School Social Work: The Heart of Our Profession
You plan out your day: meetings with administrators, check-ins with students, consultations with teachers, lunch, calls with parents, more sessions with students, a Zoom meeting with the district office. But at 10:37 am, you take a call about a fifth-grader in crisis and your schedule goes out the window. Such is the challenging and rewarding life of a school social worker.
Beginning in the fall of 2020, the University of Utah College of Social Work will add a School Social Work Career Path to the offerings in the College. This sequence consists of six credit hours of course work in addition to a school-based practicum in a student’s first or second year in the MSW Program. The career path is designed to orient social workers to the unique challenges of school social work, with specialized training in counseling, assessments, and interventions that center the social and emotional learning of K-12 students. Due to the particular demands of the school context, school social work students will learn to work at the mirco, mezzo, and macro levels simultaneously.
So why this addition? Why now? Stated simply, the timing was right.
In Utah’s 2019 legislative session, House Bill 373 passed. The bill provided $32 million to create more positions for mental health professionals in K-12 schools. Add professors with specialized school social work knowledge—Assistant Professor Tasha Seneca Keyes and Assistant Professor/Lecturer Rich Landward—a community call for educational support, and a supportive College administration, and you have a perfect set of circumstances. Prof. Landward explained, “The stars aligned. Funding from the legislature, community need, administrative support from the dean, faculty with knowledge—that all came together last year. It was the spark and the fire we needed to get this accomplished.”
There’s a lot to deal with in this field. The needs of young students vary from basic need fulfillment (like getting breakfast), to help dealing with trauma, to feelings of isolation, to stress over family adversity and beyond. To an outsider, it can sound overwhelming. How do you take care of so many needs? Prof. Landward emphasized the importance of specialized education and experience. “The cause for being overwhelmed is a gap in training,” he explained. “A well trained social worker can make organization out of chaos.” He added, “Is it emotionally exhausting? Yes. But it’s more rewarding—times ten more—than it is exhausting.”
Dr. Keyes highlighted another tension inherent in this field. “Because you end up working with so many people, students, parents, teachers, administrators, you can become confused about who you’re working for.” She continued, “But you have to remind yourself that my client, the person I’m working for, is the student.” To her, this is one of the most important lessons she hopes to instill in school social work MSW students. “Our client is always the student and our end goal is always students in the classroom, learning. Everything we do is so the student can be in the classroom, engaged in learning.”
One way to think of a school is as a triangle—school social workers begin their work at the bottom of the triangle and their work is two-fold. First, they look at the entire school and make sure the school as a whole is working—engaging in macro analysis of the school environment as a system, and suggesting interventions to encourage broad positive behavior. Secondly, they look at everything that is happening around single students—working on a micro level with individual students, and connecting them with community resources (mezzo level social work) to address concerns so the child can have an academic focus. School psychologists, with a greater specialty in testing and psychometrics, work with a small group of high-needs students at the top of the triangle, creating individualized education plans after individualized testing. They’re the micro workers in the school. School counselors also work at a more mirco level—though their work is grounded in guidance counseling and involves mapping out an educational pathway for each individual student within the school. Prof. Landward reflected, “We work together in collaboration—school social workers work up, other mental health professionals in the school work down, and we meet in the middle where there are shared duties.”
Dr. Keyes noted that while this is an ideal situation, historically, it hasn’t usually been realized, especially in elementary schools. Often a school only has one of these professionals, or they’ll be assigned to work in three schools so they aren’t typically in the same school at the same time. “It makes follow through challenging,” she reflected. “That’s why this funding, this $32 million, is a big deal. Finally, school reform can happen. We need all three of these professionals in the same school at the same time for big change.”
When asked why he does this work, Prof. Landward’s passion was palpable. “The biggest impact social workers can make is in schools with kids and families. If you look at Jane Addams, what she was about when she founded social work, it wasn’t about micro work; it was about poverty and oppression, social justice and equality. And that’s what school social workers do—we help kids succeed. And we help them overcome those challenges of poverty and inequity and oppression and discrimination. And we make it right in the school. We do that through systematic work, policy work, creating processes and programs that are fair and equitable. It changes lives.”
Dr. Keyes added, “What Rich is talking about is system change. We talk about using system theory in our profession all the time. But it’s in schools that we’re really able to do system change.” She added, “School social work is at the heart of our profession.”
School Social Work in Action
In reflecting on why school social workers in particular are important to the school system, Prof. Landward shared this personal experience from his time in schools. He explained that when he first did a survey for anxiety and depression for kids in elementary schools he was working in, 18 percent of the kids surveyed identified as having symptoms of severe anxiety and depression. So what did he do? He sent them to Valley Mental Health. In the weeks that followed, 95 percent of the kids didn’t go to their appointments. When he stopped to ask why, he found there were a lot of barriers he previously hadn’t considered. The parents had to take a day off work to get them there—most of them were working shift work, so they couldn’t leave in the middle of the day. There was also a transportation barrier—it would take three to four hours on the bus each way to get there. They also couldn’t afford to lose their wage. Besides all that, the parents weren’t seeing a connection between what was happening in the session to what was happening in school. “This was a dysfunctional system. It was a mismatch.” So they did a needs assessment, looked at best practice, got a grant, and were able to put a therapist from Valley Mental Health into the school. It made it so students could go down the hall to therapy instead of missing six to seven hours in the classroom. “We changed systems to work for the community. To work for the kid. And for the parents.” He paused. “That is what you get to do as a school social worker everyday—you get to set people up for success. And it’s just so cool.”