A Principal’s Day, According to Brain Science

You’re constantly shifting through brain changes as you work.

Do you ever get home at the end of the day and feel thoroughly exhausted? Most principals do. It’s not just working long hours and logging plenty of steps that make you feel worn out. Being a principal means putting your brain through the wringer each and every day. Displaying qualities like empathy, engaging in conflict resolution, and being a leader all challenge different areas of the brain. As a principal, your brain is shifting through these changes as you work.

Wonder what’s happening on the inside? Here’s how tasks in a principal’s day affect the brain.

Empathizing with a student

As principal, you likely spend lots of time thinking about your students. Maybe you fret over one child’s home situation while brainstorming ways to help another overcome a learning disability. Whenever you meet with students, you probably try to get in their shoes to understand the root of the problem.

Empathy comes relatively naturally to many people. However, it’s a fairly complex skill that involves understanding emotions and making informed assumptions about how another person is feeling. In fact, research indicates there are two separate systems of empathy in the brain: one relying on emotion and one relying on cognition.

When you express empathy you’re using many systems in the brain. The temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and prefrontal cortex help control cognitive empathy. The inferior frontal gyrus helps you recognize and respond to the emotions of others. Strong connections between these regions help people express empathy. Your principal empathy connections are likely wired to perfection and constantly being strengthened.

Solving a policy problem


As a principal you make a million small decisions a day. Sometimes this involves other people, but often you make swift decisions to benefit your school and solve conflicts, ranging from staffing to budgeting. Surprisingly, research  shows that conflict resolution activates the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is usually associated with long-term memory. When you need to solve a problem, your brain draws on memories of similar situations so that you can make connections that might be helpful.

When you quickly and successfully reach a solution, the hippocampus is especially active. Scientists theorize that this may be because the brain recognizes that you might need to draw on this experience in the future, so it stores the information away. Pretty smart, huh?

Encouraging your staff

When you enter a staff meeting with the teachers at your school, you have the ability to change not just your brain but theirs as well. Most principals strive to be resonate leaders, building dynamic relationships with their staff rather than just relying on authority. Researchers have found that resonant leaders activate more areas of their subordinates’ brains. This includes the areas responsible for attention, social networks, and relationships. When you create a positive staff culture and respond to a teacher with compassion, you can help them activate additional areas of their own brain, unlocking new potential for your entire school community.

That’s not all. Having positive social interactions can release oxytocin, the feel-good brain chemical. That means that after a productive and positive staff meeting, you and your teachers are likely to leave feeling better overall, which can have a ripple effect for the whole school.

Completing an act of kindness

Even in the most well-managed schools, principals have to deal with people who are unhappy. Having students, staff, or parents who are disgruntled can change the atmosphere in a school, since anger is contagious. In addition, when we’re faced with a negative behavior (say, name-calling), we’re more likely to engage in that behavior ourselves.

As principal, you have the ability to interrupt this dynamic. That’s because happiness and positivity are contagious as well, research shows. If the leader in a school is happy, everyone else is likely to be more upbeat as well. Doing something positive induces happiness in the brains of the person doing the kindness, and the recipient. Studies show that happier students often perform better academically, so your positive outlook can have a real impact on your school’s success.

All of these challenges throughout the day might seem downright exhausting. However, there is a silver lining. Challenging your brain regularly can lead to better brain health in the long term. So, when you’re enjoying your retirement you just might be thankful for all those challenging days as a principal!

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Plus, brain-backed ways school leaders can avoid the afternoon slump.