School Social Work Defined
School Social Workers are trained mental health professionals who provide leadership and services to schools on multiple systems levels, including individual and group supports, policy and system improvements, and collaborations across systems. School social workers engage an ecological framework to remove barriers and improve the fit between a student and their many environments, both supporting environmental conditions that foster growth and development and expanding individual strengths. With a focus on relationship and community building, school social workers help students, families, colleagues, and systems leverage strengths, build resilience, and thrive.
School social workers take action to promote social justice and employ a trauma sensitive, culturally responsive lens to the work. Leaders in advocacy, ethical practice, collaboration, and innovation, school social workers maximize resources and create new coalitions. School social workers support the learning and growth of colleagues through training facilitation, coaching, and consultation. School social work interventions reduce barriers to learning, especially those that stem from outside the school building, enabling students to be physically, mentally, and emotionally present and ready to learn in the classroom.
Role in Schools
School Social workers are a link between the home, school and community in providing direct as well as indirect services to students, families and school systems to promote and support students' academic and social success. They help students assess strengths and needs to problem solve and remove barriers to learning, especially those that stem from outside of the school or arise from mental health challenges. School social workers have a specific ethical obligation to serve students from the most vulnerable, and marginalized groups. Their work includes providing related services for students with IEPs, conducting social developmental histories, and engaging families through home visits. School social workers act within and between multiple systems levels to provide a continuum of supports to students and systems with a focus on prevention and wellness promotion.
Some examples include:
- Individual - support, resource connection and referral related to mental health challenges, truancy, pregnancy, disabilities, identity, racism and oppression, out-of-home care, drug or alcohol use, family challenges, poverty and homelessness, delinquency, trauma, child abuse, human trafficking, crisis, advocacy, special education related services
- Group - grief and loss, trauma impacts, empowerment, leadership, students living with parental substance use or mental health challenges
- System - leaders, coaches, and advocates of school mental health system work, trauma sensitive schools including culturally responsive practices, compassion resilience for staff and organizations, whole-school attendance, behavior, and disciplinary practices, community collaborations, family engagement, pupil records and confidentiality, ethics and boundaries, and liaisons with professionals in child welfare and youth justice
Additional Role Examples: The school social work roles listed are best provided within the context of an organized, comprehensive pupil services model. This list is not exhaustive but represents a range of services that may be provided by school social workers.
Example Job Descriptions
These job descriptions were created locally for the local context. DPI does not endorse any particular job description below. These descriptions are not necessarily exemplars, instead they are simply examples of actual job descriptions in Wisconsin.
Models and Standards
WI Content Guidelines for School Social Work Programs - These guidelines provide the knowledge and skill, or the competencies, school social work students must demonstrate in order to be approved for endorsement for a school social work license.
WI Pupil Service Standards - To receive a license in a pupil services category under s. PI 34.31, an applicant shall complete an approved program and demonstrate proficient performance in the knowledge, skills and dispositions under these standards.
NASW Standards for School Social Work Services & NASW School Social Work Resources - School social work is a complex and specialized field of practice that is affected by changes in education policy, research, and practice models that continue to evolve. NASW periodically revises the NASW Standards for School Social Work Services to meet the changing needs of school social workers, the clients they serve, and local education agencies. NASW has revised these standards to reflect the values of our profession and current practice trends.
SSWAA National Model - Outlines the general framework within which School Social Work services should be provided. Describes the skills sets and services needed for the delivery of high quality school social work services in schools.
School Social Work in Special Education
School social workers play an important role in supporting students with disabilities, including sometimes as members of Individual Education Program (IEP) teams. School social workers have excellent skills to conduct social developmental histories as part of the special education evaluation process, to support the development of Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBA), as part of a comprehensive special education evaluation, to support the development of IEPs and Behavior Intervention Plans (BIP), to assist in coordinating referrals and services, and to provide Related Services. Depending on the training, experience, and additional credentials held by the individual school social worker they may be qualified to utilize various assessment tools with students, however psychometric testing and interpretation of psychological assessments almost always fall under the scope of the school psychologist.
When considering when to engage school social workers as part of the IEP process, it is important to consider which goals the student has and which services and supports would best help the student make progress towards those goals. When related services are written into an IEP, they are attached to a specific measurable goal the student is working to attain. It is best practice to write in a specific evidence-based intervention, or measurable action, aligned to an IEP goal(s), and not just add a broad idea such as ’counseling services’ or ‘social work services’. Choosing the staff member who can best support the student’s IEP goal(s) will depend on the individual staff in the school, their roles, their expertise, and their training. School social workers are often the best staff to have conduct the social developmental history, and to provide a report for the evaluation. The school social worker supports and empowers families to ensure that family information is included in the decision-making process.
Roles as described in IDEA: Section 300.34 Related Services
§ 300.34 Related services.
General. Related services means transportation and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services as are required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, and includes speech-language pathology and audiology services, interpreting services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, including therapeutic recreation, early identification and assessment of disabilities in children, counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling, orientation and mobility services, and medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes. Related services also include school health services and school nurse services, social work services in schools, and parent counseling and training….
300.3(c)(2) Counseling services means services provided by qualified social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, or other qualified personnel
300.34(c)(14) Social work services in schools includes -
(i) Preparing a social or developmental history on a child with a disability;
(ii) Group and individual counseling with the child and family;
(iii) Working in partnership with parents and others on those problems in a child's living situation (home, school, and community) that affect the child's adjustment in school;
(iv) Mobilizing school and community resources to enable the child to learn as effectively as possible in [their] educational program; and
(v) Assisting in developing positive behavioral intervention strategies.
School Social Work and Medicaid Reimbursement
Specific school social work services when identified in the student’s IEP are Medicaid reimbursable in Wisconsin.
Forward Health Handbook Topic #1472 “Covered Psychological Services, Counseling, and Social Work Services.” It states:
Topic #1472 Covered Psychological Services, Counseling, and Social Work Services
Psychological services, counseling, and social work services include diagnostic or active treatments intended to reasonably improve the child's physical or mental condition. The following services are covered if they are identified in the child's IEP:
- Diagnostic testing and evaluation that assesses cognitive, emotional, and social functioning and self-concept
- Therapy and treatment that plans, manages, and provides a program of psychological services, counseling, or social work services to children with psychological or behavioral problems
- Crisis intervention
- Treatment, psychological counseling, and social work services to individuals or groups of two to 10 individuals
Social Development History
Social Development History
Wisconsin School Social Work Survey Data
The Wisconsin School Social Work Survey was developed to identify 1) what areas of responsibility Wisconsin school social workers are involved in (e.g., special education, school attendance, mental health, homelessness), and 2) what professional strategies and programs they are using to address these areas of responsibility (e.g., consultation, advocacy, home visits, counseling).