Social Work in School – Building a Mental Health Support System for Students

Are American educational systems utilizing social work professionals effectively?

Believe it or not, this coming spring will mark 20 years since the tragic shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, which left 13 dead and thrust school violence into the national spotlight. An entire generation of kids has grown up with the specter of school shootings at the forefront of their minds. Some schools regularly hold drills to practice and familiarize students with the protocol should such an incident occur in their building.

Unfortunately, no one has come up with a solution or strategy to stop or curtail these horrific occurrences. But Aaron Thompson, PhD, MSW, MEd, associate professor of social work at the University of Missouri and a former school social worker and principal, believes school social workers could be utilized more effectively in these settings, helping children in different ways that may lead to recognizing a problem before it’s too late.

Dr. Thompson spent about eight years working in school settings as a social worker, working primarily with youth who had special education eligibility designations, particularly under the diagnostic category of ‘emotional disturbance.’ “Usually, this refers to those with severe behavioral or emotional issues that interfere with their abilities to take advantage of the educational opportunities,” he explained.

Ultimately, Dr. Thompson came to find that youth with such challenges make up about five percent of the population in the average school—a number much higher than most school administrators would likely believe. ”These students take up a tremendous amount of regular education teachers’ time, in terms of discipline and management of these issues,” he said. “Social workers can alleviate some of those challenges by providing services for these kids. It can be as straightforward as skills training, or something more intensive such as family involvement.”

During his time in schools, Thompson saw considerable success with these strategies and believes they can ultimately be the difference in keeping a child in school or dropping out.

Upon taking his position at the University of Missouri, Thompson began researching and gathering survey data on the effectiveness of school social workers. In summary, he found that high-performing school social workers held master’s degrees and worked in states with certification standards, of which only 36 of the 50 states currently have.

Nonetheless, his findings provide needed guidance to policymakers and administrators looking to make an impact on school safety.

“To improve school safety we need policies that support minimum—if not lofty—competencies and state or national certification standards for school social work professionals,” Dr. Thompson said. “In 36 states, standards are in place for what is expected of school social workers, such as using data-based decision making; yet, 14 states have no set expectations. This means not all schools are equipped with social workers who have the necessary training and tools.”

“We’ve changed our approach to how we think about mental health,” he continued. “The survey was intended to cover whether or not we’re seeing such practice emerge in the profession, among the people in the field who are doing this on a daily basis.”

Social work in schools has always focused on bringing families of struggling students into the school and generally providing outreach. While this remains an important strategy for those at risk, the onus has partially shifted to the use of high-quality, evidence-based, scientifically supported interventions.

“Social workers engaging in these practices are using these tools at a higher rate,” said Dr. Thompson. “They’re measuring the effectiveness of these strategies, which is important, but maybe the biggest finding was the data we had from all 50 states.”

When looking at the data on a state-by-state basis, Dr. Thompson was able to deduce that states with certification requirements (testing or licensure) were more likely to see social workers employing these strategies.

How does this pertain to school shootings? While Dr. Thompson thinks that interventions to help students with certain struggles in the school setting are clearly effective, there’s not really a reliable means of determining whether they prevent tragedies. Obviously, any number of school shootings is too many, but from a statistical standpoint, it’s still hard to gather reliable data.

“While those events are extreme in magnitude, they’re rare in frequency,” he explained. “But I believe that when a school offers supportive, safe environments, students will feel respected, cared for—and there’s less likelihood, as a result, of a student acting out in such a manner.”

Dr. Thompson added that studies other than his own indicate that children who exhibit aggressive behavior are more likely to go out and pursue other, potentially more drastic means of aggression and that early intervention, screening-type programs can be effective in curtailing further violence by getting such students onto the social worker’s radar.

So perhaps the key is proper utilization of social workers, which can be a challenge unto itself. “Generally speaking, I don’t think school administrators have a very solid understanding of building a mental health support system in these settings,” said Dr. Thompson. “Social workers are used to investigate truancy, transporting students home. It’s not a great use of highly qualified individuals.”

The key to fixing this problem, again, lies in developing certification requirements for social workers across the board in all 50 states, which will lead to heightened awareness of the unique professional qualifications enjoyed by social work professionals.

“With only 36 states using high-quality expectations, the reality is that school is the best place to address these issues. Kids are there 186 days a year for 7-8 hours a day. If we’re going to make an impact in our community, we need to bring in funding to support the hiring of highly qualified individuals and raise the expectations.

Kids won’t learn until they feel safe and supported. The social/emotional issues take precedence because once they feel safe and supported, most of them will be able to learn.”

About The Author