How to Become a School Social Worker

How to Become a School Social Worker
School social workers are both counselors and facilitators, a rare and potent combination of roles. Image from Unsplash
Mary Kearl profile
Mary Kearl November 7, 2019

With their training in the social sciences, psychology, and public administration, school social workers are uniquely qualified to address the needs of students in crisis.

Article continues here

Students in crisis—as a result of bullying, domestic abuse, substance abuse, economic or mental health issues—are in dire need of assistance. School social workers provide that aid; they act as liaisons among school, home, and social services to implement crisis intervention and deliver vital emotional, educational, and developmental support.

Sure, students can also seek help from teachers, school staff, fellow students, and family. But because of their unique training and experience, school social workers are, in many instances, best situated to address students’ needs. They understand the psychological and societal factors at play, and they are expert at finding and expediting remedies through social programs, religious organizations, and other vital community resources. They are both counselors and facilitators, a rare and potent combination of roles.

In the guide ahead, we’ll cover how to become a school social worker by discussing:

  • What does a school social worker do?
  • Education to become a school social worker
  • Best programs and colleges for school social work degrees
  • Licensing and certification for school social workers

What does a school social worker do?

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) lists the following tasks in its overview of the essential functions of school social workers:

  • Conducting assessments of students, families, classrooms, schools, neighborhoods, districts, and states to advance individual pupil’s social, emotional, behavioral, and academic scores
  • Creating interventions in collaboration with students, faculty, family members, and community groups to improve students’ educational experiences and behavior management skills
  • Measuring the effectiveness of programs by collecting, analyzing, and sharing data from individual schools, school districts, and state education systems
  • Maintaining accurate records of their work
  • Pursuing continuing professional development opportunities

What is it like to be a school social worker?

A job description for a school social worker might include such tasks and evidence-based practice strategies as:

  • Giving a student tools to deal with bullying
  • Supporting students in a group setting
  • Reporting a case of child abuse or neglect
  • Helping a student cope with behavioral problems
  • Intervening in crises such as suicide attempts, school violence, etc.
  • Administering special education assessments

Those who work with older students may confront more sexual and substance abuse issues among the students they serve.

At all grade levels, the job requires dealing with a variety of situations—from physical abuse to mental health—sometimes at odd hours or in unconventional places. “We need to get in there and do the work,” said Heather Alden, 2012 National School Social Worker of the Year. “We may do our work in a classroom, at a table, under a table, outside of a home on the front porch, or through a screened door. We may do our work with puppets and clay or graffiti and spoken word, before school or during lunch… nonetheless, we do the work.”

Where are the most jobs for school social workers?

Well, they’re school social workers, so—unsurprisingly—public and private schools are the top employers in this field. That said, positions for school social workers are also available in:

  • Social services agencies
  • Preschool programs
  • Private practice
  • Residential treatment facilities for children

At the end of the day, school social workers are in the business of child welfare as a whole, not just in schools. According to occupational employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the states hiring the most child, family, and school social workers include:

  • California (31,290)
  • New York (28,530)
  • Pennsylvania (20,160)
  • Texas (19,510)
  • Illinois (13,910)

“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

Education to become a school social worker

Undergraduates can opt for a four-year bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), which qualifies them to become a Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (LBSW). This license is sufficient for some social work practices, but most states require a graduate-level degree in social work to practice in this field.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in social work allows students to pursue a fast-track master’s degree, which can be finished in as little as 16 months. A conventional full-time MSW usually takes two years to complete. A part-time MSW can take three or more years.

Regardless of whether you pursue the MSW full-time or part-time, on-campus or online, you should seek a program that provides:

  • An overview of education systems
  • Understanding of historical and current beliefs about public education
  • Insights on education reform
  • An in-depth look at evidence-based approaches to teaching that can improve student outcomes

The NASW provides guidelines for education social work, which appear in the pamphlet NASW Standards for School Social Work Services. They require school social workers to:

Best programs and colleges for school social work degrees

U.S. News & World Report ranks the best graduate schools for social work. Its top three:

A top-tier program is advisable if you aspire to a position in national policymaking or state-level school administration. Still, it’s probably not necessary if your career goal is to practice in a local school. Private universities (two of the top three are private institutions) are expensive, and school social workers do not earn high incomes. You might want to consider pursuing your MSW from a local state institution. An added benefit: that program will be tailored toward the licensure requirements of your home state.

If you’re sure school social work will be your specialization, make sure the program you choose offers strong foundational coursework in the principles and skills of the field.

Some helpful resources include:

Licensing and certification for school social workers

After completing an accredited MSW program, you will qualify to apply for your Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) credential, which requires passing an exam. The LMSW allows you to work in a non-clinical setting, handling case management or policies.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), or Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW), is “the highest level of licensure available to clinical social workers,” according to the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Becoming one requires between two and three years of supervised clinical work experience.

Beyond licensure—obtaining social work credentials

Becoming licensed is the minimum qualification that every social worker needs to meet. Credentials are voluntary certifications that can help advance your career, and even lead to a raise.

The NASW offers specialized certifications in many social work fields. In school social work, it offers the Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS) credential. To earn this credential, you’ll need:

  • 2,160 hours of qualifying experience in a school setting (i.e., as a school counselor)
  • An MSW from an accredited program
  • A social work license (you do not need to be a Licensed Clinical Social Worker)
  • To adhere to the NASW Code of Ethics and the NASW Standards for Continuing Professional Education

The C-SSWS is not required in all states, either for initial employment or for rehiring. Some states require school social workers to earn the credential within a fixed number of years of starting work. Regardless of whether it is required, it undoubtedly improves your résumé and, thus, your job prospects.

You can also work towards one of two credentials focused more generally on child welfare. They are:

(Updated on February 20, 2024)

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

Questions or feedback? Email

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


You May Also Like To Read

Categorized as: CounselingSocial WorkSocial Work & Counseling & Psychology