School Social Work Leadership: Essential Knowledge, Skills, and Practices for the Profession.

Author:Elswick, Susan E.
Position:Report
 
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School social workers are versatile professionals who focus on optimizing student performance by promoting school-home-community relationships that are beneficial to youth development. Although school social work research has focused extensively on professional development and career preparedness, leadership is often overlooked as an integral role for today's school social workers. This article identifies this gap in the literature, reports the findings of a systematic review of state-level standards of school social work practice, and examines how leadership is promoted within these standards. Results of this review are discussed and specific leadership domains applicable to the field of school-based social work practice are provided. Implications for improving leadership outcomes for school based social workers are discussed.

Literature Review

Leadership typically refers to directing a small group, network, or orgaization. Leadership in any discipline is imperative to advancing its practice (McCall, 1981). As a result, leadership is a valuable professional attribute and academics have attempted to characterize the attributes of leading professionals of today. For example, a study by Kedian, Giles, Morrison, and Fletcher (2015) found that effective leaders are people who (1) demonstrate strong ethics and provide a sense of safety, (2) empower others to self-organize, (3) foster a sense of connection and belonging, (4) show openness to new ideas and foster organizational learning, and (5) nurture growth. Many of the characteristics highlighted by Giles (2016) are reflective of direct practices provided by social workers on a day-to-day basis. However, leadership within the context of social work is not as clearly defined.

Within the context of social work practice, leadership is referenced as the capacity to work creatively, constructively, and effectively with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities to promote social justice, catalyze social change, and address individual and social problems (Haynes, 2014). Current research proposes that social workers are uniquely positioned to be leaders in their respective fields as a result of their biopsychosocial and ecological approach to assessing needs and problems for their clients and addressing their clients' issues in ethical and client-focused ways (Werner-Lin, McCoyd, Doyle, & Gehlert, 2016). Social workers possess multiple skill sets that address the needs of clients served within micro, mezzo, and macro practice. Micro-level intervention skills include the use of evidenced-informed assessments; appropriate diagnosis; evidence-based interventions; and specific evaluations for individuals, groups, and families. Examples of skills used to address mezzo-level practice can be seen in any intervention targeted at addressing small context issues such as those found in neighborhoods or schools. Finally, macro-system skills concern large-system intervention practices such as involvement in policy development and change. Indeed, the practice framework needed to address social issues places practitioners in a unique position in which they must be leaders of their field of practice regardless of the level of intervention they are implementing.

Research on leadership in social work has spanned several arenas, including hospital social work, palliative care, international social work, and human refugee and ethics work. For example, social work leaders have often been seen in managerial roles in which they take on administrative and advocacy roles within the systems in which they work (Hughes & Wearing, 2013). Many of the current leadership trends in social work practice reflect business-related outcomes and processes rather than human service goals and processes (Peters, 2018).

School Social Work and Leadership Research: A Gap in the Literature

There is little empirical research that examines leadership for social workers employed in schools or school-linked agencies. This is potentially problematic in terms of considering current practice models for school social work practice. For example, one of the most prominent practice models for school social work is the school social work practice model presented by the School Social Work Association of America (Frey et al., 2012). This framework suggests that school social workers must be competent across three domains to be effective practitioners: (1) evidence-based services, (2) positive learning environment, and (3) maximum student access to school- and community-linked services. Micro- and mezzo-level tasks centered around these domains require school social workers to take on leadership roles.

Practice requirements and professional tasks for school social work are outlined across several practice frameworks, including the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) 2015 Educational Policy Accreditation Standards (EPAS), National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Standards in School Social Work Practice, and state-specific standards in school social work practice from across the nation. Therefore, it is likely that school social workers today, regardless of their capacity or specific roles, engage in some level of leadership in their practice. However, the extent to which state-level practice standards exist to guide social workers in leader-ship practices has not be adequately studied. Moreover, the consistency of these models as they promote leadership has not been examined.

Leadership and School Social Work: Reviewing the Existing Standards

In order to better understand where school social work originated in its practices and to identify why leadership in school social work is often overlooked, we examine the literature on topics of leadership and practice. As illustrated by Phillippo (2013), school social work emerged as a practice that focused on addressing students' issues through a socio-eco-logical perspective, an attribute that makes school social work practitioners unique today. This framework for addressing student problems places school social workers in a position in which their practices require them to have strong and effective leadership capabilities. However, preparedness for these capabilities is not mandated in education and is inconsistently referenced in state-level criteria for licensure. For example, Brilliant (1986) argued that leadership is a missing component in social work training, and Rank and Hutchison (2000) corroborated this by indicating that leadership in school social work practice is rarely researched nor is it used as a topic for publication. In addition, these authors supported Stoesz's (1997) contention that aspiring young professionals are forced to find or create their own leadership positions with little or no background training or experience. The profession of social work is working toward conducting more research and initiating more discussions on the importance of leadership roles in the field and the need for expansion of practice areas and standards to include leadership.

Leadership is an essential part of practice within all levels of school social work programming, but that does not necessarily mean that leadership is directly taught in schools of higher education nor is it reflected in social work standards or school social work state-specific standards. It has been noted that social workers often have little knowledge of leadership and leadership skills (Lawler, 2007). Lawler briefly defined leadership in school social work as focusing on concepts of motivation and change and further characterized it within a clinical context as an ability to promote effectiveness and demonstrate other organizational qualities, such as creativity and flexibility.

Additionally, research by Cassie, Sowers, and Rowe (2007) identified different types of leadership skills that social workers need in order to be effective leaders. These skills include interpersonal communication, conflict management, team building, group facilitation, coaching, and public relations. These authors also identified other leadership skills that were important including ability to confront colleagues, consistent judgment, public speaking skills, relationship-building skills, and time management skills (Cassie et al., 2007). Research suggests that there are many facets of leadership and that no...

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