School Counseling

Top 8 School Social Worker Skills

Top 8 School Social Worker Skills
Never has the need for skilled, dedicated school social workers been greater. School social workers must employ unique skills to provide social services, behavioral interventions, individual and group counseling, and much more. Image from Unsplash
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland July 11, 2022

Want to be a school social worker? Here are the most essential skills for delivering effective results to students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

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Social work is a burgeoning field, with growth particularly pronounced in the child, family, and school social work practice. On the nation’s 715,600 social workers in 2020, 335,300 specialized in child, family, and school, with projected employment increases boosting that figure to 377,400 by 2030. That’s a 13 percent job growth rate, nearly twice the national average for the overall job market.

Opportunities await social workers in this field. But what skills do they need to succeed?

Students have endured a stunning battery of social and emotional crises, including COVID-19 and its consequent social isolation, the challenges of online learning, increased suicide rates, and student safety concerns following mass shootings. Never has the need for skilled, dedicated school social workers been greater. School social workers must employ unique skills to provide social services, behavioral interventions, individual and group counseling, and much more.

School social workers serve more than just the students. They also engage parents, families, school personnel, communities, and districts. The School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA) describes school social workers as “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 student’s academic and social success.”

Simply put, school social workers are essential to a healthy, functioning school community. The job requires skills in numerous areas, including case management, human services, psychology/mental health, crisis intervention, family support, child welfare, treatment planning, and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). This article will explore these skills and explain their significance in the field.

Top 8 school social worker skills

Success as a school social worker takes empathy, diligence, time management, and a genuine passion for helping students, families, and communities in need. Although the job title of a school social worker may imply that these individuals only work onsite in a school setting, workers in this multifaceted role also provide services beyond campus. They:

  • Make home visits to check child safety and living conditions that may impact student performance
  • Provide crisis intervention strategies
  • Assist parents who need access to programs for students with disabilities or special needs
  • Identify school and community resources
  • Work to resolve conflicts or behavioral concerns, such as anger management
    Identifies and reports child abuse and neglect

School social work is a complex and impactful discipline. The job can become overwhelming without the hard and soft skills necessary to succeed. We’ve listed some of the most crucial (according to Lightcast) below..

Case management

Case management skills assist with the delivery of services. This process includes evaluating and assessing need, coordinating care plans, and monitoring effectiveness. Case managers typically create care plans and then turn the services portion to a specialized provider such as a medical doctor, counselor, or therapist to aid with the treatment. It’s similar to a referral process.

Case management includes coordinating school and community resources, such as assisting school districts in receiving support from social and mental health agencies, to meet students’ needs.Soft skills such as problem-solving, decision-making, and active listening work hand-in-hand in this function because case management includes advocating for resources on behalf of an individual client or group.

Human services

Human services focus on the bigger picture at the macro level, assisting with overall livelihood and access to support services. Social justice is one of the six core social work values in the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics.

Human services includes addressing systemic discrimination and societal inequalities in communities lacking resources, particularly communities of color or poverty-stricken areas. These skills are valuable for school social workers who engage nonprofits and social services agencies in their work.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services lists the following social services that improve the well-being of individuals, families, and communities:

  • Child support enforcement
  • Foster care
  • Head Start
  • Home energy assistance
  • Home visits
  • Homelessness services
  • Programs for Persons with Disabilities
  • SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)
  • TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)

Since school social workers also interact with parents and families, access to these resources could help alleviate household stress and living situations that may impact student behavior and overall student success.

Psychology/mental health

According to the SSWAA, social workers provide 80 percent of mental health services nationwide. Schools provide one setting for this critical work. Recent events affecting student safety and social interaction highlight the importance of counseling or trauma-focused psychotherapy. Whether the job title is school counselor, school psychologist, or school social worker, these roles directly impact the well-being of students from elementary to high school. A Master of Social Work (MSW) or specialization in psychology or counseling is a prerequisite for this clinical work to ensure these professionals have the required skills.

Crisis intervention

Crisis intervention skills assist with conflict resolution, anger management, and other student behavioral concerns, particularly after a tragedy or traumatic experience. For example, a life-changing event, such as losing a loved one or a change in family dynamics, can shift a student’s mood, causing them to become disruptive during class or become disengaged. Additionally, with increased school violence and bullying (including cyberbullying), school social workers must implement crisis intervention skills and behavioral support to help students better manage their emotions and feel safe in schools.

Family support

Student success can hinge on a stable home environment, so family support from school counselors can have a direct impact on student performance and outcomes. Family support skills include home visits to assess the child’s living arrangement, family dynamics, and well-being. They also include providing access to community services and resources such as meal assistance, backpack drives, summer lunch programs, housing, child care, transportation assistance, and individual or family counseling. These skills work in tandem with crisis intervention in family circumstances, e.g., domestic violence, substance abuse, and child abuse, that may affect student success.

Child welfare

Student safety is the top priority for school social workers. Therefore, everything they do revolves around the child, whether interacting with parents, school staff, school community, or school districts. Child welfare skills essential for school social workers include:

  • Parent/Family services: Providing resources to help alleviate family stress impacting student performance
  • School personnel services: Informing staff on cultural competence and additional factors such as societal, economic, and health affecting student behavior
  • School community services: Helping school districts receive support from social and mental health agencies and advocate for equitable student resources
  • School district services: Providing case management skills by assessing the need and developing programs for gifted students, students with special needs, and students with chronic absenteeism concerns

School social workers screen child safety outside the school walls by conducting home visits. These home visits screen for child neglect and abuse, mistreatment of children with disabilities, living arrangements, and overall family dynamic. From this assessment, the social worker can determine whether family counseling will benefit the child’s academic and social success or whether foster care or adoption services present an alternative option.

Treatment planning

A school social worker with licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) credentials combines crisis intervention skills with proper assessment and treatment planning for mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. While school social workers can provide therapeutic counseling and other social work theories and practice models, the LCSW credential carries the necessary licensure to diagnose and provide treatment plans for areas concerning suicide prevention, substance abuse, and other conditions.

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)

School social workers ensure students have a learning environment to help them achieve academic success whether they exceed learning expectations or need additional assistance. They do this by formulating Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in collaboration with teachers and other stakeholders.In addition, outside of school, social workers assist parents in finding programs available for students with special needs to ensure every child can succeed in their specific learning environment without feeling held back or falling behind.


“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

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Do school social workers need a Master of Social Work degree?

The role of a school social worker blends many skills and competencies for which a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) along with state license and credential requirements might suffice. However, an MSW can open the door to more opportunities to impact students through advocacy, diagnosis, psychology/mental health treatment, and system-level intervention roles. It can also result in a higher salary.

Many MSW programs offer online learning for school social workers looking to take their career to the next level or gain essential skills to apply to their work in real-time. Online programs, including those offered by Virginia Commonwealth University and Tulane University, can take as little as one year full-time or four years part-time to complete. This option provides prospective MSW candidates more flexibility to earn their master’s degree at their pace. In addition, as graduate students must meet a set hour requirement of field-based education, online programs allow students to select an opportunity within their geographic location.

An MSW can boost your social work career prospects, whether you’re considering a senior-level leadership role or clinical practice. With school social workers in high demand, now is the time to ensure you’re equipped with the most effective approaches to make the most significant impact.

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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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