Well at Work, Well-being

The Principal Effect: The Role of School Leaders in Thriving Schools


Principals play a key role in shaping their school environment. Principals’ wellbeing directly enhances the wellbeing of staff, the academic and social performance of students, and the overall success of a school. A focus on supporting principal wellbeing, through promising practices such as peer support networks and leadership development can significantly impact staff and student wellbeing.

As an elementary school principal, one of the most rewarding aspects of my job is personally greeting the students first thing in the morning, like a Walmart greeter – and then saying goodbye to them again at the end of each day. I always thought that teaching Grade 1 was the best job because the children grew so much from the beginning to the end of the school year. Now, as a principal, I get to see the impact that teachers and the broader school environment are having on many kids. Supporting staff to positively impact students is the essence of being a principal. The job may be demanding and tiring, but the rewards are significant. 

The School Environment  

Safe, welcoming and inclusive school environments are a priority for every school jurisdiction in Canada, and they support the wellbeing and learning of students. In addition to being places of learning, schools also serve as workplaces for the dedicated individuals who make our education system possible. By prioritizing safety, care, and inclusivity, we benefit our students and enhance our staff’s overall wellbeing and effectiveness. 

The Critical Role of an Effective Principal  

While everyone in the school community influences the school culture, the principal has a significant influence as both a managerial and instructional leader. It is widely acknowledged in the management literature that leaders play a crucial role in shaping organizational culture. Edgar Shein, in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, emphasized the importance of leaders in managing culture. Leadership quality also influences virtually every measure of occupational health.1 Research in K-12 education confirms that as school leaders, principals play a key role in shaping the school climate, fostering student learning, and enhancing student wellbeing and staff retention.2  

The principal’s role extends beyond management to encompass instructional leadership. Effective instructional leadership involves prioritizing their professional growth. By continuously improving their knowledge and skills, the principal can better guide and mentor the educators and support staff within the school, enabling them to foster a more dynamic and effective learning environment.  

The Importance of Principal Wellbeing  

Principal wellbeing has a strong correlation with school wellbeing. Chances are, if the principal is well, they are making choices that create a positive environment for their staff, students, and community.   

The wellbeing of principals is crucial not only for the staff and students but also for the academic and social performance of students and the overall success of the school.3 Positive wellbeing is associated with constructive leadership, while negative wellbeing is associated with a destructive leadership style.4  

“If good leadership is at the heart of every good school, then a leader who is both mentally and physically unwell could have a potentially disastrous impact on the wellbeing of a school and those within it” 5 

When principals experience declines in mental health, their effectiveness in influencing student engagement, school functioning, and school-wide wellbeing decreases.6 Research shows that principal stress can contribute to low teacher performance and higher rates of principal turnover, both of which significantly impact student success.7   

Given the critical role principals play in shaping their school environments, fostering principal wellbeing is not a luxury; it is essential.  

Factors Affecting Principal Wellbeing  

Many school, district, and community factors can impact principal wellbeing. Most research has focused on the factors that negatively influence principal wellbeing. Changes in the education landscape have placed a heavy burden on principals. Common challenges include workload intensification, long hours, feelings of isolation, staffing shortages, and safety concerns.8 The principal role involves significant administrative and managerial responsibilities with few learning opportunities to develop capacity.  

Building on Hertzberg’s two-factor theory, Shirley et al. (2020) point out that “increasing wellbeing and removing ill-being are two different things.” 9 While critical, attending to factors such as workload can remove ill-being but will only go so far to support wellbeing.   

The factors that improve wellbeing are often found in the work itself: collaboration, support from colleagues and supervisors, relationships based on trust and respect, autonomy in decision-making, and opportunities to complete their work in a way that offers a sense of meaning and accomplishment.10   

Promising Practices 

Principals play a crucial role in shaping their school environments and do so most effectively when they are well. Several promising strategies have emerged to support principals’ wellbeing and professional efficacy, led both by principals themselves and those working alongside and supporting them. 

Promising practices for principals  
  • Professional learning to improve wellbeing – Wellbeing-focused professional learning, particularly professional development that is actively chosen by the principals themselves, can provide principals with skills and tools to help them enhance their own wellbeing and the school environment. On-going, cohort-based, or coaching-based work is much more likely to be effective than one-off professional learning opportunities. 
  • Leadership development opportunities – Principals need opportunities to identify their own leadership approaches and enhance their leadership skills through various professional learning methods. Leadership development is most effective when principals can select the approach that suits their needs and aligns with their leadership style. 
  • Supporting peer learning networks– When a school community expresses their learning needs and develops professional development opportunities around them, learning becomes more effective and meaningful. By working together on the same issue, we can learn from each other without expecting to be experts in every area. This collaborative approach supports a principal’s instructional leadership and informed decision-making.  
  • The Pruning Principle – Before adding anything new, it’s important to remove something first, as suggested by Simon Breakspear’s ‘pruning principle.’ Attempting to take on more and more can significantly diminish one’s ability to be effective while prioritizing tasks and responsibilities allows for focused and impactful efforts. 
Promising practices to support leadership in schools  
  • Peer support networks – Principals often feel isolated due to the many tasks they face, but connecting with peers outside of the school can provide valuable support. Peer support, such as mentoring, professional learning communities, and networking, can be particularly effective when principals identify a specific learning need. 
  • Adequate staffing allocation: Adequate staffing is crucial to avoid stretching staff thin. The need for principals to fill in for teachers or perform caretaker duties intensifies their already high workload. When staff members focus on their assigned tasks, the workload is balanced, and all staff can perform their responsibilities effectively. 
  • Culture of support and recognition: Acknowledging the positive impact of their work is an effective method for leaders to reconnect with the meaning, purpose, and passion behind their efforts. It is crucial for administrators to feel valued and recognized for their contributions. Recognition plays a significant role in fostering a sense of effectiveness for all staff – including principals. 
  • Psychological health and safety across the district: Creating a supportive psychological health and safety environment benefits all employees, particularly principals, who regularly interact with various employee groups. Extensive research underscores the positive impact of psychological health and safety on team effectiveness. Truly listening to the current reality of staff, whether through interviews or a survey such as Guarding Minds, can provide valuable and often surprising insights and help support positive changes in psychological health and safety. 
  • Allow new principals time to adjust: As new principals enter the profession, it is important to temper our expectations. New principals need time to acclimate to the school’s culture and work toward success without expecting immediate change.  
  • Build community collaborations: Collaborating with parents and the community, building trust, and nurturing a collective love for students is vital for success in the school environment. By working together, schools can create a supportive community that benefits all students and helps move the community forward. A child is raised in a community – that’s what schools could be if we all work together.  

I believe that being a principal is a beautiful role: as principals, we witness amazing learning happening, build relationships with students, and play an integral part in creating a ‘second home’ for students. We work with dedicated teachers, educational assistants, and other school community members to face challenging stories and witness remarkable learning experiences. When principals flourish, we see healthy, thriving staff, students, and schools: what more could we want for the future of education? 

Photo: Getty Images Signature


If you have a story to share about how your school or school district is fostering wellbeing, please contact Kathleen at  KLANE@EDCAN.CA.



  1. Kelloway, E. K., & Barling, J. (2010). Leadership development as an intervention in occupational health psychology. Work & Stress, 24(3), 260–279. https://doi.org/10.1080/02678373.2010.518441 
  2. Liebowitz, D. D., & Porter, L. (2019). The Effect of Principal Behaviors on Student, Teacher, and School Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature. Review of Educational Research, 89(5), 785-827. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654319866133 
  3. Northern Territory Government (n.d.) Principal Wellbeing Framework 
  4. Parent-Lamarche, A., & Biron, C. (2022). When bosses are burned out: Psychosocial safety climate and its effect on managerial quality. International Journal of Stress Management, 29(3), 219–228. https://doi.org/10.1037/str0000252 
  5. Phillips, S., and D. Sen. 2011. “Stress in Head Teachers.” In Handbook in Stress of the Occupations, by J. Langan-Fox and C.L. Cooper, 177-201. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.   
  6. Maxwell, A., & Riley, P. (2017). Emotional demands, emotional labour and occupational outcomes in school principals: Modelling the relationships. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 45(3), 484-502. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143215607878 
  7. Bartanen, B., Grissom, J. A., & Rogers, L. K. (2019). The Impacts of Principal Turnover. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 41(3), 350-374. https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373719855044 
  8. Wang, F. (2022) Psychological Safety of School Administrators:  Invisible Barriers to Speaking Out. https://edst-educ.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2022/10/Psychological-Safety-of-School-Administrators-v7-Final.pdf 
  9. Shirley, D. Hargreaves, A. & Washington-Wangia, S. (2020). The sustainability and unsustainability of teachers’ and leaders’ wellbeing. Teaching and Teacher Education 9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2019.102987  
  10. Beausaert, S., Froehlich, D. E., Riley, P., & Gallant, A. (2023). What about school principals’ well-being? The role of social capital. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 51(2), 405-421. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143221991853  


Meet the Expert(s)

Carol Sarich

Principal, Canadian Association of Principals

Carol Sarich is a principal at the Greater Saskatoon School Division. She has been an educator for the past 39 years, with 24 years in administration.

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