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date: 03 December 2022

School Social Workfree

School Social Workfree

  • Paula Allen-MearesPaula Allen-MearesUniversity of Illinois at Chicago


In 2006, School social work celebrated 100 years as a vibrant profession. This entry details the genesis and development of this particular specialization to the early 21st century, exploring the history of the profession, including policy and legislation that has either resulted from or affected schools on a national level. Additionally, the entry explains the knowledge base of school social work, examines the regulation and standards for both practice and practitioners, and considers future trends for the field.


  • Children and Adolescents
  • Populations and Practice Settings

Updated in this version

This article is about the historical and evolution of social work practice in educational setting in the United States. It traces major influences that are shaping the current practice.

As practitioners and scholars alike continue to seek solutions and interventions for ever-changing social problems, school social work will continue to be defined by research and new knowledge developments in social work and related fields.

School social workers started as and remain an integral link among school, home, and community. Those who choose this particular field of social work provide direct services, as well as specialized services such as mental-health intervention, crisis management and intervention, and facilitating community involvement in the schools. Working as an interdisciplinary team member, school social workers not only continue to provide services to school children and their families, but also continue to evaluate their roles, services, and consequently modify them to meet organizational, contextual, and contemporary needs.

School social work as a discipline continues to develop in relation to social issues, needs of the school systems, continuing education, and evolving research, perhaps more so than other school-based disciplines. Statistics indicate a recent upswing in the number of school social workers or social-work services in schools. As a result, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012) estimates that employment of child, family, and school social workers is expected to increase by 20% between 2010 and 2020.

In the 21st century, practitioners will face evolving definitions of personhood and family, disparities in terms of quality education and health care, and job opportunities that will affect how children learn and function, not only in a school environment but also in their communities. Through it all, school social work will continue to change, thrive, and provide evidence-based solutions for children and families. Before discussing more fully the current trends and issues that are impacting, or have the potential to impact, school social-work practice, it is vital to revisit and examine its historical evolution.


Social work in schools began between 1906 and 1907 (Allen-Meares, 2006), with initial development outside the school system, as private agencies and civic organizations took on the work (Costin, 1969). It was not until 1913 that the first Board of Education initiated and financed a formal visiting teacher program, placing visiting teachers in special departments of the school under the administration and direction of the superintendent of schools.

Early Influences

As the school social-work movement gained momentum, the early 20th century proved to be a fruitful period in its development. Several important influences included the following:


The passage of compulsory school attendance laws: Concern regarding the illiteracy of youth brought attention to a child’s right to receive a minimum education and the states’ responsibility for providing it. This attention led to support for the enactment of compulsory attendance statutes, and by 1918 each state had passed its own version. The lack of effective enforcement led to the idea that school attendance officers were needed, and Abbott and Breckinridge (1917) held that this responsibility should be assigned to the school social worker.


Knowledge of individual differences: As the scope of compulsory education laws expanded, states were required to provide an educational experience for a variety of children. At the same time, new knowledge about individual differences among children began to emerge. Previous to this, there had been no real concern about whether children had different learning needs; those who presented a challenge were simply not enrolled.


During the 1920s the number and the influence of school social workers increased, largely as a result of a series of demonstrations held over 3 years, organized and funded by the Commonwealth Fund of New York (Oppenheimer, 1925), which provided financial support to the National Committee of Visiting Teachers and increased experimentation in the field of school social work.

The 1920s were also the beginning of a therapeutic role for school social workers in public schools. According to Costin (1978), the increasing recognition of individual differences among children and interest on the part of the mental hygienists in understanding behavior problems led to an effort on the part of visiting teachers to develop techniques for the prevention of social maladjustment.

Shifting Goals

The development of social-work service was greatly hindered during the Depression, with services either abolished or reduced in volume (Areson, 1923). As the Depression worsened, the social-work activity that did take place centered on ensuring that people’s basic needs were met. During this time, visiting teachers began viewing their role in a different way, with their early responsibilities as attendance officers being replaced by the burgeoning role of social caseworker.

Emphasis on Social Casework

By 1940, the shift to social caseworker was complete. No longer were social change and neighborhood conditions seen as the sole points of intervention. Instead, the profession was beginning to build its clinical base, with the personality needs of the individual child taking primary attention.

Changing Goals and Methods

Public schools came under attack in many different ways during the 1960s. There were those who argued that public education was not sufficient. Several studies documented adverse school policies and claimed that inequality in educational opportunity existed as a result of racial segregation. There was considerable discussion about the need for change, including change in the practices of both social workers and guidance counselors.

During this time, group work, which had previously been introduced to the school system, was becoming a prominent method. In a research progress report, Robert Vinter and Rosemary Sarri described the effective use of group work in dealing with such school problems as high-school dropouts, underachievement, and academic failure (Vinter & Sarri, 1965).

Changing Demographics and Increased Recognition in Educational Legislation

During the 1970s the number of school social workers increased, and at the same time more emphasis was being placed on family, community, teaming with workers in other school-related disciplines, and the education of handicapped pupils.

Congress passed The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), which had “impacted social work services in schools profoundly,” as “[s]ocial workers were named specifically as one of the related services required to help individuals with disabilities benefit from special education” (Atkins-Burnett, 2010, p. 177). This would be the first time, but not the last, that the importance of school social workers was recognized and codified.

Educational legislation continues to play a major role in the definition and function of school social workers and in shaping and expanding the services they provide. In the 1980s school social workers were included as “qualified personnel” in Part H of the Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1986, the Early Intervention for Handicapped Infants and Toddlers, and the Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Amendments of 1988.

The 1990s brought with them many more changes. National organizations grew and offered added support to the specialty. Codified standards for school social workers were edited and tailored for relevance, and states themselves began to take an active role in what it means to be a school social worker.

In 1994 school social workers were once again included in a major piece of legislation—the American Education Act, which included eight national goals, of which the major objectives were research promotion, consensus building, and systemic change, to ensure equality of educational opportunities for all students.

Additionally, two key pieces of legislation have influenced the job and roles of school social workers. In 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was authorized. Amended several times, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act further refined services, eligibility, parent involvement, assessment and testing, and learning opportunities for students with disabilities or special needs (IDEA, 1991).

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law a comprehensive and controversial piece of federal legislation titled the No Child Left Behind Act (2002). Reauthorized in 2006, the act was conceived as a way to hold school systems and students accountable for learning and includes standards for those with special needs. The most recent No Child Left Behind legislation, enacted by the Obama administration in 2011, was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Flexibility. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act Flexibility legislation allowed states to request waivers of specific provisions of No Child Left Behind to avoid unintentional barriers to state and local educational reforms (U.S. Department of Education, 2012).

Knowledge Base of School Social Work

As school social work evolved, so too did different practice models. A practice model may be defined as “a coherent set of directives which state how a given kind of treatment is to be carried out …. It usually states what a practitioner is expected to do or what practitioners customarily do under given conditions” (Reid & Epstein, 1972, pp. 7–8).

Alderson (1972) offered four models of school social-work practice: the traditional clinical model, the school change model, the community school model, and the social interaction model.

Traditional Clinical Model

The best known and most widely used model is the traditional clinical model, which focuses on individual students with social and emotional problems that interfere with their potential to learn. The model’s primary base is psychoanalytic and ego psychology. The model’s major assumption is that the individual child or the family is experiencing difficult times or dysfunction. As a result, the school social worker’s role is that of a direct caseworker—providing services to the child or the family and not focusing on the school itself. School personnel are only involved as a source of information about the child’s behavior.

School Change Model

In contrast, the school change model’s target is, in fact, the school and changing any institutional policies, conditions, and practices that were seen as causing student dysfunction or malperformance. The school itself is considered the client, and school personnel are involved in discussion, identification, and change.

Community School Model

The community school model focuses primarily on communities with limited social and economic resources. The social worker’s role is to educate these communities about the school’s offerings, organize support for the school’s programs, and explain to school officials the dynamics and societal factors affecting the community. This model assumes that school personnel require ongoing and up-to-date information about social problems and their effects on school children to have a complete understanding.

Social Interaction

The social interaction model emphasizes reciprocal influences of the acts of individuals and groups. The target of intervention is the type and the quality of exchanges between parties (the child, groups of children, families, the school, and the community). The school social worker takes on the role of mediator and facilitator, with the goal of seeking common ground and common solutions.

Costin’s Model

Another important model grew out of a demonstration project of a multiuniversity consortium for planned change in pupil personnel services. An amalgamation of several methods, Lela B. Costin’s school–community–pupil relations model (Costin, 1973) emphasized the complexity of the interactions among students, the school, and the community. Especially relevant in today’s schools, its primary goal serves to bring about change in the interaction of this triad and, thus, to modify to some extent harmful institutional practices and policies of the school. In a national survey of school social work, authors found that school social workers largely provided mental-health services to at-risk children and their families. In addition, most of the services provided were tier-three services (Kelly et al., 2010).

Demographics and Standards

State-by-state Regulation and Requirements

Since the early 1970s, the number of state associations of school social workers has risen. These organizations play an important part in heightening this field’s visibility and regulate the profession. Information on specific state associations for school social workers may be found at (School Social Work Association of America, 2012a).

Nationwide Number of Social Workers

In 2010, there were approximately 650,000 social workers employed in the United States. Estimates suggest that 290,000 of these social workers were child, family, and school social workers. This number includes Child Protective Services, many other government jobs, and school social workers (

Educational Requirements

In most states a Master’s of Social Work is required. However, some states allow certification at the entry level with a bachelor’s Degree (School Social Work Association of America, 2012b).

Standards for Social-Work Services in Schools

In 1976, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) developed the first standards for school social-work services, which were grouped into three areas: attainment of competence, organization and administration, and professional practice. The NASW continues to provide guidelines, standards, and a Code of Ethics (NASW, 2008) for the social-work community, as well as specific standards for school social workers (NASW, 2012). Over the years, the NASW standards have been revised to contextualize this field of practice within new knowledge, new policies, and laws.

Resources for School Social Workers

In addition to its specific standards for school social work, the NASW offers specialized certification as a Certified School Social Work Specialist, as well as a dedicated specialty practice section.

In 1994, spearheaded by the school social-work leadership, the School Social Work Association of America was formed, independent of the NASW (School Social Work Association of America, 2012c). In addition, a new national organization has recently been developed, the American Council for School Social Work, which offers school-based social-work practitioners resources for educators and parents, recommended reading (through journals, articles, and books), and practice evaluation tools. Several regional councils also support school social work.

In addition, important journals supported by major organizations such as Children and Schools (NASW) and the School Social Work Journal (Lyceum Books) provide research, theoretical practice, and policy information.

Trends and Directions

New Structures, New Partners

As we look into the future of school social work, concerns about the quality and cost of education, student learning outcomes, accountability, increased demand to serve more diverse student populations, and increased social problems among children and families will challenge the profession to think creatively and differently about their services and how to organize them for greater effectiveness and efficiency. Frey et al. (2012) proposed a national model for social work that considers social justice, an ecological perspective, ethical and legal policies, and a data-driven approach for the advancement of school social-work practice. What does this mean for school social-work services?

Although many school social workers are employed by local school districts, trends indicate that some school systems are implementing new organizational structures and creating new partnerships. Some districts are contracting with external mental-health service providers or other agencies in what they believe to be a cost-efficient way to serve their students. Schools have also formed relevant partnerships, termed school-linked or integrated services, with organizations such as health providers, which provide their services through the school system (Franklin, 2004).

Among its most pressing issues, this field of practice will be facing a myriad of changes and issues, including the following:


Increased global competition and educational excellence. School social workers will need to empirically demonstrate their contributions to the national focus on performance measures and standardized tests and warn the school system about misuse and problems facing vulnerable pupils. Specifically, as education reform has become a top political priority (The White House, 2009), there have been growing pressures for school social workers to tie interventions to specific learning outcomes (such as test scores, grades, and attendance).


Social, economic, and educational policy and its impact on education. School social workers must be knowledgeable of those policies, advocate for those that are just, and lobby for the elimination of those that are problematic. For example, the topics of violence and bullying have become substantial in the media. Although these topics are of great relevance, rates of school violence have declined steadily since the 1990s (Pitner, Astor & Benbenishty, 2014). Social workers should be knowledgeable about the literature associated with these important issues and should keep school administrators informed when political pressures call for radically changing a system that may already be working.


Technological advances. The gap between those who are technologically literate and those who are not will have an effect on poverty and unemployment rates. Working with other relevant school personnel, school social workers must also make others aware of these inequities.


Growing diversity and new immigrant populations. Multicultural competency, including knowledge about new immigrants, will challenge our public schools and consequently the profession. In response, school social workers will need to increase their knowledge to remain effective assessors, advisors, and advocates for these students.


The focus on evidence-based interventions and outcomes, particularly within the context of the three-tier model (Response to Intervention and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports; Thompson, 2013). Practitioners will need to keep abreast of and incorporate evidence-based interventions, new problem-solving approaches, and innovative partnerships to address the needs of all students.


The American public-education system is subject to numerous criticisms and challenges. Yet it is has proven to be resilient and essential to the core values of our democracy. As adaptations or new innovations develop, the profession of social work must not only respond, but also be proactive in shaping the future. School social workers provide crucial social services in one of the most accessible settings, playing an integral role in prevention, intervention, and positive change for school-age children and their families.


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