Training and Qualifications for School Social Workers

Perhaps you’re an undergrad who wants to work with children. Or you’d like to switch careers, but you don’t know if it’s possible to earn a graduate degree while you work full-time. Maybe you’re a school volunteer like Karen White, wondering whether you could make a difference as a school social worker.

“I was parent coordinator for four years at a middle school but knew that wasn’t my ultimate goal for working with children and families, which I love to do,” White told the United Federation of Teachers. “I went to graduate school for social work so I could make more of an impact on children’s mental health and help them achieve their goals.”

Do you share White’s motivation? Then it’s time to explore the training and qualifications you need to become a social worker in a school setting.

What Exactly Does a School Social Worker Do?

The school social worker works together with education specialists to provide a comprehensive assessment with educational and behavioral strategies and goals for students who are exhibiting difficulty in school. School social workers provide individual, family and group counseling in order to help a student succeed in the school environment and in addition, evaluate circumstances outside the school which put the student at risk within the home or larger community. School social workers work directly with teachers, guidance counselors, principals and outside providers in order to best meet the needs of students at risk of academic, behavioral, physical, emotional and social challenges.

“A typical day for the high school social worker is unpredictable, yet always interesting,” writes Andrea Centerrino, MSW, LICSW, QCSW for the Social Workers Help Starts Here website. She chronicles a day that includes a student who is stressed because police were called to his apartment the night before; a student who wrote a paper with a suicidal theme; a parent who needs help for his child, who has an emotional disability; and a teen parent who needs child care, health insurance and housing in order to stay in school.

“A school social worker in this position may help a student with everything from buying alarm clocks so the student can get to class on time, dealing with issues of adequate housing, talking to a student’s family, and having one-on-one sessions,” said Sharon Dietsche, a senior practice associate at the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in an interview with the association’s social work blog. “The role is not always clearly defined, but it’s vital when it comes to a student’s overall well-being and success, inside and outside of school.”

“School social work practice has long been a vital part of the social work profession,” says NASW (The National Association of Social Workers). “In recent years, recognition of the rights of persons with disabilities; changes in the family unit; and the effects of increasing social, economic, and academic pressures on children are some of the forces that have significantly shaped social work in schools.”

How Do I Become a School Social Worker?

Becoming a school social worker typically requires an undergraduate degree in liberal arts or social work, a Master’s degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), certification as a School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS), and specific state requirements. Coursework for the graduate degree includes such areas of study as human behavior, clinical practice with a range of populations, racial justice, social welfare policy, field education, ethics and research.

Master’s in Social Work Programs take about two years to earn a degree if a student attends full-time; three to four years if a student attends part-time. About 60-65 credit hours are required for graduation, plus 950-1,200 hours of field experience (typically split between two internships).

Social Worker Job Outlook is Promising

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that employment of child, family, and school social workers will grow by 12% from 2014 through 2024, which is faster than average for all occupations. That number represents 74,800 new social worker positions (added to the 2014 total of 649,300 nationwide).

If you're interested in becoming a school social worker, obtaining an online master of social work degree can lead to a rewarding career that directly impacts those in your community and beyond.