Learn about North Carolina Licensure

Schools & Universities

Written by Jack Levinson

working with student

If you’re looking to make a difference in the lives of children and adolescents in need, you’ll find the opportunity to do so as a school social worker.

School social workers are a resource for students, families, and teachers alike, working to help ensure that the emotional and educational needs of vulnerable students are met.

Young people, after all, spend a significant portion of their time in school. This means it is a place where emotional and behavioral issues can frequently come to light. It also means that students who might be experiencing turmoil outside of the school environment – such as familial instability, poverty, and more – bring their baggage with them on campus. Recognizing that school is deeply implicated with the rest of students’ lives, school counselors do more than just provide academic support, also offering therapy, guidance, and when necessary, intervention for students in need.

For those who wish to see their impact not only on individuals but on a community as a whole, you are certain to do so as a school social worker. Working not only with students but with other faculty members and administrators, you’ll play an indispensable role in making your school a safer, more inclusive place where all can thrive.

The Role of a School Social Worker

You may think that school social work primarily involves academic counseling for students whose grades are flagging. This can be part of the job, but the responsibilities of a school social worker involve much more than that alone.

Supporting Student Well-Being

School social workers take responsibility for students who are struggling in all aspects of their lives. Recognizing that poor academic performance can reflect deeper issues, these conversations are often – but by no means always – prompted by a student’s troubles in the classroom. But school social workers have the training and depth of knowledge to understand that there is usually much more to the story for students who are failing or acting out in school. This means they can work with students to identify the underlying causes of their difficulties, bringing in their families, school administrators, and other mental health or child welfare professionals when necessary.

By observing and supporting students during school hours, school social workers can provide invaluable support to young people who are struggling with a variety of issues, as well as flagging concerns that may otherwise have gone unaddressed. From offering counseling to students experiencing mental health concerns to identifying signs of neglect and abuse, the work of school social workers can turn lives around.

Crisis Management and Intervention

In some cases, school social workers are called upon to provide immediate support to students, families, and staff who are in crisis. Social workers are trained to identify signs of distress in students that may otherwise go unnoticed, stepping in to take responsibility and ensure that vulnerable young people are safe and protected. Scenarios that would require this include:

In most cases like these, school social workers may act as initial points of contact or overall case managers, but they rarely operate alone. School social workers frequently collaborate with external agencies, such as child protective services or mental health organizations, to ensure that students receive the necessary support beyond the school environment.

Improving School Culture and Resources

In addition to addressing individual student needs, school social workers also collaborate with teachers, administrators, and other school personnel to create a positive and inclusive learning environment. They often provide professional development sessions for educators on topics related to student mental health, behavior management, and effective communication.

This makes school social work a compelling field for those who wish to see their impact within a community.

As a school social worker, you will be a kind of leader among faculty members, providing expertise and insight into students’ mental health and other personal concerns that will help other teachers be more responsive and attentive to student needs.

This will have a tremendous impact on school culture as well as individual student experiences.

Advocacy in the School Social Work Profession

As regular monitors of student mental health and welfare, school social workers have unique insights into the needs of students and their families, especially those who are from marginalized communities or facing conditions of poverty. This means they have the potential to act as powerful advocates, offering an on-the-ground perspective with direct knowledge of how certain social issues impact individuals directly.

Because of this, school social workers have become respected champions of the rights and needs of students, especially those in low-income communities. This can involve activist efforts or, for those who look to an altogether career pivot, roles in advocacy nonprofits that aim to influence policy at the city, state, and national level. By getting involved in these causes on the legislative level, school social workers can help guide proposals and decisions surrounding school funding and resources to help build a better future for their students.

Current Trends in School Social Work

School social work is a dynamic field, requiring professionals to continuously educate themselves and adapt to the shifting landscapes of school resources and approaches to mental health. This can be an exciting dimension of the field for social workers who are interested in watching the evolution of these programs to create better outcomes for students.

The mental health field itself is undergoing great change, meaning this is one arena in which school social workers can expect to continue to learn and evolve. Overall, recent developments in the mental health field have been positive for mental health patients and providers, trending toward more comprehensive approaches to mental health and a de-stigmatization of mental and emotional issues. This means the need for school social workers with a background in mental health support is only growing.

Technology has also had a positive impact on school social work, strengthening its administrative capacities (especially when information is shared between schools and outside social work agencies) and increasing access to mental health services through remote counseling and other digital platforms to share resources. This can be especially helpful for school social workers engaging with low-income parents who may not be able to make time for on-campus appointments but can better attend to their childrens’ needs by attending virtual conferences and meetings.

Finally, cultural competency has become an important goal for all branches of social work. This is informed by the growing understanding that a one-size-fits-all approach will exclude many from the benefits of social work, and that the field itself must be more adaptive, equitable, and tolerant of all demographic experiences. This means that most Master of Social Work programs include courses that help future social workers understand the diverse experiences of students and their families, leaving them better attuned to observe student needs and better equipped to provide support when needed.

Challenges in School Social Work

It should come as no surprise that performing the complex role of a school social worker can come with significant challenges. These can involve students themselves, issues in a broader school environment, or even problems outside of the school environment that nevertheless impact student learning and behavior while in school.

One significant challenge is the increasing complexity of students’ social and emotional needs. The modern educational landscape often sees students dealing with issues such as poverty, trauma, mental health struggles, and family disruptions. Indeed, the demand for mental health services in schools has risen dramatically, placing additional strain on social workers who may find themselves stretched thin in addressing the growing caseloads.

School social workers can also often grapple with limited resources and funding constraints. Indeed, as essential as their role is, there is often a shortage of social workers in schools, leading to high caseloads and limited time for each student. This shortage can hinder their ability to provide the depth of support required and can create a sense of burnout among social workers who feel the weight of the unmet needs. Moreover, the scarcity of resources may limit the implementation of preventive programs, hindering the school’s capacity to address issues proactively.

Because of these challenges, it’s important for school social workers to learn how to account for their own stress levels and mental health to ensure that their work is sustainable in the long term. This means setting appropriate work boundaries, practicing self-care, and understanding that the impact you are making is changing student lives for the better even though it might have limits.

After all, many students (and schools themselves) struggle due to structural inequalities that no single individual can change altogether. The support you provide to individuals and families as a school social worker is invaluable, but change is often incremental. This means setting realistic expectations for your work and understanding the depth of many young people’s issues will help you approach your job with clarity and the high energy level you need to stay in this role for a long time.

Requirements to Become a School Social Worker

School social workers in the state of North Carolina have similar education and license requirements as any other kind of social worker. These requirements are strictly enforced and should be taken seriously in plotting your social work career. After all, the responsibilities of a school social worker are tremendous, requiring extensive training and a significant body of knowledge to inform decision-making. This means that school social workers are expected to have prepared fully for the job, with the documentation to show it.

Education Requirements

In order to become a school social worker, one must hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from an accredited institution. Some schools offer concentrations in school social work, while others do not have such formal specialization tracks. In either case, you will likely have the opportunity to complete your mandatory field work hours in a school setting, providing you your first exposure to the daily ins and outs of a school social worker.

Fortunately for prospective social work students, it’s easier than ever to complete an MSW program. Online education options allow students to take classes from the convenience of their own home, eliminating commute times and making it possible for students to maintain other jobs and family responsibilities while in school. There are also part-time school options for students who cannot take on the requirements of a full-time class schedule.

License Requirements

Most school social workers’ responsibilities include direct counseling and therapeutic services for students with emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs.

In order to provide therapy, one must become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).

Receiving this licensure requires a significant number of supervised field work hours – normally amounting to about two years of full-time work following one’s MSW program – before qualifying for eligibility exams. During this time, you will get on-the-ground experience in the role that you will have as a professional, giving you comprehensive training in the variety of responsibilities school social workers take on.

upset teen girl in session

School Social Worker Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, school social workers who are employed in elementary and secondary schools earn a mean annual salary of $67,990 per year. Broken down into an hourly wage, this amounts to $32.69 an hour. (Please note that these figures are taken from nationwide averages, as the BLS does not provide employer-specific data on a state-by-state basis.)

One can look at the BLS’ data on the overall field of child, family, and school social work to get a sense of salary growth for school social workers. The BLS reports that nationwide, social workers earning in the 90th percentile of these fields take home $81,920 or more annually. Those with significant work experience are better equipped to take on high-paid leadership roles, meaning this salary range is something you can work toward over the course of your career.

Salary data is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2022 report, accessed in December 2023.


Are there school social work roles that do not involve direct counseling?

It is possible that there may be some roles in schools for social workers that are more focused on case management for students in need of child welfare services. However, most schools will prefer for on-campus social workers to have a background in clinical practice (i.e. counseling and therapy) so that they can be available as an on-campus resource for students with immediate mental health needs. In other words, it is highly advised to pursue training in counseling and work toward LCSW standing if you intend to become a school social worker.

Do I need an education degree to become a school social worker?

No. Some students who apply for MSW programs hold bachelor’s degrees in education, which can enrich their knowledge of the school environment and deepen their understanding of their role. However, this is not required in order to attend an MSW program with a focus on school social work. You can hold a bachelor’s degree in any subject to pursue an MSW of any type.

What is the difference between a school social worker and a child welfare social worker?

Though these two social work fields sometimes overlap (in cases when school social workers observe welfare needs of their students), school social workers and child welfare social workers perform fairly different roles and work in fairly different environments. School social workers are traditionally employed on-campus, providing direct support to students as well as taking action to create a more supportive overall school culture. Child welfare social workers, meanwhile, perform interventions and case management for young people facing crises including neglect and abuse, food shortages and other impacts of poverty, and more. They are typically employed by government agencies. Sometimes school and child welfare social workers work in tandem, but their roles and responsibilities are distinct.

Why is cultural competence important to school social work?

The role of a school social worker perfectly illustrates the need for cultural competence in the social work field. One example can be found in the responsibility of school social workers to identify signs that students are struggling even when the students themselves do not say so. Without an accurate cultural framework, school social workers may not be keen observers of these signs of distress, while those who are well-informed about the intricacies of a community’s culture will be able to spot these silent symptoms and address these issues at the source. This is just one example to indicate the overall importance of this approach to the social work profession.