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Integrating Services for Safe and Successful Schools

By ASCA and a Coalition of Education Associations | October 2020

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Creating safe, orderly and welcoming learning environments is critical to educating and preparing all of our children and youth to achieve their highest potential and contribute to society. School counselors, school psychologists and school social workers all offer unique individual skills that complement one another so that the sum is greater than the parts. When given the opportunity to work collectively, they are ready and capable of providing an even wider range of services.

Many professionals within a school help to support students’ positive mental health and serve in critical leadership roles in school safety and positive school climate. Although many school-based professionals contribute to positive mental health and social/emotional learning, school-based mental health teams traditionally consist of school counselors, school psychologists and school social workers. Their training and expertise help link mental health, behavior, environmental factors (e.g., family, classroom, school, community), instruction and learning. Each of these professionals helps to create school environments that are safe, supportive and conducive to learning. Each may deliver similar services such as counseling, social/emotional skill instruction and consultation with families and teachers; however, each profession has its own unique focus based upon its specializations, which result in different, albeit interrelated, services. The specific services and expertise of individual practitioners may vary, but the following describes the core competencies and specialized instructional services of each profession.

SCHOOL COUNSELORS have a minimum of a master’s degree in school counseling. School counselors are generally the first school-employed mental health professional to interact with students as they commonly are involved in the provision of universal learning supports to the whole school population. School counselors help screen students for the basic skills needed for successful transition from cradle to college and career. These professionals focus on helping students address their academic, career and social/emotional development goals and needs by designing, implementing and evaluating a school counseling program that promotes and enhances student success. School counselors work to promote safe learning environments for all members of the school community and regularly monitor and respond to behavior issues that affect school climate, such as bullying, student interpersonal struggles and student–teacher conflicts. Effective school counseling programs are a collaborative effort among the school counselor, teachers, families and other educators to create an environment promoting student achievement, active engagement, equitable access to educational opportunities and a rigorous curriculum for all students.

SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGISTS have a minimum of a specialist-level degree (60 graduate semester hour minimum) in school psychology, which combines the disciplines of psychology and education. They typically have extensive knowledge of learning, motivation, behavior, childhood disabilities, assessment, evaluation and school law. School psychologists specialize in analyzing complex student and school problems and selecting and implementing appropriate evidence-based interventions to improve outcomes at home and school. School psychologists consult with teachers and parents to provide coordinated services and supports for students struggling with learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral problems, and they assist students experiencing anxiety, depression, emotional trauma, grief and loss. They are regular members of school crisis teams and collaborate with school administrators and other educators to prevent and respond to crises. They have specialized training in conducting risk and threat assessments designed to identify students at risk for harming themselves or others. School psychologists’ training in evaluation, data collection and interpretation can help ensure decisions made about students, the school system, and related programs and learning supports are based on appropriate evidence.

SCHOOL SOCIAL WORKERS have a master’s degree in social work. They have special expertise in understanding family and community systems and linking students and their families with the community services that are essential for promoting student success. School social workers’ training includes specialized preparation in cultural diversity, systems theory, social justice, risk assessment and intervention, consultation and collaboration, and clinical intervention strategies to address students’ mental health needs. They work to remove barriers to learning created as a result of poverty, inadequate health care and neighborhood violence. School social workers often focus on providing supports to vulnerable populations of students that have a high risk for truancy and dropping out of school, such as homeless and foster children, migrant populations, students transitioning between school and treatment programs or the juvenile justice system, or students experiencing domestic violence. They work closely with teachers, administrators, parents and other educators to provide coordinated interventions and consultation designed to keep students in school and help their families access the supports needed to promote student success.

Modern schools are highly complex and unique organizations that operate with an urgent imperative: Educate and prepare all children and youth to achieve their highest potential and contribute to society, no matter their socioeconomic background or geographic location. Creating safe, orderly, warm and inviting school environments is critical to ensuring all of our schools meet this goal. To create this type of environment, schools must work toward integrating services (academic, behavioral, social/emotional and mental health) through collaboration using multitiered systems of support. Schools should strive to increase access to mental health services, increase the number of school-employed mental health staff and ensure measures to improve school safety balance physical safety with psychological safety.

This article is modified from “A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools,” co-authored by ASCA, the National Association of School Psychologists, the School Social Work Association of America, the National Association of School Resource Officers, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Access the full report