Interview with Principal Marit Hunstad

Written by Hans Holter Solhjell.


Marit Hunstad is the principal of a primary school in Norway and has participated in the PLS  trainer training and has used the PLS regulation support model with good results at her school.

In this interview she shares some of her experiences with interested readers.

Get your printable copy of the PLS regulation support model free here!

PLS Regulation Support Model

Hi Marit. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us.
I think it has been very interesting to hear about your experiences as principal and how you have used the PLS regulation support model in your work. And I’m sure it will be useful for many others as well.

Can we start by hearing a little about your background?

I trained as a general teacher and later earned my master’s degree. I studied to become a principal a couple of years ago. In addition, I am a trained catechist, have studied storytelling as well as both art history and economics.

I studied some topics because they engage me, others were necessary skills for the job I wanted, and the rest were because I thought they would help me in my work.

When you participated in the trainer training, I quickly got the impression that you already knew a lot about communication, conflict resolution and relationships and applied this in your school. Can you tell us a little about how you developed these skills?

Much of this has come from the skills development courses I attended within the roles I’ve had. There is also a lot I have learned through experience – through learning from mistakes that I have made. I also have a genuine interest in social pedagogy.

The master’s thesis I wrote was about teaching religion for the autistic – it’s about how to talk about something as abstract as faith with people who have a very concrete understanding of reality. It helped me to develop a special understanding of both communication, relationships, and professional communication.

Why did you become interested in our trainer training program and the PLS regulation support model?

It was because I had a particularly challenging special education student case in my job as principal. A good solution had not been found, and it became my job to find a way to deal with this. It was necessary both for the child and for the staff at the school.

Then I looked for someone who could support us in this, or who could come in and work with us as external consultants. Both were difficult to find.

As I searched, I found this training in communication and conflict resolution. I therefore wanted to educate myself so that I gained the competence in how to coach and give concrete aids to the teachers who worked with the student.

I also thought it was problematic to become dependent on someone outside of school. The training became one of the measures that the school chose to use to solve this challenge.

How did the training fit your and the school’s needs?

It fit very well. During the training, we adjusted and adapted the way we handled issues with the student – as I gained more knowledge about this.

A teacher, two assistants and I could adjust and improve the arrangements for the student after each module of the training I attended, and we got an exceptionally good cooperation in the team working with the pupil. And we worked exceptionally well with the pupil.

We used PLS to work in a systematic way – be it coaching teachers, debriefing, cooperation meetings with parents, and to organise the daily structure, timetable, and other measures that were initiated. The teachers and assistants were very committed and flexible and were involved in this all the time.

We gained much better competence to handle challenges that came up than we had before. The PLS model has helped us to think more holistically and systematically at the same time as it is concrete and practical in terms of the relationship and the daily interaction with the student in all situations.

It also makes it easier for the adults to collaborate when we have a common model that is so concrete and also process-oriented.

Have you benefited from the training in other situations as well?

We have worked a lot with a challenging social climate that had developed in one of the class levels recently. There we also managed to turn the situation and relationships around in a positive way. This meant seeing the individual circumstances of the student and gaining an understanding of the challenges the student may have in terms of conditions at home with the family, anger management problems, problems related to mental health such as anxiety, etc.

I also started coaching the teachers in classroom management, organization of classes, relationships with the students, creating predictability, etc. We have also collaborated with the Child Welfare Service, Special Education Services and the Psychatric Services to help the students in the best possible way.

In addition to these major issues, I use the PLS framework models or elements of them every day. They do well in everyday school life, and it is positive that the models are not locked in and fixed but invite you to integrate other skills and knowledge.

There is seldom a definitive answer to what a child needs, or a situation requires, so the fact that the PLS invites and open to combine methods, I think is nice, and it suits my way of working.

We have worked hard to gain a holistic understanding of the student – not just what the student is struggling with, but all aspects of the student’s past and home life. We are often a little dazzled by all the challenges we face, and then we forget to see who the person behind these challenges is.

When you get a better picture of the student, it becomes easier to understand what skills the child lacks and needs to be able to master situations.

How has the PLS model and framework been useful to you as a leader in school?

As a leader, I can use the PLS in several ways. Among other things, it makes it easier to guide teachers and assistants who work directly with students. And the model can be used to find out what adults need to do to be able to support the students in the best way possible.

By having an overview of the five phases, we can better understand what is happening and the areas where we need to put in more work and improve. It is also easier to motivate and contribute to the employees’ feeling of accomplishment when we get to create adaptable plans that prove to work in practice and give visible results.

It is incredibly positive that the model is so visual, and the colours and shapes in the model make it easy to recall it when you are in a situation without having it on paper in front of you. I find that it has been easy to fit the model into the way I work.

Can you say something about how you have worked to succeed in the most challenging cases, where there are a lot of outbursts etc.?

I think a lot is about creating well-functioning relationships and organised support around the students. It helps to make these matters manageable.

In this work I have used a lot of what we have learned during the training to develop teachers’ ability to lead such situations and understand the dynamics better, and to be able to be more independent when it comes to dealing with these.

I have spent time demonstrating the skills from the PLS model in use.

I have also gone more directly into different challenging situations myself, for example in recess, also to be a role model to our staff. And there has been a conscious effort to establish a culture at school for how we as adults interact with students. By showing that this model and way of relating actually works and that it is possible to do something about conflicts and behavioural problems in practice, it motivates the staff to learn more about the method and apply it.

As principal, I feel that I can now delegate matters to my leadership team and teachers to a greater degree than before, because we experience that this now works well and the team has a higher level of skill.

I have also used the PLS model actively in conversations with parents, and it fits well with a trauma-conscious approach, which I have also worked with before.

Do you feel that you are more secure as an adult in escalating situations?

Yes, this is a clear improvement. Tolerating a child escalating without the adult escalating the situation further is easier to achieve with this knowledge, which gives us a better overview of what happens during escalations and what we can do to de-escalate. We can also see the whole picture of the learning process and the different connections within it more clearly.

Teachers have also become more aware of looking for the specific triggers different children may have and can therefore more easily prevent and also meet the child with empathy and understanding to a greater extent when something triggers them. These can often be things that are not so easy to understand or spot if you do not have this knowledge with you.

What challenges have you encountered during the process?

There has been a lot of positive progress this year, but there has also been a lot of effort and time put in to turn the school culture around.

An important part of this has been to create better understanding, acceptance, and generosity for the work those who work directly with the most challenging students, who need the most follow-up do, where there may be outbursts in classrooms, common areas, the schoolyard etc.

In order to be successful in working with an individual student or a group where you have a lot of challenges, the teachers and staff who are closest to these students need an acceptance in the larger staff group.

Here, among other things, there is a balance between the privacy of the students and the need to provide some information to create an understanding of what is happening, how we work, and to ensure that there is generosity there – an understanding that not everything is as it should be at the moment, but that a plan is in in place and that progress is being made.

It has also been important to establish roles, find out who does what, ensure good cooperation between adults in the various phases of the conflicts and learning processes, and that everyone understands how de-escalation, regulation- support, and the process work over a period of time.

An example is if a child has an episode where they start acting out, and those who work with the child are in the process of de-escalating that situation, the other adults around also have a role in this. Whether it is assistants at the school or other teachers, there are things they can contribute, such as guiding the other students, creating space and calming down the situation in general.

There have also been some challenges, including having to relocate teachers. For me as a leader, this was a decision I had to make, since these teachers were not able to deliver what was needed.

After a lot of observation during lessons and documentation of what was missing, some relocations were initiated. We experienced that some teachers did not follow up and did not do what we had agreed on, and these teachers were therefore moved.

How have you worked with ensuring the cooperation between the staff in situations where students acted out?

With the special education student I mentioned in the start, when the situaiton was at its most challenging, it was especially important that everyone who was present and in a supervisory position knew what their role was. When we worked with a single student, only the relevant staff who were responsible for the student were to intervene, while the other staff were to shield the other students.

At the same time, it is crucial to have the other staff there as a safety net in case the situation should turn very disruptive so that they would be able to provide additional help.

We have worked with a procedure on how this should be handled, where there is a planned de-escalation, where one constantly is working to to prevent the need to intervene more strongly, in line with PLS regulation support model.

The fact that the rest of the staff is informed about what is happening is essential, both to be able to handle the situation correctly and because you have to be prepared to answer questions from other students who see what is going on.

Everyone must be able to respond satisfactorily so that the other children feel safe and taken care of.

What do you think is needed for students who need extra help to get what they need?

I think it is especially important that both school management, teachers and society in general get a better understanding of how the needs of students who need facilitation and help must be met.

The expertise we are talking about here must be included in everyday school life, and a framework must be created in the form of organisation, staff, time, competence, and resources in the schools to allow this. There is a lot that needs to be put in place in the classrooms when it comes to class management, communication, conflict resolution, pedagogical measures and methodology in subjects for all students to be able to get as much out of the academic learning as they should.

I think many parents feel that you have to fight to get help, and I think that is wrong. There is a lot we can do with the resources we have today, with the individual student, with regard to class management and the school environment, and of specific academic, pedagogical adaptations, aids, etc. All this is important to support the children’s feeling of security and mastery experience both professionally and socially.

As a principal, you must also consider the way subjects are taught in the classroom. When a student does not master subjects, questions must also be asked during the teaching. There are many opportunities here, and not everything requires resources – it’s a lot about the way we work.

My impression is that many in the school understand the challenges we are talking about here, and a willingness to integrate the children in the best possible way in the school, but that they may lack the competence and support they need. And that there is too little understanding in general of how demanding the job as a teacher is in meeting challenges of the type we are talking about here. What do you think about this?

I completely agree with that – determination, individual capacity and competence are needed. We must also create organizations and cultures that support teachers and students better than they often do today.

The school is part of a system, you must know this system to know what room for action you have, whether it is as a teacher, department head or principal. It is also important to know how to work together in this system in order to help the student in the best way possible.

When I talk to teachers and also parents who have been in demanding situations over a long time, I see that they can get tired or burnt out by this. And also, actually even get traumatized. Even so, I think teachers and parents need far more support than they actually get in many cases. How do you perceive the teachers in your school’s experience of the situations they are in now?

One of the challenges when it comes to students who act out, is that teachers also are entitled to a good working environment – teachers also have legal protections, and one should not be exposed to violence or offense at work. This is then set against the student’s right to an education and a safe and developmentally supportive school environment.

We have used the PLS model primarily in the work with the students, and it helps us to develop the plans for how we handle different situations with the student in question.

At the same time, we work within the current system for HSE, and we report deviations on everything.

We also work to take care of the employees in a demanding work environement. When we have very demanding situations, I have established a process of debriefing conversation at school that takes place after particularly demanding days, where everyone who has been involved can discuss what was going on and what feelings they had about it. There, everyone can share what they want to share, and there I also like to use the PLS model to structure the conversation with the adults as well.

It provides an opportunity for each person to share what they felt, how they experienced the cooperation between them, if there was something they lacked to handle this well and what we need to alter in the future.

We do not want anyone to go home from work and feel inadequate, powerless, hurtful – to take such violations and experiences home, without seeing that they have been taken seriously and that they will receive support in their work.

Sometimes this is not enough, and then you have to work in parallel to put in place other supportive measures as well.

Sometimes I have to contact the County Health Service for supervision and talks. It has been necessary to establish such schemes to take care of the employees and the working environment.

Was there anything in the training you found particularly useful to you?

There is no definitive answer in difficult situations but having a good tool that helps deal with these, I have experienced the PLS as particularly useful. The PLS model provides a structure for the work that makes it easier to lead in a demanding situation.

For me and the school, it helped that I took the training so that we could better handle the challenges at school. I could guide teachers better and also create better collaboration with parents.

Hans Holter Solhjell
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