Principal Impact

A Reflective Journey with Principal Hackett


What Happened?

Over the last year, we’ve invested much of our scheduled professional development time into a trauma-informed focus. Throughout this journey, I keep coming back to two words that have been game-changers when working with students who are in crisis or simply made a poor decision: “What Happened?” If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘what happened, obviously you’re going to ask a student that question when they aren’t meeting expectations or you’re investigating a behavior incident’ you would be correct. That “what happened?” is an important question, and we obviously need to know literally what has happened in the last few minutes to process the most recent behavior. However, the “what happened?” I’m referring to is “what happened to you?” As in what happened to you that you would make this poor decision? What happened to you that has you so angry? What happened to you that has made you so sad? What happened to you that you are treating others this way?

I will be the first to admit I don’t always have time to dig deeper into the root of the behavior. There are times we are trying to regulate a behavior in the middle of the hallway, and that is not the time to be asking those “what happened?” questions. There are times when “what happened?” will send a student into the full cycle of escalation because the hurt is that deep. Last week I was working with a student who was demonstrating unexpected behavior. These behaviors (name calling, swearing, bullying-type actions) came as a surprise to his teachers and the office staff because they were not typical of this student. When I asked the student “what happened?” he was very honest about the things that were happening around school and on the bus. When I asked him what was happening to him outside of school to cause him to hurt other people, he immediately started crying and going into detail about his dad leaving the house and how hurt he is. Asking this student, “what happened to you?” completely changed the conversation. I could have easily moved forward after talking about his actions with discipline and a standard call home. Instead, we were able to put a plan into place to support all of the students involved, repair relationships, find support with our social workers, and have a meaningful conversation with the student’s grandma about how school can help through this difficult time.

Any time I blog, I do my best to reference those that have helped inspire me. The leaders in education who have written or spoken on the topic I’m writing about so I can continue to learn from them, and anyone who might be reading can go straight to the expert. I’ve searched through my notes, and I can’t specifically find the author or speaker who first introduced me to “what happened” as the best way to truly understand why unexpected behaviors are happening at school. It could have been Todd Whitaker (“hurt people, hurt people) or Erik Rehwaldt’s trauma-informed training to our staff. It could have been LaVonna Roth’s or Ken William’s keynote talks at First Institute this summer. Did I read it in Kids Deserve It or Hacking Early Learning or Be The One or Talk to Me? Maybe even from Mrs. Rengel and Mrs. Simon, Little Mountain’s amazing social workers? Whether they’ve used those exact words or not, they all have taught me such an important lesson in working with students who demonstrate unexpected behaviors: Until we understand what our students have been through, we won’t fully understand why their behaviors appear how and when they do. And isn’t that the key to moving into a trauma-informed mindset to help ALL of our students?


The Heart of Discipline

It’s officially October at Little Mountain Elementary. We joked that the ‘honeymoon is over’ during our last staff meeting. In reality, we have started to understand our environment, and our students are now comfortable with their friends and their teachers. At times, they are a little too comfortable. We’re starting to see impulsive decisions from students, friendship concerns, and just poor choices. This isn’t anything new to any of us in education, of course. We live this calendar of events each school year. We stress the importance of positive relationships and connections during September, but there’s probably no better time to reinforce relationships than when student choices need redirection.

Systematic approaches to school discipline are everywhere. Google school discipline systems, and you’ll be overwhelmed by the responses. PBIS, positive discipline, conscious discipline, restitution theory, restorative practices, and even yoga will pop up on your screen. All schools deal with discipline, and if we’re being honest, we will always have students who make poor choices. No matter what system we invest in, I believe strongly that the true difference maker is a proactive approach. What we do after a poor choice is made is important, but the time and positive connections with students on a daily basis from our staff members cannot be overstated as what matters most.

With that being said, what is the best approach after a poor choice has been made by a student and they are sent to the office? I’ve learned so much from reading about the various systems and people I’ve worked with over the years that I tend to believe there’s no fool-proof answer. In addition, I’m a big supporter of giving each student what they need. Some people would be shocked to learn that we had a fight on the playground last week, and there was no formal office discipline. At the same time, I’ve had students sit with me during their lunch so we could discuss name-calling during recess. Discipline isn’t black and white. There never has been and there never will be a discipline matrix that links behavior to the one solution that will keep the behavior from recurring.

This thought process can complicate things at times. There are staff members who still feel strongly that discipline is synonymous with punishment. I recently reread Todd Whitaker’s book titled, What Great Teachers Do Differently (a must read for anyone in education). In it, he writes, “When a student misbehaves, the great teacher has one goal: to keep that behavior from happening again. The least effective teacher often has a different goal: revenge. Effective teachers are motivated to prevent misbehavior; ineffective teachers are motivated after a student misbehaves, to punish the student. As educators, we must focus on what we have the ability to influence. We all know we can’t change what has already happened; what’s the point of directing our energy there?” This is exactly why each student and each situation needs to be treated differently. What is fair and successful for one student will be unfair and unsuccessful for the next. But we must always keep the end goal in mind: What do we want for this student?

Regardless of the situation, each student needs to leave the office knowing they are cared about. There’s no incident where the reaction from us is to give up on a student. It’s yet another opportunity to build a positive connection in hopes of increasing more positive behavior. Almost every one of the students who spend time with me in the office for redirection will look for reassurance the next time I see them. This could be a hug, a wave, a high five, or any other call for attention to remind me that they are doing their job. This is how I know my time with the student has been effective. To me, the students are recognizing they made a mistake, they are communicating they are remorseful, and they want to repair the relationship. We use a multitude of strategies to work with the students during an office referral. The one constant is that if they go back to class ready to learn and feeling cared about there’s a much better chance the behavior will not repeat.


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