School Counseling

Professional Standards for School Social Workers

Professional Standards for School Social Workers
School social worker standards establish expectations, ensure the NASW Code of Ethics serves as a guiding principle, and assure that social workers provide high-quality services to students and families while advocating on their behalf Image from Unsplash
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland July 27, 2022

School social workers shoulder a heavy load: our children's comfort and success in school. The NASW provides rigorous standards to ensure school social workers understand and meet expectations.

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School social workers serve in many capacities that impact student success. Not only do they work directly with students, but they also act as advocates and resource or service providers to parents, families, school staff, school districts, and the school community.

School social workers provide numerous services, including:

  • Crisis intervention
  • Group, individual, or family counseling
  • Access to school and community resources to alleviate family stress
  • Conflict resolution and anger management assistance
  • Evaluation of students with mental health or behavioral concerns
  • Development of programs for students with special needs
  • Assessment of a child’s living situation; reporting instances of child abuse and neglect
  • Advocacy for equitable resources to meet the needs of students

Across all functions, the social work profession involves highly confidential and sensitive client information. Social workers must apply critical thinking, good judgment, and decision-making on behalf of their clients. To ensure social workers meet their clients’ needs, the profession establishes standards of practice.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers a Code of Ethics that defines the profession’s mission and core values and establishes ethical principles and standards. In addition to the Code of Ethics, the NASW also developed standards specifically for school social workers—the NASW Standards for School Social Work Services.

What standards define effective and ethical practice in school social work? This article summarizes the NASW’s 11 standards for school social workers.

Professional standards for school social workers

While the NASW Code of Ethics applies to all social workers, professionals in the school social work practice must meet an additional set of standards: the NASW Standards for School Social Work Services.

The School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA) describes school social workers as the “link between the home, the school, and the community.” Those in the school social work practice typically engage in one (or more) of three intervention techniques—micro, mezzo, and macro.

It’s most common for school social workers to practice within the micro and mezzo levels, which includes direct involvement and interaction with clients in an individual or group setting. Macro-level intervention includes advocating at a system level and addressing inequities regarding access to quality resources. Macro school social work would likely be led by an administrator at the district or community level.

No matter the technique, these standards for school social workers establish expectations, ensure the Code of Ethics serves as a guiding principle, and assure that social workers provide high-quality services to students and families while advocating on their behalf.

Standard 1: Ethics and values

School social workers must abide by the NASW Code of Ethics and apply the six core values of social work in their daily duties:

  • Service
  • Social justice
  • Dignity and worth of the person
  • Importance of human relationships
  • Integrity
  • Competence

In addition, school social workers must adhere to local, state, and federal mandates regarding informed consent, client confidentiality, and access to client records. Although social workers agree to client privacy, they must inform the client of legal and ethical limitations when initiating services or referrals.

Standard 2: Qualifications

School social workers must hold a master’s degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). A Master of Social Work (MSW) is the recommended degree for school social workers, in addition to the proper licensure and certifications per state requirements. With policies and resources constantly evolving, school social workers must alsomaintain knowledge of educational systems, educational reform, and instructional leadership approaches that positively impact student academic outcomes.

Standard 3: Assessment

School social workers need skills to assess student success. The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) calls this the “Whole Child” approach, ensuring students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Success does not begin and end with academics. Social, emotional, behavioral, and overall well-being are all critical. School social workers need the tools and skills to perform assessments in all these areas, utilizing data collected from surveys, focus groups, interviews, and direct observations to measure student status. School social workers abide by this standard to foster improvement for the “whole child” by examining any existing learning barriers and addressing those areas of concern.

Standard 4: Intervention

Intervention strategies constitute a critical component of school social work, whether it’s through behavioral intervention, addressing mental health concerns, conflict resolution, or substance abuse counseling. The NASW offers guidance through a three-tiered intervention strategy:

  • Tier 1: Evidence-informed prevention programs to foster a productive learning environment within a school setting
  • Tier 2: Evidence-informed programs and short-term intervention strategies to increase student engagement and decrease behavioral issues
  • Tier 3: If tier two invention is unsuccessful, tier three combines evidence-informed prevention programs with long-term intervention strategies for students with more severe academic, behavioral, or social-emotional concerns

Each strategy begins with evidence-informed practices for school social workers to apply the most relevant and timely intervention strategy based on the severity of the need.

Standard 5: Decision-making and practice evaluation

Data should drive school social workers’ decisions when delivering support services or intervention strategies to clients. However, at times, social workers will encounter ethical dilemmas that fall outside data-driven processes. These dilemmas are more prevalent when involving:

  • Obligations to minors
  • Physical and emotional boundaries
  • Personal or religious beliefs
  • The client’s right to self-determination
  • Privacy and confidentiality

Fortunately, the NASW Code of Ethics serves as a value-based resource to assist with difficult decisions. School social workers should also regularly monitor the effectiveness of their decisions and services through proactive evaluation and assessment.

Standard 6: Recordkeeping

School social workers must maintain accurate and confidential records of their individual or group clients. Caseworker files include documentation outlining the assessment, planning, implementation, and evaluation of all social work services performed. Along with accurate recordkeeping, school social workers must also ensure that the provided services lead to expected outcomes and promote accountability to local education agencies (LEAs) such as school boards or school districts.

Standard 7: Workload management

School social workers manage heavy workloads and must utilize time management skills to fulfill their responsibilities. Overcommitment can lead to burnout as well as a too-strong emotional connection to clients and the challenges they face. This phenomenon, known as dual relationships, can impact the quality of service.

Standard 8: Professional development

With education reform and policies constantly changing, school social workers must commit to lifelong learning through continuing education and professional development opportunities. School social workers should adhere to the NASW Standards for Continuing Professional Education, which outlines professional development and assessment requirements.

For example, the NASW requires 48 hours of continuing education credits for every two years in the social work practice. These can be completed in any of three types of continuing education programs:

  • Organized learning opportunities through workshops, seminars, and training offered by accredited social work education programs, in-person or online
  • Professional meetings and educational experiences, such as industry conferences and panel discussions with structured discussions on the latest developments and research
  • Self-guided development, such as publishing a paper, reading professional journals and publications, or presenting as a panelist or subject-matter expert

Standard 9: Cultural competence

Cultural competence skills help school social workers serve individuals or groups of varied cultural backgrounds, including gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, religion, age, and disability.

With the number of minority students increasing year after year, K-12 public schools across the country are growing more diverse. Cultural competence is an essential skill for school social workers to recognize barriers to academic progress relating to cultural issues and to foster supportive and inclusive learning environments that celebrate and respect different cultures. The NASW Standards and Indicators for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice serve as supplementary material to uphold this professional standard.

Because school social workers tend to work in vulnerable communities that may lack resources, cultural competence requires self-awareness, cross-cultural knowledge and skills, and empowerment and advocacy for marginalized and underserved populations.

Standard 10: Interdisciplinary leadership and collaboration

School social workers should effectively collaborate with the many stakeholders that shape student learning outcomes, including family, school staff, school administration, and community professionals. School social workers should also serve as leaders and consultants, providing training to reduce academic barriers and leading in the development of school or community programs that promote a positive school climate and support students’ well-being.

Standard 11: Advocacy

Lastly, advocacy lies at the core of social work practice. School social workers advocate at the client level (individuals, families, communities) and the system level (districts, school administrators). To effectively support students, school social workers should remain up-to-date on legislation, regulations, and policies that affect school social work practice.

For example, education policies, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015, require school social workers to ensure school systems are equitable and inclusive of all students by developing an understanding of both historical and current policies.


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Do school social workers need an MSW?

The social work field continues to grow faster than average, with specializations in child, family, and school social work accelerating even more rapidly.

While a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is sufficient for some social work roles, most states require an MSW degree from a program accredited by the CSWE to practice in the school social work profession. To make the most impact in this profession, master’s degree programs, such as the ones offered at Tulane University and Virginia Commonwealth University, provide flexibility through online or hybrid learning options. These programs typically take two years to complete, although an advanced standing program can take as little as one year to complete full-time. Alternatively, working professionals can opt to enroll in a self-paced, part-time program for even more flexibility.

School social workers provide intervention strategies and serve as mental health professionals. These practice areas require specific licenses and certifications. Often, a Master of Social Work (MSW) serves as a prerequisite for many of those licensures.

School social workers dedicate their time, resources, knowledge, experience, and passion to helping others. While these are excellent traits, it’s essential to ensure every decision follows the guidelines outlined in their professional standards to remain knowledgeable, ethical, and accountable.

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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.

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