Hacking the Principal’s Office in a Trauma-Informed School Environment

Jun 21, 2018 · 6 min read
If you ever make it to Bowling Green Elementary (Bowling Green, Missouri), you will be greeted by Wilma, the 4-paw counselor!

In my expereince as a Trauma-Informed School Design-Thinker/Coach, the greatest cultural shift while assisting schools as they move toward a trauma-informed school environment came within the mindset of the Principal’s Office.

These Principal’s get it!

Here’s a 30,000 ft. view of one school’s trauma-informed ‘Hacking’ leadership process:

Click to view video
credit: www.lynnecazaly.com

STEP 1: “What the Hell are we trying to do here?”

To quote a former supervisor that helped our team stay grounded in our mission to re-imagine a school community rooted in empathy; we first needed to understand our ‘why’ before addressing the ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions.

Simply put, does the Principal understand Simon Sinek’s ‘Why’ question? ‘Why’ did you decide to become a Principal? I’m guessing that answer for most Principals hasn’t changed much from the time they decided to become a classroom teacher. So often we fall into the traditional expectations & norms that are associated for a particular position or office without first reflecting upon whether or not our core principles can be identified through our daily actions.

As awareness of the neuroscience within the trauma-informed movement increases, current practices and policies, especially those falling within the Principal’s Office, will require deep dives into our Why’s. Think how much healthier our school communities would be if we first sought out the right question(s). As in, “why do I have to suspend this student that clearly is communicating through his behaviors that he or she is in pain and will be subject to re-traumatization as a result of doing so?”

Step 2: ‘Know Thy Impact’ as Principal.

According to a study by the University of Chicago Corsortium on School Research, the most effective leaders were the ones that focused more on culture than curriculum. [Culture eats curriculum for breakfast]

Hattie’s meta-analyses work provides the most comprehensive research we have for Principals looking for a formula to create that Dream Team. Surprisingly or not, if culture eats curriculum for breakfast, then as Principal it is critically important that you understand your ‘impact super powers’ lies within rising others up so that breakfast can indeed be served.

Hattie’s work synergizes well within the TIC Components

So, ‘what’s’ the biggest takeaway with these forementioned bodies of research.

Yes, you have it right. That wasn’t a question but a statement. It’s your ‘what’s’ as in, “what as Principal can I focus my attention on that will cultivate the greatest impact on student learning?” Use the above graphics as your cheat sheet.

Step 3: That leaves us with the ‘How’.

For that, refrain from adopting cookie cutter trauma-informed programs. By now you have established your ‘why’ and ‘what’s’. Empower your school community to collaboratively craft your trauma-informed journey. Everyone wants to feel that they are a part of something larger than themselves. That is what the trauma-informed movement is all about. Allow your school community that experience.

Great leaders understand how important it is to create a community of Empowered Learners. Empowered Learners here refers to everyone in the village (students and adults alike).

Step 4: Lead ‘systems-level’ changes as opposed to implementing ‘programs du-jour.’

Credit: barnstable.k12.ma.us

Your staff will thank you for this one!

In this graphic shown, a school community may have many ‘programs’ associated within each of the inner circle five domains. But, programs tend to die on the vine unless they are properly cultivated or nourished within a ‘system’. This particular school utilizes a PBIS framework (evidence-based).

This also goes back to the 30,000 foot view of ‘why’ we are doing ‘what’ we are doing and subsequently leading to the ‘how’ pathway. Another analogy: Let’s say you have this great gift to send to someone special. However, if care isn’t given to the packaging & bundling process, your gift has a high probability of being either damaged or loss in delivery. Nothing could be more devastating!

Here’s a ‘trauma-informed school’ example of ‘systems-level’ thinking:

Trauma-informed schools and mindfulness go hand-in-hand. Once you train your staff on the ACEs research (Adverse Childhood Experience Study), it won’t be long before various mindfulness programs begin knocking on your Principal’s door.

If you are introducing a mindful practice such as yoga into your school; how does this ‘practice’ become a ‘system’? In other words, does your staff just ‘do’ yoga when the counselor leads the building through some type of grounding exercises during the morning announcements?

Or, did you begin with establishing the ‘Why’ behind this practice? Which has led your community to personally experience and understand the deeper & empowering lifelong benefits of this practice. In addition, how will you monitor the impact (what) that this practice is having on your school culture?[Know Thy Impact]

Transforming Education provides a FREE Mindfulness Toolkit. Take a look below at a sample strategy they provide in creating sustainable ‘systems-level’ changes.

Source: Transforming Education Toolkit

So, what is the biggest takeaway that I can give you as the Principal of you trauma-informed movement?

Always begin with adult (teacher) self-care! Like anything in life, once individuals can experience firsthand the therapeutic benefits, you no longer need to be the sole runner carrying the torch! And don’t forget Hattie’s research outlining your true superpowers rest in lifting others up (Collective Teacher Efficacy).

Finally, I will leave you with this video of a Principal who truly understands how to turn practices into systems-level changes. She is shown coaching an office discipline referral through a calming strategy. No scripts. Clearly, a practice that has become her way of life!

Click for Video

Call to Action: If you know of a Principal contemplating moving toward a trauma-informed school community, please forward.

Together, we can create learning communities where everyone feels loved, seen, heard, and valued!


Jim Walters

Written by

Trauma-Informed School Design-Thinker/Coach/Consultant/Speaker www.traumainformedlearning.com

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