This background paper has been written as a means of providing information about the school social worker and the unique contribution that he/she makes to the profession and practice of social work.
The role of the school social worker in Canadian schools began in the late 1800's in Toronto when truant officers were hired to ensure that children attended school (Grande & McClare, 1983). In 1919, the term was changed to attendance officers (Martelli, 1988). The position of school social worker began to appear in the 1940's and 1950's (Loughborough, 2000). It should be noted that the positions of attendance counsellor and school social worker remain closely connected. In many school boards in Canada the school social worker continues to be responsible for attendance issues. Currently, there are an estimated 750 school social workers in Canada (Loughborough, 2000). School social workers are located in every province with the exception of Prince Edward Island.
School Social Work Organizations
The Canadian Association of School Social Workers and Attendance Counsellors (CASSWAC) was founded in 1982 in Western Canada. The mandate of the organization is to promote and encourage the development of quality school social work and attendance counselling in Canada. The CASSWAC is a national organization that links school social workers. Currently, school social workers from every province, with the exception of Québec and Prince Edward Island, belong to THE CASSWAC. National conventions are held every two years and bring together school social workers from across Canada.
The International Network of School Social Workers was started in 1990 by the School Social Work Association of Arizona. The organization has information about school social work in 26 countries, including Canada.
School social workers provide unique services to students, families, schools and communities in order to help students attain maximum benefits from school programs (CASSWAC, 2001).
Services Provided by School Social Workers
School social workers provide services to students who are experiencing difficulties within their environment, which impacts on their school functioning. School social workers may provide the following services:
. Consultation with school administrators, teachers, support staff, and parents;
. Individual counselling and support to students;
. Family counselling and support to parents;
. Group counselling for students;
. Parent and school staff education programs and presentations;
. Bridging the gap between parents and schools;
. Referral services to community agencies;
. Community development programming;
. Collaboration with community programs (CASSWAC, 2001); and
. Other services employed on an ad hoc basis to meet the specific needs of individual students.
Qualified by the regimen required to obtain a professional degree in social work, school social workers often work in partnership with educators, and health and psychological service professionals. Though a number of referrals may be initiated due to attendance, academic or aggression problems, it is the skill of school social workers that identifies these presenting issues as possible symptoms of problems that have their genesis in personal, peer, or family dysfunction. While the school social worker can be expected to do much of their work in the educational facility, unlike others employed by the school, the school social worker may also carry out assessment, counselling, and the facilitation of services in the child's home and in collaboration with community services.
School social workers help students with problems that occur for the student in the school, in their family and in their community. Working from a systems perspective that acknowledges an environment that is both separate as well as linked to the child's home and community life, school social workers work directly with children and teens, parents, teachers and other school staff. Liaison, advocacy and involvement with community resources for referral or for the application of mandated services, such as those required to meet educational, medical, child protection or other legal requirements of the student, are part of what makes school social work service delivery effective.
Academic Success and Social Adjustment Issues
Working as part of an on-site team composed of teachers and other school staff, school social workers help students in a variety of ways. While the primary responsibility for education falls on the shoulders of the teachers and administration, school social workers make their contribution to the academic and social experience of the school environment through the counselling that helps students deal with issues related to learning difficulties, low self-esteem, peer relations, sexuality, delinquency and parental conflict.
Understanding the psycho-social factors that contribute to optimum learning, the school social worker's job is to help children stay in school and be successful learners (International Network of School Social Workers, 2001). To this end, the school social worker may also take a lead role within their school district or community to create, advocate, or implement social service programs (Ordre professionnel des travailleurs sociaux du Québec [OPTSQ], 1997).
Assessment of Behaviour and Treatment
Behaviours associated with physical, sexual, emotional and substance abuse may also be assessed and a treatment plan developed that includes referral to child protection agencies, addiction services, medical, psychological and psychiatric professionals. While counselling may begin with the child, due to the nature of the problem, other services may be engaged to protect and support the healthy personal, academic and social development of the child.
Adherence to a Code of Ethics
The Code of Ethics (CASW, 1994) provides the foundation principles for the practice of social work. Recognizing that the majority of the school student population will be under the age of 16 years and respecting the parameters of confidentiality between the child and their social worker, consent will be obtained from the parent or guardian, as well as the child (if appropriate) before services are initiated. Situations where child abuse is suspected or has been disclosed must be reported to the appropriate child protection authorities regardless of consent. In such cases, school social workers will assist child protection authorities in supporting the student and may further engage resources within the system of the child's family, school, peers and community.
Expertise in Working with Children with Special Needs
Attention is also given to the special needs that are posed by the child's physical or mental disability. Working closely with teachers, resource aides and parents, the school social worker will strive to acknowledge the strengths of the child despite the problems that make learning or behaving in the school environment difficult.
Sensitivity to Difference
Cognizant of the stressors that a child might feel coming from a background that is linguistically, racially, culturally, or socio-economically different from the majority of their peers, school social workers educate other students and staff to be sensitive to the individual needs and problems of students and their families. In addition, school social workers will promote, encourage and model acceptance and tolerance.
Crisis Prevention and Management
School social workers work to avert crisis at the micro and macro level by developing or implementing programs that promote tolerance of difference. While this proactive approach is largely effective, there are yet times when a social worker's special training in diffusing a situation or in offering debriefing following a traumatic event, is also called upon and highly valued. Increasingly, school social workers have become actively involved in the front-line identification of mental health issues, behaviour that is a threat to self or others, and in response to the effects of crisis and trauma that permeate the classroom from the community and society at large.
Those Who Can Benefit from School Social Work Involvement
The following are some situations where school social work services may prove useful:
. Primary students having difficulty making the transition to school;
. Students who have a developmental delay which impacts on their academic functioning;
. Students undergoing a transition (i.e., move from another country, change of school, change in family composition, divorce, remarriage, death, etc.);
. Students who are experiencing social/emotional behavioural difficulties in the school, home, or community;
. Students experiencing difficulty within their home environment;
. Students encountering addiction problems;
. Students experiencing pregnancy or parenthood;
. Students at risk for dropping out of school;
. Students experiencing learning difficulties or disabilities; and
. Students experiencing poor attendance (CASSWAC, 2001).
Additional Roles School Social Workers Serve
The following roles may be served by school social workers:
. Advocacy for clients, school social workers, and the social work profession in general;
. Publishing materials for parents and professionals;
. Research in the area of school social work;
. Writing, contributing to, and co-ordinating the publishing of documents for local school systems;
. Liaison with the government bodies of education, community and social services; and
. Liaison with international, national, state and provincial school social work organizations and practitioners (International Network of School Social Workers, 2001).
The above has offered a glimpse as to the way in which the practice of social work may be applied in the context of the school. Grounded in a non-judgmental belief system that values and respects the individual within his or her context, the school social worker faces challenges that are unique to this setting. Required to be both a member of the system as well as its mediator, the school social worker makes a valuable contribution to the lives of the student, family, school and community.
CASW. (1994). Code of Ethics. Ottawa, Ontario: CASW.
CASSWAC. (2001). The Canadian Association Of School Social Workers And Attendance Counsellors. http://www.casswac.ca
International Network of School Social Workers. (2001). The international network of school social workers. http://internationalnetwork-schoolsocialwork.htmlplanet.com/
Grande, G. (1978). A practitioner model for school social work: A system approach. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California.
Martelli, C. (1988). The formation and development of the social work department within the Metropolitan Separate School Board 1975-1988. A final assignment in completion of a Master of Social Work degree, University of Toronto.
Loughborough, J. (2000). School social work in Canada [presentation]. Montréal, Québec.
Ontario Association of Social Workers (OASW) School Social Work Committee. (2001). Social workers in education newsletter. Toronto, Ontario: OASW.
OPTSQ. (1997). Guide to the professional practice of social workers in CLSCs and Schools. Montréal, Québec: OPTSQ.
School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA). (2001). School social work as a career [Brochure]. Northlake, IL: SSWAA.
School Social Work Symposium Committee. (2001). Schools: In the eye of the storm [Brochure]. London, Ontario: OASW School Social Work Committee.
Approved by the CASW Board
April 25, 2002