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Leading from Self in schools

Educational leaders are tasked with multiple layers of responsibility. Their leadership includes providing education services within their institutions, serving the children and families of their districts and attending to varied staffing needs, all the while dealing with concerns embedded and emerging within their larger communities.

As educational leaders guide recovery from an unexpected pandemic, they face budgetary concerns, political pressures, and staff shortages. How do they ensure top performance and maintain their own well-being under such fire? 

Kathryn Serino, a recently retired Superintendent of Schools, now works as an educational consultant and coach with the Self-Leadership Collaborative in Connecticut. Serino observes, “School leaders are asked to be aware, present and responsive to the varied needs of the organization and people they lead. Situations and challenges are ever-changing. There is often no prep time to be calm and deliberate when timely problem-solving is required. Leaders need to be ready to guide their community, not just some days, but everyday.” (personal communication, September 10, 2023).

How does a leader provide or acquire this capacity to operate optimally, from a personal space of well-being, let alone guide and train others to do the same? The Self-Leadership Collaborative has adapted Internal Family Systems (IFS) principles and practices to answer this question. We have been supporting school leaders to connect with and lead from the strength of their core Self. IFS, as a unique philosophy for living and a new psychotherapeutic model, offers the essential paradigm and practices to realize well-being for school leaders and the community at large. 

I trained as a marriage and family therapist but I have gone on to establish the Self-Leadership Collaborative (SLC) in 2017 to adapt IFS inspired practices and processes for the everyday realities faced by educators and school communities. In this article, I share a glimpse of the approach we’ve developed for schools with a focus on the specific application of select IFS concepts and skills to support school leaders. 

A unique solution: What school leaders are looking for 

Kathryn Serino told me: “We continue to jump over adults to attempt to bring well-being to kids, acting as human doings rather than human beings. What educational leaders believe in, want, and see as essential for children in terms of their well-being, will be authentically promoted and sustained only when leaders and educators live and practice it as well. This essential capacity to nurture and sustain one’s own well-being, as adult leaders in the larger community, is the starting point for success in guiding students and collaborating with colleagues. In 2017 when I was a superintendent, our district leadership team identified well-being as one of our top three priorities stating ‘Wellbeing is the foundation upon which all other success is built’. We then needed to follow through on our commitment, we discovered the approach we were looking for in the work of the Self-Leadership Collaborative.” (ibid).

Ruth Dutton Kaur, who is the founder of three public charter schools in California and currently Learning Director and Community School Coordinator of Clovis Global Academy in Clovis, California, recognizes that many educational systems “rely on luck and having good teachers along the way.” Kaur leads her school’s effort to develop, “an intentional design that gets at the root causes of  barriers to education.” Kaur shared that when she learned how to access Self and approach her leadership role from a Self-led perspective, as taught by SLC, it deeply resonated with her and offered a philosophy, a way of being, rather than simply more techniques to implement (personal communication, March 8, 2023). SLC’s adaptation of the IFS model for non-therapeutic use in educational settings has been transforming leaders capacity to address root causes and to effect real change in their communities. 

Kirsten Sanderson reports that in her experience as a teacher, Curriculum Specialist and International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Program (PYP) Coordinator in West Hartford, Connecticut, she valued her students’ and their families’ diverse perspectives, needs and values and worked to create an open and welcoming school community. She developed and embraced many practices that she knew to be effective, supporting the IB mission to cultivate school environments that value and promote peace. This worked well. But, she also noticed that other practices were hit-or-miss: well intentioned, but not effective across settings or in all situations. In the last five years of her career, as she moved toward her planned retirement in 2020, she told me she found herself looking for a north star, an umbrella philosophy and framework to inspire and guide the various social emotional learning programs and practices. Kirsten says she knew that, despite the many curricula in place, something was missing. Then she found Self leadership. Of it she says, “I discovered the key wasn’t another curriculum, but a shift towards and for discovering our state of being; that this wasn’t just about what we were cultivating in students, but what we were practicing as adults. It all starts with me.”(personal communication, May 5, 2023) 

What does it mean to be Self-led in school?

The Self-Leadership Collaborative (SLC) has adapted IFS for applications outside the therapeutic setting. We have modelled it for everyday use, to support individual well-being, positive relationships and healthy communities. After participating in an eight week workshop with us, Ruth Dutton Kaur described Self leadership as “a different way of seeing versus a curricular paradigm” with “a language that is secular, appropriate for public institutions, and intuitive.” She claims it provides access to a sense of a deeper Self beyond the “superficial mental life of fluctuating highs and lows.” 

In the school setting we aim to communicate the two foundational  IFS core concepts — Self and Parts. We hold that doing so can transform both individual and collaborative well-being. For this we have developed the P.A.U.S.E. model, to bring the wisdom of IFS into everyday school life, which offers a roadmap for leaders in  navigating the changing complexities of school life.

P of P.A.U.S.E.: Pause and connect to your core Self

Educational leaders, teachers and students report they can relate to this.  They appreciate that there is an innate state of being everyone is born with of calm, relaxed presence experienced when we are not stressed. We invite leaders to consider their own experience of being Self-led and the moments when they’ve seen others as Self-led. We teach that we can notice the signs of Self leadership by recognizing and cultivating the IFS eight C’s: calm, clarity, curiosity, compassion, confidence, courage, creativity and connection. These are those qualities more evident when we are in Self.  Often this alone as a taught idea has transformative benefits. Leaders shift from a problem-focused mindset to seeing the innate resources in themselves and others. For students, cultivating awareness of when they are in Self is at the heart of building a healthy school culture. Kaur points out that “self-awareness is at the root of the five core competencies of social emotional learning, but in my opinion, it’s the most elusive.”  

To experience Self, take a few deep breaths and think of a time you felt completely at ease. 

While Self leadership provides a North star for school leaders, we also acknowledge that we’re not able to be Self-led at all times. We therefore draw on neuroscience to appreciate what happens during a stress response. In the school setting, a stress response fundamentally compromises our capacity to learn, teach, connect and collaborate. As the simplest of antidotes, we invite leaders and educators to practice pausing. By pausing we increase our power to recognize when we are not in Self, and then employ brief practices to regulate our nervous systems, such as breathing or focusing on one of the 8 Cs. When educational leaders embrace the practice of pausing, they can move towards leading from Self. Interestingly this can have the effect, we believe, of them thus becoming the Self – the guiding calm presence – in the system of their educational community.

A of P.A.U.S.E.: Awareness of where we are coming from 

Educational leaders also benefit from understanding their different Parts. This is especially true in regard to making sense of the many moments in the school day when staff, students or they are triggered and reacting disproportionally to a given situation. In the school setting, we easily see that some Parts are relatively effective and necessary (Parts that are following directions and protocol, cooperating with others, maintaining focus), while other Parts may present in more extreme and disproportional ways (playing the joker, resisting authority, shutting down to avoid challenges). In schools, some Parts are typically seen as good, while other Parts are seen as bad. School systems work hard to manage, direct and even punish these “bad” Parts. When people in schools can consider the positive intent behind our own and others’ Parts, it can have transformative effects in the school setting. Rather than controlling, judging or punishing, there is more likely to be compassion and curiosity, starting with ourselves. As much as the awareness of Parts shifts the  perception of others, the gift of “seeing” Parts begins with noticing our own inner team of Parts; how they are playing out and what they need. While we often instinctively jump to focusing on and caring for others, we too have Parts that are responding, sending messages and needing our attention. As we build awareness, we can attend to ourselves and thereby show up more fully and productively for school relationships that need us to be at our best. 

Take a moment to become aware of a Part of you that you experience in your school or work experience. Now consider, how might this Part of you be trying to help?

U of P.A.U.S.E.: Understand each other: Appreciate where others are coming from and shift relationships

What does it mean for everyday relationships in life at school if we all appreciate the other’s point of view? When Parts take over or are “on top” we can feel hijacked and talk from them. We may overwhelm others with our feelings or perspectives, lock horns, disagree, point fingers and struggle to collaborate and solve problems for the good of all.

As we cultivate an awareness of our own Parts and their positive intent for us, as well as their not-always-helpful actions, we can gain perspective. This is where the use of “Parts language” is really powerful. This simple shift in our way of speaking helps create distance between us and our Parts.

By getting to know our parts and holding compassion for them, we can speak for them: a part of me feels, thinks, or wonders. Ruth Kaur notes, “When we do this, we speak with a language that puts things in proper position. When we say “a Part,” it puts what we’re saying in perspective; it’s small. It’s a portion, not all. This provides enough distance to communicate calmly, lovingly, and allows us to be more responsive to what’s going on.” (personal communication, March 8, 2023). 

When we share our different Parts with other people it can help them understand our perspective better. We can see the nuance in the conversation and maintain a spirit of connection, reciprocity and common purpose. For example, when we find ourselves “overtaken” or hijacked by a Part of us that wants to express something, or act in a way that may even seem counterproductive, we can then shift to speaking “for” instead of “from” our Parts and model this shift for others. 

Kristen Sanderson reports she was amazed at the powerful shift that Parts language created. For example, when she approached a student with, “A Part of me is curious about the choice you just made—what’s going on?,” she got very different results than when she pointed out the rule that a student broke. Saying, “A Part of me wonders if this will create the results we are looking for,” when discussing curriculum and instruction with team members seemed to make the collaboration effort more oriented to the task and less personal. Sanderson says it opened the door for deeper communication and helped avoid the polarized behavior and beliefs that often impede progress. (personal communication, May 5, 2023) 

Parts language offers a different way to communicate. The other essential component of effective relationships is listening. Educational leaders are often pressured to quickly solve problems and may listen to others with an agenda to fix, advise, agree, or figure out. This may lead to superficial solutions that don’t fully engage the insight and ownership of others. Instead, leaders can shift toward Self led listening, employing qualities like calm, curiosity and compassion. “When we listen from our core Self, we can receive what we are hearing. It builds trust and deepens awareness,” notes Kaur. 

When working with educational leaders, Kathryn Serino acknowledges that this approach can’t change things like school budgets or staffing shortages, but it does provide some no-cost opportunities for leaders: “You can be present. When meeting with others, close your laptop, silence your phone and listen. Ask questions to fully understand what others are saying. You can be aware of how you are feeling—when you’re in Self, and when you’re not. You can take a deep breath, or a quick break. You can use Parts language. Instead of saying, “I’m furious about this,” try saying “a Part of me feels really angry about what just happened and at the same time, another Part of me wants to understand your perspective.”(personal communication, September 10, 2023).

S and E of P.A.U.S.E.: Searching for solutions and experimenting with Self led action

Leaders charged with facing challenges, making decisions and taking action, find their knee jerk reaction is often to jump into action, fix or solve. They assume it is up to them to address whatever issue arises. P.A.U.S.E. offers an alternative. When school leaders practice pausing, being aware of their own Parts, and understanding others, it builds connection, trust and mutual understanding – it increases the “critical mass of Self.”

When we can show up together with greater Self leadership, we are poised to engage in the essential activities of education effectively: learning, teaching, exploring, collaborating and contributing our gifts to the learning community. In this more optimal zone of functioning, it is possible to problem solve and choose collective action beneficial for all involved. Additionally this approach creates a great deal more space to welcome the wisdom, skill and insight of others to choose the best course of action and relieves leaders of some of the burden they’ve assumed of resolving everything on their own. 

P.A.U.S.E as community model for well-being: Measurable progress

For the past five years, the Self-Leadership Collaborative (SLC) has worked as a team of IFS trained therapists and educators, led by myself. Hundreds of meetings, workshops and coaching sessions have been conducted both in person and online, serving everything from small independent schools to large, public school districts and mental health agencies across the United States, as well as around the world in countries such as Germany, Jordan and Australia. 

With a grant from the Foundation for Self-Leadership, SLC has led efforts to define best practices and develop a curricular framework to guide training and implementation of the IFS-inspired P.A.U.S.E. approach with school leaders and their community. The SLC team has collected testimonials to the effectiveness of the model in education for those who engaged and even beyond these. Educators have been reporting a significant shift in their sense of well-being. An evaluation was conducted, supported with a grant from the Foundation for Self-Leadership, during the 2020-2021 school year by Dr. Jayne Smith of Mental Health Connect. The evaluation concluded that after attending four or more SLC school program activities, school staff were statistically more likely to agree that: educators who practiced SLC tools on their own and with students were better able to respond to student needs; students were more prepared to learn; and class communities were safer places in which students could express their feelings. 

Additionally, the Foundation for Self-Leadership assembled a “Global Partners” subgroup, formed of leaders in Social Emotional Education and school improvement, to share their various programs and advise on best practices to advance the implementation of IFS in schools.

Looking ahead

Among the most significant discoveries to emerge from implementation thus far is the clarity and conviction that our work begins with the adults in the system, and especially the community leaders, formal and informal. So often educators, mental health professionals and administrators in schools operate with focused passion to serve the well-being of youth. This longing and vision to see young people thrive often brings people into the profession and continues to fuel them, in spite of the continuous challenges and setbacks. Perhaps the most significant gift adults can offer our youth is their own Self-led presence, their own capacity to practice returning to Self leadership when they are triggered, and their Self-led company to coach youth through difficult moments. If adults in the system are self-aware, regulating their own state of being, engaging with compassion, confidence, and courage, they guide and “wire” the students to do the same. With such adults in leadership I suggest our youth feel seen, valued and honored. New ways of being are learned and practiced.

Acknowledgements

Kirsten Sanderson, M.S., Kathryn Serino, Ed.D., Ruth Dutton Kaur, M.S. and Alexandra Barbo, PhD also contributed to the development of this article.

This project or pilot project and related evaluation study was made possible through funding from the Foundation for Self Leadership (Award No. E052219-CT)The analysis and findings in this paper or publication represent the scientific perspectives of the researchers/authors alone and not reflect the opinions or views of the Foundation, which has had no involvement in the study or its analyses or deliberations.

The Foundation for Self Leadership has just funded a one year pilot program for school leaders to be led by Joanna Satori-Curry and Kathryn Serino, EdD, a former principal and superintendent.

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  • Joanna Curry-Sartori

    Joanna Curry-Sartori is an IFS trained Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of the Self Leadership Collaborative - www.selfleadershipcollaborative.com

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