How to Become a School Social Worker

how to become a school social worker

School social workers are an important part of the education system. They help school administrators, teachers, parents, teens and children navigate social issues that affect student populations. For those who enjoy working with younger generations and who want to make a positive impact in the community, a career in school social work may be appealing.

Specific school social worker requirements vary by state, but there are general guidelines for becoming a school social worker. In this step-by-step guide, learn about the following actions to take to become a school social worker.

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree.
  2. Understand State Requirements for School Social Workers.
  3. Complete a Master’s in Social Work Degree Program.
  4. Pass Any Required Exams for Social Work Licensure.
  5. Seek Employment and Maintain Licensure.
  6. Consider Pursuing a Certification in School Social Work.

Get answers to frequently asked questions about school social workers, including salary and career outlook for school social workers, at the end of this guide.

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the minimum entry-level education you’ll need to become a social worker is a bachelor’s degree. The most relevant undergraduate degree for social work is a bachelor’s in social work (BSW) degree. Some entry-level professionals in social work may have a related degree, like a bachelor’s in sociology or psychology.

With a BSW, you may be able to pursue entry-level school social work in administration or in a direct-service position, like mental health assistant or caseworker. To provide therapy in a clinical social worker position, you’ll need a master’s in social work, which typically requires a bachelor’s degree. While a BSW may not be required for a master’s program, some schools may offer accelerated programs for BSW holders.

Some states will allow you to become a licensed social worker with a bachelor’s degree. Virginia, for example, offers a licensed baccalaureate social worker endorsement from the Board of Social Work.

The New York State School Social Workers’ Association offers a school social worker provisional certificate, which requires a bachelor’s degree and graduate coursework in social work. With a school social worker provisional certificate, a graduate student can work as a school social worker while they complete their MSW program.

2. Understand State Requirements for School Social Workers

Requirements for social workers will vary depending on the state in which you want to work. While specifics may differ by location, aspiring school social workers will need a minimum amount of education and specified hours of social work experience and/or certification. They may also have to pass a background check and a test for licensure. The licensing process may include mandatory fees.

Using New York state as an example, to obtain a permanent certification as a school social worker, professionals must become a licensed master social worker (LMSW), complete specific school social worker-related workshops and a fingerprint clearance.

3. Complete a Master’s in Social Work Program

Many school social worker positions will require a master’s in social work (MSW) degree. Typically, this degree must come from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE accreditation indicates a student has achieved certain educational objectives in social work and shows the program is held to certain standards. 

In an MSW program, students learn coursework that covers generalist social work at micro, mezzo and macro levels. Courses may cover topics like trauma-informed care and social justice.

A BSW may help prepare you for an MSW program because both programs are in the same field. For example, students who have a BSW may be eligible for an advanced-standing MSW program. Advanced-standing MSW programs typically take less time to complete, since a BSW student has already finished core coursework in social work. For example, the advanced-standing MSW online at Syracuse University takes 24 months to complete part-time compared to three years in the traditional part-time online MSW program.

Some MSW programs may also offer specific concentrations that relate to school social work. For example, Syracuse University’s online master’s in social work offers the advanced clinical practice concentration, which helps prepare students to provide mental health services. This can benefit those who want to provide mental health assistance to students in a school setting.

MSW programs typically also include practicum and internship requirements, so students can gain real-world social work experience. Some states may require aspiring school social workers to complete social work experience in an educational setting to get licensed. You can check your state requirements to see how the MSW schools you’re considering accommodate those requirements.

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4. Pass Any Required Exams for Social Work Licensure

Some states may require passing an exam to obtain school social worker licensure. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) has associate, bachelor’s and master’s exams, as well as advanced generalist and clinical exams that test social work knowledge.

Some CSWE-accredited programs, like the Syracuse University MSW program, will prepare students to pass these exams. Coursework covers topics featured in the exams, and instructors can help students prepare for the test.

5. Seek Employment and Maintain Licensure

Once you have the education, experience and credentials required of school social workers in the state where you want to work, you can apply for a job. You may want to join professional associations, like the National Association of Social Worker (NASW), which can provide professional development and networking opportunities that can assist you in your job search.

Research any continued education that may be required to maintain licensure. For example, in New York, practicing licensed social workers must complete 36 hours of formal continuing education during each three-year registration period. As a school social worker, you may choose to focus your continued education on topics related to your work environment.

6. Consider Pursuing a Certification in School Social Work

In addition to licensure, a certification in school social work may be helpful in growing your career. Certification indicates you’ve met certain requirements that some employers may be looking for.

For example, the NASW Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS) credential demonstrates core knowledge in topics related to school social work, including program development, characteristics of student populations and public education. To be eligible for the certification, school social workers must be licensed, have an MSW that’s accredited by the CSWE and at least two years of school social work experience.

How Syracuse University Can Help Prepare You to Become a School Social Worker

If you’re interested in becoming a school social worker, you might consider the Syracuse University School of Social Work online program. This CSWE-accredited program provides students with convenience and flexibility, enabling them to study from wherever they are in the world, not just in New York. Syracuse University offers a carefully tailored curriculum for the online traditional MSW and online advanced-standing MSW programs that ensures students meet CSWE-accreditation in any state where they want to work as a school social worker.

In addition to MSW programs, Syracuse University also offers on-campus programs, including BSW and MSW programs. In the online MSW programs, students can choose to take a variety of electives and may specialize in an advanced clinical practice (ACP) concentration or in an advanced integrated practice (AIP) concentration.

Foundational courses in the MSW programs cover topics such as social welfare policy, human diversity and applied research in social work. In the ACP concentration, students learn about advanced practice with individuals, families and groups. In the AIP concentration, students can choose to study topics such as principles and methods of social work practice with Black families, community and organization development, and administration in human services.

Learn More About Becoming a School Social Worker

How long does it take to become a school social worker?

How long it takes to become a social worker will depend on how much education you pursue. You may be able to gain an entry-level social work position with a bachelor’s degree, which takes around four years of full-time study. It typically takes up to two more years to get an MSW.

What does a school social worker do?

School social workers work in school environments to help students improve their social and academic development. School social workers may work in clinical positions, providing mental health services to students. They may also collaborate with school administrators and teachers to develop strategies and plans for helping students.

School social workers may work with parents and students together to help families overcome problems like absenteeism, bullying, poor academic performance and aggressive behavior. School social workers who work with families may provide parents and students with resources that can help them overcome everyday problems.

What are the requirements for becoming a school social worker in New York state?

School social workers in New York must obtain a school social work certification. This can be a provisional certification if you have a bachelor’s degree and social work graduate coursework, or a permanent certification if you’ve obtained a licensed master social worker (LMSW) credential. Both certifications also have specific workshop requirements.

Syracuse University’s online MSW programs are accredited and help students meet New York state school social worker requirements, as well as requirements to become licensed in other states. Students can take coursework that relates to working as a social worker in a school environment.

Which MSW specialization or concentration is the most helpful for school social work?

Most accredited MSW programs prepare students for licensure to work in schools, assuming any requirements pertaining to specific coursework are met. Some programs provide specialization or concentration options that may be beneficial for school social work.

At Syracuse University, the ACP concentration prepares school social workers to provide mental health services as licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs). School social workers in these roles may work as counselors for students and work with families in providing diagnosis and psychotherapy services. 

What is the salary outlook for school social workers?

According to the BLS, the 2020 median annual wage for child, family and school social workers was $48,430 per year. In New York, the annual mean wage of child, family and school social workers in May 2020 was $63,740. School social worker salary outlook will depend on factors like your education, experience, licensure and specialty.

What is the career outlook for school social workers?

According to the BLS, there were 335,300 school, child and family social workers in 2020 and the number of jobs is projected to grow 13 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is faster than the average for all occupations.

New York state employed 25,840 school, child and family social workers in May 2020, more than any state but California, the BLS reports. 



If you’re interested in becoming a school social worker, Syracuse University can help you achieve your goals. With traditional and advanced-standing online MSW programs, you can enroll in the program from wherever you are in the world and complete your degree in as few as two years as a part-time student. Choose the concentration and electives that will help you as a school social work professional so you can pursue a meaningful career that enables you to make a difference.

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