Professional learning communities (PLCs) have become commonplace in K-12 schools for helping teachers collaborate to build their professional capacities and address school-based problems. However, rigorous research on the key components, mechanisms, and impact of PLCs has been limited overall, with virtually no research conducted on PLCs with school social workers (SSW). This article examines the first-year experiences of school mental health professionals (SMHP) in a two-year PLC made up largely of SSW from an array of schools and districts throughout metropolitan Chicago. Drawing on qualitative data gathered from three rounds of in-depth interviews with participants during the first year of the PLC, we find that the PLC drew participants who sought specific opportunities through the PLC to improve their knowledge and skills to lead their schools in advancing social, emotional, and mental health (SEMH) services and supports in their schools. Through the professional camaraderie they quickly found among their PLC colleagues, participants engaged collaboratively to develop an array of interventions for their schools, strengthened their professional capacities, and enhanced their sense of professional self-efficacy. By the end of the first year, participants overwhelmingly cited their PLC experiences as beneficial to reducing SMHP professional isolation, creating a supportive, resource-rich group of SMHP colleagues, and rejuvenating their commitment to the profession and their ability to lead their schools in advancing SEMH services and supports. Implications for further research on PLCs and advancing the professional development of SSW are discussed.


School Social Work, Professional Learning Communities, School Mental Health Practice, Professional Development, Generic Qualitative Research

Author Bio(s)

Andrew Brake is an assistant professor of social work at Northeastern Illinois University. His research examines how trust and collaboration shape teaching and social work practice and the lead roles of social workers in improving policies, practices, and partnerships in urban public high schools. Most recently, Dr. Brake was Co-Principal Investigator for the School Mental Health Professional Learning Community Project, a two-year qualitative examination of a professional learning community designed specifically for school mental health practitioners in metropolitan Chicago. Dr. Brake’s future research aims to understand the lead roles social workers play in enhancing school-wide school mental health and school climate initiatives in urban public high schools. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Andrew Brake, Social Work Program, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, IL 40425. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to: a-brake@neiu.edu.

Michael S. Kelly, PhD, LCSW, is professor and director of the Family and School Partnerships Program at Loyola University Chicago's School of Social Work. Prior to coming to Loyola in Fall 2006, he was a school social worker, family therapist, and youth minister in the Chicago area. He has written over 64 articles, book chapters, and books on school social work and evidence-based practice (EBP). His most recent books are 2015's School Social Work: Research, Practice, and Policy (8th Ed.) and Solution-Focused Brief Therapy in Schools: A 360-Degree View of Research and Practice (2nd ed.).


The authors wish to thank all those who participated in the School Social Work Professional Learning Community Project. Without your commitment to improving your practice and our profession this study would have never been possible.

Publication Date


Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.



Included in

Social Work Commons



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.