Steps to Become a School Social Worker

School social workers provide counseling and support to children in an academic setting addressing social, emotional, and life adjustment. They collaborate with teachers, parents, school counselors, and school administrators to help students who struggle with issues that may hinder their academic performance and well-being. Social workers in schools are often the link between a student’s home, school, and community while addressing concerns such as bullying (including cyberbullying), truancy, community violence, poverty, and family conflicts. School social workers can provide one-on-one counseling to students and their parents, refer students to additional resources, and also develop educational programs and support groups at schools.

As employees of school districts, school social workers must receive authorization to practice from their state government, often through the state’s education department, teacher credentialing commission, or board of education. As the educational and internship requirements for school social workers vary from state to state, individuals interested in becoming school social workers should research the specific guidelines of their state and check with their local school districts to learn about any additional criteria they may need to fulfill.

Step 1: Research State Requirements for School Social Workers

As mentioned previously, school social workers are typically employees of schools and/or school districts, and as such they must seek authorization from their state’s education department or board of education in order to practice in their community. Requirements for school social workers vary widely by state, so students should carefully research the steps they must follow to gain approval to practice in their area.

Students can generally find their state’s requirements for school social workers by going to their state’s education department or board of education’s website and looking for information on the regulations surrounding school social workers’ employment. Other useful resources may include the school social worker association in one’s state of residence.

Examples of State Requirements for School Social Workers

In general, state governments expect school social workers to have a bachelor’s degree, and to have completed post-baccalaureate studies with a concentration in school social work or child welfare and well-being. States also typically require candidates to complete field practicums that include a minimum number of hours working with children and their families in school settings.

California: The Pupil Personnel Services Credential

A resident of California who wishes to become a school social worker must obtain a Pupil Personnel Services credential from California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing by fulfilling the following requirements:

  1. Complete a baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited university or college
  2. Complete a minimum of 45 graduate-level academic units at a professional preparation program that specializes in school social work, and which has been approved by California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing
  3. Obtain and submit an official recommendation from the professional preparation program one attended
  4. Complete the Basic Skills Requirement.
  5. Complete and submit the application and relevant fees, and complete the LiveScan fingerprint process for background check purposes

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Massachusetts: School Social Worker/School Adjustment Counselor Licensure

Residents of Massachusetts who wish to become school social workers must obtain authorization from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to practice in schools. To earn this approval, candidates earn an initial license and then a professional license by completing the following:

Earn an Initial License:

  1. Earn a Master’s degree in Social Work or Counseling from an accredited institution
  2. Complete a practicum comprised of at least 900 hours of social work, including a minimum of 450 hours working with children, adolescents, and their families in an academic setting
  3. Pass Massachusetts’ Communication and Literacy Skills Test

Earn a Professional License:

  1. Hold an Initial License as a School Social Worker/School Adjustment Counselor
  2. Work for a minimum of three years as a School Social Worker/School Adjustment Counselor
  3. Completion of one of the following:
    • Earn and maintain a license or certificate from the Board of Registration of Social Work, either as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker or a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    • Earn and maintain a license from the Massachusetts Board of Allied Mental Health Professionals, either as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), or a Licensed Rehabilitation Counselor (LRC)
    • Complete a total of 60 credits of graduate-level coursework in school social work, mental health counseling, psychological counseling, school counseling, and/or social work.

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Wisconsin: School Social Worker Licensure

School social workers in Wisconsin must earn a license from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in order to practice in public schools. To earn this license, candidates must fulfill the following:

  1. Earn a master’s degree in social work from a CSWE accredited program
  2. Obtain and submit a statement from a school of social work preparation program that has been approved by the Department of Public Instruction; this statement must attest to the candidate’s fulfillment of all the necessary training and competency requirements for licensure.

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New York: School Social Worker Certificate

School social workers in New York need to obtain a certificate from the New York State Education Department by following one of the following two pathways:

Pathway 1: Individual Evaluation - Provisional Certificate

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution
  2. Earn a master’s degree in social work (MSW) from a CSWE accredited program with a completed internship experience
  3. Obtain licensure as a Licensed Master Social WorkerFulfill two years of paid, full time work as a school social worker.
  4. Attend a minimum of two hours of workshops administered by the New York State Education Department on the following topics:
    • Child Abuse Identification and Reporting Providers
    • School Violence Intervention and Prevention
    • Dignity for All Students Act
  5. Obtain fingerprint clearance
  6. Be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident

Pathway 2: Certificate Progression

  1. Hold a valid provisional certificate in school social work.
  2. Apply for and obtain a New York State License as a Master or Clinical Social Worker.
  3. Complete a MSW that includes a supervised internship.
  4. Fulfill two years of paid, full-time experience as a school social worker.
  5. Attending a minimum of two hours of workshops administered by the New York State Education Department on the following topics:
    • Child Abuse Identification and Reporting Providers
    • School Violence Intervention and Prevention
    • Dignity for All Students Act
  6. Receive fingerprint clearance
  7. Maintain status as a U.S. citizen or permanent resident

In addition to researching individual state requirements, individuals interested in becoming school social workers may find additional information through such organizations as the School Social Workers Association of America (SSWAA) External , and by talking with practicing school social workers in their area.

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Step 2: Complete a CSWE-Accredited Social Work Program

While specific state requirements for school social workers vary, all states generally require school social workers to earn an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, and to complete coursework specifically in such topics as child welfare, youth and family relationships, adolescent mental health, and school violence prevention and intervention.

Individuals who wish to find accredited MSW programs with a concentration in school social work or child welfare should refer to the CSWE’s directory of accredited programs, which allows users to search specifically for accredited programs in school social work, as well as programs in children, youth, and family services. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also includes a list of programs in child well-being and welfare on its Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Admission requirements for School Social Worker Programs

Admission requirements for accredited MSW programs in child welfare or school social work vary, but in general the criteria for admission into such programs include:

  • Completion of a bachelor’s degree at an accredited institution, with a minimum overall GPA
  • The completion of coursework relevant to social work, such as psychology, anthropology, and sociology
  • A strong personal statement and letters of recommendation

Coursework for School Social Worker Programs

While course titles and content vary across different programs, MSW programs in school social work or child welfare may include but are not limited to the following classes:

  • Human Behavior in Social Environments: How society and culture shape human identity, psychology, and behavior, and how human psychology in turn impacts culture and community. The ways in which individuals interact with and influence each other.
  • Principles and Theories of Interventions with Youth: Developmental, emotional, and psychological issues that children and adolescents face, and the key principles and methods of treating these conditions.
  • Social Work in Schools: The crucial elements of effective social work service in schools. How to provide mental health services, implement crisis and other school-based interventions, organize parent and community outreach efforts, and develop effective teacher trainings.
  • The Juvenile Justice System and At-Risk Youth: An overview of the juvenile justice system in the U.S., and how school social workers can work within this system to support and rehabilitate at-risk youth.

Gaining Practicum Experience in School Social Work

Accredited MSW programs typically require all of their students to complete approximately 900 to 1200 field practicum hours at sites such as social service agencies, hospitals, and schools. Field practicums give students the opportunity to work with real clients under the supervision of field instructors. Practicum hours are generally divided across the terms within a given program, so that students complete between 200 and 300 hours per semester or quarter.

For students who wish to pursue school social work, working at local schools during their practicum is often essential. Some states specifically require candidates to complete a minimum number of practicum hours in a school setting. Students who wish to become school social workers should plan ahead and choose a program that enables them to complete part of their field practicums at a local school.

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Step 3: Earn Licensure or Certification as a School Social Worker

After earning their MSW from an accredited institution, school social worker candidates should apply for licensure or certification to practice in their state of residence. Individuals who wish to obtain state approval to practice as a school social worker must submit an application, along with any relevant documentation, to their state government’s education department or board of education.

As illustrated in the examples above, many states have additional requirements over and above earning an MSW and completing field education. Some states ask school social worker candidates to pass a skills-based examination, while others require a letter of endorsement or recommendation from their MSW program. It is the school social worker’s responsibility to thoroughly research and fulfill all the requirements in order to work in his or her state.

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Step 4: Seek Employment at Schools and School Districts

After obtaining state approval, school social workers must apply to jobs at school districts and schools in their area. The application process for these positions varies, but will typically require submission of academic and professional credentials, a cover letter, and letters of recommendation. Job applications will also typically require one or more interviews with school district faculty.

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Step 5: Maintain School Social Worker License or Certification

Requirements to maintain one’s state license to practice school social work differ across states, but may include submitting a renewal application to the education department or board of education of one’s state of residence, taking continuing education courses, and/or submitting proof of continued professional experience in the field.

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