School Safety: How Social Workers Can be Helpful and Stay Mentally Strong

By Marisa Markowitz and Daniel Pollack

Early in their careers, social workers learn the concepts of burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious traumatization. But how does self-care play out in real-life scenarios, when new social workers might not get the best supervision or insight into how to handle the stressors that come with the job of being a social worker?

Simply put, school social workers and other school administrators are constantly trying to identify aggression that may lead to violence. While both aggression and violence are concerning and need to be addressed, it is the aggression that results in violence that is particularly concerning. Aggression per se may never lead to violence, but a precipitant of violence will always include aggression.

woman with notepad sits at table with young girl

Data

According to U.S. News and World Report, an estimated 14 mass shootings have killed a total of 169 people since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. School violence extends across all states. There are no “safer” states. Almost anyone can recall the terrible school shootings in the past ten years: Sandy Hook (CT), Parkland (FL), and Auburn (IL). There have been 27 school shootings so far in 2022 — the last one in Uvalde, Texas, according to NPR. Preparedness, vigilance, and training are the pre-op to the surgery that is school violence. Post-care is in desperate need.

School Social Work Toolbox

A beginning approach is to check in with students throughout the day. Knowing when and how to have a heart-to-heart conversation with a teenager is as much art as it is science. A school social worker in Illinois tells NPR that she checks in with her students by monitoring, validating, and providing a safe space for children to express their fears.  She uses a “feeling chart” so children can identify their emotions. Identification of an emotion is a good method to dial down its intensity.

Group therapy is another way for students to engage with other peers to connect on an emotional level. The group, not the individual, is often the agent of change. This dynamic can be helpful for children who may feel isolated and reluctant to share their feelings. A school social worker may be apt to start a support group after a tragic event. These skills help school social workers provide a safe, inclusive space where students can process feelings of depression, anxiety, and grief with their peers.

Self-Care for School Social Workers

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) developed a 2021 amendment to the NASW Code of Ethics to address self-care for social workers.

It states that “professional self-care is paramount for competent and ethical social work practice. Professional demands, challenging workplace climates, and exposure to trauma warrant that social workers maintain personal and professional health, safety, and integrity. Social work organizations, agencies, and educational institutions are encouraged to promote organizational policies, practices, and materials to support social workers’ self-care.”

In other words, part of being a culturally competent social worker means implementing self-care routines. NASW offers a number of publications, podcasts, and articles to help social workers engage in self-care activities.

Self-care can include making time for reflection, staying connected with friends, setting boundaries with work, and engaging in personally satisfying volunteer work. School social workers should engage with their peers, take breaks from work, and get outside in nature.

Just as school social workers recommend talking through feelings with their students, they must do the same with colleagues, peers, loved ones, and families. According to Forbes, studies show taking a vacation increases mindfulness, improves heart health, reduces stress, boosts brain power, and improves sleep.

Does this mean school social workers are at an elevated risk for mental health issues? Not necessarily. At the same time, violence, bullying, and grief can sap a school social worker’s emotional reserve. School social workers quite literally need time for self-care to perform their job well. Keeping this in mind, we should heed our own advice: reflect, process, and engage in dialogue. Working towards an atmosphere of healing includes the health of the healer. School social workers are needed. Let’s keep them mentally fit.


Marisa Markowitz, LMSW, CASAC-T, studies the relationship between technology and its adverse effects on mental health, particularly for vulnerable populations.

Daniel Pollack, MSW, JD, is a professor at Yeshiva University’s School of Social Work in New York City.