School social workers relevant to student well-being, success

A school social worker is generally employed to help students academically and behaviorally, so they can succeed in the classroom and beyond.

But the role goes beyond that, as school social workers can wear many hats, said Sharon Dietsche, a senior practice associate at NASW.

“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,” she said. “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.”

NASW has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the School Social Work Association of America, and Dietsche said the two organizations are working together to develop best practices for current school social workers and to strengthen the school social work workforce.

“School is where a child starts to gradually learn and prepare for the adult world,” she said. “The better their success in school — both academically and emotionally — the more successful they will be after they leave school.”

School social work positions have seen cuts in the last few years, largely due to budget constraints that vary in different school districts, said Myrna Mandlawitz, policy director and lobbyist for SSWAA.

Social workers often are not seen as instrumental to a student’s success, and are the first positions to go when financial cuts occur, she said. Usually it’s assumed that other roles, such as school guidance counselors, psychologists and nurses, can fill in the gap instead.

However, she added, school social workers have a specific skill set and can delve into issues the other positions may not have the time or training for.

“We are seeing many more kids in school now who have more significant needs than we’ve ever seen before — from family issues to physical health problems,” Mandlawitz said. “Life is more stressful than it used to be, and there are greater levels of anxiety.”

The more school social workers we have, the more student success we’ll see, she added.

Advocacy skills can be used at the state and local levels to help people better understand what school social workers do, Mandlawitz said. She also encourages currently employed school social workers to collect as much data on their practices as they can — the students they see, what the issues are, and end-of-year outcomes. This data can help make the case about the importance of these positions, she said.

“SSWAA has a video documentary available online which details a day in the life of school social workers. That’s something that could be shown to school boards and at PTA meetings,” Mandlawitz said. “Many may not think of a social worker as valuable in a school setting, because they don’t understand what they do. Once they realize, it’s like an ‘aha’ moment.”

Rebecca Kunkel Oliver, executive director of SSWAA, said school social workers are specially trained to look for certain aspects in a struggling student that a guidance counselor, nurse or school psychologist may miss, and they are able to address the barriers children experience in school.

“School is one of the first places that mental health issues are recognized and addressed,” Kunkel Oliver said. “Twenty percent of students have mental health issues significant enough to impact learning. Of that 20 percent, one in five get services. If we don’t have school social workers helping to indentify mental health needs, a lot could be left untreated. They can provide the mental health and social support necessary so a student can be more successful in school.”

She said the roles of guidance counselors and school psychologists are all important and they look at the student from an academic standpoint.

Having a social worker integrated into the academic team provides an approach that looks at the whole child.

“School social workers are not focused on reading or math, but they’re looking at all the pieces that impact learning,” Kunkel Oliver said.

School social work has been around for more than 100 years, said Christine Sabatino, ordinary professor and director at the Center for the Advancement of Children, Youth, and Families; National Catholic School of Social Service at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

She said research indicates that if children are successful in school, it is highly likely they will be successful citizens and adults.

“People ought to be concerned about taking away a resource (school social workers) that will help children succeed in school,” Sabatino said. “The money put up front to support school success will be paid back many times over at the back end after graduation.”

SSWAA empowers school social workers and promotes the profession of school social work to enhance the social and emotional growth and academic outcomes of all students.

  • For more information, visit SSWAA
  • NASW’s practice web page on the school social work profession.
  • NASW has published several School Social Work Tools related to school social work, including “The School Social Worker in Crisis Situations: The Right Skills, The Right Professional”; “Shining a Light on the Dark Side of Adolescence”; and “Addressing Bullying in Schools.”

Chapters Support School Social Workers

Several NASW chapters are currently working to retain school social work positions, to advocate for school social workers, and to expand the number of positions for school social workers.

The New York State Chapter has developed a self-advocacy tool kit for school social workers in the state of New York. The resource offers school social workers information to help them promote the value of the profession; raise visibility; and make the case for preserving and expanding the services school social workers provide.

The Oregon Chapter is working to get more school social workers into Title 1 schools, which provide services for low-income students. The chapter is currently working with state legislators to use marijuana legalization tax revenue to help fund a significant expansion of school social workers. NASW member and Oregon state Rep. Joe Gallegos, D-Hillsboro, is working with the chapter on this effort. The chapter hopes this will be the first step toward achieving the goal of having school social workers in every school in the state. (

NASW-Connecticut organized protests in response to the elimination of four school social work positions in Avon earlier this summer. The chapter wrote letters of opposition to the superintendent of Avon Public Schools, Avon Board of Education members, the Avon Town Council, and to chapter members in Avon to encourage them to advocate for school social work in the community. Chapter members also participated in a public hearing held in July, during which speakers argued against the elimination of the social work positions. Steve Karp, executive director of the Connecticut Chapter, said the chapter has had success in protecting and/or retaining some of the state’s school social work positions in the past and hopes for a favorable outcome in bringing back the school social work positions in Avon.

NASW-Texas introduced two bills related to school social work in the last state legislative session. Both bills would amend the Texas Education Code and introduce a definition of school social work services. According to the chapter, identifying social work services in the Texas Education Code will grant school districts the ability to dedicate state funds toward social workers on staff. Social workers in schools could then help students by alleviating barriers to learning; connecting the home, the community, and the school; promoting advocacy; strengthening relationships; and assisting with basic and psychosocial needs. The chapter is continuing to identify student needs that could be addressed by professional social workers.