Principals and school leadership teams play an important role in fostering the culture and climate of their schools. Intentionally or not, school leaders indicate their values and priorities through their interactions with staff, students, and families. Modeling by school leaders is therefore a critical part of creating a positive school environment and supporting staff in building SEL skills and mindsets. Principals can “lead from the center” by embodying SEL in their daily interactions.
In the 2019 issue brief Principals’ Social and Emotional Competence: A Key Factor for Creating Caring Schools, Mahfouz, Greenberg, and Rodriguez provide a conceptual model of the prosocial school leader and outline ways in which a school leader with strong social and emotional competence impacts school effectiveness and climate. The report also describes emerging strategies for supporting school leaders’ emotional well-being and SEL leadership capability.
The strategies below provide ideas for administrators and leadership teams to build relationships and show staff, students, and families they are cared for and appreciated. Suggestions are modified from a Chicago Public Schools.
- Check-Ins: Begin all conversations, visits, and meetings with a brief personal check-in. For example, with staff you might ask that they “Share a rose and a thorn of this past week/month” (good/bad). Keep track of what is shared to check-in later; e.g., “Last time we talked you mentioned that your son was ill—how is he feeling?” With families and students, before addressing the issue at hand, take the time to ask how they are doing and listen actively to their answers.
- Staff meetings can begin with a quick whip-around question to share out loud or in small groups for large meetings. For example, “Each person describe your weekend in five words” or “In groups of three, share what percentage of your attention is on this meeting and where the other percentage is focused.”
- Check-in calendar: Place a staff/administrator name on each day/week of your calendar. On that day, check in with the assigned person to see how they are doing by visiting the classroom, calling, or emailing. Try to limit conversations to good news and personal check-ins; don’t use them to share work reminders. Use the same strategy for students and families, noting students who have recently undergone major changes or life events, or those who have been having challenging interactions with classmates or teachers. Take a few minutes to check in with the student and/or family.
- Verbal appreciation for time: Thank administrators/staff/parents for taking the time to meet with you (even if it was ‘mandatory’). Let them know that their time is appreciated.
- Be visible out of your office: The more time spent positively interacting with staff and students, the more influence you will have on the climate and relational trust in your building.
- Notice what’s going well: Ensure that staff and students hear from you more often about what they are doing right than about what’s wrong. Highlighting best practices is a great way to influence others, and when individuals believe their school leader has a positive opinion of them, they are better able to receive and use critical feedback.
- Birthday cards: Send paper or virtual birthday cards to administrators/staff.
- Show staff that you value their perspectives: Invite and use input from staff in decision-making, ask teacher leaders to pilot or discuss new ideas in a focus group, and acknowledge the experience and institutional knowledge of veteran staff members.