Question: What are the differences between School Social Work and School Counseling?

Answer: School social workers and school counselors work side-by-side in public and private elementary, secondary, middle, and high schools, providing students in need with emotional, behavioral, and academic support and guidance. However, social work and counseling are distinct fields of practice with different training regimens, despite the overlaps in their scopes of practice. While school social work and school counseling both involve the use of social and behavioral science theories and methods to assess the wellbeing of students, and to inform the provision of mental health services, such as psychotherapy, the role and primary function of social workers differs from that of counselors in subtle but significant respects.

School counselors focus mainly on helping individual students succeed academically and intervening in situations in which a student appears to be struggling with personal and/or social challenges within the school setting. School social workers, in contrast, are trained to look beyond the confines of the classroom and the school in order to identify larger issues such as family dysfunction, poverty, poor nutrition, homelessness, and/or neglect and abuse that can impact a student’s performance in school. As a result, school social workers may involve members of a student’s family and/or help a student and his or her family secure additional social services through local, state, and federal agencies and assistance programs. School counselors generally do not involve themselves in these functions, which are primarily the domain of social work, and may refer students who require services beyond personal guidance and counseling to a school social worker.

There are additional similarities and differences between school counselors and school social workers, most of which align with general distinctions between counseling and social work. Both professions require practitioners to be trained at the master’s degree level, and most states require school counselors and school social workers to be formally licensed. However, master’s in counseling programs differ from master’s in social work programs in structure and content, and the licensing requirements for counselors and social workers are similarly disparate.

Therefore, while there is inherent overlap in the behavioral theories and psychotherapeutic practices studied by clinical counselors and social workers, and the general aim of helping children and young adults succeed academically and developmentally is shared by school counselors and school social workers, there are fundamental differences in approach that make school social work and school counseling complementary yet distinct fields of practice. These differences are delineated in the sections below.

School Social Workers vs. School Counselors

School Social Work: School social workers may be employed by a single school, a group of schools, or an entire school system/district in which they are responsible for working with students, teachers, and administrators as the need for social services arises. The School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA), a non-profit advocacy and national networking and support organization for school social workers, emphasizes the multifaceted role of school social workers in its description of the profession, stating that the goal of school social work is to “enhance” a school or school district’s “ability to meet its academic mission, especially where home, school, and community collaboration in the key to achieving student success.” Among the services commonly provided by school social workers, the SSWAA lists various services to students, services to parents and families, services to school personnel, and services to school districts. These include but are not limited to the following:

  • Developing intervention strategies to increase academic success, including conducting behavioral assessments and developing behavior intervention plans
  • Interviewing families to assess problems affecting students’ educational development
  • Assisting parents in accessing and utilizing school and community resources
  • Providing staff with essential information to better understand factors (cultural, societal, economic, familial, health, etc.) affecting a student’s performance and behavior
  • Obtaining and coordinating community resources to meet students’ needs
  • Advocating for new and improved community/school services to meet the needs of students and families
  • Identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect
  • Providing case management for students and families requiring multiple resources
  • Counseling (group, individual and/or family) and crisis intervention

School Counseling: School counselors also commonly provide individual, family, and group counseling services, although the counseling and crisis interventions that school counselors engage in are typically focused more narrowly on individual students and their performance in school. As a result, school counselors are more likely to be assigned to and/or employed by one school rather than several schools or an entire district, and are typically in close contact with teachers, administrators, and other support staff on a daily basis. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA), a non-profit professional advocacy and support organization similar to the SSWAA, emphasizes in its description of the role of the school counselor that, “School counselors deliver developmentally appropriate activities and services directly to students or indirectly for students as a result of the school counselor’s interaction with others.” These activities and services include but are not limited to the following:

  • Academic planning and goal setting for individual students
  • Short-term counseling to individual students
  • Referrals for long-term counseling services for individual students
  • Advocacy for students at individual education plan meetings
  • Acting as a system’s change agent to improve equity and access, achievement, and opportunities for all students

Master of Social Work (MSW) vs. Master’s in Counseling Programs

As noted above, professional social workers and professional counselors are trained at the master’s degree level, regardless of their area of practice. Thus, school social workers must complete a Master of Social Work (MSW) or Master of Science in Social Work (MSSW) degree program, and school counselors are required to hold a master’s in counseling degree, typically a Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), or Master of Education (MEd) in Counseling degree. School Social Work and School Counseling are specializations that are available at some but not all schools that offer these degree programs. Graduates can also add a school social work or school counseling specialization via post-master’s graduate certificate programs that consist of a small cluster of courses, if necessary.

There are similarities between MSW/MSSW programs and MA/MS/MEd in Counseling programs. Both types of programs can typically be completed in two to three years or four to six semesters, depending on the number of courses a student is able to complete per semester and the structure of the program, and both types of programs generally require the completion of 60 semester credits in order to graduate. As part of those credits, MSW/MSSW and MA/MS/MEd in Counseling programs require students to engage in a specified number of supervised clinical hours. In social work, these hours are referred to as field education, and the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which is the sole accrediting body for MSW programs, requires programs to ensure that students complete a minimum of 900 hours of field education in order to earn their degree. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the primary accreditation agency for master’s in counseling programs, requires programs it accredits to ensure students complete at least 700 hours of supervised clinical experiences.

Differences between master’s in social work and master’s in counseling programs have to do with curricular details and the focus of the coursework. Students in both types of programs study human development, theories of behavior, and the principles of psychology, and learn to apply this knowledge base to the practice of psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups. However, counseling programs typically spend more time teaching students alternatives to traditional psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, play therapy, and/or family systems therapy. In contrast, MSW program curricula generally include courses that focus on the impact of social systems, social policy, and social forces such as poverty, discrimination, and oppression on communities and individuals.

As a result, while counselors and social workers who are trained at the master’s level graduate with many of the same skills and a similar knowledge base, they are trained to approach problems in distinct ways and provide their clients with different yet complementary services.

Licensing for School Social Workers and School Counselors

The licensing requirements for school social workers and school counselors vary by state. However, all 50 states require clinical social workers and clinical counselors, which typically includes school social workers and school counselors, to carry a state-issued license, and some states have specific licensing requirements for social workers and counselors who work in public schools. While all counselors who provide direct counseling services are required to be licensed, social workers may not require a license if they are not providing one-on-one counseling services and/or are working under the direction of a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

Each state licensing board has its own prerequisites for licensing in social work and counseling. But every state requires social workers and counselors to have completed a master’s program in their field of practice prior to applying for a license. Candidates for licensure are then generally required to pass an exam and a background check. Social workers must take and pass an exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), which is accepted by every state. School counselors may be required to take one of two exams administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Alternatively, states may require school counselors to earn a passing score on the Praxis Profession School Counselor exam. Thus, while licensing for school social workers and school counselors is a similar process in most states, the specific requirements are different.

In addition to a state issued license, some schools may require social workers and/or counselors to hold a national board certification. Counselors can apply to become National Certified School Counselors (NCSCs) through the NBCC, and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers a Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS) credential. These certifications are typically not required for state licensure, but they may be required by some employers.

Finally, some states and some school districts may require school counselors to be licensed or certified teachers. This requirement does not generally extend to school social workers.

School Social Work vs. School Counseling: A Side-By-Side Comparison

The table below illustrates some of the key similarities and differences between school social work and school counseling.

 School Social WorkSchool Counseling
Minimum Degree Level:Master’s DegreeMaster’s Degree
Qualifying Degrees:CSWE accredited Master of Social Work or Master of Science in Social WorkMaster of Arts, Master of Science, or Master of Education in Counseling
Years of Schooling:Four-year bachelor’s degree + two years or more for a master’s degreeFour-year bachelor’s degree + two years or more for a master’s degree
Site-Based Training Requirements:900-plus hours of field education700-plus hours of supervised clinical experience
Licensing Requirements:Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Licensed Master Social Worker (Dependent on the state as different states use different terminology) plus state-specific credentials if applicable (e.g., Pupil Personnel Services Credential)Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) plus state-specific credentials if applicable (e.g., Pupil Personnel Services Credential)
Professional Certifications:Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS)National Certified School Counselor (NCSC)
Work Locations:Public schools, school districts, and school systemsPublic and private elementary, secondary, middle, and high schools
Roles and Responsibilities:
  • Create school and district-wide programs to promote student success
  • Provide guidance to teachers, staff, and administrators regarding the cultural, societal, economic, and familial factors that impact student performance
  • Secure community and governmental resources for schools and students
  • Advocate for and implement new programs and services for students and their families
  • Identify students at risk for abuse, neglect, and other social/familial problems
  • Assist parents in accessing social services
  • Provide individual, family, and/or group counseling and interventions
  • Provide students with academic and career guidance
  • Assist students in setting reasonable goals for their education
  • Advocate for student services, including student mental health services
  • Provide individual and/or group counseling in school settings
  • Refer students who require additional counseling services to qualified mental health counselors
  • Advise and work with teachers, administrators, and other school staff to implement policies and plans that foster a safe and stable learning environment within the school