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Social work is a diverse field with a wide variety of potential specializations. Becoming a school social worker is a popular route for those pursuing the profession.

So what does a school social worker do, exactly? 

A school social work service provider does many of the same duties as traditional social workers, including school counseling, advocacy, and aid for their clients. However, their clients are primarily students and other members of their elementary, middle, and high school community. 

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Role and Impact of School Social Workers

At their core, school social workers are mental health professionals who aid student’s social, emotional, and life adjustment to school and society.1 They serve varied and nuanced roles as the school counselor, advocate, and liaison between students, schools, school staff, and communities to help foster a positive educational environment and optimize everyone’s chances of learning success. They understand the differences in roles between educational psychology vs. school psychology.

School has become increasingly challenging for students over the last few years. The COVID era of forced distance learning saw students' feelings of social isolation skyrocket.2 Furthermore, cases of anxiety and depression have been developing at twice the normal rate over the last couple of years.3

This is all to say—modern students may benefit from more mental health services from school social work service providers so they can:

  • Adjust to classroom settings, learn to effectively work with others, and exhibit proper social behavior amongst their peers.
  • Work through academic difficulties to establish effective curricula and learning strategies for success in the classroom.
  • Learn to control their emotions and seek help for any feelings they find intrusive or overwhelming.

School social workers are responsible for helping school community members succeed in all these facets. The range of social work services is as diverse as the student bodies they handle.

Key Responsibilities of School Social Workers

School social workers are responsible for assisting with whatever kind of mental health and social services a school may need. Their responsibilities can vary depending on the community and people they serve, but some of their primary concerns include:

  • Tackling substance abuse issues – By the time they get to 12th grade, nearly a third of students will be experimenting with drugs and alcohol.4 School social workers help students resist social pressures to partake in narcotic use and help rehabilitate individuals who have issues with substance abuse to get them back on track toward a cleaner, brighter future. 
  • Helping students overcome eating disorders – Sadly, rates of eating disorders among young people have been rising sharply over the last few years.5 School social workers are tasked with identifying such cases and tactfully coaching them toward a healthier lifestyle since affected individuals are often reluctant to admit to their issues.
  • Intervening in mental health crises – Recent years have seen sky-high rates of home-related stress and emotional abuse amongst students and, consequently, more and more mental health crises.6 School social workers are a safe outlet where students can attempt to work through these issues and, when things become too severe, provide counseling and clinical intervention to help them mitigate impending crises. 

While helping students is at the core of school social workers’ responsibilities, they also work with staff and parents to maintain consistent strategies for overcoming mental and behavioral issues. School social workers may, for instance:7

  • Help parents of special needs children access effective programs
  • Inform staff of the different factors influencing a student’s poor academic or social behavior
  • Help schools receive support from local social and mental health agencies
  • Develop alternative programs for at-risk students
  • Obtain and coordinate community resources to more effectively serve students’ needs

Essentially, school social workers’ responsibilities reflect the needs of the community and student body. Hence, they must be trained in a wide variety of mental health, social and psychological services, as well as social work education, to adequately serve all of their clients.

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Educational Pathways and Licensure

Like other mental health professionals, school social workers need a robust educational background and specific certification to start their careers in school counseling. Before their first day behind the desk, school social workers must satisfy:

Academic Requirements

The minimum educational requirement for school social workers is a bachelor of social work (BSW) or other related degree. However, a baccalaureate may only qualify you for entry-level, non-clinical positions.8 To gain access to higher-level positions, candidates may require a master’s of social work (MSW). Such advanced degrees are more taxing and time-consuming than getting a bachelor’s alone, but they may open applicants up to a wide variety of opportunities. 

Licensure Processes

All states require licensure to practice as a social worker—whether it’s in a school or other setting. Every state, however, has different certification prerequisites. Generally, however, their requirements are a combination of:

  • Obtaining a BSW, MSW, or other related degree
  • Completing supervised practice hours
  • Completing a background check
  • Passing certification exams
  • Paying registration fees

In California, for instance, applicants need to get an MSW, complete a list of exams and courses, and finish 3,000 hours of supervised practice. To find the exact requirements for your state, you can consult this handy Social Work Licensure Guide.9

Pursuing Social Work at Alliant International University

If you’re set on learning how to become a social worker in California or another state, you must pursue a relevant degree to start the process. And, if you’re searching for an online master of social work program to get a leg up going into your career, Alliant International University is your next step.

Our unique online MSW program can help equip you with the skills you need to get started toward an exciting career in social work. Aside from learning many of the core concepts integral to the field of school social work, you’ll also have the opportunity to pursue field education opportunities in real-world settings to get a taste of the profession while studying. 

From our MSW to a number of other social work-related degrees, our school of psychology has a wide variety of interesting, relevant programs for aspiring social workers. Explore what it and our other disciplines have to offer and enroll before the next semester begins!


  1. “Role of School Social Worker.” School Social Work Association of America. Accessed January 10, 2024. 
  2. “Loneliness and Well-Being in Children and Adolescents during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review.” National Library of Medicine. January 31, 2023. Accessed January 9, 2024. 
  3. “Loneliness and Well-Being in Children and Adolescents during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review.” National Library of Medicine. January 31, 2023. Accessed January 9, 2024. 
  4. “Reported drug use among adolescents continued to hold below pre-pandemic levels in 2023.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. December 13, 2023.…. Accessed January 9, 2024. 
  5. “Association of the COVID-19 Pandemic With Adolescent and Young Adult Eating Disorder Care Volume.” JAMA Pediatrics. November 7, 2022.…. Accessed January 9, 2024. 
  6. Kids’ mental health is in crisis. Here’s what psychologists are doing to help.” American Psychological Association. January 1 , 2023. Accessed January 9, 2024.
  7. “Role of School Social Worker.” School Social Work Association of America. Accessed January 10, 2024. 
  8. “Your School Social Worker Career Guide.” Forbes Advisor. July 8, 2023. Accessed January 9, 2024. 
  9. “Social Work Licensure – A State-By-State Guide.” MSW Guide. Accessed JAnuary 9, 2024. 

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