Arm With Happiness~ Leveraging School Happiness Agency

According to the Fall 2017 Student Gallup Poll, 34% of all students feel stuck and 20% feel discouraged relative to Hope (the ideas and energy students have for the future.) That is over 50% of all students feeling less than good about their future - I am not digging those odds!  If we are looking for a true measure to indicate the health of our schools, I think we found it. Yet, nationwide we are divided, fighting over everything we can, modeling anything but healthy, happy living. There is an intense debate on how to de-arm our children, remove their access to guns in the interest of protection;  what children collectively need are strategies, arming them as they face our imperfect world that inevitably presents them with adversity, they need tools that arm them with happiness resilience.  

Let’s dig in deeper into happiness.  “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. As parents and educators, if pressed, our deep down desire is that our children will grow-up to be healthy and happy. From a baby’s first smiles and giggles, to when we recognize an activity, career change or promotion, or loving person that makes us feel truly fulfilled and happy- the ability to BE happy greatly shapes how we live our lives. Happiness is literally in our genetic makeup, it is hard wired into us all and is relatively an easy lesson to grow as we develop. Happiness is a hallmark of successful people and thriving companies. Happiness resilience allows for people to overcome adversity and failure.

Happiness can be developed, cultivated and learned the same as reading and writing. In fact, like other skills, it needs to be developed with intentional practice. As educators  we must recognize that the ability to be happy is not fixed. We are not born with a set threshold, or ability to demonstrate happiness. Yet recent violent incidents across the country, the extreme rise in rates of childhood depression, bullying, and suicide as well as the results of the 2017 Student Gallup Poll, makes me wonder what messages we are sending our children about the importance of happiness and how we are cultivating happiness in our schools.

Do schools have the capacity to “arm” students with the ability to choose happiness, to be happy, to be healthy? I KNOW we do and I certainly don’t plan on waiting for more tragedies as indicators to establish an urgency for happiness training, positive well being, call it whatever you want - a complete overhaul, reset to the core purpose and intent of our nation's schools… as Nike says- Just DO IT. At educate4hope we have come to call this School Happiness Agency.

School Happiness Agency

School Happiness Agency (SHA) is the ability to create, influence, encourage and assume responsibility for the actions that will enhance the experience of joy, overall well-being, connectedness, sense that one’s life is good, and meaningfulness. This sense of agency is essential in the development of the school community’s social-emotional capacity to take control, increase motivation and respond to the environment in a healthy, meaningful, happy manner. Our ability to take action is not in the form of control- it is in the creation of the purposeful structures and intentional opportunities that build the culture, skills and tools in creating a mindset where happiness is the ultimate goal for all.

Schools have an ongoing and active role in establishing, as well as continuing to cultivate the level of School Happiness Agency for each community.  SHA can manifest itself in physical environment, value of relationships, meaningful reflections, outcomes and goals, equity and fairness, diversity in activities, opportunities for service and voice.

How can we focus on happiness?

Here are some research linked ways to increase school happiness and arm your staff and students with tools toward being and feeling happier:

In the Classroom

Writing Prompts and scenarios focused on what is right in a particular situation instead of identifying conflicts

Incorporate Mindfulness activities to start a class period or even as a separate strategy

Opportunities for student voice to shape activities and choices: Personalized learning plans for students, student-generated digital citizenship projects

Expectations for Intentional Happiness Journaling/Reflection for Staff and Students to build happiness resilience


Identify, Callout & Celebrate Sportsmanship and Wins: If you give certificates or trophies for Best Athlete, Champions and the like, consider celebrating at the same level students that portray characteristics of Good Sportsmanship, Love of the Game

Create opportunities for staff, students and communities to eat meals together as often as possible: Culinary Foods students cooking meals for the elderly/ shut-ins to eat breakfast and break bread with students. Creating common opportunities for staff and students to share lunch

Model It

Start Meetings with “Focus on What is Right in Our World” and have everyone contribute something that is right or working. Make this a practice before meetings, classes, assemblies

Set and stick to routine of spreading happiness - Identify 3 Staff and 3 Students to shout out during the daily announcements for how they added value to your school happiness culture

A few summers ago, reading Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, was a pivotal moment for me as an educational leader. Instantly, I knew I must do and be better for all of my children. The research rich ideology that building a culture of happiness can perpetuate nothing but positive results was overwhelming, yet natural. The more I looked, the more research I found that supported the positive effects of a happiness framework. Research more than suggests that reducing anxiety and depression, developing positive self perceptions, setting constructive goals, building skills to manage emotions and cope with adversity and even academic performance can all be affected positively with a focus on happiness. How can we afford to not lead with happiness in our schools?


Join educate4hope in our pursuit for all schools across the country to implement the tenants of School Happiness Agency!  We want to hear from you, please share your stories and practices of how you build happiness resilience in your school community.

#ed4happyschools  TwitterChat Friday March 30th @ 5:30AM EST  (grab your coffee, tea or favorite early AM beverage and join us!)

Reflections of a Missing "Bit"

Reflections of a Missing "Bit"

Adjusting our tie, or combing a rogue hair that we see out of place while we look in the mirror is an innate reflexive behavior. Reflection enables improvement.  View this week's VLOG and hear how installing an air desk lead to reflections in leadership and classroom practice.

How implementing an Alternative Dispute Resolutions process in your School can save relationships, money and improve the education of special needs students

How implementing an Alternative Dispute Resolutions process in your School can save relationships, money and improve the education of special needs students

by: Darin Knicely

For too many school administrators, the Special Education program in their school, is a thorn that they just cannot seem to shake.  In my administrative roles, I have worked feverously to change the perception of professional's views on the ability of students with special needs to increase the opportunities available.  When I entered administration, I was naïve to the fact to which my impact as a special education leader was influenced by central office administrators, state policies, and our district's litigation stance. While I will not be able to capture the full spectrum of special education litigation issues, I will make the case that you need to have an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process at your school. Let me explain to you what I mean by ADR and why you should institute this practice in your school.

Alternative Dispute Resolutions (ADRs) are not unique to special education, but rarely used.  It is a process that various entities use to avoid hefty legal bills for issues that could be resolved without legal action. And don’t we all want that?  While I wish I could say that school law is for the lawyers, that just is not the case nor is it realistic.  As a teacher and administrator, I was consistently involved in due process complaints, settlement agreements, and legal proceedings.  This was partially because my career work focused on troubled schools which usually housed troubled special education departments with lack-luster processes and delivery.  The reality will be, as a leader, you will at some point be faced with legal action taken by a family who believes their student should be serviced differently.  On the simplest level, ADR is a policy that gives parents and advocates an avenue to bring concerns forward to be addressed at the school level, resulting in a more efficient and effective manner than the legal process.  Every parent that you can engage in the ADR process saves your organization money that can then continue to be allocated to student success.  And, in my experience, you will find that trust and relationships with your special needs parents will increase.

Getting back to money, would you be surprised to know that Federal funding for Special Education is an $11.5 billion investment? That is an increase from $7.5 billion in 2002. That increase and the funding allocation takes into account the several factors that create barriers in the education of students with disabilities. Every dollar that is appropriated from the Federal budget was designed to level the playing field for students with disabilities.  However, when the process of identifying and servicing goes awry it forces the special education instructional program to be placed at a financial and litigious disadvantage. For example, Minnesota's Department of Education reported that Special Education litigation tallied $466,532 in FY2014.  However, the report cited reflects only 19 of the 328 schools districts in Minnesota, raising further questions of the true cost of defending the special education process.  Taking into account the small sample size,  the dollar figure only calculates expenses for legal representation.  The settlement agreements that follow a litigation process listing compensatory services is not tracked because those expenses fall back into the overall special education budget.  The trouble with not tracking or accounting for compensatory services is that they are being pulled from the general special education budget. Most agreements asking for compensatory service usually seek restitution above what would be an expected cost to educate the student in question thus taxing a budget further than reasonably funded.  Now, let’s put this into terms that affects your building: 19 Minnesota school divisions spent the equivalent of 10 teacher salaries in defending a process that is well documented and should be outlaid with clear steps in procedure.  How can I make the assertion that those dollars wouldn't come out of federal special education funding? Because Federal Special Education dollars are earmarked for specific strategies that ensure the opportunity for education to students with disabilities, not the associated legal fees.  The most common account drawn  for litigation is the per pupil allocation school districts receive.  The expense to the general school budget places general education and at-risk students at a greater disadvantage due to inefficiencies in the special education process.

I hope at this point you have made the connection that each misstep made in the special education process costs you financially and costs your students opportunities. In my experience there are three typical trends found for litigating:

1) The school/district has not complied with IDEA in identification of a student with a disability and their level of need

2) The school and parent/guardian are in disagreement of what constitutes appropriate services or identification

3) The school failed to implement the IEP

However, Procedural safeguards give the parent/guardian of a student with a disability the right to seek a due process complaint if they believe any of these items have taken place. A due process complaint begins a process that may differ slightly per state, but generally follow the path found in this graphic.

Each has a specific process for resolution and if an ADR process was in place, you could save kids, relationships and use funding in a prudent manner.

This process is sound and every parent/guardian has the right to this process.  The financial concerns rise as each step through this process costs legal fees in the form of legal representation.  What I am suggesting here is to have a policy that is a step prior to a due process complaint.

This is where you may say, "Wait! I am an accessible school leader, families know they can reach out to me anytime for support." I am an accessible leader too but that did not stop parents who felt unheard by a staff member in some of my experiences from jumping over me to a legal advocate, particularly in places where an ADR process was non-existent.  Instituting an ADR process at the school level is an effort to say WE, not just me, are here to make a great learning environment for your child and we do not need a legal team to direct that passion.

With every initiative, success is achieved in the planning, communication, implementation, and monitoring, not the intention.

So, let’s get to ADR, what EXACTLY it is and the best practices associated with implementation.

First, PLAN:

Adopt and communicate a policy: Here is a school district's communication posted on the district website.

To understand the different paths of ADR visit this slide show

How do I communicate the policy? Frequently and in as many mediums as possible.  Staff presentations, Student/Parent handbook, Special Education procedure manual and the school website.

What needs to be understood by your staff:

Who takes the request for ADR? Everyone! Every staff member needs to understand that parents can bring issues and we want them to, especially early in their concern.

What documentation is needed? A log of ADRs, your responses and agreed (signed) resolutions are critical to success.

Follow through in implementation:

Who serves on the review of the ADR? You need your parent champion in special education to be involved.  Someone who understands how to listen more than they talk and can process the steps needed to be taken to resolve the concern.  If your special education department is in dire dysfunction you may want to create a stand-alone position that functions as the reviewer.  The cost savings will be far greater than the cost of the position.

Will ADR solve all of my special education department problems? No, sorry to be honest, but no.  Effective special education departments have clear policies and procedures that are implemented with fidelity.  Even greater is the sound implementation of a response to intervention framework that constantly collects, analyzes and acts on data to serve struggling students.  Add in strong instruction and a high expectation environment will put you in a great position to not need ADR on a frequent basis.

In summary, common sense is not always common practice.  Start with your purpose, you want to educate your students and parents want you to educate their children.  Common ground exists for this collaboration to be successful.  Understand that the parent/guardian has the right to trump you and take legal action. Your job is to show families that they do not need to and do not want to involve outside folks because no one cares more about their child's education than you and your staff.  Now that you are equipped with a process that can save children, relationships and appropriately….let’s get it done!


Common Core, Standardized Tests, and Great Leaders … Oh My!

Pennsylvania’s own Punxsutawney Phil may have seen his shadow postponing spring weather this past February, but his shadow has no impact on the timing and schedule of the national standardized testing window for schools across the United States. The debate over which exam to use to measure student growth, drive instruction, and ensure that students are prepared for life after high school has 11 states, plus Washington D.C., using PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), 18 states using Smarter Balanced, and several states using ASPIRE (produced by ACT) as their anti-drill-and-kill standardized test to measure our nationwide Common Core. The Common Core movement has strong and boisterous advocates on both sides of the fence in all arenas of this politically-charged education battle. Miscommunication about the Common Core initiatives, ulterior motives and agendas of political outliers, the “uncommonness” of assessments to monitor the Common Core implementation (the names, how long they take, the cut scores that will determine achievement, etc.), technology glitches with testing administration, and the time to administer the various assessments themselves have only muddied the waters of this battle. This leaves many parents (non-formally trained as educators, as I believe all parents are educators) and community members struggling to accept and trust how the Common Core and these standardized tests can deliver what they send their children to school approximately 8 hours a day, 5 days a week to receive: a world class education, period.

And so, this Common Core battle ensues with all stakeholders weighing in thoughts, perceptions, and opinions and our schools operating every day, nearly 5 days a week, four weeks a month, 10 months a year. During those school days and within the walls of school buildings is where we can witness “great leaders” who demonstrate intentional influence, which is what separates them from complacent, compliant, or even good leaders. Great leadership is difficult to identify in any organization AT A GLANCE, especially in a school building. Peruse a school building during this standardized testing window across the nation, and it will become glaringly clear where our great principal leaders are, at the very least, the leaders who leverage the quality of intentional influence, greatly. What do I mean? I promise to be clear. For now, please read on …

Here are some common themes I have experienced as we continue to live and experience this new era:

  • As a parent, I may not understand all of the Common Core Mathematic strategies (personally, I see Facebook posts/jokes all the time from my friends about the “new Common Core math where Red + Horse = 7 Framed Kites” or some other indication that they too are frustrated that they are unable to figure out their 1st graders’ Mathematics homework).
  • As a teacher, I may be nervous about the implications of accountability and job security relative to my students performance, as well as the calibration of the accountability tools to take into consideration factors outside of my purview.
  • As a building leader, ultimate accountability, standardized assessment and overall school performance may not be new to me. However, in the era of Common Core, continuing with the status quo is no longer acceptable, tolerated, or enabled. During this painful growth-spurt in our nation’s educational development, great building principals will shine bright. Great leaders are needed in their communities to create authentic value, support, and genuine buy-in for what happens day after day in their classrooms and will happen this spring.
  • School boards, districts and State Departments of Education continue to agonize or embrace the Common Core (which assessment, no assessment, navigating the opt-out movement, etc.)

The decision on which assessment will be implemented and the political propagandizing does not take place inside our school buildings. Allowing that to permeate beyond our school doors and distract our efforts has many unintended consequences for each and every one of our students—not just some. Regardless of how you perceive the Common Core and the alleged aligned assessments, no one can deny that the shifts are motivated by the desire to prepare all students to think more critically, analytically, and problem solve. It is my belief that, both sides (and all in between) want the same outcome—for all students to be BETTER than well positioned to compete in our ever-changing world. The vehicle for that change is in the spirit of the Common Core.

Ok, remember when I promised I would be clear and requested that you please continue to read? Here is the connection I am making with building leadership and our Common Core era: A great building leader with intentional influence can and will embrace, engage, and inspire their community during this time. For example, when you step into my building, speak to my parents, or attend a community event, you know what our school vision is, and how our performance demonstrates our ability to problem solve, think critically, and be analytical (all tenants of the Common Core). You will feel and know the how and what behind what drives us to realize our mission and vision. In my building, how the school, students, or staff are being evaluated or monitored (while important) is not as important as valuing and appreciating the importance of demonstrating growth in all that we do.

Great leaders do this by developing a strategic and deliberate plan to buffer out the “noise” (or distractions, if you will) while, most importantly, creating value for the school community in wanting to embrace the “why” of the collaborative school plan. They use intentional influence in creating value for components of the plan, including implementation of the Common Core or standardized test. Great leaders leverage their influence, not to manipulate, but to inspire, focus, embrace, harness and direct their efforts toward the common goal or good for maximum impact for all of their students. Great leaders don’t just check the box as they do this; they live this in their schools. It is genuine, transparent and with this intentional influence comes the strength and trust to learn from mistakes and change direction when needed; knowing that this great leader will have the support and confidence of their entire school community to change the course if needed because they believe collectively, and completely in the “why” of their school plan.

There is no shortage of articles, books, and blogs written on the qualities of great and effective leadership: courage, humility, communication, humor, passion, charisma, accountability, relationship building, professional will, problem solving, and the list goes on. All are deservingly on the list, but the leaders who leverage intentional influence are no doubt going to separate themselves from the pack this spring. As you can expect, I couldn’t agree more with Michael McKinney as I do now, when he said, “Leadership is intentional influence,” Of course, in the end, another great quality of a great leader is …. knowing when to walk away. If you are a leader where you find yourself politically or philosophically opposed or misaligned with the core values of the upcoming standardized assessment, the Common Core agenda, or any other agenda you feel is being “imposed” upon your domain by your state, district, or school, and you cannot create value to benefit your school community with intentional influence, without genuine belief, then this is not completely authentic and to continue would be self-defeating. Such a leader needs to disengage and lead an organization that is aligned to their core values; there is room on the battlefield for everyone.

Good luck, to all the districts, schools, staff, and students who are participating in the Spring 2015 Standardized Assessments. We look forward to celebrating your accomplishments, and to leveraging the great leadership that emerges from the 2015 Common Core Standardized Assessment in moving our country’s future. After all, it is the great leaders that understand that their intentional influence and effort is not only in the best interest of their school community, but will ultimately be responsible for providing the reliable data to allow us to make informed decisions on the other side of this nationwide Common Core education battlefield!