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What Are School Social Work’s Grand Challenges? A SSWN Research, Training, and Practice Forum for 2017

What Are School Social Work’s Grand Challenges?  A SSWN Research, Training, and Practice Forum for 2017

This post will kick-off a regular series in our “Research That Matters” section here at SSWN, starting now through 2017.  Each post will address what we see as the “Grand Challenges” facing school social work today, drawing in part on the Grand Challenges framework initiated by social work researchers at the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare .  Part 1:  Identifying The Training Needs for School Social Workers In 2017   will address what current research tells us are some of the major training and practice needs for school social workers here in the U.S.  Part 2:  Building A Research Agenda For School Social Work Training will map out ways that current (and possible) school social work research can assist practitioners in ensuring that their practice is data-driven and evidence-informed, through the development of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), online tools like this website, and other social media inte.  Part 3:  School Social Work In The Age Of Trump will suggest a range of policy-practice strategies that we can engage in now to advocate for our clients, our schools, and ourselves in what may prove to be the grandest challenge of all–a full-frontal assault on public education by the Trump administration and his allies in Congress. We will get the conversation started for all of these areas, but we hope that as researchers and practitioners, you will join us and offer you perspective and expertise, and consider contributing to “Research That Matters” in 2017.

Part 1:  Identifying The Training Needs For School Social Workers In 2017

(Note:  this post excerpts an essay I wrote for NASW’s School Social Work Specialty Section, “Can School Social Work Practice Meet its own Grand Challenges?”  To get the full article,  join NASW’s SSW section here. )

In September 2016,  a group of social workers gathered in St. Louis for the First Grand Challenges Conference, entitled “Social Innovation for America’s Renewal: Ideas, Evidence, Action.” At the conference, nationally-known social work leaders shared their ideas for how Social Work’s 12 Grand Challenges can be tackled using social work research and practice.   All of these challenges, organized around three themes (Individual and Family Well-Being, Stronger Social Fabric, and Just Society) have a range of applications to schools and school social work practice. (For a list of the challenges and policy briefs outlining each one, go to; full disclosure: I am a secondary author on the “Achieve Equal Opportunity and Justice” policy brief, along with a number of other social work scholars.)

As a school social worker of 14 years who has now spent the last 10 years asking school social workers what they do and what barriers they experience in their practice, one thing becomes clear when you read these policy briefs: current school social work practice will have to change if it’s going to contribute to the work of the Grand Challenges. Much will need to change if we are going to assume the expansive and evidence-informed school social work practice roles that are able to take on the kind of advocacy and prevention-oriented work called for in these policy briefs.

For the past decade, I have been involved with various school social work research teams in analyzing survey and focus group data where school social workers describe their practice choices and the way their various roles fit within a three-tier MTSS structure. We’ve asked them to describe their practice realities and also tell us about their “ideal” practice, assuming they didn’t face barriers in their school or their role descriptions. Some persistent trends have emerged that are concerning, and seem to add up to a school social work practice challenge that must be met before we are able to address the macro-practice issues outlined in the Grand Challenges:

  • Overall, school social workers are not promoting universal/macro-practice strategies in their schools. These interventions are often referred to in the current MTSS parlance as Tier 1 interventions (Kelly, Frey, Thompson, Klemp, Alvarez, & Berzin,  2016).
  • Even when they are involved in Tier 1 work, school social workers report they aren’t able to do it consistently through the school year and report feeling unsupported in their schools due to their high caseloads and the need to be compliant with special education and Medicaid mandates (Kelly, Thompson, Frey, Klemp, Alvarez, & Berzin, 2015; Kelly, Frey, Alvarez, Berzin, Shaffer, & O’ Brien, 2010).
  • Overall, school social workers report they don’t have the tools to engage in data-driven, evidence-informed practice. They also report that they didn’t acquire training in these skills in their pre-service social work training and field placements to feel ready to use data to demonstrate the impacts of their services (Phillippo, Kelly, Shayman, & Frey, under review).
  • Though some school social work practitioners with fewer than 10 years of experience are showing more facility with collecting data, engaging in prevention work, and using evidence-informed practice (Thompson, Frey, & Kelly, under review), the field as a whole is still not engaging in these practices consistently in ways that would allow them to respond to the Grand Challenges outlined above or many of the policy initiatives within U.S. K-12 education (e.g. establishing effective MTSS in schools to help address achievement and discipline gaps for minority youth).

There is a lot to digest here, and possibly a lot to question as well.  We hope you come to this site and challenge these grand challenges that I’m outlining here.  In many ways, that’s the essence of what we’re going to try to do at this section of SSWN for 2017:  to gather a variety of researcher, practitioner, and policymaker voices to better understand what we think the realities of school social work practice are for the early 21st century, and how we hope to shape school social work practice going forward.  I can’t wait to get started.


Kelly, M.S., Frey, A., Thompson, A, Klemp, H., Alvarez, M. & Berzin, S.C. (2016). Assessing the National School Social Work Practice Model: Findings from the 2nd National SSW Survey. Social Work.

Kelly, M.S., Thompson, A., Frey, A., Klemp, H., Alvarez, M. & Berzin, S.C. (2015). The state of school social work: Revisted. School Mental Health. DOI:  10.1007/s12310-015-9149-9

Kelly, M.S., Frey, A., Alvarez, M., Berzin, S.C., Shaffer, G., & O’Brien, K. (2010). School social work practice and Response to Intervention. Children & Schools, 32 (4), 201-9.

Phillippo, K., Kelly, M.S., Shayman, E., & Frey, A. Adaptability, innovation, and constant customization: A qualitative extension of the 2014 Second National School Social Work Survey. Manuscript under review.

Thompson, A., Frey, A., & Kelly, M.S. Contextual practice factors and evidence-based beliefs and practices and ecologically focused school social work practice profiles: A latent class analysis. Manuscript under review.

About The Author

Michael Kelly

Michael S. Kelly PhD, LCSW is the Lucian and Carol Welch Matusak Professor and Director of the School Mental Health Advanced Practice certificate and Family and School Partnerships Program at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Social Work. Prior to coming to Loyola in Fall 2006, he was a school social worker, family therapist, and youth minister in the Chicago area for 14 years. He has authored over 80 journal articles, books, and book chapters on school social work, evidence-based practice (EBP), and positive youth development. He is a fellow of the Oxford Symposium for School-Based Family Counseling, co-Chair of the Society for Social Work & Research SSW Special Interest Group, Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of School Social Work, and Associate Editor of School Mental Health. He has recently brought his work on school mental health and EBP to researchers and practitioners in England, Rhode Island, Wyoming, Canada, Chile, and Japan.

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