Workload Versus Caseload: Changing the Conversation
Note: we will be sharing an updated version of this work at the 22nd Annual Center for School Mental Health Conference on October 19th.
I am a school social work consultant in Michigan responsible for the professional development of roughly 300 school social workers in one county.
About once every few months, I receive an email that asks about how many students should a school social worker have on their caseload. While speech pathologists have a recommendation of 60 students in Michigan (it’s in the state rules), school social workers have no such number.
Sometimes, I might refer to them to Appendix C in the Illinois State Board of Education Student Services Providers Recommended Practices & Procedures Manual for School Social Workwhich gives some student to social worker ratios.
The problem with the Caseload Discussion
To be honest, I am bothered by this question because of two reasons. First, no two school social work positions are the same. For example, a high school social work position can look very different from an elementary one. School social workers intervene with younger students and families differently than we do with secondary students where students are given more opportunity for self-determination.
The other problem with this question is that a caseload number doesn’t take into account all of the duties that a school social worker does outside of direct service to their caseload. Last year, for example, in a small time study pilot group, we found that on average, school social workers only spent two hours a day on caseload direct service. The remainder of the day was spent on paperwork, consultation, crisis and service to the building as a whole.
For these reasons, the conversation really needs to be shifted to discussing workloads instead of caseloads.
Caseload vs. Workload: What’s the Difference?
According to The Idea Partnership, Caseload typically refers to the number of students with individual Education programs (IEPs) or Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSP). A caseload model is basically a medical model that does not account for the expanded social work roles that are needed to achieve positive outcomes.
In contrast, a workload approach refers to a continuum of activities that are provided to and on behalf of students (direct & indirect) necessary to ensure compliance with IDEA & NCLB/ESSA and supports best practice models such as Universal Design for Learning, Common Core Standards, and other state and local mandates.
A workload approach, then, considers all activities including direct and indirect caseload services, general education interventions and compliance activities. These include:
- direct service delivery,
- IEP and other meetings,
- consultation and collaboration with staff and families,
- assistive technology responsibilities,
- professional development,
- planning and research,
- behavior support, and
- Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS).
Benefits of a Workload Approach
Using a workload approach leads to a better match between the social worker’s role and their assignments. According to the Idea Partnership materials, the workload approach
- encourages collaboration,
- complies with IDEA 2004,
- supports early identification of struggling learners, and
- promotes student wellness.
It also reduces the number of ethical conflicts that a school social worker might experience related to not having enough time by having staffing models that are meeting the school community needs.
The workload approach has been promoted by the American Occupational Therapy Association, American Physical Therapy Association, and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Using time study tools, members of the three associations are initiating discussions with administrators in the local and state levels about using workload approaches to staffing instead of caseload models. The results have included a few districts that have changed their assignment practices and have shown less staff turnover and overall increased job satisfaction.
What can you do to join the conversation?
- Start collecting data.
- Group your tasks into categories and keep track of your activities for a week every month.
- Calculate the percentage of time that you spend on each category.
- Analyze the results. (You may obtain our time study tool by clicking here.)
- Then begin to tell your story. It is helpful to get other social workers and itinerants to do the same.
In my next posting, I’ll share how we have created a time study tool and what we have learned so far from the endeavor.
In the meantime, please take our two question survey by clicking here: What are the three top tasks that you spend your time on? What are the top three tasks or services that you believe are most beneficial to students?
Cecere, S., Crandall, D., Dixon, D., Schefkind, S., & Williams, J. (2015, January 25). Workload Approach: A Paradigm Shift for Positive Impact on Student Outcomes. Retrieved December 11, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UMfm5rSgeU
Kelly, M. S., & Whitmore, S. P. (2016, November 5). It’s Time: Using a Time-Study Tool to Understand and Enhance School Social Work Practice. Retrieved December 11, 2016, from https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.masswmi.org/resource/resmgr/2016_conference/2016_handouts_/Friday_Keynote_34_pgs.pdf
Mandlawitz, M., & Kontak, D. (2016, March). Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA): School Social Work, Specialized Instructional Support Personnel, and School-Based Mental Health Services. Retrieved December 11, 2016, from https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.sswaa.org/resource/resmgr/Legislation/SSW_SISP_MH_ESSA_2016_Statut.pdf
Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education (MARSE) With Related IDEA Federal Regulations. (2016, June). Retrieved from https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/MARSE_Supplemented_with_IDEA_Regs_379598_7.pdf
Student Services Providers Recommended Practices & Procedures Manual for School Social Work. (2007, May). Retrieved December 11, 2016, from https://www.isbe.state.il.us/spec-ed/pdfs/social_work_manual.pdf
Whitmore, S. (n.d.). School Social Work Effectiveness. Retrieved December 11, 2016, from https://www.scoop.it/t/school-social-work-effectiveness
Workload Approach: A Paradigm Shift for Positive Impact on Student Outcomes. (2014). Retrieved December 11, 2016, from https://www.asha.org/uploadedFiles/ASHA/Practice_Portal/Professional_Issues/Caseload_and_Workload/APTA-ASHA-AOTA-Joint-Doc-Workload-Approach-Schools.pdf
This is first in a series called: It’s About Time: Ideas, Thoughts and Resources for Managing a School Social Worker’s Most Valuable Resource.
Strong argument and fantastic concept. I am using a time-study tool that I created and plan to use yours as well to compare differences and see how we can make a difference!
Our state association (MN School Social Workers Association) also has been challenged with this issue of ratios over the years. However, about 5 years ago we created an opportunity to collaborate with a partner association (MN School Psychologists Association) to offer an alternative. https://www.msswa.org/Moving-Beyond-Ratios
Thanks for offering additional tools and directions on this topic.
Steve – thank you for writing up a very clear and easy to digest contrast between caseload and workload. This concept has utility beyond school social work. I think this is an article that social workers in a broad swath of social services should read. I’ll share it with my networks. Thank you.
Thanks everyone for the feedback, the resources and passing the word. We have had 48 people request the tool so far.
Do you have a link to the venn diagram?
Looking the the next in the series and have requested the tool with no response.
Can you share your time study tool or at least the categories?
Please use the link that is mentioned above in step 4.
This is an interesting, well-written and concise overview and discussion of the topic. Thank you. This same “debate” rages on in our state. For those that are trying to determine staffing levels, from a state policy perspective, how would you recommend legislators determine the number of positions to fund and at what levels?