One of the roles I was least prepared for when I became a principal was that of “lead investigator” of the school. I quickly found out that hours and hours could be swallowed up by a simple restroom issue or playground problem. I had no idea what to do or how to do it when it came to questioning students—nor did I realize how much time it could take.
Over the years, I have developed some techniques to help make this process work better, both for myself and for the students. Some of these ideas increase efficiency, some increase effectiveness, and some are just general guidelines to help maintain rapport with both students and teachers.
Here are some of the ways I deal with students who are sent to my office:
Getting the student to talk: Even if I know exactly what happened and have already talked to the teacher, I always start a conversation with a student with one question: “Tell me what happened.” I have found this keeps it non-threatening from the start. The student will most likely be nervous, so this helps to get them talking. Starting with an accusation or specific question will sometimes make them lie or shut down. With that said, I do try to do some “fact finding” prior to talking to the student. If I know some of the background information, I can tell early on if the conversation is accurate or needs to be redirected.
Building and maintaining trust: In order to get to the root of the problem (and to get the truth), the student has to trust you. This relationship can’t start when the student gets in trouble—it has to start early on in the year through conversations with the student at noncontingent times. During and after the conversation with the student, it is critical to maintain their trust. If the student is having a conflict with a teacher, they may share personal feelings and opinions about the teacher. This conversation should be used to help solve the problem so the issue doesn’t happen again, not used to create more conflict between the teacher and the student. Confidentiality is critical.
Searching for the underlying problem: My goal with any “discipline” situation is to teach the student something. For some students, this is easy. Most kids have a fear of the principal's office that makes it so they never want to come back. Other students struggle with behavior and probably have for years. Giving out a punishment is not going to fix a problem. Yes, there are times when students need an out of school suspension for severe behavior, but there has to be a learning component to the situation if we want it fixed. Some ideas I have used include reflecting on what happened, creating a plan for making the situation right, contacting parents about outside counseling or therapy, giving the student an intervention within the school day (such as a check in/check out), removing the problem from the student’s sphere of influence (i.e. separate students at recess), and always contacting parents. There are some parents who will not necessarily help the situation improve, but I always communicate with them about what is going on, even if this is the case.
Documenting: This comes in two different forms. First, once the student has given me a story and we have parsed out the details, I have them write down what happened and sign it. This gives it some weight and if anything is inaccurate, we can reference it later. Second, I document all the details that happened myself. Usually there are various stories about what happened, so this helps to synthesize it all.
Timing: There are events that occur that have to be handled right away, while some issues can wait. In order to respect the teacher’s instructional time, I always try to talk to a student during non-instruction time. I also always ask the teacher if it is a good time to pull them, unless it is an emergency. I always want the teacher to feel like their time is more valuable than mine. It can be a logical consequence that any student interviews occur during recess time or during a preferred activity.
Communicating after the fact: I have created a checklist for this for myself because, at times, this feedback loop doesn’t happen. The teacher, the offender's parents, the victim’s parents, and the office all need to be in the loop as to what is going on. This is critical for the teacher on a few fronts: They need to feel supported, they need to know what the punishment will be, and they need to know the full story. Many incidents occur without the teacher present, but parents will ask the teacher if they have any questions about it.
These are just a few tips for how to investigate a student-related situation. Sherlock Holmes would probably be disappointed, but it may possibly help another principal in creating an efficient system for getting students what they need to prevent issues from arising again.
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