Changing the world starts with a handshake

Think back to junior high school—now known as middle school. Picture what it was like as you changed classes.

Unless you went to a parochial school, it was probably a sea of disorder, dominated by hormones and blossoming egos. There were physical and verbal challenges, and education was probably a low priority for most of the students.

That sea of disorder is a thing of the past at Thunderbolt Middle School in Lake Havasu City, thanks to a program called Capturing Kids’ Hearts. The program, developed by the Flippen Group of Texas, uses four basic elements to build students’ and teachers’ respect for one another.

Thunderbolt Middle School science teacher Kathleen Weber greets students with a handshake.
Thunderbolt Middle School science teacher Kathleen Weber greets students with a handshake.

Those elements are handshakes, social contracts, affirmations and making connections by individuals sharing “good things” that have happened to them in the last week.

The handshakes start as students are greeting by a crossing guard. Then fellow students greet them at the door, make eye contact and shake their hand. Finally, they line up outside each class and their teacher welcomes them and shakes each student’s hand.

“It’s a double positive for us. We get eye-to-eye contact with every student and an opportunity to connect and detect if the student may be having problems,” said Thunderbolt Principal Mari Jo Mulligan. It’s a positive for the students as well. Eighth grade student Chloe Fitch said, “The handshake really makes you feel welcome, not like your teacher is just there and waiting for you to leave.”

The social contracts are forged at the beginning of each year and pinpoint how students and teachers want to be treated by each other. The contract hangs on the wall of the classroom and if someone violates the contract, anyone in the class has the right to “check” them and ask for a change in behavior.

Respect begins by learning to see the good in others, so in each class students are asked to write something nice about each of their fellow students. The notes are written a few at a time throughout the year and most students save their affirmations in an envelope.

Fitch said, “The affirmations make you feel good about yourself. I try to concentrate on a person’s personality or something I have seen them do that week. I like it. It gives me something to look forward to each week.”

Sharing “good things” helps students learn how to casually speak in public and how to listen and interact with interest. It also helps the students and teachers find areas of common interest from which further conversations and friendships can develop.

“We are in our second year of full implementation,” said Mulligan, “and it is truly who we are now.”

All of the exercises students participate in are also a part of staff interaction. “The decision to make this our culture had to be full participation. Now when we interview prospective teachers, I explain Capturing Kids’ Hearts and say, ‘if this doesn’t sound like something you can embrace, we are not the right school for you,’” she explained.

The 11-year administrator added, “It has changed who I am. I was not comfortable walking up and introducing myself, but now I stop and make the contact. It’s so powerful. Because of this program, I keep growing as a principal, wife and daughter. It touches every relationship you have.

Thunderbolt Middle School science teacher Kathleen Weber greets students with a handshake.
A student leads a “Good Things” sharing in Mr. Brett Bitterman’s eighth grade algebra class. Sharing good things that have happened to them during the previous week helps students build rapport, and relationships that lead to enhanced respect and cooperation in the classroom.

“Even when a student is called into the office because of a problem, we start with a hand shake and eye contact. It says, ‘You are one of ours and you matter to us,’” she added.

Training costs $500 per teacher. After using two initial scholarships from the Flippen Group, Mulligan had to raise the money to have her faculty trained. “No District money was used for this training. Community members have provided the funds,” Mulligan explained.

Today Thunderbolt, Starline Elementary and Nautilus Elementary staffs are fully trained and principals from other schools have taken the training. The goal is to make this a District-wide culture but more support will be needed.

Superintendent Gail Malay said, “This program has the potential to change not just our students and classrooms, but the community. When our students take their training in citizenship and respect into the community, it is bound to be contagious.”

Can a handshake change the world? It has dramatically changed the atmosphere and demeanor of the students at Thunderbolt. If the Districts’ wish comes true and all schools can implement Capturing Kids’ Hearts, it could mean a new era in public education for Lake Havasu City.

To see a video about the Thunderbolt program, go to: To support the program financially, contact the Lake Havasu Unified School District at 928-505-6900.