How School Social Workers Can Use A Time Study To Enhance Their Effectiveness
Editor’s Note: a big thank you to Steven Whitmore, developer of the time-study tool, and Michael Kelly, co-editor of SSWN for their contributions to this article.
What If You Could Get Actionable Data About Your Workload?
Schools are awash in data, and it may seem like you’re always collecting or counting something in your school practice. But what if you had real data to start a conversation with administrators about your role and responsibilities, the diverse needs of students you serve, and your contributions to your students’ success?
What if you were armed with evidence to advocate for a more manageable caseload, additional staffing, or recognition of the value of your services?
What if you could discover frequent “time wasters” and “time eaters” in your day and identify changes you can make to be more efficient and feel less overwhelmed?
By following the steps we outline in this post, you’ll learn how to conduct a time study of your work tasks that will help you better advocate for your workload and gain useful insights into how you spend your time.
But first, let’s get real about why we’re talking about this:
School Social Work is Incredibly Demanding
We know that the work is hard, and demanding. We also know that it can feel less exhausting, if we take control of our time.
Which of these sound familiar?
- You don’t have enough time to get everything done during the work day.
- You’re caught up addressing issues that others feel are “urgent” rather than tackling the issues that you know are important.
- Your administrators don’t understand what you do or how you spend your time so you get assigned duties that don’t make good use of your training and expertise.
- You’re taking a lot of work home which is robbing you of personal and family time or causing you to stay up late to finish work after everyone has gone to bed.
If so, you’re not alone. We’ve all been there. The good news is that we don’t have to stay there. It is possible to get our time back, or at least being able to manage it better and have some control over it.
We can start to reclaim our time by first obtaining a clear understanding of where our time is being spent.
Time Studies Aren’t Difficult, Or At Least They Don’t Have To Be
There are a lot of myths about doing time-studies. We used to believe them, too.
- It’s too hard
- It’s too time-consuming
- It won’t help
We were a bit skeptical at first ourselves, especially as our day-to-day practice is busy enough that this could easily feel like “one more thing.”
But we’ve discovered that with a little planning and the right tools, collecting data on how you’re spending your time is a whole lot easier (and faster) than you might think.
As we’ll discuss below, we have 2+ years of pilot data from testing our time-study tool that indicates that school clinicians can (and do) find ways to incorporate time-study work into their regular routines.
Based on user feedback and our own school social work experiences, we’ve written this guide to help you conduct a time-study that is both effective and does not require a large time investment.
How to Conduct a Time Study of Your School Social Work Practice
Here’s our step-by-step process for conducting a successful time-study and using the data to advocate for your role and make better practice decisions.
1. Identify Categories of Work to Measure
The first step in conducting a time study is to identify the categories of work activities you’ll use to group your tasks.
The key is to identify enough categories to make the data meaningful, but not so many that it makes the recording difficult.
Fortunately, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Here’s a list of work categories and definitions we use in our free time study tool. You can use these definitions as-is with our tool, or use them as a starting point to create categories tailored to your specific needs.
Work Type Definitions From Our Time Study Tool:
Direct: Face to face contact. Services where the student is the primary recipient of services.
Consult Staff: Speaking with or communicating electronically with a staff member (eg. Teacher, administrator, colleague, etc.) about a student or group of students. Typically only one or two adults are present.
Consult Parent: Speaking with or communicating electronically with parents, guardians or family members of students.
Consult Community: Speaking or communicating electronically with someone who is not a school staff member nor family member of a student.
Indirect – Student: Speaking or communicating electronically with a student regarding another student (eg. Peer to peer support buddy).
Materials Preparation: Preparation of supplementary aides or services for a classroom or other part of the school environment to make the student successful in their environment (The primary intent is for others to use).
Service Planning: Time spent in preparation for an activity that you will directly implement. Group preparation would fit here.
Indirect – Other: All tasks/activities not covered by the above categories.
Compliance Documentation: Required (legally or district) documentation activities required for your caseload. This would include: non-assessment report writing, goal/objective/IEP writing, progress monitoring, daily notes, and Medicaid billing. Summarizing pre-existing collected data would be included here.
Compliance Meetings: Legal/district required or necessary meetings for students that are on your caseload. These include: IEPs, 504 Planning, FBA/BIPs, MDRs, Problem-solving meetings, Parent-teacher conferences, etc.
Crisis: Unexpected, behavior intervention with student(s) or situations. This would include debriefing time. This would be a higher intensity situation.
Assessment: Activities that are part of an initial evaluation, re-evaluation, determination for services, and FBAs. Typical activities would include: obtaining permission, observations, psycho-social histories, testing, parent input, teacher input, student interviews and report writing.
School-Wide Prevention: These services that are provided to the entire school to improve the culture and climate of the school. Examples would include: serving on a PBIS/MTSS team or school committee, meeting with students in assemblies or in larger groups (e.g. grade levels), working on a specific school program (eg. Like a challenge day or suicide prevention campaign), training of teachers on a specific topic or practice, planning a parent event, and/or bringing in a community program.
Professional Learning: This is time spent on professional learning to improve practice. It includes: professional reading, Internet research, SSW:SSW consultation, SSW: Supervisor discussion (non-compliance), peer review, etc. This would also include a presentation that you would give and presentation prep.
Supervision/Mentoring: Mentoring of field placement students, or new SSWs working towards full approval/licensure. This may be used if you are the recipient of supervision or the provider.
Travel: Travel time.
Other: All tasks/activities not covered by the above categories. This would include staff meetings, duties (i.e. bus or lunch), committee work not connected with a specific student, secretarial duties, department chairperson duties, etc.
Depending on your objectives, you may want to include extra information about the tasks you complete.
For example, our free time-study tool allows you to collect information about the populations who received the services you tracked such as caseload vs. non-caseload and Special Education vs. General Education.
2. Determine a Frequency for Recording Your Tasks
After you’ve identified the categories you’re going to use, you next need to determine how frequently you’re going to record your activities.
In a pilot study of the first version of our time-study tool, participants were asked to record one full week of activities every month. We recommend starting with this approach for a few reasons:
- It’s an easier commitment. The more ambitious your frequency goal, the more likely you are to not succeed, feel frustrated about it, and give up. It’s better to start with something you know you can commit to do consistently and build up from there.
- You can plan around known irregularities. While there’s often not a “typical” week for school social workers, and it may actually be helpful to track the odd things that come our way, you can plan around abnormalities that don’t provide useful information. For example, you may want to track a different week from the one where you’ll be out for three days at a conference.
- Priorities and demands change throughout the year. In the pilot study, the time school social workers spent on activities fluctuated each month despite caseload sizes remaining typically static. Recording a sample of time each month can help capture these changes and can provide valuable information about trends.
Read the pilot study:
It’s About Time: Initial Findings From a Feasibility Study of a Time-Study Tool for School Social Workers in Michigan
Michael S. Kelly and Steven Whitmore
Of course you’re free to choose what ever frequency suits your needs. The key is to choose a frequency that provides a representative sample of your time and is able to be done consistently.
3. Choose a Method for Recording Your Time
There are a variety of methods you can choose from to track your time.
Using a paper planner for a time-study may seem archaic, but it’s a great solution if you’re already using one to record what you do everyday.
Simply write down all of the activities that you perform throughout the day.
At the end of each day or week, you then categorize your activities & determine the percentage of time that you spent performing each of your workload responsibilities.
To obtain a visual representation of your workload activities, you can color code the activities by the categories you determined to see which activities occupy most of work daily/weekly time.
Make a simple Google Form that you can link to your phone, tablet or computer. Make a prompt for the date, time and then one text box for each of the categories you are tracking. When you launch it, you can record the number of minutes that you have just engaged in that activity.
In the responses section, you can visually see the number of times that you have engaged in the activity.
For more information, simply covert to a Google Sheet, click on Explore, and highlight the column of the category. It will show the column minute total and other information.
You can make a new form every day, every week or month (depending on your preference) simply by making a copy of your old one.
SSW Tools App
If working with spreadsheets and forms seems difficult, consider using a ready-made time tracking solution like our SSW Tools App.
Our free tool lets you record your work activities using a calendar interface. Simply click, drag and drop your time entries on the calendar and track your whole day in just minutes.
Whichever method you choose, make sure it’s one that helps you to be consistent.
4. Prepare Your Data
Once you’ve recorded your activities, it’s time to turn that data into a format that is useful for obtaining insights and communicating the results.
You can create pie charts that show how much of your week is involved in each activity.
It’s easy! Follow these three steps to create your pie chart:
- Create a column for the activity title and then put in the amount of time for each activity.
- Highlight the cells with the data.
- Then go to Insert, and look for the Pie Chart option.
Pro Tip: If you want to add labels, hover over the pie, right click, and select Add Data Labels. You may add percentages by hovering over the pie, right clicking, and selecting format data.
Using Google Forms/Sheets
Just like with Excel (see example above), you can easily create a pie chart from a table of data. Simply create your columns, enter your values, highlight the section, and click on insert and chart. Google will default to a pie chart.
Using SSW Tools
With the SSW Tools App you can generate and print reports in just seconds.
With our report generator you can:
- See the amount and percent of time spent on different tasks.
- Get a break down of time spent on general vs. special education students as well as caseload vs. non-caseload related activities.
- Obtain deeper insights with data filters that allow you to run complex queries like “How much time did I spend last week, on crisis intervention, with general education students, that are not on my caseload?”
5. Analyze How You Spend Your Time
Now that have you have your data in a usable format, it’s time to analyze and reflect on the results. Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you look at your data:
Are some tasks taking too long? Identify the activities that are consuming a lot of your time. What could you do to be more efficient? Could you create a reusable template or systematized process? Would scheduling the task during a different part of the day help? Could you group similar tasks together to decrease having to mentally “shift-gears” too frequently?
Where is time being wasted? Are you spending time searching for things you can’t find and therefore could be better organized? While it’s important to talk and share with colleagues, are you finding yourself spending unnecessary time socializing? Do you need to set better boundaries around staff walking into your office to chat?
Are you doing work that others could be doing? For example, are you spending a lot of time pushing into classrooms to deliver universal SEL lessons when you could be coaching teachers to deliver the lessons?
6. Share Your Results
Congratulations–you’ve started tracking your time! Now it’s time to figure out how to share or communicate the results of your data with key stakeholders and colleagues, both within your district and possibly in our online community–the SSWNetwork.
Sharing With Administrators
- First and most important: clarify your purpose for sharing the data. Before scheduling a meeting with your administrator, you should be clear about your reason for the meeting.What do you want to see happen? Are you wanting to advocate for additional personnel, a change in assigned duties, or a better process for responding to crisis? Clarifying your purpose for the meeting will keep the meeting focused.
- Bring relevant data. Make sure that the data you present is clear and aligned to your purpose for meeting. The data should be free of unnecessary information that could distract from your primary objective.
- Align objectives to what’s important to them. You’re more likely to succeed in advocating for a change when you can communicate how that change would positively impact something that your administrator (or district) strongly values.
- Come prepared with solutions. No one likes to be presented with problems. If you can come in potential solutions, it shows initiative and demonstrates your ability to problem solve.If you want to let go of certain responsibilities, have a few ideas for how those responsibilities will be met.
If you’re advocating for doing something differently, identify potential solutions by finding out what’s working in other schools or districts.
As a Department/Building/School
We are hearing about school social workers using the time-study tool as a team or department (indeed, we hope to have some of them write follow-up articles here at SSWN about their experiences).
Beyond that it might help clarify how time is being spent/not spent across a big high school or across an entire district, our experience tells us that sometimes there can be strength in numbers with a tool like this one–having everybody show what they’re doing can be important and ultimately empowering, based on our research on the tool.
With Colleagues on the SSWNetwork
Finally, we are very interested in forming some groups as part of our social media platform SSWNetwork to help SSW in our 2,300-strong network come together in a virtual space to share what they’re doing and to troubleshoot any issues that come up with collecting, analyzing and sharing their time data.
We will announce some more details about this idea over the next few months, but in the meantime, feel free to join us at SSWNetwork if you haven’t already (100% free to join, always) and to find others there who are looking at their time.
Get Started Today
Ready to get started? Here’s what you can do right now to begin to take control of your time.
1. Register for the SSW Tools App. With our calendar data-entry system and integrated reporting, our free tool is the fastest and easiest way to start your time-study.
2. Join the SSWNetwork and sign up to be a part of a study/collaborative group. We plan to put together a Professional Learning Community (PLC) on the site this Spring, once we get enough people signed up. We’ll be announcing the time-study PLC sometime in April.