Abstract: Hosted, Not Hoisted: School Social Workers, School Administrators, and the Struggle for Leadership in School Mental Health (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Hosted, Not Hoisted: School Social Workers, School Administrators, and the Struggle for Leadership in School Mental Health

Friday, January 17, 2020
Capitol, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Andrew Brake, PhD, Assistant Professor, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, IL
Michael Kelly, PhD, Professor, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose: School social workers (SSW) are increasingly assuming important school wide leadership roles in the provision of school mental health (SMH) services. A recent latent profile analysis of the 2014 National SSW Survey (n=3,769) (Thompson, Frey & Kelly, 2019) revealed that 17 percent of SSW reported working at a high level of using ecological, data-driven, and evidence-informed practices, regardless of their school contexts. As such, these SSW are well positioned to be seen as highly effective school leaders providing these critical services in their host settings. Additionally, school administrators (SA) are increasingly being tasked to report on and strengthen their schools’ provision of SMH services including building safe and supportive school climates and promoting social and emotional teaching and learning activities. This study seeks to understand how SSW and SA view their respective roles and responsibilities in collaborating and leading the provision of SMH services and highlights current barriers and potential pathways for strengthening SSW and SA SMH leadership capacities.

Methods: Drawing on data from a two-year study of a SSW professional learning community (PLC) in metropolitan Chicago, this study analyzes 27 in-depth interviews with 9 SSW conducted at the beginning, middle, and end of 2016-17 school year, as well as 9 interviews with the SA of each SSW at the end of the same year. Analyzing SSW and SA interviews this qualitative study examined how each defined their own professional roles and responsibilities in the provision of SMH services in their respective schools, as well as the opportunities and barriers they perceive in leading these efforts. Following a generic qualitative approach, transcribed interviews were analyzed and coded and themes were developed using NVivo10 qualitative software.

Results: In this study, clear themes emerged related to how the 9 SSW viewed their roles and responsibilities in leading the provision of SMH services as well as the variations they perceived in the vision, support, guidance and investment demonstrated by their SA in advancing SMH services. Analysis of the 9 SA interviews also revealed themes related to the perceived professional strengths and capacities of their SSW as well as their effectiveness and impact in leading SMH services. SA and SSW interviews also revealed critical insights about the crucial roles of the SSW to their school’s functioning, providing formal leadership by facilitating 3-tier Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS) teams and in developing whole-school initiatives related to bullying prevention, supporting homeless youth, and being the “go-to” SMH resource for key stakeholders in the building to address mental health, family, and community crises, and teacher conflicts.

Conclusions and Implications: SSW are often characterized as having the requisite skills to assume leadership roles in schools, despite the relative lack of role models or pathways to clear leadership opportunities. This study shows the critical role that SA can play in prioritizing SMH services in their schools and in building the leadership capacities of SSW. Implications for future research, training and policy will also be discussed.