Dealing with Unexpected Behaviors with Guest Dr. Karin Jakubowski

This week the Mental Health Mamas are joined by Dr. Karin Jakubowski, an elementary school principal, founder of Educational Impact Academy and fellow podcaster. Karin talks about what it means to practice “connection before correction”, what to do when an unexpected behavior shows up and how we can all do a better job listening to our kids.

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Tina: Hey everyone, I'm Tina.

Serena: And I'm Serena, and we are the Mental Health Mamas.


Tina: Welcome to No Need to Explain. We are so glad you're here.

Serena: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Tina: We come to you not as mental health professionals or experts in the fields, but rather as parents with lived experience who are on a mission to normalize the conversation around mental health.

Serena: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You'll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website,

Tina: So we as humans are shaped by so many very different experiences in our lives beginning super early, right? And although we as parents have great influence over our children's well-being, from a very early age, and until we become young adults, many children spend much of their days in school, right? Today, we have a guest who knows quite a bit about school and happens to be a human who has grown up in a complicated world.

Serena: Karin Jakubowski is a practicing principal of an elementary school in Delaware. She is a founder of Educational Impact Academy and happens to be a fellow podcaster as well. Karin, welcome to the podcast.

Karin: Thank you, ladies. Good to be with you again.

Tina: Yeah, we're so happy to have you. So as we said, you're an educator and a podcaster and you talked with us about your use of positive behavioral techniques in your school. You also talk, which I love, about connection before correction. But before we get into that specifically or talk about all that you do in your multifaceted, exciting life, tell us a little bit about your personal story and perhaps, connecting that to who you've become in the world.

Karin: Yeah, so I'll go back to when I was a little girl in elementary school, I was not a good kid. So nobody believes this. And when I tell my teachers, they're like, what, you did that? I'm like, yeah, that was me. So I lied, I stole, I cheated. All for good reasons. Like, I was sick that day and I didn't get to know there was a test and then the words just happened to be on the floor on the carpet in front of me on the girls' paper. And then we had a lady who lived with us. And I, yeah, I would steal the quarters. This is so bad out of her purse so that I could buy little snacks at school. So like, it's so, like when I say I lied, I stole and I cheated. Like, it was all for a very good intent, anyway. But so I growing up, when I did something bad and wrong, I really felt like, because obviously I would get in trouble and back then years ago, I would get spanked. And I felt like I was like a bad person.

So I bring that up because when I was a teacher, I had some very difficult students and had students that I taught that I did not know what would help them and felt like I couldn't help them. Like they would show up and they just couldn't do this paper pencil thing and they just couldn't do this thing we called school. And in my heart of hearts, I wanted to be able to help them. And I just felt like I couldn't. And so when I was, what they call a Child Study Team Facilitator, which I just was a person in two elementary schools where kids who didn't qualify for a 504 or an IEP, but struggled in one way or another. Maybe it wasn't doing their homework or they were a distraction in class or what have you. Our team would meet and we'd figure out what intervention could we put in place to help that kid? And that year, I went to a conference where six school districts in Delaware were invited to hear from this guy called Dr. Stuart Ablon. He did some work with Ross Green on a book called Lost at School. And I learned from him a positive approach to kids in their challenging behaviors that just really like synced with how I felt we should treat kids when they are, I liked how we put it acting unexpectedly. Cause I'm like, you're misbehaving and it's like, what does that mean? But when I say to a kid, well, that was unexpected. It just kind of is like, oh, like there's how I'm supposed to expected to act and not. So I started using his lingo, using his, he taught us to talk to a kid and I call it the elevator tone of voice where you don't raise your voice. You're not talking down at them. You're not making them feel worse than where they already are. And so I started using this tone of voice with kids when they were in trouble and using the questions he would teach us to use to really help get to the root of that kid telling you why they really did what they did. And from my experience, we would always be like her, we would hear, well, you know better. I didn't raise you that way. You know, don’t act like that. Like that was what I was used to or it was just a consequence put in place and you just knew like, you could never do that again cause you never wanted that consequence again. This approach, I was attracted to it in so many ways because I was that kid who was in trouble. And now ever since then, I stumbled my way learning his process because like anything, you don't do it perfectly the first time. But I just committed to it. And over time, it became how I handled every behavior to when I became an assistant principal. And I got all the problems, the problems the kids are referred to me when they get in trouble. And I used that approach over and over and over again.

And then you'll probably bring up the question you brought up in the beginning of the connect before you correct. I don't know if you want to touch on that now. Yeah, so let me really from my youth where all that I was that is a kid, how I felt like that bad kid to really, as an adult somewhere inside me, I just believe we shouldn't treat kids like that. And then when he taught me that, I was like, yes, that's right. And I just embraced it and it hasn't always been easily accepted. I mean, it's difficult at times. I just feel like we're like, you get people who just really feel like you need to take that kid's right pinky off or what they just did. They just are like, hit that kid on the playground. Like they are like in big trouble, you know? And I don't always treat the kids the way people think, maybe they should be treated because they were bad, but it all stems from this approach and my history.

Tina: Yeah, and let's just circle back to the whole good bad thing, right? I mean, I cannot speak for my podcasting partner Serena, but I will speak for myself when I say, I've had many calls about kind of, and I'm putting quotes around bad behavior, right? Like, I really tried to differentiate when I was a teacher and a mom between, you know, behavior that wasn't good and you're a bad person, right? Like, you're a good person. You just made a bad choice, which is how we used to frame it a lot, right? Like, that was not the best choice. So Serena, I cannot speak for you. So if you want to speak for you.

Serena: Yeah, well, and I, you know, I think I want to talk a little bit about Ross Green, right? Because so I'm not familiar with the person that you studied with, Karin, but I am familiar with Ross Green and the idea that behavior is communication, right? Yeah, exactly. And the idea that when kids, you know, do an unexpected behavior, I love that, I love that framing of it, that there is some kind of skill lacking that there's something in there. And so I'm curious for you personally, Karin, did you feel like as a child, was that true for you?

Karin: Oh, man, I never really stopped to think about that. Hold on. Well, because he teaches, they teach that, which is what I've helped parents with, understand, it's either a skilled or lacking that they need to be taught, or it's a problem to be solved.

Tina: Mm-hmm.

Karin: So as a kid, it, for me it probably was, Probably if I had somebody empathize, which is part of this process, that I had missed school, and I wasn't prepared for a test. So I didn't know it. So that was my coping mechanism, right?

Tina: Yeah.

Karin: So if someone had just, go ahead.

Tina: I was gonna say it's kind of the, what happened to you thing? I mean, we've, we, I think it was last season, or maybe the first season, I can't remember, we had on a mom who has adopted children who've had lots of trauma, and I remember her saying, and I'm not even sure she said this on the podcast, because we were in so many in-person meetings with her, but she said, the principal, if he had said to her child, instead of like, why did you do that? The why question, which is very judgy, right? If that person said, like, what happened? It's, it really, it's a whole different flavor, right? It's about like, what happened? What happened that, that you need to tell me about? Not like blame, why, why, why did you have that bad behavior, right?

Karin: Yeah. Yeah, and it reminds me of Dr. Claudia Gold. I had her on my podcast, and I've learned from her, and I have used it ever since, and I absolutely love it. She said, there's a story behind every behavior.

Tina: Absolutely, yeah.

Karin: That this process that I learned, this, my husband's like, you got to call it something different, no one's going to listen to you when you say, this collaborative problem solving process, but that's what, that's what the whole thing big thing is.

Tina: Sure.

Karin: And when you, when you use this process, the tone of voice, like you're talking to someone on the elevator, like, I noticed you kicked Jody at recess, and you asked this magical question, what's up with that? It opens up for the kid to feel safe to share the story, where they're usually feeling like they're going to be in so much trouble that they can’t even think straight, because they're in fight or flight mode, and knowing even the first name when they're in that state. And that's what I love. I mean, I got a kid to admit that he peed on the bathroom wall at school, and his mom was like, my kid would never do that, and I handed him the phone, and he told her he did it. How did I get a third grader to admit that? Because of this process, it helps kids feel safe enough to just really tell us the story of what happened. Now, he got consequences, of course. And I just, I love this process.

Serena: So let's delve into that a little bit more. So obviously, your own personal experience has shaped who you are as a principal, and you see lots of kids who are struggling. You said that for years, you saw kids struggling behaviorally, emotionally, and academically, with little success. So tell us what that looks like when a student comes, somebody sent to your office for a behavior.

Karin: Yeah, so I had a kid, the teacher called, and they had taken a black crayon or black chalk, and literally black chalked, like the light pastel beautiful carpet in their classroom. I mean, they were so upset, which is every valid reason why they should feel that upset, you know? And so the kid, I'm sure, saw that teacher in a heightened state of just huge, you know, frustration, you know, a little anger, possibly, I can only imagine, you know, and when they came to me, I don't show them that level of heightened emotion, and I literally said to them, you know, I heard you, you know, you kind of ruined damaged or whatever I said, her carpet, you know, what's up with that? And for him, he just, at that moment, did it, because he just chose to do it, it wasn't because he was upset, or because of anything in particular, and I was like, and I usually will say to them, you know, how do you think that other person feels right now from what you did? So it gets them to really put themselves in that other person's shoes with that perspective, taking that not a lot of people, kids just naturally do, we sometimes have to teach this to kids. And, you know, they were like, oh, you know, they're probably, you know, really, really upset about all that, and then I turn around to say and ask them, you know, what do you think you could do to solve this problem? Like, what do you think you'd do to make this right, you know, and he volunteered to work with the custodian to try to clean it, you know? And I, as much as teachers want, or from my experience at times, and teachers are doing the best they can. So I really, it sounds, it sounds, I don't want to come out wrong. But a lot of times, we want that kid to apologize to us, and they need to like, you know, we just, because we take it personally, right? So I have to help teachers and parents and help us realize that that kid might never, verbally apologize, they might never be able to do it. Be able to put it in writing that they're sorry. And that's on us, we have to find that space to somehow get a…be OK with that. But I always put it out there to the child because wherever they're at, and wherever place they're at to do something, that's what I go with. So I never tell them they have to, you know, verbally apologize, or we're going to go back and you're going to tell them you're sorry, you know, I really just ask them like, what do you think will make this right to really help them and guide them to a place where they can sort of bring it, help something that kind of now feels broken.

Tina: Yeah, and the apology’s worth an apology, right? I think I, and it's something I used to say to my kids is you can apologize and I appreciate that and I want to see that you, your behavior changes, right? I want to see that you are really sorry. How is it that you're going to behave? And yeah, so I think you're doing a couple of things. One is modeling, you know, that whole idea that you're not in a rage when you go at them, right? You are calm and that you're reasonable and you're regulated and I think that's something you're modeling for sure. And that you're also modeling that there's a story behind everything and I think kids get that, kids are so smart, right?

Karin: They do. I mean, the kids, some of the most challenging kids with challenging behaviors I've worked with or interacted experienced with have come back and written me. I'm looking at a post-it note on my desk from a kid, one of those kids and it says, you're the best principal. You know, it's like, to me, it just speaks volumes because we went through so much together, you know? And another thing, Stuart Ablon teaches us, kids do well if they can. And I was like, yes, they do. I just, I love that kids do well if they can. And if they can't, it's up to you and I to figure out why and help them with whether it's the problem to be solved or a skill to be taught. And I never talk to a kid when they're upset. I mean, I try to help parents with that. If there's only one thing you take away, the first thing, practice and it doesn't happen naturally or at first, but commit to practicing that you won't engage with your kid until they're calm and in control of their body. You're calm and in control of your body because they literally, that freaked out, I call the freaked out state when you're like, in flight mode, they can't even tell you your first name, that you cannot expect, you know? And I'll tell a kid, I'll be like, and I'll use my elevator tone of voice. I'll be like, you look, you don't look calm and in control of your body yet. And I'm just gonna let you sit here and I'm gonna do my work here and I let them sit and I always have them in my peripheral vision. Like I can see them, but I'm not staring at them because nobody likes to be stared at. And I can wait till they're calm and in control. Sometimes if a kid is elevated and getting upset in the classroom or maybe the teacher feels a little unsafe, the teachers know they just quietly walk out with the class, they walkie us and what does one of us do? We just go in and we sit in the classroom and they get it out of their system, whatever it is and we're there till they're calm and in control of their body and they all get calm eventually.

Tina: Sure

Karin: Some just need more time than others.

Tina: Yeah, yeah. So you do an amazing job with kids every day. What inspired you to help parents tell us about this Momnificent podcast you do?

Karin: So I believe in this approach to my core. And I've used it and I've seen it work so successfully for kids and at times it is hard to change the way people deal with behaviors and I modeled it. I've modeled it for my teachers and sometimes it's just not as easy to shift into this way. And so one day I just, sometimes I feel like I'm doing it but it's not always so easily received and accepted you just think everyone's just gonna like end up doing it as well. And so over time that that was kind of difficult for me. And I got to the place where I was like, I'm just gonna go share this with people who are open to it or someone who wants to learn it and I've seen it do incredible things and I wanted to help more parents, moms, kids. Our kids deserve this way of being treated from us. Like I really believe that in my heart of hearts. And so I was like, well, I will start a podcast and I'll start teaching it and telling parents about it. And I ended up running two parent groups and they were like, this is amazing. And I'm like, oh my gosh, it is in some cases. And then I started guesting, guest podcasting and on like literally around the world, In Greece, Australia, Canada, the UK and everyone's like, this is amazing. I'm like, yes, it is. And so I created this guesting podcast, Momnificent. Like I want to help moms be better moms. If I can learn it, you can learn it. And the guesting podcast is just fun because now I have guests from all over and I learn so many incredible things that just enhance everything that I do with kids and it's like a personal PD every time I meet. And every guest I have is like a kindred spirit by the end. I'm like, I love you. And so, yeah, that's what launched all of that.

Tina: Awesome.

Serena: That is like the best thing about podcasting. All these people you get to meet that you never would have otherwise.

Karin: yeah, like you two.

Serena: Yeah. Yeah. So it's a tell our audience how you can be reached where where can they find you?

Karin: So I have my website. Probably the easiest way to find me is either on any podcast platform you listen to, Momnificent or look up my name, Karen Jakubowski because Momnificent is a little tricky to spell sometimes. And I also put all of the

Tina: plus your other part, but that's okay. I'll just give them a link.

Karin: Give them a link. I'll have it all like the link below. You have it all. And the podcast is also on my YouTube channel, Momnificent and there's a link below because I get it’s tricky to type out. And the crazy thing that I just started two months ago well actually spend three months down in January is I started on TikTok making like 30 second videos of the things I've learned and things I want parents to know on the go. Here's one quick tip today. Like the most viral one that has half a million views is five things your kid with ADHD wants you to know. And it's incredible how many people are like, yes, this is so true. Like there's just things about these kids that we just stereotype or we get frustrated with. And so I just always find it a way to twist it to help people learn, grow and do better, be better. I mean, I need reminders to do things all the time. And that's what it is. It's like, oh yeah, that's a great, that's a great thank you for that. So yeah, that's how you can find me.

Tina: Well, I watch it and yeah, you pop up a lot. So I hear you, I hear you. So I'm curious if there's anything we haven't asked you today that you'd like to put out to the world.

Karin: Just the more people I interview in my podcast, the more like we know it, but the more you hear it, it's just the importance of really listening to our kids. I'm writing a script for one of my TikTok videos that I'm probably gonna record right after this. And it's just about just show up for your kid, be emotionally present, be physically present, like put down the phone, just listen. Listen to your kid, that connection that you can have with them as consistent as you can make it. Even if it's a couple minutes, but some little couple minutes every day where your kid knows that they can just talk. And that's where you hear what they're going through to really figure out how to help them and open up to your child. Like tell them a struggle you had. Tell them about something that was difficult for you. That's how we're teaching our kids these tools and skills. A, to be resilient. Two, to be able to solve problems. Cause we just tell kids what to do these days so much that they sometimes lack the ability to just figure out how to solve this problem, which is why I love that whole collaborative problem solving approach because it forces a kid cause at the end of it you say to the kid, what do you think we could do to solve this problem? And you just mute yourself, I call it. Mute yourself and force yourself to let your kid come up with an idea that you're okay with. Even if it falls, crashes, and burns. They came up with the idea, they have the buy-in. And then you can come back to the table to figure out what else you're gonna do different to solve this problem until something works. And through that whole process, you're teaching these kids this incredible valuable skill that we want all our kids to have, which is problem solving skills. So just listen, be present, disconnect from everything that is just vying for our attention these days where we're going 110 miles an hour. And yeah, that's what I would say.

Tina: So many things being present is the most important, right? So thank you for being with us today. We are so lucky that our paths crossed and we hope you stay in touch.

Karin: Oh, definitely. I will, I was looking forward to this and thank you, ladies, for everything you're doing. Who you are, just being who you are for so many people. So many of us just keeping you, thanks.

Serena: Thanks, Karin. And so podcast friends, we are as always grateful for you spending a little of your time with us today. We know you have lots of choices out there and we really appreciate you taking the time. If you get a chance, go to Apple Podcasts, leave us a review, subscribe, and please share our podcast with others. You will find us on the socials. You can also leave us a voice message. You'll find that number in our show notes. And you could call and tell us what you think of the podcast, podcast ideas we’re always looking for more ideas and get us or just call to say hi.

Tina: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Serena: Thanks for listening.

Tina: Bye.