, school social workers should expect to work with students’ family systems as needed.
School social workers might bring in family members to therapeutic sessions with the students, consult with family members about student progress, or connect family members to needed community resources. Maintaining open communication with a student’s family system is a key component of social work practice in the school setting to ensure that parents and guardians are able to support their children in their educational pursuits and beyond.
School social workers should also expect to be involved in special education support teams for students with special needs. In this role, social workers will lend their expertise to the team about student bio-psycho-social functioning as related to their educational capabilities, maintaining a strengths-based perspective. The social worker will assist in providing recommendations and connections to other resources and services that can offer the student additional support, such as speech pathologists, classroom aides, and tutors.
School social workers might also be called upon to fulfill other roles within the school, and should expect to work with teachers and administrators to meet the school’s needs and fulfill its mission. Social workers might offer trainings for school staff on cultural competency and trauma-informed approaches, amongst other topics. They sometimes participate in disciplinary hearings, acting as a supportive advocate for both the student’s and the school’s needs.
School social workers can play a number of vital roles in the educational environment, providing support to students, families, and school staff to ensure that all are thriving within the school system.