School Social Work: An Introductory Guide

The morning bell rings and the hallways quickly empty as high school students file into their first classrooms of the day. About a half an hour later, the same student who has already been late a handful of times in the past two weeks walks through the front door of the school building. Instinctively, staff want to punish the student for her tardiness. But you notice she seems sad and disengaged. How is her emotional health impacting her school performance? Are there factors at home that are keeping her from fulfilling her potential? As a school social worker, it’s up to you to ask the questions that others may not to ensure every student has the opportunity to succeed.

Table of Contents

What Is a School Social Worker?

School social workers are licensed and/or certified mental health providers serving students, families, schools and communities by providing evidence-based behavioral, social emotional and mental health services, according to the School Social Work Association of America’s (SSWAA) definition of a school social worker. SSWAA writes that school social workers primarily promote safe and equitable school climates, supporting positive academic and behavioral outcomes, empowering students to reach their full potential.

Job Description at a Glance

School social workers support students who are struggling with mental, emotional, social, behavioral and/or familial issues that are negatively impacting their academic performance and overall well-being, explains the National Association of Social Work in their occupational profile of the profession (PDF, 4.5 MB). Support can include individual and group counseling, conflict mediation, interventions to address crises, resource navigation services, and the development and implementation of school programs. Professionals in the field can work in a number of settings, including public schools, private schools and academic programs that serve vulnerable populations.

School social workers can encounter numerous challenges, such as lack of adequate resources to serve students, overwork, and managing the vicarious trauma and emotional burdens that their students carry. Nevertheless, school social workers may find it incredibly rewarding and sustaining to help children and adolescents empower themselves, tackle challenges, mature and improve their lives.

Education Requirements

To work in schools and school districts, social workers must obtain a specific credential from their state government to practice. They can typically apply for this credential through their state’s education department, board of education, or teacher credentialing commission. While school social worker licenses/certifications vary from state to state, the process to earn a school social worker credential generally begins with undergraduate and graduate training, which can include attending a CSWE-accredited master’s in social work degree program online. Aspiring school social workers will also have to pass a state-administered examination and fulfill other professional and/or internship requirements. For a specific example of the credentialing process, read more about how to earn a pupil personnel services credential (PPSC) (PDF, 260 KB), which is issued by the State of California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

One core task of a school social worker’s job as explained by the NASW Standards for School Social Work Services (PDF, 117 KB) is to ensure that students are mentally and emotionally present in classrooms. Public and private schools may hire clinical social workers who have a special focus providing treatment for mental health or behavioral disorders. An MSW with a focus on clinical social work and children can help aspiring professionals looking to enter the field of school social work.

Simmons University

Simmons School of Social Work (SSW)


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 9 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 9 months



The mean annual wage for child, family and school social workers in 2019 was $51,030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Among child, family and school social workers, social workers who worked in junior college earned the highest annual mean wage of $64,110 in 2019, followed by those working in elementary and secondary schools ($63,910), home health care services ($59,890), and technical and trade schools ($58,320). California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Illinois were the states in 2019 with the highest employment levels for child, family, and school social workers.

Requirements to Become a School Social Worker

The requirements to become a school social worker vary by state. Candidates must obtain authorization to practice from their state’s board of education, teacher credentialing commission, or education department by earning a state-specific school social work credential, as explained in the process to earn a pupil personnel services credential in California. Prospective school social workers should research the specific educational, internship and examination requirements in their state.

Those interested in becoming school social workers must complete a CSWE-accredited Master of Social Work (MSW) program in a field that is relevant to school social work. School social work typically has a strong clinical component, as school social workers often counsel students and their families; thus, an MSW program with a concentration in clinical social work or an advanced generalist program with strong clinical classes may be ideal. Some schools offer concentrations or sub concentrations in school social work; prospective students should research accredited MSW programs carefully to ensure the program they choose will help them meet their goal of becoming a school social worker.

Many states require school social workers to complete certain key classes to earn their credential to practice in schools. Andy Duffy, a school social worker at Aspire Monarch Academy in Oakland, California, outlined for the specific courses he took to earn his PPSC – California’s credential for school social workers (Note: Academic requirements for school social worker certification can change at any time.):

  1. Social Work Practice in School Settings.
  2. Social Work and Education Policy.
  3. Introductory Practicum.
  4. Field Seminar.
  5. Field Placement (second year in a school setting).

“In addition to the classes required to get the PPSC, I chose to take Family Therapy, Social Work with Latinos, and Infant Development to supplement my knowledge going into work with younger kids,” Duffy said.

[Disclaimer: Certification requirements can change at any time and vary by state; therefore, the course recommendations in this section should be used for example purposes only. Students should check with their state’s board of education or teacher credentialing commission for the most up-to-date requirements.]

Nityda Bhakti, LMSW, works as a school social worker for The New Life School, an alternative day school in the Bronx, a borough of New York City that serves disadvantaged students struggling with mental, emotional and social barriers to learning. She suggested prospective school social workers “take courses in child and adolescent development, child abuse, substance abuse, school social work and clinical seminars.”

People who wish to practice school social work should also actively seek field practicum experiences in school settings. “Gain direct experience working in a school through an internship (field placement) or employment,” said Leandra Peloquin, PPSC, a school counselor at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, California. She also said students should not wait until they complete their graduate program to earn the necessary credential to practice in schools. “Although there are post-master’s PPSC programs, from what I understand, it is more convenient to achieve this credential while going through your master’s program.”

field. “If students are unable to get a field placement within a school, I suggest they research Behavioral Intervention Plans, Functional Behavioral Assessments, and Individualized Education Plans. If students know teachers or other school personnel I would suggest they reach out to those professionals,” she told, “I also recommend that students join a School Social Work Association as a student member and see if they can interview or speak with a school social worker at a local school.”

As with any demanding yet rewarding profession, becoming a school social worker requires thorough planning, an honest evaluation of one’s professional strengths and motivations, and a significant investment of time. However, for some, the opportunity to support, guide and empower young people during some of the most challenging and impactful years of their lives can make the effort and constant demands of the profession worthwhile.