Social workers play an increasingly vital role in schools and educational institutions across the country. As understanding of the importance of mental health improves, the stigma attached to discussing it is slowly overcome, therefore the function of social work is more appreciated, particularly in relation to young people. More schools are employing social workers as full-time members of staff and integrating them into holistic support teams alongside teachers and other professionals.
School social workers collaborate with other staff members to create positive outcomes for the students in their care. Working closely with teachers, counselors, welfare staff and parents, they can often achieve better results than if they were working alone. Working as part of an interdisciplinary team, a school social worker can help students achieve their academic potential, as well as reducing absenteeism, disruptive behavior and the number of students dropping out of school. They can also help students to develop better social skills and build confidence as well as learn self-reliance and responsibility.
Working closely with others
Professional collaboration for school social workers may include working alongside teachers, counselors, health administrators and others in special assessment and education planning meetings. Social workers will also cooperate with appropriate parties to develop positive intervention strategies. These may be to improve a student’s overall behavior or academic performance, or to provide anger management solutions or conflict resolution.
Aside from teachers, the people that school social workers collaborate with most often are parents. Although the parents are engaging with school social workers in a personal rather than professional capacity, it is always best if they can work together towards a mutually agreed solution. This is preferable to the social worker dictating terms or (as a last resort) enforcing a legal judgment.
In most cases, parents and school social workers are on the same side, working towards the best outcome for the child concerned. The combination of the parents’ understanding of their own child and the social worker’s professional knowledge and perspective can lead to positive results that neither party would necessarily achieve otherwise.
Some advantages of professional collaboration
Collaboration gives all those involved a wider knowledge base to draw on. Each person brings their own expertise to bear, and different perspectives reduce the chance of anything being overlooked. Most districts require school social workers to have a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. A degree, such as the one offered by Keuka College, offers students both a comprehensive academic knowledge of their field and extensive real-world experience thanks to the placements included as part of an MSW program.
Shared responsibility is another positive element of collaboration, reducing the risk of burnout or stress-related errors on the part of any one individual. In a collaborative situation, greater resources are also made available, and working with other parties can reduce costs and increase efficiency. Bringing together professionals from different fields cuts through bureaucracy and red tape, while specialists, such as mental health counselors, may have the authority to act when a school social worker isn’t qualified to take the necessary steps.
An intersectional approach
School social workers frequently need to coordinate strategies with other professionals – such as teachers, psychologists and even local law enforcement – to ensure that the needs and challenges of ‘problem students’ are understood and that they receive the care, treatment and discipline they require. While school social workers might initially identify mental health issues as causing difficulties for their client, the problem is usually intersectional. Physical, social and other factors can affect or exacerbate the situation.
Students from low-income families or minority ethnic groups, those with physical disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students, are all at higher risk of mental health problems while also often being less able to access the appropriate support services. Recognizing that other issues are involved besides individual mental health makes collaboration with other professionals by school social workers an essential practice. Often, the school social worker is the key partner in coordinating all the other authorities and departments in a manner that best serves the student’s needs.
In schools, social workers can collaborate with staff to create new learning programs. These may be specially designed for students with acute problems, such as absenteeism or trouble with the law, or they may be more general programs designed to raise awareness of specific issues like bullying or substance abuse.
Another important part of a school social worker’s role is to educate teaching and administrative staff on recognizing and addressing problematic or ‘red flag’ behavior. This may include raising levels of cultural awareness and increasing understanding of the challenges faced by students due to race, gender, sexuality and how they present, both physically and mentally. These criteria are not exhaustive or exclusive; social workers will tailor programs to meet the needs of their student body.
School social workers may also provide direct support to teachers in the classroom, by assisting with lessons, talking directly to students, and answering their questions. They may lead discussions around relevant topics or encourage and support student -led initiatives on issues such as gun control or teenage pregnancy.
A complete picture
A school social worker not only looks at how a student acts when in school, but also at their home life and their relationship with the wider community. What social groups do they mix with outside of school, both formal and informal? Have they ever been in trouble with the law? What are their religious or cultural affiliations? In this way, the social worker can build up a more complete picture of the student and their needs and motivations.
When different authorities and professionals are brought in, the school social worker ensures that information is shared between all parties and a coordinated, effective response to the problem or problems is delivered. Without the intervention of a school social worker, some students may ‘fall through the cracks’ and not receive appropriate support from any of the sources that are in place to provide such support.
School social workers are frequently required to coordinate support from both professional and personal sources – such as teachers, parents and counselors – in order to best meet an individual student’s needs. Sometimes, a collaboration can be a positive result in itself, leading to longer-term relationships between the parties involved.