There is a saying that there is nothing new under the sun as far as the calamities of the world go. This saying may very well be true, but because of an increasingly larger population, school-aged children of today are forced to face more problems much earlier than their predecessors did. Because today’s children have so much to face, it is important for them to have a good support base at home as well as at school. Together with other school-based mental health professionals, school social workers are expected to support the needs of at-risk students attending public schools (Altshuler & Webb, 2009). In order to provide children with the support they need for positive development, school systems need social workers that have been properly trained in choosing the correct intervention method and in proper service delivery.
The National Association of Social Workers identifies four major areas of school social work practice: Early intervention to reduce or eliminate stress; within or between individuals or groups; problem-solving services to students, parents, school personnel, or community agencies; early identification of students at risk; and work with various groups in school to develop coping, social, and decision-making skills (). Social workers have been providing services to public schools for over a century, and there are many ways school social workers can utilize their knowledge, skills, and values to improve the lives of students. The services that workers provide have evolved over time but have maintained an overall purpose of addressing environmental barriers that negatively affect the ability of students to succeed academically (Altshuler & Webb, 2009).
There are several factors that determine the need for intervention by social workers. Family issues, attendance problems, and academic concerns are all prevalent factors presented for intervention (Kelly & Stone, 2009). There are also issues of neighborhood violence, drug use, deviant peers, teen pregnancy, and poor impulse control.
Early life experiences (while not the sole determinants of later life mental health and behavior disorders) may be important influences in children’s development and children living with substantial environmental stress early in life are at increased risk for aggressive and antisocial behavior in youth and adolescence (Hudley & Novak, 2007). It is up to today’s school social workers to find and implement more effective strategies for decreasing and eliminating these behaviors, especially now that behaving aggressively has become an essentially automatic response to stressors in some youths.
Social workers can assist students in dealing with stress or emotional problems by working directly with the children and their families. By acting as institutional and cultural brokers between families and their children’s school, social workers are filling a very important void. This is especially significant for schools where often the least successful students come from families who are experiencing poverty-related barriers and constraints. Bridging the gap between school and families is important because when parents are involved effectively in their children’s schooling, student achievement typically improves (Alameda-Lawson, Lawson & Lawson, 2010). Because school success is critical to future life tasks, interventions are worth our attention.
School social workers’ broad skill sets, ranging from advanced clinical to highly skilled generalist approaches (with particular emphasis in school mission, functioning, and processes), are essential to the assessment process and design of effective interventions. All students, their families, and school personnel benefit from access to the expertise of school social workers in implementing system level universal (school or district), evidencebased programs, as well as early-targeted interventions. This expertise is particularly critical in working with students struggling with behavioral, emotional, family system, and ecological challenges to ensure a truly systemic, comprehensive assessment.
Workers can also address problems such as misbehavior, truancy, teenage pregnancy, and drug and alcohol problems and advise teachers on how to cope with difficult students. Some of the methods that school social workers use are individual, group, and family/community therapy. Some workers teach workshops to entire classes on topics like conflict resolution. School social workers extend opportunities for students to volunteer, serve others, or contribute to their communities by referring students to existing service opportunities; facilitating service projects and clubs; or creating an array of individualized opportunities for students to help peers, younger students, adults, or the community.
By encouraging students to participate in service, social workers are helping students to develop more protective and promotive factors such as self-esteem, friendships, and confidence, as well as ensuring that the students gain familiarity with the social worker and feel more comfortable going to him or her for help with crises. Integrating youth development principles into school social work practice is a powerful application of the strengths perspective and an important way to build resiliency. Youth development activities such as service can also be conceptualized as tiered interventions within a response to intervention and positive behavioral interventions and supports system (Leyba, 2010).
While it is vitally important for the social worker to forge a positive and trusting relationship with students and their families, it is just as important that the worker remember to be empathetic without being sympathetic. Delivery of needed services is tantamount, but there are policies, ethics, and rules of practice to be considered at all times. The National Association of Social Workers and School Social Work Association of America have recommended specific requirements for professional preparation and competency of the school social worker.
Social workers shall function in accordance with the values, ethics, and standards of the profession, recognizing how personal and professional values may conflict with or accommodate the needs of diverse clients.
To work in a school setting, a social worker must have an MSW degree from a Council on Social Work Education approved program. The worker must have completed a school-based internship and have taken