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What New School Social Workers Need in Their First Three Years

By Tory Cox

School social workers earn their MSW and obtain a credential or license allowing them to work in P-12 schools on the basis of passing their courses, meeting competencies in their field practicum, and completing the specific expectations established by their state of residence for a school social work license or credential. Some MSWs move into school social work jobs shortly after graduating, while others join the ranks of school practitioners mid-career.

Once these MSWs are hired as school social work professionals, a different type of education occurs: full integration into the P-12 educational environment. It may seem that understanding the culture and context of the specific school or district of employment is the only additional knowledge needed to practice school social work. However, according to a study on the lived experiences of school social work professionals, new school social workers have significantly different educational preparation and need to learn numerous practices, political considerations, and community engagement strategies to move from entry-level to proficiency in the practice of school social work.

To capture their needs during this transition time, three university faculty members conducted a survey of 175 school social work practitioners from 46 states and the District of Columbia at the School Social Work Association of American (SSWAA) national conference in 2019. The results have been included in two 2020 SSWAA webinars for new school social workers and will form the foundation of a journal article and book focusing on the needs of new school social workers. The text will be the first book of its kind focusing specifically on what new school social workers need as they transition to this complex role. It will also include the complexities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which was forced schools, districts and support personnel to develop creative solutions to service delivery challenges.

The survey results revealed the need for expanded knowledge and contextual information for new school social workers:

  • 85% of respondents said they would have benefited from taking more school social work courses, including 38% who did not take any school social work courses.

  • 49% of respondents did not have a school-based internship in their degree program

  • An average of 78% of respondents did not feel well prepared by their degree

  • program for the context of school social work, including P-12 demographics, policies and procedures, and political climates.

  • The highest expressed onboarding need was “orientation to school social work role.”

Further, when asked what would they most like to see in a text focusing on a new school social worker’s first three years, respondents wrote:

  • “Real life school social work experiences and tips”

  • “How to define the school social worker role”

  • “Orientation to and understanding of school culture.”

As they reflected on their educational preparation, school social workers expressed a deep commitment to their work through responses such as “I love it, but it is an exhausting, crazy ride!” and “It is a wild and exciting ride: challenging, but rewarding.” They also described gaps in learning when they first started.

They realized their own lack of knowledge on the policies and practices that have led to broken educational systems. They desired more information about the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and the special education expectations for support personnel. They acknowledged the need for more exposure to the organization, priorities, and relative influence of school social work roles, including a desire to enhance their clinical skills delivered within the context of school environments. They also recognized how challenging it was to establish collaborations with teachers, administrators, staff, and other support personnel to deliver tiered services while also practicing self-care and self-advocacy. Finally, they felt they were not sufficiently prepared for conflicts with the name "social worker" and the need to defend their credibility as a therapist/clinician.

School social workers, perhaps due to the nature of the position, are problem-solvers who marshal available resources to meet the needs of children, youth, and families every day. For SSWAA members, the following information can help you in your current work as you manage the complex role of school social worker. Faced with the difficulties described above, new school social workers sought integration into the school community in a variety of ways. They developed relationships with faculty, veteran staff and administration by getting involved in various aspects of school culture, including teacher unions, student organizations, professional development, district school social work meetings, volunteer opportunities, and school climate work groups. As one respondent wrote, “Create partnerships – don't wait for others to earn our seat at the table.”

They also advanced their own knowledge of the educational system and engaged with state and local social work organizations. They researched the school/district; attended faculty and school board meetings; and shadowed, talked to other school social workers, and received mentorship. They earned the trust of the school community by modeling behavioral traits; observing, listening, and asking questions; and showing the value and range of school social work services. “It takes dedication, passion, and tenacity to be effective in this role,” one school social wrote in a survey response.

Every year, new school social workers are being hired, whether from master of social work and bachelor of social work programs or from the ranks of professional social workers changing fields and becoming school social workers. The journey of each school social worker is different, yet there are common themes identified in this article that can help with the transition. Perhaps one survey response best describes the exciting, varied, and ultimately adventurous aspect of school social work: “Hold onto your hats!”

Tory Cox, Clinical Associate Professor, is the Assistant Dean of Field Education and Director of the Virtual Academic Center’s Field Education program for USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Before joining USC as a School Social Work instructor, Tory Cox started his career as a School Social Worker for the Long Beach Unified School District. He is an Editorial Board member for NASW’s Children & Schools journal, the Past President of the California Association of School Social Workers, and a past Board Member for SSWAA.

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