Become a School Social Worker

School systems employ social workers to help K-12 students with academic, emotional, and behavioral issues and challenges. School social workers also advise families and teachers on how they can assist their school-age children and adolescents at home and in the classroom.

School social workers need at least a bachelor of social work (BSW). Some states require teaching experience or a credential, while others may require specific supervised field experience in school social work.

Child, family, and school social workers earn a median annual salary of $47,390. This guide elaborates on the projected job market, roles and responsibilities, and educational and licensing requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is a school social work job worth it?

    The pay may be on the low side and the work challenging, but a career in school social work can also be rewarding, especially for those who enjoy helping children and teens succeed. A PayScale survey found that 4.1 out of 5 school social workers reported high satisfaction with their jobs.

  • Where do school social workers work?

    According to a 2018 workplace survey conducted by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), 8% of social workers employed by educational institutions worked at pre-K or elementary schools and 5.8% at secondary schools. The remainder found jobs at residential schools (1.2%) and college and university counseling/health centers (0.8%).

  • How long does it take to become a school social worker?

    State requirements for becoming a social worker vary widely. Some states, such as California, require a BSW and school counseling credential to practice as a school social worker. Others, including Massachusetts and New York, require a master of social work (MSW). Earning a BSW typically takes four years, and most MSW programs span two years.

  • Is a school social worker a mandated reporter?

    Yes, school social workers must report any suspected child abuse or neglect to the appropriate authorities. Those who fail to do so may face civil and/or criminal penalties. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), more than half of all child abuse reports come from professionals like school social workers.

Roles and Responsibilities of a School Social Worker

School social workers conduct student assessments and social histories, develop treatment plans, provide therapy and crisis management services, advocate for students, and educate school staff and families. Those who provide therapeutic services must typically obtain an MSW and a state clinical social workers' license.

An NASW occupational profile discusses benefits and challenges of the job. Benefits include meaningful improvement in students' lives, daily variation, and collaboration with teachers, staff, and patients. Challenges involve high caseloads, travel time if assigned to more than one school, and limited resources, privacy, and supervision.

Demand for school-based mental health services has risen due to increased recognition of the ways children's mental health impacts functioning and the importance of early intervention and prevention. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reports that almost two-thirds of students treated for mental health issues receive their treatments at school.

Top Paying Industries for School Social Workers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists junior colleges and K-12 schools as the top-paying industries for school social workers. Those employed at junior colleges earn an annual mean wage of $64,110, while elementary and secondary school social workers bring in $63,810. Of the educational institutions listed, K-12 schools employ the highest number of social workers (45,480), which translates to 53% of industry employment for child, family, and school social workers.

Top Paying States for School Social Workers

Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Connecticut top the BLS's list of highest-paying states, with annual mean salaries of $71,590, $68,830, and $68,360, respectively. Rhode Island ($63,310) and Maryland ($61,910) follow.

The BLS ranking of highest employing states places California in the top position with 32,630 child, family, and school social workers earning a mean wage of $59,990 per year; New York second with 29,880 making $60,380; and Pennsylvania third with 21,180 collecting $44,870. Rounding out the top five are Texas, with 21,120 child, family, and school social workers making $49,060, and Illinois, with 14,720 earning $55,390.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for School Social Workers

Connecticut houses three of the 10 highest-paying metropolitan areas. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk tops the list at $74,130, the Hartford area third at $70,610, and Danbury seventh at $67,400. Second place goes to Trenton, New Jersey, at $70,890, and fourth place to Bismarck, North Dakota, at $68,200.

California is represented with Salinas at fifth place with an annual mean wage of $68,040, Merced at sixth place with $67,410, and Hanford-Corcoran at ninth place with $67,410. Completing the top 10 are the Washington, D.C. area at eighth place with $67,370 and Rochester, Minnesota, at tenth place with $66,070.

The highest employment levels exist in the big cities and are led by New York (24,950; $63,590), Los Angeles (15,160; $63,810), and Chicago (10,600; $55,660).

Salary and Job Growth for School Social Workers

Child, family, and school social workers should see a 12% projected job growth from 2019-29, which pencils out to an estimated 40,100 openings. The BLS notes that the demand for school social workers should correspond to increased student enrollment; however, budget constraints at all levels — federal, state, and local — may limit the actual number of opportunities.

Job prospects for clinical social workers, who can provide their students with school-based therapy and treatment, should be stronger than those for nonclinical school social workers. For those interested in a broader approach, becoming a social work generalist may open doors to other areas of social and human services.

How to Become a School Social Worker

Prospective school social workers can earn a BSW and practice nonclinical and generalist social work but need an MSW to become a clinical social worker and provide direct therapeutic services and treatment. In addition, the NASW requires an MSW for certification (discussed in more detail below).

As the CSWE notes, obtaining an MSW has increasingly become the recommended minimum degree for school social workers. In its workforce study, CSWE reports that most BSW-holders plan to continue their education and earn an MSW. Moreover, while 59% of professionals with a BSW find employment after graduation, less than half of that 59% work as social workers.

The recommended steps to becoming a school social worker with strong employment prospects include earning a bachelor's degree, researching your state's requirements for licensure, earning an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, and logging supervised field experience hours, which vary by state, in a school setting.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

The CSWE advises all school social workers — clinical or not — to obtain a state license and certification. Eligibility requires an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, supervised field experience, and a passing score on the state-required licensure examination.

The NASW offers credentialing as a certified school social work specialist, which signifies expertise, knowledge, and skill and attainment of NASW standards. Applicants must hold an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program; demonstrate completion of two years of paid, supervised postgraduate social work in a school setting; possess a state license or certification; and show adherence to NASW ethics and continuing education requirements.