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Question: What Are the Differences Between a School Counselor and a School Social Worker?

Answer: School counselors and school social workers are typically educated at the master’s level, licensed by the state in which they practice, and trained to use many of the same tools to help children, adolescents, and young adults cope with and overcome a variety of emotional and behavioral obstacles. However, school counselors and school social workers function differently in several important ways. The primary focus of school counseling is to help students in areas related to academic achievement, personal and social development, and career goals, typically within the confines of a single school. In contrast, school social workers are commonly posted to several schools and tasked with providing assistance to and securing social services for students whose issues extend beyond the classroom and may be linked to poverty, homelessness, neglect, and/or abuse.

School Social Work vs. School Counseling

Most schools employ counselors who are trained and licensed to provide psychotherapy and other counseling services to children and young adults who exhibit emotional, behavioral, and mental health problems. However, much of a typical school counselor’s work is focused on helping students navigate everyday social pressures, manage their coursework, and prepare for the future.

School social workers are also concerned with assisting students, facilitating learning, and improving academic outcomes. But the scope of social work extends beyond the classroom, into areas that aren’t generally the purview of school counselors. School social workers often intervene and provide counseling services to students who are experiencing difficulties outside of school. For example, students from low-income families who need access to food programs, affordable housing, and other social services such as healthcare are likely to be referred to school social workers. These referrals may in fact come from school counselors, as school social workers are often better situated to connect at-risk students and their families with government assistance and community service programs.

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) provides a useful list of what it deems to be appropriate and inappropriate activities for school counselors. The ASCA list of appropriate school counselor duties includes the following:

  • Individual student academic program planning
  • Interpreting cognitive, aptitude, and achievement tests
  • Counseling for students who have disciplinary problems
  • Interpreting student records
  • Ensuring records are maintained per state and federal law
  • Providing teachers with suggestions for effective classroom management
  • Helping the school principal identify and resolve student issues, needs, and problems
  • Providing individual and small-group counseling services to students
  • Advocating for students at individual education plan meetings, student study teams, and school attendance review boards

The School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA) describes school social workers as, “trained mental health professionals who can assist with mental health concerns.” It also points out that, “School social workers are hired by school districts to enhance the district’s ability to meet its academic mission, especially where home, school, and community collaboration is the key to achieving student success.” The SSWAA’s list of School Social Work Services encompasses services to students, services to parents/families, services to school personnel, and services to school districts. These include:

  • Participating in special education assessment meetings as well as individual educational planning meetings
  • Counseling (group, individual, and/or family)
  • Assisting students with conflict resolution and anger management
  • Assisting parents in accessing and utilizing school and community resources
  • Assessing students with mental health concerns
  • Assisting teachers with behavior management
  • Helping school districts receive adequate support from social and mental health agencies
  • Advocating for new and improved community/school services to meet the needs of students and families
  • Identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect

Education and Training Requirements School Counselors and School Social Workers

In most states, a master’s degree is a requirement for the type of licensure needed to work as a school counselor or a school social worker. While the level of education attainment required to become a school counselor or school social worker is largely the same in most states, the type of degree and the training regimens are quite different.

School counselors are generally required to complete a master’s in counseling program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP), which mandates at least 700 hours of supervised clinical experience. Some states extend eligibility for licensure to candidates who have graduated from a program accredited by the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC), a newer organization that offers voluntary accreditation to master’s in counseling programs, and many states will allow graduates from master’s programs not accredited by CACREP to petition for licensure eligibility.

There are designated master’s in school counseling programs that prepare students for eventual licensure as a school counselor. There are also master’s in clinical and mental health counseling programs that can prepare students for licensure provided they take courses in early childhood and adolescent development, educational research, and instructional design.

School social workers are typically required to hold a master’s in social work (MSW) degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE requires MSW programs to include at least 900 hours of field education, which is similar to a clinical internship. It may be advantageous for those aiming to become school counselors to attend an MSW program with a specialization in school social work or to arrange to complete their field education in a school or school system.

Licensure Requirements for School Counselors and School Social Workers

The licensure process for school counselors and school social workers is administered at the state level and the requirements for licensing in both professions varies by state. However, all 50 states require practicing counselors to hold a state issued LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor) credential and some states have specialized credentials for school counselors. There are also a small number of states that require school counselors to hold a teaching credential in addition to an LPC license.

In contrast, only clinical social workers in private practice are required to be Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) in most states. While some schools and other employers may prefer to hire Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) for certain school social work positions, LCSW licensure is not a universal requirement for school social workers. There are, however, some states that do require school social workers to carry a school counselor license, a pupil personnel services credential, or another type of non-LCSW certification in order to practice as a school social worker. Social work students who want to become school social workers should check with their state board of licensure to determine the specific requirements in their state of residence.

The licensure process for clinical counselors and clinical social workers runs along parallel but distinct tracks. To be eligible for licensure as a school or a clinical counselor, an individual must hold a master’s in counseling degree and many states maintain a list of master’s-level courses that applicants must demonstrate they have completed. In addition, applicants for licensure in counseling generally must have two years of post-graduate supervised work experience prior to taking a state licensure exam. Similarly, licensure in social work requires an MSW and, in many states, two or more years of supervised experience in clinical and/or school social work settings. Once these conditions have been satisfied, school social workers must pass a national exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), which is used by all 50 states.

As part of the licensure process, school counselors and school social workers may also be required to earn a passing score on a state jurisprudence exam and/or other tests mandated by a state board. More information and details about specific eligibility requirements for licensure in counseling and social work can be obtained through the individual state boards that govern the counseling and social work professions.

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