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Historical highlights

School social work has an extensive history, dating to 1906-07, when it was established in New York, Boston, Chicago and New Haven, CT. At its inception, school social workers were known, among other things, as advocates for equity and fairness as well as home visitors. The expansion of school social work services was encouraged by a number of factors. By 1900 over two-thirds of the states had compulsory attendance laws and by 1918, each state had passed compulsory attendance laws, making school attendance obligatory, and not simply a privilege. Child labor legislation, the Progressive Movement which saw social work efforts initiated in the schools, and community settlement programs also led to its growth. A 1917 study of Truancy in Chicago supported “findings that the need for school attendance officers who understood the social ills of the community” and school social workers were best equipped for that responsibility (Allen-Mears, 1996, p. 25). Mary Richmand, one of the founding mothers of social work, devoted an entire chapter to the visiting teacher in her 1922 book on What is Social Casework? The testing movement influenced school social work growth as well. Through the testing movement, educators were gaining knowledge about individual differences, underscoring the need for some children to attend school, children whose social conditions related to their test scores. Lastly during this time, leaders in the field like Sophonisba P. Breckinridge, expressed concerns of how school and education would relate to future success and happiness, and expressed the need to connect school and home in order to relate to the needs of children.

In the 1920s, the mental hygiene movement was concerned with treating nervous disorders and behavioral problems in difficult children. In the 1930s, like school counseling, school social work also declined. From the 1940-1960 casework in schools had become an established specialty, the profession began to emphasize collaboration and communication with teachers and others school personnel. Now the school social worker was an expert who could help schools on psychosocial issues.

School social workers were affected by governmental reforms and education research. In the 1960s, like school counselors, these pupil-personnel laws, called for greater emphasis for school social workers to help develop school policies, they were now called to address student needs while addressing sources of student troubles within the school. In the 1970s, inflation was rising at an alarming rate, and budget cuts threatened the profession of school social work, especially as many were being replaced by other school personnel claiming similar roles. The National Association of Social Work (NASW) published a newsletter to bring attention to the issue and get responses from practitioners. Through this, NASW conducted research and replicated findings of others studies on the roles of school social workers, and models of practice, school social work continued to expand. In the 1980s, this led to NASW giving more attention to the profession and more service to meet the needs of this social work group. NASW participation in the profession eventually lead to a school social worker credential in 1992—the first time the School Social Work Credential Exam was given. From then until, now there has been a trend of integrative collaborative services. (Allen-Meares et al., 1996)

Theoretical framework and services

Traditional model

School social work is structured around a range of ever expanding practice models. Alderson first described these as the traditional-clinical model; the schoolchange model whose major focus was the dysfunctional conditions of the school; the community school model which urged school social workers to employ community organization methods; and the social interaction model which de-emphasized a specific methodoloy and required the worker to intervene with the systems interacting with the target system. Many school social workers use an approach that draws on components from all of these but the traditional model, which focuses on working with students with social and emotional difficulties and their parents continues to predominate. In the clinical model, school social workers work primarily through casework methods supplemented by group methods with students and family members. In today's practice, a greater emphasis is placed on evidence based and promising intervention methods.

School-community-pupil relations model

Of all the models, this one, first articulated by Lela Costin, seems to be the most comprehensive. It focuses on the school, community, and student and the interactions among the three. They serve as mediator, negotiator, consultant, and advocate for students and school personnel and listen to student grievances, and set up informal groups for students, teachers, and other school personnel. They study and evaluate characteristics of students, school, and community conditions that affect educational opportunity for target groups (students with chemical dependency, disabilities, and so on). They are grounded in social learning theory and systems theory.

Education and training

States regulate school social work practice in different ways. Approximately 33 jurdictions license or certify school social workers, most require a masters degree in social work (MSW), but a smaller number of states also license bachelors of social work (BSW). The National Association of Social Work with 150,000 members also offers a Specialty Certificate in school social work but this is not required for employment in the schools.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the national accrediting body for social work education at the BSW and MSW level. It specifies foundation social work program components, but social work specialties areas are defined by the individual accredited MSW programs. "Social work education is grounded in the liberal arts and contains a coherent, integrated professional foundation in social work practice from which an advanced practice curriculum is built at the graduate level." (CSWE, Educational Programs and Accreditation Standards, For a list of BSW and MSW programs accredited by the Council visit their web site. Other specialties in social work may include a content in policy, planning, administration, and a range of practice areas including child and family services, health, mental health, and aging.


  • Alderson, J. J. (1972). Models of school social work practice. In R. C. Sarri & F. F. Maple (Eds.). The school in the community. (pp. 57-74). Washington, D.C.: NASW
  • Allen-Mears, P., Washington, R. O., & Welsh, B. L. (1996). Social work services in schools. 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Costin, L. B. (1969). An analysis of the tasks in school social work. Social Service Review, 43, 274-285.
  • Richmond, M.E. (1922). What is social casework? An introductory description. NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. (n.d.). MSW program of study. Retrieved on November 25, 2003, from
  • Ward, B.R. (April 1995). The school's role in the prevention of youth suicide. [Electronic version]. Social work in education, 17(2) 92-101.

See also

External links


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