Society is changing, and so is the education industry. This immediate change has been a result of the arrival and consolidation of technology in the student learning environment. As the education industry transforms, academic institutions must prepare students for uncertainty and complexity by helping them embrace change and recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

One way is to bring in social workers to provide targeted emotional and social support to individual students. Clinical social workers are trained professionals who ensure students are equipped to handle academic demands and personal obstacles that could impede their overall success. With an extensive knowledge of the various possible impediments to learning that a student might experience, social workers can also help teachers gain a better view of social barriers and developmental delays.

Offering specialized counseling services

Students worldwide encounter emotional stress and depression during their study years. In the US alone, over 60% of students reported experiencing stress, while more than 50% revealed feelings of worry and anxiousness. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, emotional stress is one of the most significant reasons students considered dropping out last year.

Pressures to achieve higher grades, poor career guidance, interpersonal relationship issues and increased academic competitiveness are among the stress-inducing issues that students nowadays are encountering. As demand for professional mental healthcare and training increases, academic counseling becomes more critical. Through academic counseling, students can access holistic support to navigate academic challenges and reach their full potential.

Clinical social workers can provide specialized counseling services that help students learn about managing study-related stress, improving stress management and building confidence. The last of these is significant, considering students must build self-confidence to embrace their full potential inside and outside the classroom. The key to achieving healthy self-confidence is ensuring students have a balanced view of themselves and their lives.

This includes taking pride in their skills while recognizing their imperfections simultaneously, but this can be challenging for students facing low self-esteem due to past traumatic events. In these instances, students must learn to deal with their past issues to move forward and live their best lives.

On the surface, ignoring past issues can work temporarily, but it can leave students in a vulnerable position and may ultimately impact their academic success in the long run. Clinical social workers help students cope with and resolve issues by helping them overcome these barriers and guiding them toward goals that can enhance their quality of life. Depending on the situation, clinical social workers use a variety of counseling techniques to help students with traumatic pasts, including:

Active listening

Active listening is one of the most basic techniques in social work. It displays authentic interest in students’ thoughts, feelings and emotions. No other counseling technique will prove effective without taking the time to establish trust and rapport. Through active listening, social workers can establish a therapeutic alliance that conveys nonjudgmental acceptance and respect.

By ensuring students feel that their opinions matter, clinical social workers can increase the likelihood of the former confiding in them in challenging situations. Clinical social workers can use nonverbal cues such as direct eye contact, reflecting what the student is saying to clarify meaning and nodding.

Task-centered practice

Task-centered practice (TCP) is another counseling technique clinical social workers use to help students cope with issues. Rather than psychoanalyzing the root causes of the student’s issues, TCP builds on their resiliency and strengths. Clinical social workers emphasize problem-solving and goal-setting with this technique.

When adopting TCP, the clinical social worker and student identify issues contributing to unhappiness and stress. Once they are identified, the social worker guides the student in developing measurable goals and an action plan. Outcomes are discussed and related to the present issue.

Cognitive behavior therapy

Clinical social workers use cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to help students whose thought patterns worsen their academic performance and reinforce self-defeating behaviors. For example, a clinical social worker might work with a troubled student who feels worthless after failing an examination and has no hope of finding a solution to pass.

In these instances, clinical social workers can reframe the problem by helping the student work on the behaviors that resulted in failing, such as missing classes or failing to submit academic work. By reframing the issue, social workers can help students recognize damaging thought patterns and adjust accordingly to eliminate self-harming behaviors and improve overall success.

Promoting student mental health

Student mental health is worsening by nearly every metric. According to the Healthy Minds Study, over 60% of students met the criteria for at least one mental health issue during the 2020 to 2021 academic year. This is alarming, considering mental health issues can adversely impact multiple areas of students’ lives and lead to problems such as poor physical health, low school experience satisfaction and reduced quality of life.

This can negatively impact relationships with friends and family members, future employment, overall health and earning potential. With the increased demand for student’s mental health, schools are forced to think holistically and take a multifaceted approach, such as employing social workers to support students. Recent data shows over 140,000 clinical social workers are employed in the United States.

This number will continue to grow as students juggle a dizzying array of challenges, such as relationships, coursework and adjustment to campus life. Outside of school, family conflict, behavioral disorders and substance abuse are among the many problems that students encounter daily. Such challenges threaten academic success and affect the student’s well-being.

Clinical social workers work as part of interdisciplinary teams with teachers and administrators who advocate policies and assume a critical role in mental health intervention and crisis management. This is especially important considering that the Journal of American Medical Association estimates at least one in six students are living with a mental health issue. Whether evaluating students for suicidal tendencies or thoughts of self-harm, clinical social workers are responsible for developing crisis intervention strategies to improve the learner’s success.

Providing solutions to bullying

Bullying in school has increased over the past five years. According to the National Education Association, nearly 60% of children and teenagers witness bullying in school at least once daily. It is estimated that more than 150,000 students miss school daily due to the fear of being intimidated by other students.

What makes this even worse is the rise of the internet. Recent numbers show more than 30% of students have been threatened online. Bullying can have severe side effects. Often, targeted students suffer extreme stress, resulting in physical symptoms and a diminished ability to learn.

Creating meaningful solutions to bullying is the responsibility of school administrators, guidance counselors and teachers. However, clinical social workers can also help combat school bullying thanks to the training they receive through programs such as the MSW program in Michigan from FSU, which gives them a unique skill set to find solutions to bullying. While working towards their MSW degree at Florida State University, clinical social workers study human and social behavior. This provides them with an in-depth understanding of the complexities of human relationships and how bullies might affect their targets, which can be very useful in designing effective anti-bullying programs. Similarly, students will study mental health and child welfare so they are prepared to recognize maltreatment and mental disorders.

Each bullying case is different and requires a personalized approach. At the same time, school environments can be developed in a manner that significantly reduces bullying from occurring in the first place. This includes introducing constant anti-bullying themes into the curriculum to get ahead of issues. One way of doing this is through workshops and events that enable students to see bullying in action. This aims to prevent students from becoming bullies and educates them in identifying and preventing bullying involving their classmates.

Alternatively, clinical social workers can join efforts to stiffen anti-bullying laws and policies by overseeing awareness campaigns or designing physical resources such as radio ads, commercials, posters and pamphlets. They can also organize speaking engagements to raise awareness about the perils of school bullying and participate in community-wide rallies to promote anti-bullying initiatives. By advocating for anti-bullying initiatives, clinical social workers can help create a safe environment for students to thrive.

During the implementation of these anti-bullying initiatives, clinical social workers can respond to parent and faculty queries and actively engage students who have witnessed or participated in bullying. For instance, they can instruct students to speak out against bullying rather than ignore it. As always, clinical social workers must be discreet in providing targeted bullying intervention programs to address causal factors such as social anxiety in students and solve the issue permanently.

Conducting comprehensive behavioral assessments

When students encounter struggles at school, it’s not always due to academic reasons, such as low grades. Sometimes, behavior is the primary reason students struggle. Recent data shows academic institutions nationwide are seeing a massive uptick in disruptive behaviors. While some are visible, such as running out of classrooms and fighting over social media posts, others are quieter calls for help, such as students putting their heads down and refusing to speak.

Experts reveal these behavior issues reflect the stress changes in the world have placed on children. Significant transitions and unforeseen events such as the coronavirus pandemic can be even more challenging for students dealing with the layered effects of poverty and racism, mental health issues and grief. The behavior challenges and staff exhaustion make academic environments more intense than students and educators had anticipated.

Clinical social workers can conduct comprehensive behavioral assessments to determine and understand challenging behaviors and develop possible solutions. Whether students know it or not, they act in specific ways for a reason. If schools and parents know what is causing a behavior, they can find ways to change it. For instance, if a child has excellent arithmetic skills, but when the class encounters a math word problem, he or she becomes angry or irritated and argues with the teacher, then the teacher will be left wondering why.

A clinical social worker can conduct an in-depth behavioral assessment to determine why the child is acting out. If the behavioral assessment shows the child has trouble working on word problems, the clinical social worker will advise the teacher on ways to make the situation less stressful for the student and ensure it does not impede his or her learning. By creating a positive intervention plan, the clinical social worker can ensure students will not act out if a similar math problem is given.

Positive behavior intervention strategies include establishing achievable and measurable goals, assigning tasks, applying silent signals and designing routines. These compelling behavior intervention strategies can promote positive behaviors from students while simultaneously suppressing negative habits. In addition, targeted behavior interventions tailored to meet each student’s emotional needs and requirements help prevent emotional outbursts, uncontrolled tantrums and aggressive physical behavior.

Liaising with parents and the community

A clinical social worker’s role extends beyond the four walls of an academic institution. They also work with parents and guardians to understand their child’s behavioral and emotional problems. After performing a comprehensive biopsychosocial evaluation, they can share the student’s care needs and help parents locate and access school and community programs their children need to grow and thrive.

Parents and families play a significant role in student success. Social workers can help parents guide their children in adjusting to school and provide counseling and family education on unique education processes, student mental health and development. By working with parents to facilitate their support in their children’s school adjustment, clinical social workers can alleviate stress and enable students to function more effectively in school and the community.

Clinical social workers can also assist families in accessing programs that address the functional requirements of students with disabilities. Aside from working with parents, clinical social workers can also liaise with their respective communities to help their districts receive adequate support from social and mental health agencies. They can also support the school district’s public relations and policy development initiatives by performing tasks that support the connection between the school, parents and the community.

Promoting social and emotional learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) interventions are no longer simply a buzzword within academic circles, and for good reason. Through comprehensive and effective SEL interventions, students can learn how to treat others and themselves responsibly and compassionately. In fact, research reveals explicit SEL interventions have proven effective in helping students gain social-emotional competencies and bolster educational achievement. Thanks to SEL, academic institutions can ensure students understand themselves independently, regulate their emotions and manage their behaviors.

Clinical social workers work with teachers and school administrators in implementing SEL interventions grounded in the values of social justice, integrity, competence and service to ensure students can express their thoughts and emotions in a safe environment. Due to the process-oriented and reflective nature of SEL interventions, clinical social workers can increase the likelihood of students disclosing personal information, such as being the victim of abuse or bullying. This allows clinical social workers to determine the appropriate protocols for managing a specific high-risk situation while establishing and maintaining strong relationships and achieving positive goals.

Although there are several ways to incorporate SEL into an educational setting, clinical social workers often begin by establishing a measurable goal. This allows them to classify students by need and outline building blocks, ultimately saving time on lesson planning while achieving significant student improvement. Alternatively, clinical social workers can seek meaningful ways to generalize SEL skills across the day by planning a whole-group classroom session, organizing a Mindful Minute event and talking about the health of social and emotional brains.

Other ways clinical social workers can practice social and emotional learning in the classroom include expanding students’ social and emotional vocabulary, teaching students to work toward a common goal, nurturing a culture of kindness, encouraging expression through writing and art or establishing a spot where students can calm down after a pressure-packed and emotional situation. Clinical social workers can also organize a daily student check-in to identify individuals who are potentially at risk. By implementing SEL into the academic environment, clinical social workers can monitor the student’s emotional development and ensure continuous growth conducive to their success.

Working as a clinical social worker in a school environment

Clinical social workers serve as a lifeline for students, parents and academic institutions. Through their work, they can empower students and school communities to succeed by delivering prevention and intervention services, implementing programs that support strategic methods to address student needs and coordinating crisis response.