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6 Differences Between a School Counselor and a School Social Worker

6 Ways a School Counselor and a School Social Worker Differ

Differences between a School Counselor and a School Social WorkerMany people are involved in the education of children. Teachers and administrators, parents and guardians, food service workers, and transportation workers all strive towards the goal of providing a safe, healthy environment in which kids can learn.

There are other stakeholders as well. Among them are two professionals whose titles sound a lot alike – school counselors and school social workers.

While there are many similarities between these two careers, there are also many differences that make them distinct occupations. Knowing these differences can help you understand the ways in which each one benefits students. On a broader scale, knowing how these occupations differ can aid in understanding the American education system more thoroughly.

Likewise, becoming familiar with the differences between the job functions of school counselors and school social workers can also help you decide which field you’d like to study in college. Again, while there are some similarities between these careers, the preparation for becoming a school counselor is quite a bit different than the process for becoming a school social worker.

Below is a list of some of the key differences between school counselors and school social workers.

Roles in the Educational System

School counselor and school social worker Roles in the Educational SystemOne of the primary differences between school counselors and school social workers is the role they have in the educational system.

A school counselor is typically responsible for developing and implementing a school counseling program that is accessible to all students. These programs are broad-based and might include activities, services, and resources that address academic goals, the development of age-appropriate social skills, and developing general life skills. 

School counselors focus on short-term as well as long-term gains for students. In the short-term, they might work with students on developing skills for resisting peer pressure. For the long-term, a school counselor might devise a program that encourages kids to make healthier eating decisions as an avenue for long-term health.

In addition to these broad programs and services, many school counselors also offer one-on-one and group services, like counseling sessions. These sessions might address any number of issues from problems at home to bullying at school to planning for a career, college, or military service after graduation.

Speaking of graduation, sometimes school counselors also provide guidance counseling services. This might involve helping students apply for college, offering feedback on personal statements, conducting interest inventories, and connecting students with resources for scholarships and grants.

School social workers generally spend their time assessing students and arranging appropriate support services for students.

For example, if a student is on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a school social worker might administer various tests to determine the child’s current academic strengths and weaknesses.

Based upon those assessments, they would recommend interventions and support services that help address the child’s unique learning needs. So, a recommendation might be made that a child with dyslexia is allowed to take exams in a separate room where an adult can read the questions out loud to the student.

School social workers might also coordinate services from outside the school. For example, if a student’s family can’t afford sufficient food, a school social worker might connect them with a local food pantry or help them apply for food stamps. As another example, if a student is missing a lot of school because they have to stay home with their younger siblings, a school social worker might work with the student’s family to find childcare alternatives.

So, where school counselors tend to focus on academic-related issues for the school as a whole, school social workers tend to focus on the needs of individual students.

Additionally, as noted earlier, school counselors often provide individual and group counseling for students whereas school social workers usually (though not always) focus on helping students get proper support for their needs.

In many school districts, school counselors are assigned to a specific school. In some cases, there might be multiple school counselors in one building. Conversely, many school districts have social workers that rotate between buildings. This is a minor difference, yet one that significantly impacts how these jobs are carried out day-to-day.

Identification of Skills and Competencies

Typically, a school counselor is going to focus more on helping students identify their academic strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to future planning, like college or career plans after high school.

While some school counselors might administer intelligence tests, this is fairly uncommon. Usually, basic interest inventories are more common for school counselors that provide guidance counseling services to students.

A school social worker, on the other hand, might identify things like social skills and competencies that an individual student needs to work on to be more successful in the classroom.

For example, let’s say a teacher refers a student to the school social worker because the student doesn’t work well in groups with other children. The school social worker might talk with the child, administer an assessment like the Friends and Social Skills Test (FASST), and use the results of the assessment and the interview with the child to target specific social skills on which to work.

So, while a school counselor and a school social worker both strive to help students learn and grow, the manner in which they identify a child’s skills and competencies differs. Likewise, where school counselors often evaluate a child’s skills and competencies for future planning, a school social worker typically does so to address a current problem. 

Collaboration with Other Professionals

School counselors collaborate with teachersSchool counselors typically collaborate with other school staff members to deliver schoolwide programs. They will often consult with individual teachers, departments and department heads, administration, and parents and guardians to develop, implement, and evaluate educational programs.

For example, a school counselor might devise a literacy program for students based off of the student body’s literacy scores on state assessments. In order to carry this program out, the school counselor would need teachers to deliver the program in classrooms, parents to be involved with at-home learning, and administrators to assist in deploying the program schoolwide.

These types of collaborations might happen for any number of other reasons as well. School counselors might collaborate with other educational professionals to develop programs related to mental health, classroom behavior, bullying, eating habits, or emotional development, just to name a few.

School social workers also collaborate with other professionals, but more often it is with professionals outside of the school system. This isn’t to say that school social workers are an island unto themselves – far from it. But the level of collaboration in school is often much more limited than school counselors.

Because a primary duty of a school counselor is to help students address social issues like poverty, they often work with community organizations and government agencies to get students the resources they need. This might include the Department of Family Services, local law enforcement, non-profit organizations like food banks, and even healthcare clinics.

Linking Students with Community and Academic Resources

Related to the previous point is that school counselors and school social workers go about linking students with needed resources in a different way.

Counselors may connect students with learning resources to help them catch up with their peers or develop their academic skills. 

For example, a school counselor might provide a student with information about tutors in a particular subject in which the student needs to improve performance. As another example, a school counselor might work with teachers to source online learning materials for students to access from home.

A social worker in a school might provide different kinds of resources to a student. For example, they might help a student get a bus pass so they have a reliable means of getting to school in the morning and home again after school. As another example, if a student and their family become homeless, a school social worker might contact local shelters to find the student and their family temporary shelter.

Educational and Licensure Differences

Another big difference between school counselors and school social workers is the level of education required.

School counselors are almost always required to have a master’s degree in school counseling. Other master’s degree programs like educational psychology, counseling, or a closely related field might be acceptable provided that you have experience working with children. Of course, in some school districts, workers might be grandfathered in. So, if a person has been working as a school counselor for 25 years but has a master’s degree in a different field, they might not be required to meet current educational requirements in their school district.

Many school counselors go on to get a doctorate. Though not required by many school districts, the additional level of education and training can prove beneficial for carrying out one’s duties. 

In addition to having at least a master’s degree, most states require school counselors to also be licensed. The licensure requirements to become a school counselor vary from state to state, but they generally include the following:

  • A degree from an accredited institution
  • Minimum GPA requirements
  • Practicum and internship experience
  • Satisfactory score on a certification assessment

School counselors must also pass a criminal background check.

Where school counselors must have at least a master’s degree, in many school districts, school social workers need a bachelor’s degree.

Despite this lower educational threshold, many social workers continue their education and get a master’s degree or a doctorate. Again, the additional education is highly beneficial in terms of the quality of services one can provide to students.

In some cases, school districts might require social workers to have at least a master’s degree. Furthermore, some states might require social workers to have at least a master’s degree in order to qualify for licensure.

Much like school counselors, school social workers must meet some basic criteria in order to be licensed. This includes:

  • A degree from an accredited institution
  • Minimum GPA requirements
  • Practicum and internship experience
  • Satisfactory score on a certification assessment
  • Pass a background check

In both instances, school counselors and school social workers must also meet continuing education requirements. This involves undertaking professional development and earning enough continuing education credits in a given time period to retain their license.

Addressing Issues that Affect a Child’s Development and Education

As noted earlier, when it comes to issues of a child’s educational development, school counselors often focus on academic issues. They also address school issues that negatively impact a child’s ability to learn.

For example, if a school is experiencing a bullying problem, a school counselor might create an anti-bullying educational program in which all students participate. The goal would be to teach kids how to identify bullying, how to address it appropriately and offer recourse for students to report bullying situations. Even though bullying itself isn’t an academic issue, being bullied can distract a child, make them uncomfortable, and increase their anxiety, none of which will make learning easier.

On the other hand, social workers in schools often address social issues that affect a child’s development and education and usually do so on a case-by-case basis.

For example, a student that doesn’t have the needed school supplies might be referred by their teacher to the social worker. Upon evaluation, the social worker might learn that the student’s family simply does not have the money to buy necessary supplies. So, arrangements would be made for the school to provide the student with the supplies they need to be successful in the classroom.

Again, though the focus of school counselors and school social workers is different, the end goal is to ensure that kids have the support they need to learn and grow in a healthy school environment.

Will You Be a School Counselor or a School Social Worker?

Knowing the differences between counselors and social workers within a school system makes it easier to know which one of these career paths would be a better fit for you. Do you envision yourself acting as a mediator between a student and outside resources? Do you want to work with special education students to ensure they have what they need to be successful? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then a career as a school social worker might be for you.

On the other hand, do you want to develop high-level academic, social, or behavioral programs for students? Are you interested in helping kids identify their academic strengths and weaknesses and assisting them in planning for their future education or career? In this case, working as a school counselor might be the better choice.

Whichever career path you choose, you will likely find that it is a highly rewarding job. Either way, you will play a critical role in helping young people learn, grow, and develop, and find success later in life.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated April 2021

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