Right At School Blog

Tackling Today’s (and Tomorrow’s) Challenges with Adaptive Leadership

The challenges of the last three years have required district leaders to be more agile than ever. Given the changing landscape in education and the world around us, adaptive leadership will continue to be vital to handle the complex problems facing schools today — and anything new that comes our way.
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By Dr. Dawn Bridges, Vice President of Educational Affairs

Adaptive leadership is about navigating changes and challenges while staying focused on what matters most — our students. It’s about:

  • Having the ability to anticipate what’s coming and the flexibility to plan and adjust.
  • Listening to diverse stakeholders to gain different perspectives and consider the many facets of a situation.
  • Creating or adopting new or different strategies to address issues and meet district goals.
  • Mobilizing individuals and groups to initiate changes and work toward those goals.

One big issue in many districts today is student behavior.

In a 2022 survey of K-12 public schools, the Institute of Education Sciences found that, “More than 8 in 10 public schools have seen stunted behavioral and socioemotional development in their students because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

More than

of public schools have seen stunted behavioral & socioemotional development

“What happens on school grounds — before, during, and after school — can have a big impact on a child’s health and learning. OST program leaders and staff are natural partners for extending the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child approach beyond the school day.”

In my own conversations with district leaders and in leaders’ interviews with the media, many say that students are still struggling to adjust being back in the classroom. In particular, students who started kindergarten and first grade at home are having trouble transitioning into the school environment. In addition, students who have unfinished learning or academic gaps may feel like they are failing or falling behind their peers, which can create social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.

Trauma and mental health issues are also impacting the way students learn and behave in the classroom. In fact, mental health tops parents’ list of concerns, with 40% saying they are extremely or very worried that their children are struggling with anxiety or depression, and 36% feeling somewhat worried, according to Pew Research Center’s Parenting in America Today survey.

One way districts can support students’ social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health is to support their well-being during school time and out-of-school time (OST).

“What happens on school grounds — before, during, and after school — can have a big impact on a child’s health and learning. OST program leaders and staff are natural partners for extending the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child approach beyond the school day.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Thinking beyond the school day

Educators are asked to pack so much into the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day, but learning does not just happen during school hours. OST programs — which can include before and after school programs, break camps, and summer camps, among others — can support student learning, well-being, and health in a variety of ways. In addition to providing safety and supervision, research shows that OST programs can support student academic achievement, and improve the personal and social skills linked with positive social behaviors.

Embracing change and providing more equitable opportunities

Unfortunately, in many communities, families have grown accustomed to their local after school provider, even if that provider offers little more than babysitting. Not wanting to upset the apple cart during these volatile times, many parents and education leaders have settled because “this is what we’ve always done” and “it’s good enough.” But is it?

Adaptive leaders are reimagining what education can and should look like, and part of that involves thinking beyond the traditional school day. To provide pathways to college and careers, we should offer students opportunities to explore and identify their interests, talents, and aspirations — and well before they get to high school.

Another consideration is equity. In too many communities, opportunities for learning, play, and growth outside of the school day are sharply divided between the haves and have-nots. A student who is interested in chess or STEM or sports or creative and performing arts should be able to explore those interests to see where they excel and what they like or don’t like. Offering extended day programs on-site at school can help close that divide and give more children the opportunity to access and participate in high-quality enrichment. 

Navigating changes together

Adaptive leaders understand that while change can be difficult, it is often necessary to achieve different (and better!) outcomes.

Here at Right At School, we have helped many district leaders navigate through the changes required to enrich the lives of students, give parents peace of mind, and enable schools to focus on their academic mission.

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Dr. Dawn Bridges

Dr. Dawn Bridges has over 25 years of experience in the fields of education and professional learning, having held the roles of teacher, reading specialist, special education coordinator, principal, and assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. She has dedicated her career to ensuring that all students have the support they need to thrive in and out of school. You can follow Dr. Bridges on LinkedIn and Twitter and subscribe to the RAS blog to keep up with her work.

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