How to Become a Social Worker

If you’ve taught K-12, you know that teaching the lesson plans are only half the battle in education. There can be a host of issues a student has going on outside of school--or even in school--that have nothing to do with the course material, but everything to do with his or her ability to learn. Whether a student is facing a crisis like her family losing their home, dealing with ongoing bullying, or suffering from a mental illness, school social workers are there to help.

The role, though complex, has one key purpose: tackling the issues that teachers may not be qualified to handle, but that can get in the way of learning. That can include, bullying, violence/abuse, emotional problems, behavioral issues, special education services, social problems, attendance, and more. Social workers help students get access to support resources they may need, and help bridge the gap between school and home, meeting with parents or teachers or both as necessary.

If you find yourself more interested in helping students from a 360 point of view, school social work might be for you.

Job Description for Social Workers in Schools

Because school social workers deal with so many different types of complex issues, and work with different stakeholders, (parents, students, teachers, school administration, and even the community) the life of a social worker has plenty of variety.

School social workers are charged with assessing and assisting students in crisis, and they’re also responsible for keeping school faculty and staff informed of those issues. They may train teachers and staff to be aware of cultural, societal, economic, or health factors in education, or to identify child abuse or neglect. They might also develop school or district-wide services or programs to help meet student needs.

School social workers also work with parents to help create supportive home environments for students, sometimes counseling the family as a whole. They’ll help develop education plans for students dealing with special needs and serve as a bridge between community resources (like mental health agencies) and families to make sure they’re getting the appropriate support.

Demand for Social Workers in Schools

Big city areas have the highest employment levels for school, child, and family social work, with the New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles/Long Beach, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington DC areas topping the list.

But by location quotient, Bay City, MI, Elmira, NY, Bedford, MA, Waterbury, CT, and Springfield, MA top the list of employing metropolitan areas for school social workers.

Overall, the social work field has a growth outlook of 11% (faster than average) for 2018 - 2028.

Social Worker Shortages in Schools by State

A shortage area is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as a role in which "there is an inadequate supply" of qualified professionals. The Department allows states to identify their own shortage areas, but encourages them to follow a prescribed methodology based on unfilled positions, positions filled by professionals with irregular certifications, and positions filled by professionals certified in other areas. Because the Department allows states to report shortages as they wish, some states only report teacher shortages while others include administrative shortages as well. Please reference each state's department of education to learn more about their particular shortage areas.

The following states report a shortage in school social workers for the 2020 to 2021 school year:

  • Colorado
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Michigan
  • Nevada
  • West Virginia


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Salary for Social Workers in Schools:

According to the BLS, the average salary for a school social worker was around $51,030 in 2019, but the SSWAA says it can range anywhere from $25,000 to $90,000, oftentimes on the teacher pay schedule. The current highest paid states for social work for child/family/school social workers are Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, District of Columbia, and Maryland (as of May 2019).

Work schedules can vary just as dramatically: some school social workers work year round, others work on the school year schedule.

Though some states allow school social workers to start with a bachelor’s degree, most require a master’s of social work to enter the field, as school social workers are trained experts just as any other social worker.

Steps to Becoming a Social Worker in Schools

While not everyone takes the same path to becoming a social worker, we have gathered some common steps for you to consider. Because School Social Workers are fully trained social workers, they need at least a bachelor’s degree—usually in social work, but sometimes in sociology or psychology. Depending on the state, most school social workers will also need a master’s in social work that’s been approved by the Council on Social Work Education.

Social work licensure will also be required, depending on the state (requirements will vary by state), but certification to work in school social work specifically is an optional professional development step. To get your certification through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) (called a “Certified School Social Work Specialist” certification) you need to have an MSW and 2+ years of relevant experience.

Begin your career as a school social worker with a Master of Social Work.

Affiliations and Resources for Social Workers in Schools

Last Updated May 2020