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School Social Worker or Clinical Therapist?

Navigating the intersection of school supports and mental health care can be confusing. In this post, Mandy Ross, school social worker AND clinical therapist breaks it down so you know who does what and why:

School social workers are jacks of all trades. They work with all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, cognitive functioning, mental or emotional health, age, or grade. They also respond to crises, implement and organize school-wide programs, and facilitate support services to families in need, to name a few of their responsibilities within the school and the community. However, one thing a school social worker does not and should not do, even if she is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) is provide clinical therapy or serve as a substitute for an outside therapist.

Some students receive regular social work services as part of their special education plan. Even these students, whose minutes are mandated by law do not receive what would be considered therapy when they are with the school social worker. Rather, the social worker provides psychoeducational support to assist students with the social and emotional skills necessary for being successful in the academic setting. Psychoeducation means providing education or information to a person receiving mental health services. For example, the school social worker may help a student who has been identified as needing social or emotional support practice socially appropriate responses to teacher directives, learn self-advocacy skills so that the student knows who to ask for help and when, or utilize coping strategies that calm the brain and body so they can make good choices when faced with a stressful situation. Everything a social worker does in the school setting emphasizes success in the academic setting.

Does this mean that a social worker won’t respond to a student who is having a difficult day due to a fight with friends, a major family loss, or any other acute stressor? Of course not! School social workers are trained to respond to student needs and provide them with the support they need to be present and productive. However, it would be inappropriate for a school social worker to have regular sessions with a student focused on, for example, grief over the loss of a parent. Can you imagine pulling a student from class, asking her about her recently deceased mother and, after 30 minutes, saying, “Time’s up! Can I write you a pass to return to Math?” This could potentially harm a student’s academic performance and even cause additional trauma, especially if the social worker is not trained in grief and loss.

While school social workers are well qualified to provide psychoeducational support, they cannot provide specific services for every possible mental health disorder that presents itself in a school setting. Clinical therapists tend to specialize in a handful of mental health disorders and do not venture outside of their area of expertise, and for good reason: practicing beyond the scope of one’s training is unethical according to social work standards because it can cause harm to the client. When a student’s needs go beyond the realm of psychoeducational support, the school social worker has a responsibility to recommend services outside of the school setting. Just as a school nurse would not set a broken bone or prescribe medication to a student, school social workers do not implement comprehensive treatment for mental health disorders.

It can be tempting for a parent or caregiver to ask a school social worker to start “seeing” their student based on difficulties they see in the home. It can also be difficult to hear that the student does not display the same problematic behaviors at school as one might see in the home. This is not uncommon. Many students can “hold it together” all day at school and then come home to an environment where they feel safe enough to unleash tantrums, disrespectful behavior, or any other action that would rightfully cause concern for the family as a whole. However, it is outside the purview of the school social worker to conduct family therapy or provide services to a student who does not display any problematic behavior in the school setting. Even students who receive special education services are not entitled to social work services if their social and emotional skills at school are appropriate when compared to their peers of the same age, regardless of what may be happening at home.

A school social worker is, and should be, a liaison between the student, school, families, and the community at large. When a family decides to seek therapeutic services, asking the school social worker for a recommendation is a good place to start. Also, giving the school social worker a heads up when a child experiences a trauma, painful loss, or other difficulty that may impact the school day is a good idea so that she can follow up with the student to ensure emotional needs are being met or communicate with teachers that the student may temporarily require extra care, support, or accommodations.

School social workers are a valuable resource in the academic setting and are often utilized every minute of the school day. School social workers may change caseloads every year (depending on the school’s practice), have a schedule that can change on a moment’s notice, and are essentially unavailable throughout the summer months. Clinical therapists, on the other hand, are typically able to see clients on a regular basis, provide services year-round and long-term, and address the specific mental health issues that pertain to their individual client. While social workers often have a desire to help every person that comes across their path, it is a disservice to all students when school social workers take on the provision of therapy in addition to their other responsibilities.

Mandy Ross, LCSW is a licensed school social worker and clinical therapist Starks Therapy Group.She works with teens and adults as they struggle with a variety of issues, including: depression, anxiety, work-life balance, positive communication skills, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In addition to her academic and clinical work she is a 200 hour trained registered yoga teacher (RYT).

DISCLAIMER: The sole purpose of this post is to keep individuals informed of Starks Therapy Group's events, provide useful information related to mental health issues and provide thoughtful content related to self care and mental health. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental illness. This post is not monitored daily and is used for information sharing only. If you wish to communicate directly with someone at Starks Therapy Group, please call (708) 689-3055‬ . If you have a medical emergency, please call 911.


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