Category Archives: Leading A Learning Community

Principle Reflections – The Four C’s for Year One

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I have made it through year one as a Principal! (Ok, only eleven days left!)

I figured out a long time ago that the school year always passes quickly.  Maybe that’s a function of age.  However, this year seemed to pass at an even greater breakneck pace.  I think that was a function of the amount of learning I needed to do this time around.  July is coming and I’ll be able to breathe soon.

So how did the year go?  I would say pretty gosh darn good.  All the of the balls for big picture items are still up in the air and are being juggled reasonably well. There is no doubt that  a few smaller balls have been deferred or dropped.  I believe that the year can be characterized as a positive year for students, staff, and the admin team at both sites. And I am pretty proud of the role that I have played to support the work of our staff.

If I was to sum up this school year, I would want to talk about four areas. Two areas that I believe have come a long way in our schools this year are Collaboration and Culture of Learning. Two areas that I believe need continued growth are Communication and Community Involvement.

What was grown this year…

Collaboration – This is what I believe needs to be a foundational approach to the work that we do in education.  Our kids and society are too complex for any one educator to have all of the answers.  A lot teachers have figured this out and have created networks for themselves to access when they run into a situation for which they need help.  This year we have formalized that process and will continue to do so next year too.

Teachers were placed in more or less grade level teams called Collaborative Learning Teams (CLT).  On approximately a monthly basis, they met and were able to discuss students who posed some sort of an instructional challenge with their colleagues.  There were educational discussions related to learning disabilities, promoting reading, connecting kids to friends and school, managing behaviors, speech and language development, anxiety disorders, parenting support, and more. From each discussion, teachers were left with both short and long term strategies to try.  Students were then reviewed at each meeting to check progress and offer further suggestions if needed.  The discussions were inspiring at times!  There was always a culture of support but there was also a willingness to challenge ideas and assumptions.

This work will become the foundation to build a Collaborative Response Model based on Response to Intervention practices in the coming school year.  It is important to note, that because this work is so important, these discussions happened within the school day.  Teachers were  not expected to juggle their after school schedules to participate.

Culture of Learning – I would venture to say that there has been a different feel in the admin led staff development activities this year.  The staff has experienced a broad range of topics to illustrate the breadth of what is happening in our complex educational landscape.  At the beginning of March, I shared a video clip from 2008 which was at about the time when the “talk” of the need for significant educational reform was taking off.  By taking the key points from that clip and connecting them to current educational practice, The Schools We Need – Then And Now, teachers could see that, in those seven short years, there has been a significant response and shift in the work that we do and it will have lasting implications for educational practice.  From there we have engaged in sessions on Cross Curricular Competencies, The Learning Technology Policy Framework, and their relationship to the Ministerial Order on Student Learning and Inspiring Education.

Professional development has encompassed a broad range of topics.  Some of the highlights include a team of five teachers participating in The Daily 5, a team of seven participating in the Google Summit, a team of four participating in Response to Intervention, and five others participating in project based learning sessions. Teachers have participated in at least one PD session this year with many participating in several. Teachers are reporting on their PGP progress at year end. All of this has been culminated in a viewing of the Ted Talk by Andrew McAfee – What Will Future Jobs Look Like? amplifying the importance of the work we do as educators to prepare our students for the future.

I believe this will be a strong foundation upon which to build the Collaborative Response Model/RTI process which will, in turn, generate the continued learning for teachers as they identify the needs of their students and ensure they have the instructional repertoire to meet those needs.

What needs to grow next year…

Communication – This is communication in the larger sense of the school to the school community. This is most definitely an area of growth. While both Forest Green and Connections For Learning have met basic expectations of classroom newsletters and traditional monthly newsletters with the occasional newspaper visit, there is not a strong web presence for either site.  We need to do some examination of what makes the most sense for our school communities.  Most likely, we will build our communication toward accessibility on mobile devices. Will it be Facebook?  Will it be Google? What about Twitter? We also need to build processes to make it regular practice and allow for widespread participation to advertise and celebrate what we are doing.

Community Involvement – There is no doubt that there is already a vibrant feel with both of our sites.  However, the more we are able to tap into our community connections, the more needs we can meet for our students, the more our students will see themselves connected to their world. How can we reach out to support our community? How can we access resources to support our students?  While we have certainly accessed a variety of smaller scale opportunities, can we leverage these?  Can we obtain grants? Can we use technology to connect with others?  I’m sure there is opportunity out there, we just need to find it and access it. Our parent groups are an obvious starting point.  They are connected into the community and to the schools.

So what do I think at the end of year one?  Well first, I’d really like to come back for year two!  I really think that I have found my stride professionally.  I did jump in a bit early the first time around but now that I  have had more experiences, I am feeling pretty comfortable and confident. There is always more to learn and I will continue to do so!

Principle Reflections from a New Principal

Reflections Word Cloud - Nov 2014

Well to be honest I was a Principal previously about ten years ago.  There were definitely some good times while I was in that role and some tough times too.  But what I realized as my time back then drew to a close was that I didn’t have enough tools in my toolbox to do the job of principal to a level with which I could be happy.  So as I enter the role as Principal of Forest Green School and Connections For Learning, I do feel ready now and am calling myself a new Principal. At the very least I am a new Principal in Parkland School Division.

Being a reflective in one’s work is a foundational piece of effective practice. To that end, I have been asked, as I am sure every other principal across the province has, to submit my reflections on the Principal Quality Practice Guideline. I’ve turned my reflections into a word cloud which you see above.  Here we go…

1. Leadership Dimension – Fostering Effective Relationships
The principal builds trust and fosters positive working relationships, on the basis of appropriate values and ethical foundations, within the school community — students, teachers and other staff, parents, school council and others who have an interest in the school.

This has been my raison d’etre since I started in education as a special ed teacher, moved through many years in a counselling role and then into admin.  When I was working on my counselling masters, one of my mentors at the time was an administrator who was moving into counselling. He told me that the best thing I could do for my admin career (I wasn’t even thinking about it at that point – I guess he was a visionary.) was to complete my work in counselling before admin.

The communication and problem solving skills, flexibility in thinking, and empathic approach to in working with people which developed during my masters studies, of course, helped me through my counselling work but have proven just as beneficial in my early admin work. I have dealt with much more intense conflict and crisis situations as an administrator.  I have ended up counselling parents as they have worked through difficult times with their children. As well, there have been times when it was beneficial help colleagues examine their thinking on particular topics.

To even get to the point of these types of deep conversations and having everyone come out the other end with their dignity in tact, it really comes down to how I carry myself on a daily basis. I believe I am authentic; respectful and honest in pretty much every interaction that I have.  I try to deal with issues directly and be inclusive in working through things. And I try to be an optimist believing there is almost always a place for a good laugh and not to take things too seriously.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.  Relationship work takes time and given the demands of this role, time is the most precious resource I have.  I’m not always conscious of the amount of time things are taking as I work with people and sometimes create time crunches for myself and others.  And I worry that sometimes these time crunches cause me to move through subsequent situations too quickly and that maybe people aren’t properly heard.  Tackling performance concerns with colleagues has been a trouble spot in the past.  I have developed a tougher ‘admin skin’ over the years and added some tools to my toolbox that I believe have helped be more specific and forthright.  These continue to be areas of growth for me and will be an ongoing journey.

2. Leadership Dimension – Embodying Visionary Leadership
The principal collaboratively involves the school community in creating and sustaining shared school values, vision, mission and goals.

I have long been a believer in the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child.” I guess working with families and various support agencies through the years has allowed me to look through the window into what is needed and available for some children and families. And it doesn’t take long to realize that when things are working well and respectfully the outcomes for children and families are usually better when “the team” comes together.  A school community is a varied and complex and it’s important to welcome the village into school.

As a new Principal to Forest Green and a returning administrator to CFL, I have been pretty conscious of seeking first to understand.  Each school I have worked in over the years has had it’s own culture and points of pride.  As a newcomer, it is important to learn and honor those characteristics and accomplishments.  At the same time, schools must be places of continuous growth.   If that is what we expect from and for our students, then the staff must be continuous learners as well.  And it starts at the top!  The first place to look for learning is within.  As we celebrate the many good things we are doing, we also need to be honest and reflective about our areas of growth.  As we discover what needs work, that will drive our continued learning.

Compiling the Annual Education Results Review and Education Plan for 2014-2017 has certainly required me to delve into a variety of data sources to review student performance, student resiliency, and satisfaction levels of students, teachers, and parents.  Given the short timelines of producing such a comprehensive review, I am not satisfied that the planning process that followed the data analysis has been as collaborative as it should be.  The report has been provided and feedback requested but shared dialogue has not occurred. This is definitely an area of growth. That said, the document is a snapshot in time and the process will continue beyond the publication of the report and will be collaborative as the work rolls out.  While it may not be apparent on a daily basis in the operations of the school, part of my role is to ensure that both short and long-term decisions are supporting the directions for growth that have been identified.

3. Leadership Dimension – Leading a Learning Community
The principal nurtures and sustains a school culture that values and supports learning.

Teaching has become very complex over the years. Inclusive education has provided more and more opportunities for students which is an excellent thing!  Correspondingly this has created greater demands on teachers to respond to more student learning and health needs. Technology has both simplified some aspects of teaching but created additional skill prerequisites for effective instruction. Our understanding of brain development and function and the impact on learning has been tremendous in recent years. And the complex lives that students live with many dynamics coming into the school – family breakdown, immigration, mobility, poverty, etc. also impacts the work of teachers.  Teaching is no simple matter and I haven’t even mentioned curriculum yet!

I believe that teachers need to know the basics about all of these complexities and curricular initiatives and then choose, based upon their relevant factors, to dig more deeply into one or two.  We are all at our current point in our learning journey and by the end of each school year we should be a step or two ahead in each area and several steps forward in selected areas. I believe it is a requirement for teachers to continually reflect on their practice and identify where they need to personally develop their craft.  And I need to ensure that there are resources, both time and money, to support their individual growth.  As well, I believe that the staff needs to grow collectively and have always taken the view that the teachers are my group of learners and just like teachers develop annual plans for student learning, I develop an annual plan for staff learning.

The major change that I have introduced as a new Principal is to embed teacher professional learning time into their schedules through the implementation of Collaborative Learning Teams. I don’t believe it can get much more meaningful for teachers than to provide a venue for them to discuss the students who are struggling with their colleagues and use their collective wisdom to develop a plan forward.  I’ve also tied into the process an expectation for each grade level or program to team to pick a topic for deeper learning.  I have been so pleased to see topics like literacy across the curriculum, project based learning, response to intervention in math, emotional regulation, and  more be identified as current professional learning needs. Foundational topics like these will see the time well used!

4. Leadership Dimension – Providing Instructional Leadership
The principal ensures that all students have ongoing access to quality teaching and learning opportunities to meet the provincial goals of education.

When I decided I wasn’t ready to continue being a principal the first time around, this was the area in which I felt the most deficit. I’ve never been a regular classroom teacher!  How could I possibly advise a classroom teacher on their practice?  However, what I have come to realize over the past several years as I have endeavored to fill this section of my toolbox is that my background in working with diverse learners is probably a greater advantage as an administrator than a regular classroom background. Here’s why… There is a whole school full of experts on regular classroom instruction. Each classroom has one!

Yes, I have to be aware enough to recognize when there is a problem and to have a skill set to support new teachers as they enter the profession.  There is a team to draw upon to offer support, the learning coach, the inclusive education lead, Learning Services facilitators, and experienced teachers willing to take on a mentoring role.  By following the processes expected for teacher supervision or teacher evaluation, teacher practice will be reviewed and supported in either context.

That said, the one area that I do think administrators need to be expert  on is the area of assessment and evaluation.  This is area that I believes makes teachers truly a professional, making the judgement as to whether a student has learned or not and putting a process into place when the judgement is ‘not’.  And this needs to be a defensible process based upon sound practice related to curricular expectations and instructional practice.  Closely related to this is the reporting piece which brings parents into the process (Dimension 3).  Assessment is a very complex process and I continue on this learning journey.

My background in working with students who have been outside of the box of regular learning becomes beneficial to teachers when thinking about those few students for whom their usual instructional strategies are not making the difference for learning. For many teachers these students are the ones who keep them awake at night so to have a sounding board and person to go to who knows how to get the resources is a good thing.

5. Leadership Dimension – Developing and Facilitating Leadership
The principal promotes the development of leadership capacity within the school community –- students, teachers and other staff, parents, school council for the overall benefit of the school community and education system.

Oh my gosh, if I had to have my finger in all of the amazing work that is going on to create the positive environments that we have in our schools and create student learning opportunities, I would be more than dead dog tired!   We are a team; and a good team lets those with the right skills sets do the job as it is needed to be successful.  I have been blessed to have very strong teams on all three of our sites.  Most of the time I just need to get out of their way!

While I do have a role to be the cheerleader, I am also the little voice on the shoulder to offer suggestion and guidance. As well, I need to comfortable endorsing the quality of work that is going on. Often a big part of what I need to do is connect; connect people with people or people with resources. And sometimes simple ideas go a long way.  For example, while I was on bus supervision early in the year, I became concerned with traffic speed in the student drop off area.  This was echoed by parents at the School Council meeting.  Three phone calls and a trip to Tim Horton’s led to a successful positive traffic safety campaign.

It is also important to cultivate up and coming leaders into roles and on a path that makes sense for them.  Recognizing their strengths and capitalizing upon them is good for them and the profession. Leadership can be a tough business, so giving quality people a nudge to explore is a good thing.  That nudge can be to more formal leadership activities like attending the PSD session for Leadercast 2015 or PSD’s Exploring Leadership series.  But it can also occur in smaller ways like leading staff committees, organizing the student teachers for the school, student clubs, etc.

6. Leadership Dimension – Managing School Operations and Resources
The principal manages school operations and resources to ensure a safe and caring, and effective learning environment.

In my high school and university days I was a lifeguard and swim coach. Working in that high risk environment has certainly trained me with a predisposition toward ensuring safety.  And my counselling background covers the caring part.  But to really make education work, we have to cover all three dimensions, a safe and caring  and effective learning environment.

I am now in a position to allocate resources to create our safe and caring effective learning environment. I do believe that good people are the key to supporting our students and will continue to make decisions to put good people with kids.  Yes, the bills need to be paid and the stuff needs to be purchased, but caring, growth-oriented people with strong skill sets are what will really make the difference for our kids.

Given the limited resources that we have, I am constantly on the look out to find efficiencies and how to get the most out of our money, time and effort.  I have managed budgets before but don’t have a strong background in it.  Fortunately, we are provided with numerous tools and check-ins to help out. I  just need to keep us financially out of the red.

Related to this are the variety of legislative requirements that schools must adhere to; the School Act and Regulations, Occupational Health and Safety, PSD Administrative Procedures, PE Health and Safety Guidelines, the Guide to Education, the General Information Bulletins and probably more. I do know a fair amount given my number of years in admin so have a sense of when we should be investigating what our responsibilities are. At this point my strategy is to ask when I feel that I am treading into territory where I think there is a legislative consideration but am not sure.

7. Leadership Dimension – Understanding and Responding to the Larger Societal Context
The principal understands and responds appropriately to the political, social, economic, legal and cultural contexts impacting the school.

At this point, the context I am seeing for both Forest Green and Connections for Learning is very much the local context.  Both sites have unique characteristics that must be acknowledged and supported for that safe, caring and effective learning environment to be created. People before me have certainly acknowledged those characteristics and put many supports in place. Strengths like caring and compassion, flexibility, and supporting diverse learners continue to be built upon.  Concerns like poverty, academic readiness, disenfranchisement, and unique learning needs continue to need advocacy and support.

On a broader level, I have taken a recent interest in the Alberta teaching profession by being honored by the PSD ATA Local Council 10 and nominated to our local C2 Committee and then appointed as Key Leader.  C2 Committees were developed as part of the last Provincial Framework Agreement to examine the issue of teacher workload.  I am pleased and proud that our committee has taken a more expansive view to not just examine teacher workload but to add teacher efficacy to our scope to support all teachers in their confidence, individually and collectively, to influence student learning.

Another area where I continue to advocate at a community level is through the implementation of the Tri-Municipal Violence Threat Risk Assessment Project Committee.  This is a committee of approximately sixteen area educational and community support service agencies who came together in the spring of 2014 to sign a community protocol to ensure that there is a multi-agency response to threats or acts of youth violence in the community.  My role on the committee was as lead writer for the protocol.  I continue on the committee to advocate for the comprehensive response to youth violence.

So there they are.  My initial reflections on leadership as I re-enter the role of Principal.  No doubt some veterans will read these and “pshaw” some of my thinking.  I think I’m on a reasonable footing to start and have strong teams at both the school and division levels to support me in my growth.  Who knows what will happen or where I will be next year at this time when my formal reflection time is revisited? Whatever happens, I am sure it will be exciting!

Parents as Partners. No Really… Parents as Partners

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Much of what I am doing in my current role at the school division level is supporting families that are working through a difficult situation involving their child’s behavior at school. Sometimes it’s a specific incident that has led to a violence/threat risk assessment or it might be helping to place a student in a different program more suited to accommodate his/her current behavioral/learning needs. The ease that parents move through these events has a tremendous amount to do with the relationship that has been developed with the teachers and administrators at  the child’s school before it gets to the division level. The more collaborative and honest the relationship is, the better the outcome is for all involved, particularly the student. It’s great to see parents, teachers, and administrators working alongside each other with open hearts and minds to come up with ideas and strategies to meet student needs and create success.

Working with parents, just like students, is all about relationship.  However, working with parents regarding their children has the potential to feel more ‘high stakes’ given that most parents are highly invested in their children and bring the adult perspective of advocate.  In these circumstances, it more important than ever to create a welcoming environment that encourages meaningful participation for the parents in their child’s education.  Parents are going to ask hard questions and expect high levels of service and it’s important to be as honest and forthright as possible while maintaining a positive perspective. It’s a tough place to be when you realize that your child is in the position of requiring a significant degree of intervention. It’s important to “walk a mile in the parent’s moccasins.”  And when taking their perspective, it’s important to not make assumptions or judgments, particularly when there might be issues within a family.

Here are some considerations that have served me well working effectively with parents in these challenging situations.

What’s Your Story?  – The one thing that you bring to each parent and student interaction is you. Human nature and our upbringing will cause us all to have personal bias. We need to be careful that we are not making decisions or projecting concerns from our own experience into the situation. Consider your own history.  Do you have expectations, opinions, personal hurt, or personal joy that might influence how you respond in certain situations? Consider the students that you have worked with over time.  Have the experiences of those students and their families added to your personal bias?  What are your thoughts about families in regard to addiction, poverty/wealth, education levels, personality traits, wellness, culture, actual personal history with a parent, etc.? We spend much time learning about policy, instructional strategies, medical disorders, etc. to prepare for parent meetings and student programming, we need to be equally aware of ourselves and how our biases and interpretations could potentially affect our interactions and outcomes with a family.

Declaring Intention – It is important that as you begin working with a family that you clarify the relationship and set a strong foundation. You can never be too explicit and it is worth stating that we are all here to work for the best possible outcomes for their child. It is important to validate the role of each parent to advocate for their child and to teach and advise the school team about their son/daughter. Following this ‘big picture’ declaration, each subsequent meeting should start with the intent of the ‘smaller picture’ interaction. Start each meeting with a stated objective and the intended positive outcome.

Family Voice and Choice – I’m stealing this directly from Alberta Education’s Approach to Collaborative Practices… Based on Wraparound Principles. “Family voice and choice ensures child or youth and family perspectives are intentionally elicited, prioritized and actioned as part of a collaborative wraparound practice. Planning is grounded in family membersʼ perspectives. The individuals involved in the process strive to provide options and choices that reflect the family values and preferences.”

Accuracy Is the Best Policy – It is important that parents have a clear understanding of how their child is behaving at school so they can participate as full team members with the same understanding as the rest of the team.  Avoid euphemisms. A mom won’t know the extent of the concern if she is advised that her child used a bad word.  That could be the f-word or that could be stupidhead.  Both are bad words.  Do your data collection. Stating that a child is difficult to manage is much less understandable than specific descriptions of the frequency and intensity of behaviors over a specified period of time. The spirit of accuracy is to bring the parent onto the team as a fully informed member, not to paint their child in a negative light.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know – One of the difficulties in managing students who are demonstrating difficult behaviors is to pin down the specifics of what makes the child tick. What are the triggers? What are the most effective de-escalation strategies? How does the student develop strategies self-regulation? Is mental illness setting in and if so, what does this mean? In these situations there is a tremendous role for parents. If you don’t know the way forward with a child, be up front with the parents and say that. Then immediately follow up with, “We need your help to understand your daughter, so that we can get her on a path to success.  Tell us about what works for you at home.” This sets the stage for authentic relationships and collaborative problem solving.

The Mistake Multiplier – It’s the nature of working with people. Sometimes mistakes are made, the wrong decision is implemented or you just don’t know what  you don’t know (and then you find out). Courtesy, ethics, and integrity tell us that these situations need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Take people’s dignity into account as you move forward, take ownership, be up front, and do your best to make amends. Avoiding these situations often will make the situation worse as people are left thinking they’ve been wronged and sharing their thoughts with others.

The Needs of the Many and The Needs of the Few – Another thing that we bring to our work with parents and their children is context. As the people who work within the school we are very well aware of things like class composition, limited resources, teacher experience levels, etc. While these are certainly considerations for the educators involved in managing the larger classroom or school environment, these types of limitations are not necessarily of prime concern to parents.  In fact, it’s not appropriate to get into those details anyway. Parents will just expect schools to work around them and provide a quality experience for their child.

Keep On Keepin’ On – You might find yourself walking a fine line in terms of being open in the relationship and protecting privacy. In these situations, it pays to be as honest as possible, “I can’t get into specifics due to FOIP requirements, but these are the things I can tell you.” Some parents might see that as stonewalling and you need to continue walking the fine line to earn their trust. Share as much information as you can that is relevant to their child. Things may seem off to parents if in a previous grade a teacher’s capacity or the classroom environment was more conducive to addressing their child’s needs. In these situations, it will likely be necessary to provide additional supports like mentoring, creative scheduling, PD, specialist expertise or more. Parents will usually keep working with you if  you show that you are making appropriate decisions and taking  concrete actions to benefit their child while keeping the lines of communication open.

Education About School – Sometimes parents cannot understand why their child who is happy and manageable at home struggles at school. It is important to paint a realistic picture for parents about the different expectations at school.  Help parents see through their child’s eyes. School is a much more complex place than home that can be very difficult to navigate from a child’s perspective. There are different skills required to be part of a school community working with peers, routines, and different adults and their child is likely having difficulty acquiring these skills. All of this can become even harder for a child who struggles with learning and isn’t feeling good about their place in school. Following this conversation, be prepared to outline what the school is doing to help and how the school-parent team need to work together to support the child.

Talking About the Elephants – There are times when what is happening in the family is negatively impacting a child’s learning. Divorce, death, moves, addiction, poverty and much more are struggles for children that come through the school door with them. Talking about issues like this is delicate territory. However, strengthening a child’s family is in the best interest of the child and is likely to improve learning. This is certainly an example of a courageous conversation. Conversations like this should be planned. Who is the best person to broach the subject? When and how? What words are most impactful and least threatening? What’s the plan for parents who want to address family concerns? What’s the plan if parents become adversarial? Remember though, relationship is key for both the student and for parents. This is not a reason to duck the conversation, this is your guiding principle as you plan how to approach these personal issues. 

Support With Real Support – When you encounter a family who is struggling with significant issues and is willing to seek help, you need to break down as many barriers as possible.  You can’t do it for them, but do make it as easy as possible. Strong inter-agency connections are important.  If you can provide the name of a contact person who is expecting their phone call rather than just a number, that paves the way and makes it easier. Free up a staff member to support them as they make the phone call.  That can be a tough emotional experience and doing it alone can be a very demoralizing and lonely experience. I have seen great benefit for families when a school support person actually attends agency appointments with the family to advocate and bridge communication gaps. Sometimes the school staff member needs to encourage a parent to commit to specific assistance at specific times and follow through with specific tasks. Monitoring and follow up is essential for some families.

Documentation Is Multi-Purpose – Documentation is not just for accountability – to prove something happened or to meet system requirements. Keeping and copying meeting notes to all participants serves as reminders for who has agreed to do what.  Documentation is an organizer. Anecdotal notes are useful for parents and other professionals to more fully understand the child at school.  Documentation is a window into the school life of a child. Expect that anecdotal notes will be copied and shared as you write them. 

Working with parents is important as they are key in maintaining students’ relationships with their teachers and the school. If parents are only paying lip service to the teacher or school, kids will know it.  This will make it much more difficult to be able to reach and teach our students.  Kids know when their parents truly back the school and are working together and it will more often than not cause children to feel more comfortable in the school and try harder to do well.

Parent relationships can be hard work. If there are situations of conflict, this can also cause educators to be emotional as they usually care a great deal about the child and the school.  Be sure to engage with your school team through these situations.  No educator is expected go it alone any longer.  Seek support, work together, and support each other. 

The (Not So) Secret to Managing Students with Issues

The Angry Kid

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by noise64

In my new role this year, I am working as a Facilitator (Consultant) for Parkland School Division. While my portfolio of duties is quite varied, what has turned out to be a fairly major part of my role is to assist schools with students who are struggling with mental health and behavioral issues.  Sometimes I am helping a school in learning about a particular disorder or accessing a particular service.  But often they are seeking advice on how to make things work for a kid for who they have tried everything they can think of to make the behavior manageable. I’ve got one strategy to share. And with the exception of a couple of students over time who have had deeply organic mental health issues, it’s worked every time.  So here it is… love them and make everything they do a success experience.  And do it for as long as it takes.

A ten year old boy in a intensive combined residential and school behavioral program a couple of years ago is an easy example of how this works.  Initially when he arrived in the program, he responded to the structure and small environment and started to settle.  But in awhile the honeymoon was over and his severe ADHD and the effects of his trauma history was too much in his daily world to engage productively for more than fleeting moments here and there. And often he was just a hurt and angry little boy lashing out and damaging the learning environment. While the teacher and EA were patient as saints and experts in manipulating environment and routine to accommodate student needs, even they were at their wits end.  They sought advice. “Love him and make everything he does successful.”, I said.

There was a pause.  But it wasn’t a pause of skepticism, it was a pause to think how to make it work. And so we made a list.  It was a list of every positive interaction we had seen from him. And we analyzed the circumstances of those events to decipher the strength he demonstrated. We did the same to identify his challenges.  Then we created new routines for him to use his positive skills and attributes to replace his tasks that posed challenges.  We kept the parts of his curriculum  and routines where he was successful and changed the unsuccessful parts of it to project work that would capitalize on his abilities. The projects were structured (temporarily but with no specific end date) to be completed with the EA who’s sole job it was to extract every bit of positiveness out of him and point it out to him. The teacher joined in and flooded him with even more authentic praise. After just a few days of being wrapped up in that love and success, he started to come around.  Slowly the projects for the ‘love and success’ model were faded and his individual routine became part of the group routine again.  It was about a three week process for this little boy.

No one is foolish enough to believe that changed everything forever, but a negative cycle of interactions had to be shaken up for progress to begin.  Foundational to this was the change in relationship patterns that had developed. The teacher and EA looked at him through a lens of positivity which changed their perspective of him.  The boy started to see himself differently by being immersed in positive feedback.  And together there was a relationship forged on mutual respect between them all. Of note was the new found respect between the teacher and EA – what was good between them got better!

Alternative Ed – One Way, Many Ways

CFL Logo - ColorConnections For Learning (CFL) is the alternative education site for Parkland School Division offering programming in grades 1 – 12.  We have just launched an updated web site which provides a great opportunity to write this post and share our great ideas and model for alternative education. It’s important to note that while CFL is the only alternative program site, Parkland does offer a variety of unique programs within various school settings.

CFL is actually a collection of programs.  The Adapted Learning and Living Skills (ALLS), Brightbank Academy, and High School Outreach programs are ‘directed placement’ programs that provide specialized support for students with identified learning needs, both academic and social/emotional. The Elementary Parent Partnership, High School Parent Partnership, Stony Creek, and Traditional Home Education  programs are ‘programs of choice’ which allow parents to become directly involved in their children’s education through three different models of home based programming. At times, CFL has also created individualized 1:1 programs for students with highly unique needs or circumstances. Where there are good fits, student programs have been developed offering counselling support, literacy support, and student leadership opportunities across the different programs.  As we know, students need to be proficient in their use of technology and CFL offers opportunities for students to learn and develop their technology skills to support their learning.

The common thread through all of CFL’s programming is to provide flexible and individualized programs for all students. This occurs in a variety of ways.  Academically, several of the programs use modules-based learning, and we have amassed a collection of supplementary materials and strategies to assist with differentiation when needed. While the modules system does offer much flexibility and allows for independent completion, there are limitations with engagement and instructional variation. CFL also partners with the Alberta Distance Learning Center to contract courses, typically high school option courses, to broaden course offerings for students. In part-time programs, the academic component is directed by teachers who differentiate for students as needed given the nature of the students in the classroom.  And for home programs, parents are supported in tailoring their instruction to meet their children’s academic levels.

The individualization continues. CFL’s directed placement programs primarily serve students with behavioral concerns and the flexible and well supported classroom environments allow for the creation of routines and processes that address situations where students are behaving inappropriately.  Staff members respond positively and consistently to allow students to learn to shape their own behavior and at times provide direct instruction for students to reflect on their behavior and develop strategies for self-regulation.  Additionally, a number of families have elected to enroll their children in home school programs as a means of supporting their emotional or behavioral struggles, like anxiety or ADHD.  By providing a nurturing learning environment, where they are loved unconditionally, children are able to make great academic gains in their homes when they were struggling with the social and environmental pressures in the school setting.

One opportunity that home education provides is the freedom for differentiation in regard to values based instruction. CFL’s home education programs have different structures regarding which subjects parents instruct and how they are supported. In some programs parents have the freedom to select resources and learning activities that are outside of Alberta curriculum and are values based. In all of CFL’s home based programs parents deliver the health curriculum and are very involved in option programming. This provides a beautiful opportunity for families to spend time together discussing and learning what is truly important for them in regard to their worldview and values. Each family does it differently but it’s powerful learning for their children.  It is common for families to develop projects to teach the children about key family activities. As an example, an outfitter family created wildlife projects for their children. Other examples include using scripture verses for handwriting practice, Bible study, service projects – both locally and internationally, cultural activities, joining community activities (sports, theater, Scouts, etc.), church activities, travel, learning activities together (technology, photography, scrapbooking, etc.), family history projects, and more.

One of the elements that contributes significantly to the relaxed, casual, and welcoming environment at CFL is the actual building itself. The building originally housed a health club but has since been renovated. There are nine classrooms that are on either end of the building allowing for some separation between programs which works quite well as there are differences in operations and the nature of the students. The one ancillary classroom does not have a smartboard, but the other eight do.  One of the squash courts from the health club was saved to create a mini-gym which is handy for our small elementary classes and some small group activities for older students. A kitchen was built about a year ago which allows for some option programming and job/life skills development. The Outreach classroom is located where the locker rooms used to be so there are several small breakout rooms and a conference room which easily allow students to isolate themselves when they are out of sorts or provide a location for small group instruction.

Now I am sure that you realize that there are a pretty special group of people working at CFL. The CFL staff are experts at forming relationships with students and parents, even the most difficult ones.  Each of them has the ability to intuitively read their students to know when something is different and has a gentle and authentic way of interacting with students to get to the root of an issue. The nature of alternative ed. requires adaptability as the structure of most of the programming has a basis in flexible delivery. As well, the nature of alternative ed. families who are seeking something inherently different and at-risk students who’s stories can sometimes change on a daily basis need people who can be accommodating and inventive in their approach to education. The teachers in our home based programs have particular skill in relating with parents and usually play more of a coaching role when assisting parents in developing and delivering their children’s programs. Finally, organizational and data management skills are critical given the wide variety of small details that are different between student programs and the individualized pace at which students work. It’s a tracking nightmare sometimes.

Connections For Learning is also set up as a service provider to the rest of the schools in Parkland School Division.  When school personnel realize that they have a student who is unable to be successful in the school setting or can no longer be served within the building, an administrator will contact CFL to discuss programming options. Some examples of the students that have been served include students going on extended holidays, students struggling with health concerns and can no longer attend school, those suffering from toxic social relationships, etc. Some of the ways that CFL will support schools are to fully take over programming for the student and actually transfer registration, offering temporary programming for a portion of the school year, lending our modules materials for the school to use temporarily to cover a particular situation, or just brainstorming regarding possible solutions for the student. Other than the brainstorming option, CFL charges a fee to the sending school for any services provided after September 30 registrations are finalized. These ‘transfer of funds’ are determined on a pro-rated basis and then submitted to division office for the transfer to occur and are part of the budgeted money that keeps CFL operational.

While life at CFL is pretty darn good most of the time, it`s not always rainbows and roses.  There are challenges. One of the first is the inconsistency in budgeting which is directly tied to transiency in enrollment. Conservative budgeting is required, as with many alternative sites, but there is a strong commitment to the need for the existence of CFL by Parkland School Division which has subsidized particular programs or projects on occasion.  Along with transient enrollment sometimes comes skewed enrollment with some programs bursting some years and others being under subscribed. Several of our teachers are part-time teachers who will sometimes have their FTE increased during the year to support additional enrollment. Professional development is interesting in that CFL is expected to participate in all of the division initiatives, like AISI. As these initiatives are designed for the regular classroom, CFL staff members have become accustomed to having ‘the meeting after the meeting’ to discuss how the ideas presented at a PD session can be tailored for part-time and or modules-based programming. That said, there is plenty of specific PD out there to support alternative programs.  Engagement is an issue for the programs that rely on modules-based programming as it is dry and boring to say the least. Over the years we have added workshops to support students with some face to face assistance and learning activities. Currently, we are looking toward online resources as a means of engaging those who attend both on-site and off. It is also important that CFL operates as a respectful place across all of our programs because we have a great spectrum of families/students in our programs, from those with quite liberal values to those with very conservative values.  When there have been incidents where behaviors, values, and judgments have clashed, that foundation of respect for all has brought clarity to all involved.

So if you think your school community needs a version of CFL, here are some suggestions.  Try to gather together a combination of forward thinking leaders at the division level with grassroots people committed to alternative education. It’s important to have honest reflective conversations regarding the students who are not being well served, what they would need to be successful and how to tap into the unique talents that exist among your educators along with innovation opportunities. As well, there is a thriving network of home educators out there, both formal and informal, some of whom are fully committed to remaining apart from the school system and some of whom are looking for innovative partnerships. Tapping into this group of parent educators would be most helpful. Alberta Education is supportive of school choice and with some research and a willingness to be innovative and responsive, program development will happen. Both the Alternative Programs Handbook and Outreach Program Handbook contain checklists for decision making and program development which are great starting points. This is truly hopeful education and I wish you well on your journey should you choose to take it.

Strength-Based Practice

Strong Kids

cc licensed (BY) Flickr photo shared by Mr Phil Price

Eureka!  In my last post, Resiliency = Relationships, I posted a link to a handout from the Alberta Mentoring Partnership illustrating strength-based vs. deficit-based concepts .  Timing is an interesting thing sometimes.  In my email last week, I received the February 2012 issue of In The Loop, a newsletter from Alberta Education.  It was highlighting a new resource Strength Based Classrooms and Schools, also produced by the Alberta Mentoring Partnership.  This little 24 page document is a must read for all educators!

This is a clear concise resource that gets to the heart of what education should be about, developing young people in a positive way that empowers them to use their gifts in ways that are meaningful to them.  Here is a shift in thinking away from fixing problems to discovering talents, from curing vulnerabilities to maximizing personal resources.  The principles of strength-based practice are discussed leading to an examination of how this will impact school culture and the importance of a holistic view of students.  There are also strategies for building staff capacity included.  This document is great to share with educators who might need a nudge to regain their student-centered focus.  And it’s equally good for those who are ‘already there’ as it brings coherence to many of the positive things that educators are already doing to build relationships with kids.  It’s short and sweet and an easy read for all.

I have always believed that teachers do not become teachers unless they have a deep personal belief that they wish to positively impact their students.  Lord knows we don’t get into this business for the money and the easy ride!  Strength-based practice is a framework for thinking that can reach into a teacher’s belief that they can make a difference for each student.  It’s simple… look for the positive in each student and make that the starting point to address learning. Match those positives to the topic of the day, the issue to be addressed, and/or the classroom context with which you are working and you’ll create the circumstances to develop stronger relationships with students and have a greater influence on their learning and personal growth. At the same time, the student is gaining a repertoire of skills and developing character traits which are a natural fit with who they already are.

Reviewing this document again today reminded me of a young lad that was posing some issues in one of our behavior programs last year.  This boy had a tough life, to say the least, leading him to the point where he was  in the permanent care of Children & Family Services.  The staff was at their wits end.  I offered some ideas and strategies that didn’t go anywhere.  He just was not engaged, his learning was regressing, he was negatively impacting his peers, and seemed to be actively sabotaging the support strategies we were putting in place.  Our collective bag of tricks was empty. I dug deep and remembered being in this position before and that there was a way to reach the seemingly unreachable kid.

I advised the teacher and the EA to set this boy up for success in everything.  For the next week until we met again, he was to be successful in every lesson, to be put in group situations where he would be successful each time which meant carefully selecting the peers and the activities and closely supervising so adult intervention was just seconds away, and he was to be praised and encouraged every step of the way.  As well, I needed them observe his responses and take note of his positives.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived the following week was that the relationship had deepened in both directions, the school staff had renewed their commitment to this boy and he was now viewed from a positive perspective rather than the child that they were failing.  And for the boy, who had a litany of failed relationships in his life, he had found positive connections based upon his authentic positive contributions to the classroom and he knew it.  Following that, the staff continually shared with that boy the specific instances of positive learning and behavior that he had demonstrated to help him see his strengths and personal resources. To finish the story, the boy did a fairly quick turnaround due to the team approach from home and school and was placed in less intensive environment in a matter of months and from what we hear is continuing to be positive and successful.

So what’s my lesson?  Strength-based practice!  It’s about seeing the students for who they are and building upon what they have already brought to the table.  My professional work is not about me digging into my education and my experience to use my judgement to come up with my plan.  My professional work is to see students’ strengths and potential and figure out a way to add to that in meaningful and relevant ways so they develop greater competency academically and personally. Sometimes, in extreme cases, you have to engineer the opportunity to see the positive.  But finding the student’s positive should be the starting point.

On a related note, it’s been interesting to watch how special education has been morphing in Alberta over the past several years.  What initially started as a review of special education, Setting The Direction, became the Action On Inclusion project which has now been dropped as a project to just become the work that we do as educators in Alberta.  We are now focusing on inclusion with the broader view of supporting all forms of diversity as an inclusive education system.  So it’s no surprise that Alberta Education would be advising us about strength-based practice as pedagogical tool that would support all students.

Resiliency = Relationships

parent and teen team building

cc licensed by Flickr photo shared by mighty mighty big mac

Since my last post, my students have continued with their struggles.  While, thankfully, a number of students continue on at a steady pace, I had to call Children and Family Services twice last week. And I’ve come to the sad realization that despite much bravado and attempts at disguise from our high school outreach students, they have a basic inability to look into their future and envision goals for themselves.  So I made a promise in my last post, which obviously remains timely, to look into the notion of resiliency… here is some information and some thoughts.

Resiliency is the ability to recover readily from adversity.  Students that have the potential for low levels of resiliency in general terms are those with a trauma and/or abuse history, those from homes that struggle with addiction or mental health issues, those who have had multiple moves in their history, those in foster care. and those who have low self-esteem.  Adolescence is the time when many lifelong attitudes are developed, so helping these students form a basis of resiliency from which to work will serve them well throughout their lives.

That last insight about my students is particularly alarming as some of the articles that I’ve read recently indicate that the ability to set goals for oneself is a key factor in recognizing resiliency in youth. Feeling safe at school was another significant factor.  As well, liking school and having a caring adult in the family were other identified important factors that contribute to youth resiliency.  In one study I read, Building Resilience In Vulnerable Youth, school connectedness was the top factor that best protects vulnerable youth in 9 of 12 areas investigated to either reduce risk or increase positive behaviors related to resiliency.  All of these factors are related to students having the circumstances to be able to find relationships where they can seek support when they need it and have the opportunity to form positive relationships with their peers.

Initially I was a bit surprised that school connectedness was so significant.  With a little thought, though, it makes good sense for a couple of reasons.  Students at risk for lower levels of resiliency are quite likely to come from homes that don’t have a strong degree of support as families struggle with their own adversity, so the school needs to fill the gaps for support when families can’t.  Also, adolescents are at a place developmentally where they are attempting to find their independence in the world so may not seek out family members in times of trouble, but look toward peers whom they most often find at school.

So what is it about school connectedness?  For me the ‘safe at school’ thought was critical. Students need to feel safe with their teachers and other staff members so they can have the comfort to risk self-disclosure and seek support from a trusted adult when faced with difficulties.  Students need to feel safe in their school environment knowing that they will be treated with respect and keep their dignity in tact when dealing with both adults and their peers.  Navigating through the world of relationships is difficult for adolescents so having a safe environment to experience success and to bounce back from messed up attempts at forming and maintaining relationships is critical.  Teens need feel that they are in a place where they can pick themselves up, get a little guidance, and keep trying to connect to others in their lives. School connectedness also relates to students liking school which happens much more readily when students are feeling successful in their work and see relevance in what they are doing at school as it relates to their own lives.

This is a tall order, but I’m convinced even more now that for schools to be effective in fostering resiliency in students, we need to provide the whole package for them.

  • We must make sure that each and every student has a positive relationship with at least one adult in the building because we often don’t truly know the resiliency levels of our students and someday even the most cool, calm, and collected student may need someone to lean on.
  • We must make sure that our school environment is safe for students to interact with their peers to form relationships.  When things go well, the positive relationships that have developed should be nurtured.  And when students struggle with relationships, supports need to be in place to help them along.
  • We must educate and encourage our students to think critically about risky behaviors so that they are equipped to make positive choices in the moment and avoid personal hazards which will chip away at the resiliency they do have.
  • We must pay attention to pedagogy and practice to ensure our students are learning and feel successful and competent as they complete curricular activities.
  • Similarly we must help students to find their place in the school on a social level by creating opportunities for them to get involved and create positive relationships with peers and adults.
  • We must look through the eyes of our students to ensure that the curriculum we provide is meaningful to them so that they will feel like they have the tools they need, both academically and personally, to move successfully through school and beyond.
  • We must help families when we become aware of a need for support by helping connect them to the appropriate services.  Parenting is a hard business at the best of times nowadays.
  • Using a strength based approach in implementing all of these strategies will go a long way toward helping students and families feel that the experiences provided are a good fit with who they are and where they are at as well as fostering sustainability for them as they will already have existing personal resources that should be tailored to the experiences provided.

I found a handout contrasting strength based vs deficit based concepts from the Alberta Mentoring Partnership awhile ago that really helped me solidify in my mind what the strength based approach involves.

I am confident that we are doing many things at CFL to contribute positively to student resiliency, but given recent developments with several of our students, it’s a topic worth re-examination.  Having identified the area of student goal development, we have discussed the need to show the students that they have the foundation to work from to develop goals.  Students need to have self-esteem to be able to look forward and take the risk to create goals, so that’s what we’re working on both and instructional and personal level.  This will be followed up next year with the implementation of the Leader In Me program with some adaptations for older students.  We’ve recently completed a review of all of our students and have set up parent meetings that will be the start of bi-monthly case conference meetings where we will work with families to ensure that the students and parents have needed support services among other things.  With Christmas and exams, we haven’t had any spirit activities recently, so we need to have some fun again.  A fund raising opportunity has landed on our doorstep so we will create leadership opportunities for students to offer activities for the students to engage with each other.

It’s a start.  We need to remain focused keeping resiliency in the forefront.  This means giving students authentic opportunities to successfully access and create positive relationships.