School social work traces its roots to New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Hartford, Connecticut. Initially, private agencies and civic organizations supported this work until school boards accepted its value and agreed to administer and finance it as an integral part of the school system.
By 1916, there were visiting teachers in a number of cities. The dual visiting teacher and social work identities led to the forging of an exclusive association with the social work profession. The process began in 1916 and in a few short years, the National Association of Visiting Teachers existed and school social work had expanded to the Midwestern states. The Association established multidimensional qualifications for visiting teacher membership by the late 1920's and worked to unify and increase professionalism among visiting teachers, and later, school social workers.
The early twentieth century saw several important factors influence the development of school social work including:
- The passage of compulsory school attendance laws
- Greater knowledge about the individual differences among children and their capacity to respond to improved conditions
- The realization of the strategic place and relevance school and education have in the lives of children and youth.
The 1920’s saw a rapid expansion in the school social work field as the result of a series of three-year demonstration projects in various communities under the auspices of the Commonwealth Fund. This program emphasized "the visiting teacher prevention work in the field of children's maladjustments, individual juvenile delinquency and school social casework is valuable in making the work of a school more effective". Throughout the decade, literature emphasized the significant role of the schools in the lives of children and recognized school as "the strategic center of child welfare work."
School social work growth declined the following decade due to the financial turbulence and many services were discontinued or severely cut. The emphasis of the field shifted to the goal of "happy, wholesome children" and the work expanded into average or superior school districts, thereby avoiding any stigma and illustrating that school social workers provide services that help all students achieve more. The emphasis was on the responsibility of the school setter rather than on community responsibility.
By the 1940's, the transition was complete from an earlier focus on school and neighborhood and social change to a clinical presentation in relation to the personality needs of the individual school child. Also in the 1940's and on into the 1950's school social work became more widely accepted as an important component of the educational program in many leading schools, thus leading to an increase in the number of workers and the literature about the work.
By the 1960's, it became clear that the value of the very best casework involving an individual child could be meaningless due to the number of factors affecting the child's life. Traditional group work and community organization methods were then utilized as new ways to assist children, parents, and teachers in effectively using the school as a learning system.
The passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, Public Law 94-142, for the first time required that nationally, every child evaluated for special education placement had to have a social assessment as part of the case study evaluation. This led to increased utilization and employment of school social workers in both the areas of regular and special education.
As the growing profession of school social work evolved, it became apparent specialized knowledge and skills are essential in the delivery of the best services within the school setting. This need for advanced knowledge and training resulted in the growth of graduate programs for school social work.