Tuesday / April 23

10 Easy Ways for School Leaders to Connect With Students

While many people reflect on their school experiences from childhood, they remember the principal as one who struck fear in the hearts of misbehaving students. Today’s administrator must have an upbeat, welcoming, no-blame, solutions-oriented, professional demeanor; model respect for all members of the school community; and make efforts to invite and involve staff in various school-wide functions and a similar outreach toward students that engages and involves them in a variety of ways.

Today’s schools are complex systems. We need to look at all the parts when addressing student behavior; making strong personal connections with students is something that cannot be overlooked. We cannot expect students to come to our classrooms and schools behaving perfectly. We have to acknowledge the variables and development of students when it comes to misbehavior. We have to acknowledge our role as adults that helps shape the behavior of our students by being the shadow of the positive school culture we expect to see. This requires teachers and administrators to put extra effort in connecting with students through an intentional, daily focus and in return they will demonstrate improved behaviors on your campus. Successful principals work hard at building strong school communities and prioritize collaboration and trust. When students see the principal as someone who respects and values the teachers, the students will know they are part of a caring, supportive environment rather than a place where morale is low and discussions are centered around war stories about troubled students and other management issues.

We are often asked how to create such a positive school culture where students respect and respond to the adults on campus. Our answer is simple: Treat your students the same way you would want someone with authority over you and your environment to treat you.

Some do not necessarily like this response, since their beliefs are that students need to come to school already knowing how to behave. They would prefer a traditional model of asserting authority over students or using a strong-armed method as their approach. Well, it does not work! Students who do not respect their teachers and administrators will behave differently (negatively) toward them. They will lose their sense of school connectedness and begin making decisions without taking others into account. We hear how some educators and administrators speak to students and/or about students. We hear students share how some teachers are mean and make horrible comments to students. We hear about the educators students are afraid to approach. And then we wonder, why don’t these students feel supported and/or emotionally connected in this atmosphere?

We have seen a great number of “defiance” office referrals that are the result of a power struggle where a student felt they were treated disrespectfully and embarrassed in front of their peers, resulting in a student trying to save face. The magical question that usually proves that every action has a reaction is the “What happened ten seconds before that?” question.

Student: He pushed me.

Teacher/Administrator: What happened ten seconds before that?

Student: I tripped him ‘on accident.’

While pushing another is never acceptable behavior, it was a secondary/reactive behavior. Teachers must realize the way they talk to and treat students creates secondary/reactive behaviors as well. The “What happened ten seconds before that?” question could be asked of many office referrals for student defiance that would likely incriminate a teacher’s behavior. For example, a student is sent to the office for using profanity toward the teacher.

Administrator: What happened ten seconds before the student used profanity toward you?

Teacher: I told him to sit down; he didn’t so I got in his face and said, ‘I already told you…SIT DOWN!’

As the adult, we must know better than to get into power struggles. If the conversation feels like it’s slipping toward one, find a way to change the course by maintaining control of your actions while finding a way to give the disruptive student an ‘out’ so that he or she can back down without losing too much face in front of their peers. Even removing the student from the class so the teacher and student can deal with the issue privately can do wonders for the situation. Also, take the time to learn about a student’s background; knowing a student is dealing with issues at home or poverty can make the difference between compassion and callousness. Connecting to your students will help you avoid such pitfalls.

We work with a lot of educators and often hear, “Our students would not respond to us in this way, or they won’t do what we say, etc.” If you do not intentionally work on establishing connections with students, they will not respond. The relationship building and connection needs to be authentic and ongoing. If it is temporary or disingenuous, students will know and see right through it.

Here are 10 easy ways to connect with students on your campus to help prevent behavior problems and create a positive school culture:

  1. Talk to the students daily: Know them by name, ask them questions, listen to their stories, and know the influential students in each group on your campus. Students light up when they are in any setting where the principal can call them by name; they also notice when you reference their peers by name. The easiest, but most effective thing a principal can do is take a yearbook or class composite binder home and memorize every student on their campus.
  1. Eat lunch with the students: Get out of your office and go interact with your students during unstructured times. You will learn a lot about your students by seeing them interact within their social environments.
  1. Be visible: Not just because you have supervision, but because this is a critical time to make positive connections with students and learn about what is going on at your school. Actively point out some positives to students and groups of students during your supervision time.
  1. Greet students: Take the time to greet students in the morning as they arrive to school and throughout the day. Seeing your familiar face welcoming them will help them feel safe and at home at your school.
  1. Take time to get to know the students and their families: Have an open door policy so students and families feel like they can come talk to you about their successes and concerns.
  1. Support your students at all school events: Make sure to attend all functions at your school and wish the students good luck and let them know you are proud (e.g., high fives & supportive comments and cheers from the sidelines or backstage).
  1. Have classroom chats or chats with groups of students regarding current and serious topics on a regular basis: Try to understand their lingo and the topics that mean the most to them. Talk to students if you have concerns about certain behaviors (e.g., bullying, drugs etc.) escalating at the school; if you give them a chance to speak and provide solutions, they will.
  1. Play a game with them at lunch or participate in school activities: Don’t be afraid to have fun with the students. Let them see you as a regular person and not just their teacher or administrator.
  1. Be there for them if they need: Be aware when you see changes in a student’s personality or notice if a student is always alone. Also, create an open line of communication with students where they feel comfortable to share with you if their friend(s) are struggling as well. If they feel safe, they will ask for help before situations escalate.
  1. Positive phone calls home: Create an expectation where the principal makes five positive phone calls home per week, while each teacher makes one. Have teachers keep a positive phone call log to ensure every student gets a call. Something as simple as, “Jason grew a reading level today; I just wanted to share this with you before he came home so you can celebrate with him. He’s been working really hard and I’m so proud.” or “Nevaeh helped up another student that tripped on the playground today; I wanted to reach out and let you know that I’m very proud of how caring she is toward other students.” We’ve had parents audibly cry on the phone because they’ve never had anyone call home to praise their child. Taking the time to make these phone calls will help you make connections with both your students and their families. In return, the students will know you care.

Students demonstrate improved behaviors for teachers and administrators they like and respect. That is why it is critical for teachers and administrators to take time to connect with students. Students will remember the connections and connection attempts and it will help them shape their behaviors. In our next article, Blaming the Students Doesn’t Help, we will give five strategies on how to shift thinking from blaming students to finding solutions and working with them to change behaviors.

Written by

Dr. Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan is an Educational Consultant and an adjunct professor in the Educational Leadership Department at Fresno State University. She is also an educational consultant working with several school districts and county offices in California on designing and implementing effective behavior systems in schools and districts that work. She currently trains approximately 300 schools on the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Champion Model System. She is the co-author of The PBIS Tier One Handbook. Follow Jessica on Twitter @jess_hannigan.

Dr. John Hannigan holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Studies, Master’s in Educational Leadership, and Doctorate in Educational Leadership from California State University, Fresno. He is currently in his seventh year as principal of Ronald W. Reagan Elementary in Sanger Unified School District, where under his leadership has earned California State Distinguished School, California Title I Academic Achievement Award for closing the achievement gap by the California Department of Education; a 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 California Honor Roll school by California Business for Educational Excellence; a 10 out of 10 similar school statewide ranking; 2008, 2010, 2012 winner of the Bonner Award for Character Education; 2013 Silver Level Model School recognition, and 2014 and 2015 Gold Level Model School recognition from Fresno County Office of Education for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. He also serves on Dr. Paul Beare’s, Dean of California State University, Fresno, Kremen School of Education and Human Development, Advisory Council. Dr. Hannigan resides in Fresno, California, with his wife Jessica and daughters Rowan and Riley. Follow John on Twitter @JohnHannigan75.

John and Jessica are the authors of Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit.

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