Principal Mari Jo Mulligan walked through the halls of Thunderbolt Middle School, eagerly saying good morning and shaking hands with every student she passed.

From time to time, she paused to ask how things were going — are you Ok? Bad day? How can we make it better?

The questions caused one boy to confess that he’d just been hit by a soccer ball in P.E. and was a bit sore and upset. Mulligan consoled him.

“Yeah, sounds like a bad day,” she said with a smile.

These moments of connection are what the school’s new personal and professional life skills program, Capturing Kids’ Hearts, is all about.

Developed by the Flippen Group, an international educator training company, CKH is billed as a system that “builds children into productive, happy, well-rounded adults.”

“These processes can transform the classroom and campus environment, paving the way for high performance,” the Flippen Group website states, summing up the approach with a quote from founder Flip Flippen — “If you have a child’s heart, you have his head.”

As of this summer, every Thunderbolt staff member has completed the three-day CKH workshop at a cost of $500 per person thanks to donations raised from the community. The concepts are now in use across the school, leading to visible changes.

Each period begins with students lining up to shake hands with their teachers — a chance to check in with one another and set a professional, respectful atmosphere.

Classroom walls feature Social Contracts, an agreement on behavioral expectations set by the students at the beginning of the school year. Each period created their own Social Contract by answering questions like, “How do you want to be treated by each other?” and “How do you want to be treated by the teacher?” Words like “communicate,” “patient,” “kindness,” and “respect,” appear again and again on the large pieces of brightly colored construction paper, which also include the students’ signatures, giving them a sense of ownership.

Eighth-grade science teacher Rebekah King admits she wasn’t quite sure what to make of this whole touchy feely process when she first heard about it, but after two months of seeing its impact, she’s a devoted convert.

“There are classes where kids would get lost before, and now, shaking their hands every day, I know more about these kids by shaking their hands and their smile,” said King, who has been a teacher for 12 years, 10 of them at Thunderbolt. “It’s really cool because I feel like I know these kids so much better on a personal level and I can help them on a personal level.”

King is also so impressed by the Social Contract that she hopes to eventually develop one with her own children, who are now three and five years old.

“When I have a problem, we go back to the Social Contract,” King said of her class. “The other day, kids were coming to class without their books. I said, ‘Ok, we have responsibility (on the Social Contract). Let’s talk about responsibility. .. I think it is going to help them in the long run with family dynamics.”

Thunderbolt staff members have created contracts with each other, leading to smoother communication, King said.

“I see that it’s not about me, it’s about relationships,” she added.

Mulligan agreed that the contracts between co-workers are a big asset.

“I see the difference as a principal,” she said. “We’re not perfect, but that’s why we have this to really help each other. It’s a process that we’re all living.”

Modeling these kinds of good social skills is a big focus in Thunderbolt’s Teen Leadership class, which uses curriculum developed by the Flippen Group. The semester-long course has a very different feel than standard the “three Rs” — for instance, kids publicly share the good things in their lives and learn to reframe negative experiences into positives. One exercise involves writing your own obituary to focus on what impact you’d like to leave behind.

Thirteen-year-old Michael Reinartz said the reframing has particularly helped him this year as he works to deal with his mother’s recent death. The tragedy drove him to reach out to other students who were struggling rather than focus on his own grief.

“We learn how to help people,” Reinartz said of his Teen Leadership class, taught by Lindsay Bitterman.

Classmate, Rylee Mattice, 12, said learning how to shake hands has boosted her confidence and helped her feel that teachers respect her as a young adult, rather than “a little kid.”

Members of Alyssa Hengel’s Teen Leadership class spoke about goals for the semester that included overcoming shyness and improving public speaking ability.

Stories like these are gratifying for Flip Flippen, who has brought Teen Leadership classes to over 2 million students across the country.

“The thing that lowers at-risk factors (for kids) is a meaningful relationship with an appropriate adult,” Flippen said. “Great teachers are some of the most influential people in the world, and so are the bad ones.”

Research from the Flippen Group has shown that CKH reduces discipline referrals by 30 percent during the first year that it’s in place, with higher numbers for schools with many discipline problems.

“You have less disruption in class, which means you have more time on task, which means you are able to impact individual student learning,” Flippen said. “Teacher satisfaction goes up because they have a process to deal with discipline issues.”

A therapist for 16 years, Flippen developed his approach to education after working with thousands of young gang members in his native Texas. Flippen recognized that the boys were smart and motivated, but felt excluded from the world of boardrooms and white collar jobs. With skills like handshaking and self-presentation, the former gangsters were able to envision themselves as professionals, said Flippen.

“I would take these gang kids. I would go get them a pair of khakis and a blue or white shirt and a tie. I would take them into meetings with me,” he added. “They would walk in and they would present themselves in such a powerful way that people would turn to these young people — 15, 16, 17-year-old young people, and say, ‘Tell me what you do for Flip.’”

Father to 20 children — two biological and 18 adopted from around the world — Flippen sums up his approach by saying that he always expects more from everyone. That attitude has led his own kids to achieve advanced degrees and careers in business, medicine and research.

“If you want to raise a child’s self-confidence, the easiest way to do that is to give them skills,” he said.

For more information, go to www.flippengroup.com.

You may contact the reporter at kburgess@havasunews.com.

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