What are the 3 biggest challenges of school social workers?

This week is National School Social Worker’s Week and during this time extra attention is paid to the (often underserved) trained mental health professionals who are “instrumental in furthering the mission of the schools… to provide a setting for teaching, learning, and for the attainment of competence” (School Social Work Association America, 2022). School social workers help with mental health and behavioral concerns, academic and classroom support, and the relationships between teachers, parents, administrators, and students.

However, despite being imperative figures within a school districts’ community, the importance of school social workers is often overlooked. Moreover, the efficacy and progress of school social workers are hindered by major challenges. In fact, research shows that although between 18-20 percent of students have mental health issues that may impair major life functions, only one in five students will receive the services they need (Lyon & Bruns, 2019; Eklund et al., 2020; Kelly et al., 2015). This highlights the existence of barriers that stop students from accessing the resources they require.

In this blog post, we outline three of these major barriers, as relayed to us by school social workers in our network, and present ways for the school community to help social workers.

Lack of support and communication

The first challenge school social workers face is the lack of support and communication from school leadership and families. Clear and open communication between all school district stakeholders is vital in the creation of a cohesive and strong school community. But although “the safest and most effective schools are often characterized by trusting, warm, and supportive relationships among staff, students, and parents” (Steinberg, Allensworth, & Johnson, 2011), the restricted communication lines between each of these stakeholders mean that school social workers often cannot serve their purpose effectively.

An example of ineffective communication lines is that teachers are not often aware of where their responsibilities end and those of school social workers begin (Barile, n.d.). As a result, teachers may try to help students with problems they are not equipped to handle, and important concerns with a student’s welfare may not be flagged with the appropriate authorities. For example, according to Barile, teachers could in fact lose their license should they decide to offer mental health guidance to struggling students. Inversely, teachers may redirect students to school social workers despite being capable of providing assistance themselves. If the lines between teacher responsibilities and school social worker responsibilities are carefully and clearly drawn, a more effective guidance process can be in place for students who need it.

Clear and open communication between all school district stakeholders is vital in the creation of a cohesive and strong school community.

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Another example of inefficient communication lines often lies between school social workers and parents. In a study conducted by Joseph-Goldfarb (2014), those interviewed described the “ideal relationship between schools and parents as one where values and practices are mutually reinforced.” If parents in the school community work alongside school social workers to implement academic goals, encourage skills development, and monitor academic and social progress, then school social workers can be well-supported to “lead in the emerging movement to improve school climate and promote Social Emotional Learning (SEL) (Joseph-Goldfarb, 2014).

Lack of sufficient resources

The second challenge highlighted to us by the school social workers in our network is that of a lack of sufficient resources. For example, school social workers often lack access to appropriate, sufficient, and good-quality resources for common issues such as mental health. Furthermore, they cannot always access culturally-appropriate resources, especially those pertaining to students from immigrant families. As Salman (2021) discusses for The Hechinger Report, during home visits bilingual school social workers may have to act as translators or interpreters for families experiencing language barriers.

A lack of resources such as staffing and funding often means that school social workers end up having to wear many hats, especially given the necessary adaptations to COVID-19. For example, Salman (2021) describes a school that has increased its SEL curriculum and counseling sessions in response to the pandemic. Virtual counseling sessions maintained by school social workers were made available over both summer and winter break and Saturday morning family sessions were available during the term.

Overwhelming paperwork

On the other hand, when school social workers are not spread too thin across a range of responsibilities, they “often find themselves to be underutilized, relegated to a narrow set of tasks” (Finigan-Carr & Shaia, 2018). The resounding majority of school social workers in our network told us that the amount of paperwork they have to complete is “overwhelming”. Paperwork, although perhaps necessary, is not utilizing school social workers’ skillsets and expertise effectively. Moreover, it means that they are not able to help as many students that need it, nor are they able to help in the best ways possible.

School social workers play a great role in the functioning of our school districts, yet their importance is often overlooked. The three main barriers impeding the workflows of school social workers are the lack of support and communication, the lack of resources, and the overwhelming amount of paperwork. It is the responsibility of all stakeholders in a school community, from students to parents and teachers to administrators, to ease these challenges as much as possible. After all, increasing the efficiency of the school social workers helps them, to help us.Click meReferences:

Barile, N. (n.d.). What Teachers Need to Know about the Role of a School Social Worker. WGU. From: https://www.wgu.edu/ 

Finigan-Carr, N. & Shaia, W.E. (2018). School social workers as partners in the school mission  Phi Delta Kappan 99 (7), 26-30. From: https://kappanonline.org/

Joseph-Goldfarb, N. (2014). Parent Involvement in Schools: Views from School Social Workers. Retrieved from Sophia, the St. Catherine University repository website: https://sophia.stkate.edu/ msw_papers/344

Kelly, M. (2020). School Social Workers’ Role in Addressing Students’ Mental Health Needs and Increasing Academic Achievement. London, KY: School Social Work Association of America. From: https://www.sswaa.org/

Salman, J. (2021). How one school is coping with mental health: Social workers delivering technology, food and counselling to kids at home, and open office hours all day — even when school is out. The Hechinger Report. From: https://hechingerreport.org/ 

School Social Work Association America. (2022). Role of school social worker. From: https://www.sswaa.org/

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