School Social Workers as Partners in the School Mission: The Comprehensive Services School Social Workers Provide Can Address Many Barriers to Student Learning. but Schools Don't Always Take Full Advantage of These Professionals' Skills

By Finigan-Carr, Nadine M.; Shaia, Wendy E. | Phi Delta Kappan, April 2018 | Go to article overview

School Social Workers as Partners in the School Mission: The Comprehensive Services School Social Workers Provide Can Address Many Barriers to Student Learning. but Schools Don't Always Take Full Advantage of These Professionals' Skills


Finigan-Carr, Nadine M., Shaia, Wendy E., Phi Delta Kappan


The best teachers know that they need to employ numerous strategies to reach their students. The best school social workers are much the same--they draw on a wide range of skills and knowledge to serve students in a myriad of ways.

Frustratingly, though, school social workers often find themselves to be underutilized, relegated to a narrow set of tasks. It's a common lament from the professionals we've trained over the years. As we heard recently from a former student who graduated several years ago and now works in an urban school: "I could help these kids and families in so many ways, but all my supervisors want me to do is perform mental health assessments and attend IEP meetings. I know those things are important, but the people I work with seem to have no idea how much more I could do to support students."

What social workers can do

School social workers are trained mental health professionals who provide critically important services directly to students (and sometimes teachers and staff) on campus. However, they also are dedicated to providing comprehensive supports that address many of the out-of-school needs that limit students' learning. Further, many social workers have expertise related to administration, research, and policy making--and they tend to be good candidates to coordinate wraparound services. (While the community schools movement has been at the forefront of this approach, any school can and should provide these kinds of student and family support; Shaia & Finigan-Carr, 2018.)

Social workers' skills and knowledge also make them particularly well suited to take the lead in the emerging movement to improve school climate and promote social-emotional learning. This is especially important work because, in recent decades, concerns about school safety led many districts to create harsh educational environments, marked by zero-tolerance policies, tough disciplinary practices, and the like. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that the safest and most effective schools tend to be characterized by trusting, warm, and supportive relationships among staff, students, and parents (Steinberg, Allensworth, & Johnson, 2011). In short, K-12 education has begun to come around to a perspective--recognizing that individuals' needs are best understood by looking to their social environment-- that has been central to the field of social work for decades (School Social Work Association of America, n.d.).

Further, social workers have a distinct professional commitment to promoting social justice, protecting children's rights, and helping families resolve difficult life situations (Matulayova & Pesatova, 2013). Social work education also emphasizes culturally sensitive practice, focusing on the design of programs that are appropriate to the clients they serve and that value their diverse perspectives and experiences (National Association of Social Workers, 2002). This enables social workers to serve a variety of populations.

Services to parents and families

When students are struggling, social workers provide support to parents in facilitating their child's adjustment to school. For example, they might provide programs to help new students become acclimated to school or assist students after an extended absence due to illness or family stressors, like a divorce or death. They might also assist parents of children with special needs in accessing programs available specifically for these needs. However, social workers don't just assist students who are currently experiencing difficulties in school; they can support all students, as well as their parents and families, to address stressful situations before they have an effect on children.

For example, for families living in neighborhood with concentrated poverty, whether urban or rural, low socioeconomic status may create significant stressors that affect the families' ability to maintain healthy relationships, parent their children, and adapt to life circumstances (Wadsworth et al. …

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