Communications Matters

Changing Practice by Knowing What's on the Refrigerator

By Michelle Malvey

Volume 44 Issue 2,

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By Michelle Malvey

The goal of the Communication Matters column is to provide NASP members with diverse ideas, insights, and inspiration for creating change and making improvements across the range of comprehensive school psychological services. This is the first in a new series of Q&As with school psychologists who are helping their schools meet the needs of students and families in new ways. Michelle Malvey brings the perspective of a school psychologist currently serving as a principal. She has been the principal of Lincoln Elementary School in Loveland, Colorado since 2012.

Please describe your current work as a school principal.

In 2012, I became the third principal in three years at a school that was on a declining trend academically and behaviorally. Our school required a different approach toward achieving the growth we needed to make for the students and families we serve. The demographics of our student population had changed dramatically after a new school opened in the area; however, our approach to instruction had not changed. Staff became frustrated with strategies that used to work but were not working anymore. Unfortunately, they turned on each other in some ways and trust declined.

Our first year together was focused on rebuilding collective trust among all of the adults in the building. As we worked on being vulnerable with each other, trust grew, and we could then focus on changing the culture and climate of the overall school. I am proud to say that, in the past 2 years, our school came off of turnaround status with the state, has become a model site for social–emotional learning in our district, and has won a state Healthy School Award for our work in meeting the needs of the whole child. I rely on my background as a school psychologist every day of this journey. The skills I have in consultation, systems implementation, data-driven decision making, and understanding how to interact with a variety of “customers” is key to our work as a building.

How did you identify and bring along key allies? What made those people valuable? What role did they play?

I knew that in order to have the needed change happen in the building, I had to empower people with different skill sets and relationships and form a team with a focus on improvement. I met with all staff members for 30 minutes individually and compiled their positive beliefs about the school and their fears or concerns about the school. That first year, we kept coming back to what our positive beliefs were and used data to ask ourselves if we were spending time on the positives or the fears. Our instructional coach, school counselor, and several teaching staff with strong voices were essential in helping us do this is a way that was uncomfortable at times, but felt safe and purposeful. Administrators don't always have the skills necessary to drive this kind of change and they need support from those who do. School psychologists are the right people to provide this support to administrators who might have the desire for change and who need a team to help them make it happen.

What were the biggest challenges and barriers? How did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was in meeting individuals where they were and helping them move forward themselves and as a group. Again, that required many individual, small group, and whole-building meetings. We set up interim measures of success and talked openly about how we were doing. As the staff felt more secure, we moved our focus onto the building and the environment that we wanted for our students and their families. We worked to establish a stronger network of volunteers and community relationships. While we had long been a PBIS site, many of the practices were not consistently in place, so we focused on that as well. Again, I used my knowledge as a school psychologist to reinforce the importance of fidelity in implementation on a school-wide level.

This past year we introduced a social– emotional learning (SEL) curriculum (In Focus) that we use in grades K–5 on a daily basis. The best part of this program is that it was developed by a former teacher, so it is easy to put into place, is delivered by the teachers, and allows the teachers to learn about brain development and learning along with their students. School psychologists and other mental health support staff can help with these conversations from the ground up, identifying our common goals, and then supporting the steps needed to reach them, including supporting teachers in how to implement the SEL curriculum and build their own understanding of brain development and its impact on learning.

How are you measuring success? How are you reporting out results and to whom?

We measure success by tracking our academic growth, attendance, discipline issues, and perception survey data from students, teachers, and the community. While our achievement data is not yet where we want it to be, our growth has more than doubled in all content areas in the past two years. We focus on establishing a growth mindset for ourselves and with our students. Our attendance has made some slight improvements and our discipline issues have been greatly reduced in all settings. Perception data has had a positive increase from all stakeholders as well. We use data internally to keep us focused on our mission and vision and to make sure that our actions match our strategic plan. We also use it externally to seek out grants and community agency supports; to share our successes with other schools, district staff, and the school board; and to promote what is working in our school so that other schools in our district and state might consider the same approach. In many cases, we were not creating new types of data collection; we just began using the data more intentionally and effectively. As school psychologists, think about all of the different types of data we collect as a body of evidence for an IEP; how might you support the collection of evidence to promote a systems change in your building or district?

How did you link your approach to existing priorities?

We started with a conversation about “what is on your refrigerator.” The idea is that you keep what is important there: pictures of your family, priority bills that need paying, reminders about school events, and so forth. We taped reminders on our school refrigerator. If what we were talking about was not on our refrigerator, it was not our priority. This helped us to keep our focus in all decision making, conversations, and improvement planning processes.

How might you link this effort to a greater leadership role in other areas of practice?

We are now focusing on refining our work at our school, talking to our peers in other buildings, and presenting at local and state events on our work. The message is: If you believe in something, you put it first and you commit to it even when the going gets tough. You celebrate the little successes and you keep pushing forward. You empower people and create a critical mass of people within an environment to move the effort forward. While our focus is on growth across the board, the belief that this only happens in a place where all people feel safe and confident that their needs will be met is the key to our success. This is true for adults and students alike, and the adult environment greatly influences the environment we create for our students and families. I'm proud to say that our staff embraces the concept that social–emotional learning is a critical part of wellness and that it leads to successes in and out of the school setting. Our school psychologist and counselor are regularly talking about our work with their colleagues within the district and state, while I am having the same conversations with my administrative colleagues. When administration and mental health providers come together to tackle an issue, great things happen!