How Does Change Happen in Schools?

The past year has been an incredible time of adaptation, refinement and change in our schools. This comes on the heels of decades of educational evolution as we respond to the growing need for diverse learning strategies and social and emotional support.

Even before the pandemic, schools had a pattern of trying out new innovations every few years, each implemented with varying degrees of fidelity and success.

Often, when each attempt runs its course, we find ourselves looking for the next thing that will truly be the difference-maker for student achievement outcomes.

Why aren’t these systems moving the needle?

When we look back at why a particular initiative met with success or failure—whether it moved the needle in our targeted outcome areas—a few common challenges tend to crop up:
  • “We had a great professional development, but it never translated to school-wide practice.”
  • “We couldn’t get traction with school administrators or district leadership, so our policies and resources didn’t support the change in practice.”
  • “Some educators never really got on board.”
So what if we took this unprecedented time of change, not to reinvent the wheel, but to double down on what we have learned so far, using principles of implementation science and organizational change to transform our schools?

How do I make change actually happen?

In our work in Trauma Sensitive Schools, we have defined the following steps as critical for school-wide change:
  • Define the problem and sense of urgency. Why this innovation? Why now?
  • Determine vision and data points. How will we know when we are affecting the change we want to see?
  • Identify and engage key stakeholders. This can includes administrators, teachers, student services, families, and students.
  • Redefine the problem and sense of urgency. This time, approach it from each stakeholder’s perspective. What is urgent to an administrator may not match what is important to a teacher or parent. How do we align these priorities?
  • Integrate existing initiatives. How does this initiative fit with what we are already doing? How will we communicate what we are about and how to practice with clarity?
  • Identify a theory of change. How does awareness lead to a change in practice?
  • Align with current practice. Decide what needs to start, stop, continue, or change for a seamless rollout.
  • Create a practical action plan. Don’t forget to account for the necessary resources to carry it out.
  • Create broad-scale awareness. Communicate the innovation and identify its champions.
  • Equip your stakeholders. Teach them the needed skills and provide them with resources and tools.
  • Coach your stakeholders. Reteach them and reinforce skills using real-world examples and experiences.
  • Celebrate successes. Don’t forget to recognize your exemplars.
  • Evaluate fidelity. Review your data results and refine practices.
  • Implement a sustainability plan. How will you onboard new staff? How will it be codified into policy, documented and branded?
Profound, sustainable change can happen in your district for students and educators, as long as you are realistic in the planning stages. To learn how SaintA can support these efforts for your organization, please contact us at
This article was originally posted in SaintA’s Compassionate Schools Newsletter. Sign up to receive the next issue directly in your inbox!


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