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School Social Work

Definition, current situation, standards, roles, practice methods, legal obligations, ethical obligations, school social work practice approach

Three sections follow:

1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

2. A suggested Practice Approach

3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material


There is no single, internationally accepted definition of school social work (SSW). Because schools are small communities, each with unique psychosocial needs, SSW as a discipline differs from generic social work, even though practitioners use the generic social work methods of individual, group and community work.

School social work is the application of social work principles and methods within the education system to render holistic social work services to support learners, parents, educators and the school as community, with the main goal of establishing an environment where the learner can reach his or her full potential by addressing social, emotional, socioeconomic and behavioral barriers to learning (Reyneke, 2020; Vergottini & Weyers, 2020).

The Current Situation

School social work (SSW) is a growing specialty around the world with its practice embedded in 50 countries and many other countries exploring how to introduce SSW. SSW has evolved for over a century, changing to meet changing needs to serve school children from many cultural traditions. While teachers develop the potential of learners through transmitting knowledge, skills and values, social workers can provide support for learners’ wellbeing, so they are ready to learn. Using ecological systems theory, SSWers often work in multi-disciplinary teams to provide support to those who are marginalized by problems such as poverty, oppression, disabilities, physical and mental health issues, drug use, adolescent pregnancy, learning problems, family problems including domestic violence, divorce, child abuse, homelessness, and family illnesses, and problems within the school system such as discrimination, bullying, and inappropriate discipline by staff. SSWers partner with schools in guiding children and youth to reach their potential intellectually, emotionally, and socially. In particular SSWers can address many of the out-of-school needs that limit students’ learning through helping families resolve difficult life situations and working on community-wide problems that negatively impact school performance such as violence, crime, decaying neighbourhoods, lack of community services, racism, and poverty (Huxtable, 2022; also AASW, 2020; Finigan-Carr & Shaia, 2018; Vergottini & Weyers, 2020).

School Social Work Roles

While narrowly focused roles may be handed to SSWers, the ideal role is broad and flexible, allowing the social worker to tackle any problem that interferes with school success. An ecological systems approach is often used with school, family, and community to resolve problems. In general the SSW role involves consultation with school staff, individual and group counselling, referral to agencies, advocacy and outreach to parents. Importantly, SSWers will often need to interpret their role to school leaders, so their services are made available to the whole school population in ways consistent with social work values and standards (Huxtable, 2022).

In the second decade of this century two organisations published material analysing the role of the SSWer. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2012) published a Standards document, and the School Social Work Association of America published a SSW Practice Model (Frey et al., 2013) and Framework for SSW Practice (SSWAA, 2013). The Framework lists four major areas of professional practice for SSWers with multiple components listed in each. For example, in the planning and preparation area, components include “identifies school and community resources to meet school needs” and “assesses family engagement”. In the school environment area, one component is “challenges structural barriers, social inequalities and educational disparities impacting learning outcomes”. Summaries of these three documents are included with their reference in the Supporting Material / References section below.

Various authors touch on different roles for SSW (Finigan-Carr & Shaia, 2018; Frey et al., 2013; Huxtable, 2022; Kelly et al., 2016; Kemp, 2014; Vergottini, 2018; and Vergottini & Weyers, 2020). Special demands can be placed on SSWers because they practise in areas that are defined and dominated by people who are not social workers and they deal predominantly with children who are viewed as a ‘vulnerable group’.

SSWers will not necessarily be expected cover every area in the list that follows. The expectations schools have of social workers will vary and have a direct influence on the specific roles, tasks and functions that SSWers have to perform (Vergottini & Weyers, 2020). The following summary outlining six focus areas for SSW comes from Vergottini (2018).

1. Roles and responsibilities towards learners and parents/guardians:

  • To develop and implement an individual support plan (ISP) for each learner.

  • To assess learners individually and/or their parents/guardians by means of a variety of social work methods and skills.

  • To provide individual counselling to the learners and/or their parents/guardians.

  • To address social problems experienced by individuals and groups of learners (e.g. bullying, teenage pregnancy).

  • To work with parents and staff to address school refusal. [School Refusal is a separate topic on this website.]

  • To run therapeutic and educational groups for learners and/or their parents/ guardians.

  • To provide crisis intervention services or programmes.

  • To participate in multi-disciplinary meetings.

  • To provide assistance and support in learner disciplinary hearings.

  • To facilitate informative events for parents.

  • To arrange referrals to external service providers when necessary.

2. Roles and responsibilities towards educators/teachers:

  • To assist educators with the early identification of learners’ needs/problems.

  • To assist educators with the reporting and supporting of learners.

  • To empower educators with regard to the management of learners in the classroom.

  • To liaise between learners and staff with regard to social work issues.

  • To assist in teacher support meetings.

  • To support educators during parent consultations.

  • To participate in the professional development of educators in order to identify and manage social barriers to learning and development in terms of the screening, identification, assessment and support policy.

  • To empower educators with knowledge of policies, legislation, statutory matters, and community change regarding social barriers to education and learning.

3. Roles and responsibilities with regard to screening, and the development and implementation of programmes and projects:

  • To develop a strategic plan for service delivery.

  • To develop an annual plan to guide the functions and operations of social work.

  • To network and liaise with external resources.

  • To assist with the management of programmes and projects.

  • To continually evaluate and monitor programmes and projects.

  • To evaluate tools to evaluate the success of programmes and projects on an ongoing basis.

4. Roles and responsibilities regarding social work and educational policy changes and new trends:

  • To master and disseminate knowledge of relevant policies and new trends that impact on learners.

  • To attend, participate and provide feedback on conferences and workshops.

  • To communicate changes and trends to district management teams.

  • To participate in school social work sub-committees.

  • To participate in continuous professional development activities.

5. Roles and responsibilities as a member of multi-disciplinary teams:

  • To attend relevant provincial and regional meetings with other professions.

  • To liaise with external social workers and other professionals where relevant.

6. Other important roles and responsibilities of school social workers:

  • To keep the required records.

  • To assist with the management of trauma and disaster situations within the school and the surrounding community.

  • To present workshops on social issues to learners, staff, parents and/or other groups

  • To have extensive knowledge of alcohol and drug abuse and provide related services.

  • To have extensive knowledge of mental health issues and provide consultation services on related matters.

  • To have extensive knowledge of violence prevention and provide related services.

  • To conduct home visits (when needed).

More recently Huxtable (2022) suggests the SSW role also includes:

  • Reaching out to families to enrol children, especially in countries where widespread poverty and child labour exists. This role should involve providing for basic needs such as school meals and maintaining school attendance.

  • Reducing absenteeism, whether caused by truancy, school phobia, dropping out, or poor health.

  • Developing preventative programs to address various social and health problems of the school population, e.g. child abuse, bullying and cyber bullying, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and discrimination.

  • Joining with Indigenous advocacy groups to foster education among Indigenous peoples in the Americas, New Zealand, Australia, and Africa who are still suffering from the after-effects of European imperialism.

  • Supporting Indigenous groups in their quest to prevent loss of native cultures and languages.

School Social Work Practice Interventions

In carrying out their role SSWers use a broad range of interventions and methods. AASW (2020) suggests these involve:

  • Casework: counselling, psychosocial assessments, student and family counselling, coordination of supports, liaising with external organisations (mentioned by Vergottini &Weyers (2020) also).

  • Advocacy with school staff to develop an inclusive culture and with students for resources and procedures.

  • Research and policy development: projects on student wellbeing, evaluation of practice, school policy analysis and development (mentioned by Vergottini &Weyers (2020) too).

  • Community and professional development for teachers and school staff and the wider school community.

  • Critical incident management: emergency management, interventions to reduce impact of traumatic incidents, psychological first aid, counselling, monitoring recovery.

Kemp (2014) suggests the following:

  • Consultation with school staff, parents and other professionals.

  • Collaboration and co-ordination of services/programs to ensure a holistic service to the learner.

  • Community work where necessary.

  • Group work, dependent on the needs of learners, educators, other personnel and parents (in Vergottini &Weyers (2020) too).

  • Crisis Intervention and Case Work, where the SSWer acts as a referral agent to other professionals or welfare agencies (also in Vergottini &Weyers, 2020).

  • Training of social work-students.

  • On a clinical level, the SSWer functions as part of a multidisciplinary team, applying the principles, knowledge and skills from a social work perspective within the team.

Legal Obligations

It is clear that the SSWer has specific roles to play within the school environment. In the fulfilment of these roles, the social worker might ‘step on the toes’ of other role-players, leading to conflict and even mistrust. Educators and parents might not always grasp the reasons for a specific intervention or decision by the social worker. Often misunderstandings and conflict arise because of the SSWers' legal obligations (Crutchfield et al., 2020; Reyneke, 2020).

The legal obligations of SSWers vary from country to country. They include providing child protection services, upholding children’s rights, and protecting that the best interests of children. The social worker must ensure that children in the school environment are protected against any form of harm, making it their obligation to do everything possible to protect all the learners in the school. This obligation grants them the legal power to report cases of abuse and neglect within the school environment. It also includes providing psychosocial services to learners who have been victims of abuse and neglect as well as ensuring all learners are not subjected or exposed to any maltreatment, abuse, neglect, exploitation, degradation, ill-treatment, violence or harmful behaviour. In practice, this could mean intervening when a learner is suspected of being abused or neglected at home (Reyneke, 2020).

Ethical Obligations

All social workers have ethical obligations. These are outlined in general terms by the International Federation of Social Workers (ISFW, 2018). These principles recognise and promote the inherent dignity of humanity, human rights, social justice, the right to self-determination, the right to participation; they respect confidentiality and privacy; they advocate treating people holistically; they promote the ethical use of technology and social media; and they strive towards maintaining professional integrity. Reyneke (2020) discusses the main ethical areas in SSW.

  • Social justice: SSWers must ensure the best interests of the child are adhered to, including the right to basic education and to fair treatment in the classroom.

  • Respect for people’s worth, human rights and dignity: All students should receive the necessary social services, regardless of income; messages of unworthiness should be challenged.

  • Competence: In spite of adverse conditions at times (e.g. case overload), SSWers should strive to maintain personal competence through ongoing training, professional reading and linking with other social workers.

  • Integrity: SSWers should be honest, fair and respectful to others in practice, even when identifying educators who infringe on the rights of learners.

  • Professional responsibility: SSWers have to take responsibility for their actions and adapt their methods to the environment they encounter.

  • Show care and concern for the wellbeing of others: SSWers may need to challenge situations that have a negative impact on physical and emotional wellbeing, even if this requires confrontation between adults.

  • Service delivery: SSWers should assist learners, their families and the wider community to address their social needs and problems, practising in a spirit of self-determination.

  • Confidentiality: Lack of confidentiality in schools is one of the main concerns of SSWers. It is essential social workers maintain confidentiality with regard to client information unless it is not in the best interest of clients (e.g. for victims of rape, neglect or abuse). Some teachers will pressure SSWers to divulge confidential information; this should be resisted unless awareness such information can benefit the child. Even here SSWers should ask the child for permission before sharing details with teachers.

  • Interdisciplinary collaboration: SSWers need to collaborate with teachers, with the guiding principle being ensuring care and concern for the child’s wellbeing. SSWers may need to confront teachers around misconduct in this area and, if necessary, take the misconduct to a higher authority in the school. Collaboration involves treating colleagues with respect, being loyal and not criticising them when this is not warranted.

  • Criticism and disputes involving colleagues: Teachers who mistreat students should be challenged by the SSWer and/or reported to the school management. The ethical issue created by such a dispute is the need for the protection of the child, on the one hand, and the protection of a colleague, on the other.

  • Supervision: SSWers face challenges in finding competent supervisors. Part of the problem is that supervisors must have experience in the field where the social worker they are supervising is practising. As a result SSWers often use inexperienced professionals or a senior member of the school who does not have social work experience.

  • Referral for services outside the school: SSWers should insist schools refer learners to outside services, when necessary, even though schools may resist this.

  • Permission from parents: In general permission should be obtained from parents to work with their children, but there are some areas where this may not or should not happen. If children do not want parents to know they are seeking counselling, SSWers need to respect this, but work with the child to help them see it may be in the best interests of parents to know. Social workers may also need to go against the child’s wishes, with a thorough explanation provided to the child as to why the SSWer feels parents need to be informed.

The Future of Social Work in Education

Schools in the 21st century are tasked with developing skills and values and transmitting knowledge, while preparing learners for a rapidly changing world. Today’s school children will live through more social, technological, and global changes than any previous generation, and schools must prepare them for unknown challenges. Schools around the world are increasingly recognizing that they cannot handle alone the issues that prevent the success of their students, and that they must tackle these problems with help from multidisciplinary teams using the expert knowledge and skills of various support personnel, including SSWers.

Schools will need to be ready not only for pandemics but also for the ongoing crises of resource depletion and climate change. As these become harder to ignore, school systems must include the causes, consequences, and management of these realities in educational offerings. SSWers need to play a part by focusing not just on the harsh reality that it is youth who are most affected by the rapid destruction of ecosystems, but on advocating for serious change in managing these global issues and thereby providing hope for the current cohort of children and all future generations. Schools must help ready them for life-long engagement in protecting the planet (Huxtable, 2022).

Practice Approach

The material presented above highlights that SSW can occur on a continuum. SSW can have a narrow focus, e.g. a concentration on attaining full school attendance, through to a broad focus, e.g. a broad and flexible role allowing the social worker to use an ecological systems approach with school (learners, teachers and administrators), family and community.

Depending on how their role is defined, SSWers can find themselves supporting learners and families/communities marginalised by poverty, oppression, disability, physical and mental health issues, drug use, adolescent pregnancy, and learning problems; family problems including domestic violence, divorce, child abuse, homelessness, and family illnesses; and problems within the school system such as discrimination, bullying, and inappropriate discipline by staff.

The potential roles of SSWers have been listed in some detail above under six headings:

  1. Roles and responsibilities towards learners and parents/guardians

  2. Roles and responsibilities towards educators/teachers

  3. Roles and responsibilities with regard to screening, and the development and implementation of programmes and projects

  4. Roles and responsibilities regarding social work and educational policy changes and new trends

  5. Roles and responsibilities as a member of multi-disciplinary teams

  6. Other important roles and responsibilities of school social workers

The dot points under each of these headings provide a guide, and a potential expansion, to the SSW role.

In fulfilling their role SSWers may need to use a generic/generalist approach, i.e. use a full ‘basket’ of practice methods. A glance at the contents page of this website will alert potential SSW to the task they may face (depending on how their role is defined) and areas to explore. It will be important for the SSWer to reflect on successes and failures, seek supervision and advice, and, over time, develop a resources ‘toolbox’.

Legal and ethical obligations have been outlined in the above material. Most of these are standard practice the social work profession but may present problems in the education setting where social workers mix with and/or form friendships with staff on a day-to-day basis. Adopting an open, supportive communication approach with the educators and the school community will go a long way to overcoming any conflict that may arise when legal and ethical issues must be addressed.

Supporting Material / References

(Available on request)

AASW: Australian Association of Social Workers. (2020). Scope of social work practice: School social work.

Crutchfield, J., Phillippo, K. L., & Frey, A. (2020). Structural racism in schools: A view through the lens of the national school social work practice model. Children and Schools, 42(3), 187-193. doi: 10.1093/cs/cdaa015

Finigan-Carr, N. M., & Shaia, W. E. (2018). School social workers as partners in the school mission. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(7), 26-30.

Frey, A.J., Alvarez, M.E., Dupper, D.R., Sabatino, C.A., Lindsey, B.C., Raines, J.C., Streeck, F., McInerney, A., & Norris, M.A. (2013). School social work practice model overview: Improving academic and behavioural outcomes.

The School Social Work Practice Model delineates the types of services a certified SSWer with a caseload of roughly 250 students should be expected to perform. It was developed in 2012 and is designed to provide a common framework for the school social work profession by promoting consistency in the education, credentialing, practice, and evaluation of SSWers. The Practice Model encourages SSWers to:

(1) provide evidence-based education, behavior, and mental health services. This is the primary direct service component of social work in schools. It requires unique expertise in child and family work and assists school staff in implementing appropriate interventions. This practice is accomplished by:

  • implementing multi-tiered programs and practices

  • monitoring progress, and

  • evaluating service effectiveness

(2) promote a school climate and culture conducive to student learning and teaching excellence. This practice is implemented by:

  • promoting effective school policies and administrative procedures

  • enhancing the professional capacity of school personnel, and

  • facilitating engagement and supportive relationships between student, family, school, and community

(3) maximize access to school-based and community-based resources (e.g. health, welfare and justice). This involves coordination of available services through knowledge of the school and community. This practice is accomplished by:

  • promoting a continuum of services

  • mobilizing resources and promoting assets, and

  • providing innovative leadership, interdisciplinary collaboration, systems coordination, and professional consultation

SSWers are expected to possess advanced knowledge and technical skills to guide their practice in these three areas. The proportion of their time that SSWers engage in each practice varies widely depending on contextual factors, including the needs of the community, school, families, and students served. However, allowing for the contextual factors operating the SSW environment, the model suggests SSW should revolve around:

  • Home-school-community linkages: Academic achievement and behavior are profoundly impacted by the environment, including relationships and interactions across home, school, and community settings. Facilitating communication and promoting linkages across these systems is a central characteristic of school social work practice.

  • Ethical guidelines and educational policy: Social workers are bound by a Code of Ethics that should be adhered to in decision-making around laws and policies relevant to specific school dilemmas. SSWers should engage in continuous professional development and rely on evidence-based practices to ensure they fit the context and culture of the school setting.

  • Education rights and advocacy: SSWers should be able to balance their mandate as school employees to advocate for students and families within their mandate as social workers to help change policies and practices that undermine the dignity and worth of students.

  • Data-based decision-making: SSW services should be informed by the research literature, adapt empirically supported interventions to fit student needs, and routinely evaluate the effectiveness of policies, programs and practices.

Huxtable, M., (2022). A global picture of school social work in 2021. International Journal of Social Work, 7(1 Special issue Part 3), Article 2.

IFSW: International Federation of Social Workers. (2018). Global social work statement of ethical principles. [Online] ethical-principles/ .

Kelly, M S., Frey, A. Thompson, A., Klemp, H., Alvarez, M., & Berzin, S. C. (2016). Assessing the National School Social Work Practice Model: Findings from the Second National School Social Work Survey. Social Work, 61(1), 17-28. doi: 10.1093/sw/swv044

Kemp, R., (2014). The development of management guidelines for school social work in the Western Cape. University of the Western Cape. (PhD thesis).

NASW: National Association of Social Workers. (2012). National standards for school social work services.

Educational research has focused on the following five topics and will likely continue to have a direct impact on SSW practice: (1) integrated intervention efforts that emphasize primary prevention; (2) early screening and intervention; (3) approaches to intervention that target multiple risk factors in home, school, and community settings and involve parents, teachers, and administrators; (4) approaches that seek to improve individual and system factors contributing to academic success; and (5) data-informed decision making and intervention fidelity.

Guiding principles

  1. Education/School reform: SSWers actively help school systems meet expectations of federal, state, and local mandates; particularly those designed to promote equal educational opportunity, social justice, and the removal of barriers to learning.

  2. Social justice: It is important for the SSWer to collaborate with and facilitate collaboration among students, parents, community members, administration, teachers, and other school staff to identify ways to intervene early with students who struggle to benefit fully from the educational system. An ecological perspective, the hallmark of social work education, is essential for identifying resources for addressing these disparities.

  3. Multitier interventions: Social workers can be involved at three tiers relating to prevention and intervention. Each tier involves using evidence-informed programs to support children, family, school staff and community agencies.

  4. Tier 1—programs and practices that teach positive behaviors, promote social emotional development, and ensure a school climate conducive to learning.

  5. Tier 2—small group and short-term interventions targeting, for example, conflict resolution, social skills, mental health needs and short-term crisis situation, to improve early academic and social-emotional engagement to replace problem behaviour.

  6. Tier 3—individual and long-term interventions to address serious academic, behavioural or social-emotional problems that have not responded to programs in tiers 1 and 2.

Goals of the standards

The specific goals of the standards are

  • to establish expectations for SSW practices and services;

  • to ensure that SSW services are guided by the NASW Code of Ethics;

  • to ensure the highest quality of SSW services will be provided to students and families;

  • to provide a basis for advocating for clients’ rights to be treated with respect and dignity, confidentiality, access to supportive services, and appropriate inclusion in decision making;

  • to provide a basis for the preparation of SSWers and the development of continuing education materials and programs related to SSW services; and

  • to encourage SSWers to participate in the development and refinement of public policy, at the local, state, and federal levels, to support school success.


Standard 1 SSWers shall adhere to the ethics and values of the social work profession and shall use the NASW Code of Ethics as a guide to ethical decision making, while understanding the unique aspects of SSW practice and the needs of the students, parents, and communities they serve.

Standard 2 SSWers shall meet the provisions for professional practice set by NASW and their respective state department of education and possess knowledge and understanding basic to the social work profession as well as the local education system (qualifications).

Standard 3 SSWers shall conduct assessments of individuals, families and systems/organizations (namely, classroom, school, neighbourhood, district, state) with the goal of improving student social, emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes.

Standard 4 SSWers shall understand and use evidence-informed practices in their interventions.

Standard 5 In all decision making and practice evaluation, SSWers shall use data to guide service delivery and to evaluate their practice regularly to improve and expand services.

Standard 6 SSWers shall engage in record keeping, i.e. maintain accurate data and records that are relevant to planning, implementation, and evaluation of SSW services.

Standard 7 SSWers shall manage workloads to fulfill their responsibilities and clarify their critical roles within the educational mission of the school or district in which they work.

Standard 8 SSWers shall pursue continuous professional development—enhancement of knowledge and skills to provide the most current, beneficial, and culturally appropriate services to students and their families.

Standard 9 SSWers shall ensure that students and their families are provided with services within the context of multicultural understanding and competence (cultural competence).

Standard 10 SSWers shall provide interdisciplinary leadership and collaboration to assist with developing a positive school climate by working collaboratively with school administration, school personnel, family members, and community professionals as appropriate.

Standard 11 SSWers shall engage in advocacy that seeks to ensure that all students have equal access to education and services to enhance their academic progress.

Reyneke, R. (2020). The legal and ethical obligations of school social workers. Social Work/Maatskaplike Werk, 56(2), 157-174.

SSWAA: School Social Work Association of America. (2013). National evaluation framework for school social work practice.

The SSWAA National Evaluation Framework for School Social Work Practice is cross-walked with the SSWAA National School Social Work Practice Model (Frey et al., 2013) and the National Association of Social Workers Standards for School Social Work Services (NASW, 2012).

Practice Domains

These domains are the major areas of professional practice. They consist of multiple components.

1. Planning and Preparation

  1. Conducts multi-tiered school needs assessment

  2. Identifies scientifically supported educational behavioural and mental health services to address school needs

  3. Identifies school and community resources to meet school needs

  4. Establishes collaborative professional relationships

  5. Assesses family engagement

  6. Knows current federal, state and local laws as well as district policies and procedures that guide school social work practice

2. The School Environment

  1. Contributes to a safe and healthy school environment

  2. Advocates for policies, programs, and services that respect diversity, address individual needs and support the inherent dignity and worth of all students, families, and school personnel

  3. Identifies historical and current political, social, cultural and economic conditions that impact the context of learning and advocates for change

  4. Challenges structural barriers, social inequalities, and educational disparities impacting learning outcomes.

3. Service Delivery and Resources

  1. Implements and monitors multi-tiered empirically-supported interventions that improve academic and behavioural performance

  2. Provides programs and services that foster social and emotional competencies

  3. Provides specialized services such as crisis intervention and consultation

  4. Provides programs and services in a culturally sensitive manner

  5. Mobilizes school and community resources to maximize academic and behaviour success

4. Professional Responsibilities

  1. Adheres to the standards and practice requirements set by the State Education Agency.

  2. Adheres to the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics and School Social Work Association of America ethical guidelines

  3. Maintains timely and accurate records and documentation in compliance with family rights and privacy and state requirements

  4. Continues professional development

  5. Exhibits self-awareness, self-monitoring, and professional accountability

Vergottini, E. (2018). Towards the establishment of practice standards for South African school social work: A mixed-method study with special reference to the Free State Province. Potchefstroom: North-West University. (PhD thesis).

Vergottini, M., & Weyers, M. (2020). The foundations and nature of South African school social work: An overview. Social Work/Maatskaplike Werk, 56(2), 125-138.

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