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Change Management Models

Change Management
in K-12:

Six Change Management Models for K-12

When you identify a need for change, how do you make it happen? Fortunately, you don’t need to build a plan from scratch.

Over the years, many change management models and frameworks have been developed to help organizations (or individuals) successfully undertake projects that will interrupt day-to-day operations. But the sheer number of models can be overwhelming, so we’ve narrowed it down to six of the most popular.

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In This Article:

How do you make change happen? Six models for change.

To get started, take this short assessment to find out which organizational change management model might be right for your district. Then, read on to explore the strategies in greater detail.



Lewin’s Model

Lewin’s Model was designed in the 1950s and continues to be one of the most popular ways to model organizational and structured change. There’s a reason why it has stuck around for so long while other frameworks come and go — Lewin’s Model is practical and simple. It consists of three basic stages: Unfreeze, Change and Refreeze. In practice, though, it’s a little more complicated than those three steps might suggest.

Real-life Example: Your school lacks community engagement. As a result, fewer local businesses offer to partner with you, it’s harder to garner community support and student enrollment might drop.

1. Unfreeze: The “frozen state” is the way things have always been done. So, the first stage is all about turning “business as usual” inside out and deciding what will change, and how. Thoroughly analyze every step of your current process and eliminate any commonly-accepted mistakes — this is the time to gain perspective on how you can change the cause of any problems you’ve experienced, not just the symptoms.

This is also the stage where you should explain the need for change to others and ensure support from district leaders.

After surveying the community and analyzing the school’s current processes, you realize that even though individual staff have a great rapport with parents, the local community has a hard time connecting with the school because it lacks an online presence. The school website is currently just a static homepage with a brief introduction to the principal, plus a link to an employee directory.

In this stage, you would want to start from scratch, and identify what isn’t working about the site — what’s missing? Why isn’t more information on there? You decide to make it more dynamic and informative by expanding it — maybe adding a real-time social media feed, a blog to showcase student achievement and highlight the great work being done in the classrooms, and a parent portal so families can easily be more involved. You’ll also want to determine how posts on social media will be pulled into the feed. If individual teachers have a great reputation in the community, consider featuring them throughout the year. Or, if you’re launching a new hashtag, now is the time to introduce it to teachers and explain why you’re trying to increase community engagement online.

This would be the time to find a professional web designer and make sure that the principal, technology team and anyone responsible for Public Relations are on-board.

2. Make changes: Here’s where the real transition takes place, starting with any necessary training. It may take some time for everyone to embrace the changes, and communication and good leadership are key.

In this stage, you would work with your web designer to launch the new site and ensure that anyone involved in it moving forward (like an administrative assistant) is trained on how to update web content. Plus, you’ll want to announce the new website to the community.

In our hypothetical scenario, this is also where you would want to remind teachers about using the school hashtag effectively (and often!) — remember to lead by example!

3. Refreeze: Once employees are comfortable with the new process, it’s time to freeze the changes into the culture so they become the new normal. Update any documentation that might be floating around. If old habits resurface, all of your hard work will be for nothing. Reinforce the new process with regular check-ins — offering rewards to those who consistently make a large effort to support and uphold the changes can be a good incentive.

You’ll want to make sure that any school policies about social media use are clear and consistent with your new strategy and continue rewarding staff for supporting the engagement initiative through inspirational, positive posts online.

Also, make sure that the school website is still updated regularly — for example, you don’t want snow day notices still posted on the homepage in May.

Don’t forget to tell any new hires about the hashtag and the school’s focus on building a reputation for accessibility and a high-quality education.


Pros & Cons: Because of the in-depth analysis required, the Lewin Model is great when you need drastic changes to succeed or want to uncover ingrained mistruths. But for the same reason, it can be too time-consuming to go through the full process frequently. Plus, trying to “unfreeze” for every minor problem can be disruptive to employees. So, this might be a good model to follow for a single overhaul of a department’s processes — especially when spearheaded by leadership — but isn’t the right choice if you’re interested in developing an ongoing cycle of improvement.

The McKinsey 7-S Framework

Unlike the Lewin Model, the McKinsey 7-S Framework isn’t meant to provide practical steps to make large organizational shifts. Instead, the McKinsey Model is perfect for when you know that your school or district needs to be realigned to its stated mission and vision, or when holistic changes must be made to solve a complex issue.

With this model, you analyze the following seven aspects of your organization (whether that’s your team, school or district) and how they affect each other.

  • Strategy
  • Structure
  • Systems
  • Shared values
  • Style
  • Staff
  • Skills

By doing so, the objective is to highlight the changes you need to make to create a united approach to solving an issue.

Real-life Example: Historically, many of your classrooms have been staffed by novice teachers. You know that veteran educators improve student achievement and have lower attrition rates. How do you shift to having a more experienced teacher workforce? It’s an ambitious change, and you don’t know where to start.

Assess your strategy: What are your goals, and what is your strategy to achieve them? How are you staying ahead, and how can you adapt to future changes?

You meet with the Assistant Superintendent of HR and learn that while they’re dedicated to finding the most qualified candidates possible, their primary objective is to ensure that positions are filled by the first day of school. Because salaries in your district are lower than average, it’s difficult to fill those positions with more experienced educators. And because recruitment takes up so much of the team’s energy, retention hasn’t been a major focus. But, they wish it could be, as they have found that the district’s turnover rate for beginning teachers is higher than average.

Consider the structure: Quite simply, what does the organization chart look like? Where do responsibilities fall? How does communication occur between departments/teams?

Schools are relatively decentralized, with principals exercising a lot of autonomy in hiring and professional development. But, there’s open, supportive communication between school leaders and central office administrators — but not within the central office itself.

Take stock of your systems: Having a process is important. Assess how things are currently done: this might include software, rules, documentation policies and standardized procedures. Think beyond what’s written down, too. If there are any unofficial shortcuts, take note of these as well.

Because each principal enjoys a high level of autonomy, there isn’t a standardized strategy when it comes to hiring new staff or supporting educators’ professional growth. There are systems in place to ensure that the district remains compliant, but every principal has a lot of freedom to do as they see fit.

Record shared values: You might think that your team (or district’s) core values are irrelevant, but culture is at the heart of getting everyone onboard with change. So, take note of what your team’s culture is like. Can your shared values be strengthened? Go beyond your team and think about the school system as a whole. Your school or district likely has a stated mission and vision — what is it? Is your team in alignment with this?

Everyone in the district is deeply passionate about student learning. Because the district has limited resources, there’s an overarching culture of perseverance and grit — especially among the teaching staff. But while the district’s stated mission is to work together to support each student’s educational journey, there isn’t much collaboration between schools.

Determine leadership style: How effective and engaged are your organization’s leaders? What is their management style? How do they work with others, in their department or across the district?

After the last superintendent retired, an interim superintendent came onboard until a qualified replacement can be found. The interim superintendent takes a more hands-off approach to management, and usually delegates to the department leaders. Although these department leaders are all on good terms, they tend to be focused on their own responsibilities and rarely meet to collaborate on strategic, cross-departmental initiatives.

Make a list of staff: Look through the list of staff currently in your organization and see if you have all the necessary positions filled, and what gaps exist (if any.)

In the central office, there are fewer administrative staff due to budget cuts. Those who remain are generally focused on transactional work. Most of the teaching jobs have been filled, but there are still some open positions for instructional coaches and curriculum/instruction roles.

Assess skills: Evaluate the skills that staff currently have — what are your strongest skills in the team? What gaps exist? While the McKinsey Framework focuses on evaluating skills, consider also getting a more thorough idea of the personalities on your team.

Staff are generally very tech-savvy. And while many teachers are relatively inexperienced, the small group of educators who have been with the district for a long time have phenomenal instructional skills.

Once you’ve analyzed the seven elements above, set aside time to think about how each one affects the others. Do all seven support each other? If not, this is the time to start planning incremental changes to bring them into alignment.

By reviewing your notes, you notice that some of the elements of the district aren’t in alignment. For example, the stated commitment to working together to further student learning isn’t supported by the highly decentralized structure of the district. You uncover overarching themes, like a lack of collaboration and standardized processes.

You don’t want to overhaul the entire district’s structure, but you do know that by bridging the divide between different schools, everyone could work together to reduce teacher turnover. So, you come away with two recommendations to start with: 1, focus on finding a new superintendent with a strong track record of fostering collaboration; and 2, forming a committee of principals and Curriculum/Instruction staff to design a coaching and mentoring program where new teachers benefit from a more formalized system of support, and can learn from the veteran teachers in your schools.


Pros & Cons: The McKinsey 7-S Framework is very complex, so it’s best suited for complicated problems that require a comprehensive look at your organization as a whole, and that require a holistic solution. And as you can see, this framework only provides an outline for how to uncover which areas you may want to focus on — it doesn’t include practical steps for implementing the change itself. For this reason, it should be used in conjunction with another model.

Kotter’s 8-Step Process

John P. Kotter’s change management theory is divided into eight stages, each of which focuses on the response of the people involved throughout the change.

Real-life Example: The central office is currently located in an aging building that needs a lot of expensive structural repairs. Financially, the district isn’t in good shape and can’t afford to continue maintaining the building.

1. Create a sense of urgency. Deadlines are a strong motivator — try to spread a sense that change has to happen right now. You can do this by explaining the problem your organization faces and spelling out how the issue has very real implications.

You put together a presentation that clearly demonstrates that the district has to tighten its belt and find a way to spend less on facilities and operations. Then, you dive into what will happen if the status quo remains: if the central office stays where it is, the district will be on the hook for expensive, necessary maintenance and repairs. Include as many relevant numbers as possible and make it clear that the building’s repairs cannot be put off for long.

2. Build a team. Get key players together and convince them of why a change must be made. Don’t just meet with them — get them to commit.

Present your proposed change — leasing space in a nearby office building — and give an estimate of the return on investment the district can expect. Even though you’ll pay to lease the space, you’ll save a significant amount on maintenance and repairs, and it is much cheaper than new construction.

The Board will likely need to vote on this initiative, so it’s up to you to present the problem effectively. But you’ll also want to meet with other leaders in the central office to ensure that they’re on board.

3. Form a strategic vision. Clarity is key. Clearly define what changes you want to make, and what the end result will be. Keep it simple!

In this case, the vision is pretty straightforward: a new central office location that will save the district boatloads of money.

4. Communicate. Now is the time to start communicating more broadly with the wider organization to explain what is changing and why.

The move is likely not a secret, especially if the media has covered the Board meetings at all. So, expect that you’ll need to announce the plan earlier, and continue regular communication throughout the transition.

This situation might call for a multi-phase communication strategy: first, letting the central office staff know about the upcoming change. They’ll require (and desire) more detailed information — what triggered the relocation? Where will they sit? What’s the parking situation like? You’ll also want to make sure that other employees in the district are aware of the relocation. It’s probably worth a press release, too, so the community knows what is happening.

5. Remove obstacles. Before you start implementing changes, take a moment to see if you can think of anything that might block or slow your progress. Remove roadblocks ahead of time so you can keep momentum up.

Think through your relocation strategy and make sure it’s as smooth as possible — can you use some of the money saved to hire a moving company? Is there a plan to distribute keys to everyone who needs one, and do staff know how to get to the new building?

6. Focus on short-term wins. People are more motivated when they have a sense of accomplishment. Keep morale up by setting achievable short-term goals that demonstrate progress towards your strategic vision.

How can you break the relocation into more manageable actions? Start by creating a schedule so everyone knows when they need to have their boxes packed for the moving company, for example.

7. Don’t give up. Don’t lose sight of your vision — keep the momentum going by recognizing successes and reminding everyone of why the changes are being made.

Consider having a desk-decorating competition in the new building to keep morale up and share pictures of the winner.

8. Set the changes in stone. Make them stick! Remember to update any necessary documentation and ensure that you’ve wrapped up any loose ends.

This isn’t a situation that really has much chance of relapsing (after all, you’re physically moving!) but you will want to make sure that the office’s address is updated in the right places — the district website, Google, letterheads and email signatures are a good place to start.


Pros & Cons: Creating a sense of urgency from the very beginning helps ensure your success and convince everyone the change is necessary. But, Kotter’s process doesn’t take employee feedback into account as it was originally designed for larger companies taking a top-down approach to change. For that reason, it’s wise to incorporate a few steps of your own to gather feedback and collaborate on any planned changes if you do choose to follow this model.

The ADKAR Model

Because so many change initiatives fail because of a lack of employee support, the ADKAR model focuses on the individuals involved. It’s based on a set of goals that can apply on both an individual and organizational level.

Real-life Example: As your district has grown, it’s become more difficult for the payroll team to process paper timecards and have payroll run on time.

Awareness that change is needed. This goal is achieved by meeting with employees, managers and anyone else who is affected by the change. It’s not about listing changes and expecting acceptance — the goal here is to pitch the changes in a way that shows that they are justifiable and necessary.

You meet central office administrators, as well as administrators responsible for approving non-exempt employees’ timesheets. And because you have several bargaining units in the district who may be resistant to change, you invite their representatives to the discussions as well.

Then, you explain that the district has grown so quickly in recent years that it’s been difficult for the payroll team to keep up — especially since you haven’t been able to have additional headcount approved for the team. You suggest moving to an electronic system to manage employee time.

Desire to participate and support the change. This can be tough — your goal is to get your colleagues to not only agree with you, but to actively want the change to happen. It’s helpful to clearly demonstrate how the change will benefit the people in the room, with real-world examples.

A unit leader objects and asks if this is a precursor to tracking staff productivity — she thinks an online system sounds a little too much like Big Brother is watching. This is your opportunity to explain that work rules are staying the same, and that the new time clocks don’t mean that raw “in” and “out” times are being reported (unless, of course, that’s what the rules require.)

You emphasize that the payroll team has been working nights and evenings to get the work done on time, and that at some point something’s got to give — it’s only a matter of time until payroll ends up being late, or a mistake happens. No one wants to be paid late or too little. Reiterate that the new system will help ensure that employees are paid accurately, and that it will be much simpler on their end to track their hours.

To make sure everyone is onboard, you run through the system’s capabilities and how it can accommodate everyone’s needs.

Knowledge of how to change. Does everyone know how the change will be implemented, and how to do their part? Clear roles and plenty of training is key here.

Then, you make sure that everyone knows how the new process will work — how to use the system, or what template to use if it’s spreadsheet-based. Supervisors go through additional training, so they can be a resource for their employees, as well as understand how to approve the new electronic timesheets.

Ability to make changes. Knowing how to do something isn’t the same as actually doing it. Check in with each person to make sure that they’re comfortable with the change and able to carry out their tasks.

Finally, you make sure that everyone actually has access to the new system or template and is able to track and submit their time.

Reinforcement to ensure success. Finally, it’s important to make sure that the change sticks. This is where you may want to consider offering rewards for following the new process.

Regular check-ins ensure that everyone feels heard, and you make a point to let word spread that the payroll team is grateful to have some semblance of work-life balance again.


Pros & Cons: The ADKAR model focuses on people and their needs, making it perfect for situations where you need to get everyone in agreement to make a shift. It’s also great for smaller, more frequent changes because it isn’t as disruptive as Lewin’s model. It’s flexible enough to work for most change initiatives.

The PDCA Cycle

The PDCA cycle, sometimes called the Deming cycle, is a four-step model for change. The name comes from the acronym formed by the four steps: plan-do-check-adjust. Unlike the others, this model is built to repeat over and over in order to support continuous improvement.

Real-life Example: Teachers are unhappy with the district’s current approach to professional learning. Educators don’t feel like PD is job-embedded or collaborative and believe there’s a disconnect between the workshops offered and their experiences.

1. Plan: Identify what needs to change and make a plan for how it could be done better. It’s okay to come up with several ideas at this stage, but pick only one to move forward with at this time.

After hearing how a neighboring district developed a vibrant network of professional learning communities, you decide to try forming one in your district.

2. Do: Test out the changes, ideally on a small scale. For example, this might be the stage where you have a pilot group try out the new initiative before rolling it out to the entire district.

You find a small group of middle school teachers who are eager to share best practices and help each other improve instruction. These educators have structured time to learn from each other, provide feedback and reflect on classroom practice.

3. Check: Measure the results from the last stage. Did the change lead to positive outcomes?

You discover that teachers in the pilot group are more engaged and have become more effective in the classroom.

4. Adjust: If the solution was successful, implement it fully. If possible, plan on running through the cycle again with even more minor changes to tweak your strategy and make it even more effective. If the change didn’t lead to improvement, it’s okay go back to the “Plan” stage and consider another strategy.

You organize an opportunity for educators in the pilot group to present their experience to their peers and encourage the creation of new PLCs across the district.


Pros & Cons: Taking an iterative approach helps you create a culture of continuous improvement. And because the PDCA cycle encourages small, controlled changes rather than large, sudden shifts, it can be less risky than other approaches and may be more appealing to change-resistant team members. But if you need radical innovation to solve an urgent problem — like getting your district in compliance — it may not be the right choice.

Nudge Theory

Unlike the others on this page, nudge theory isn’t a set model or checklist. Instead, it’s more of a tactic you can use to frame changes in a more positive light: the goal is not just to implement the change, but to garner support for it from everyone involved. And unlike the other models, nudge theory originated in behavioral economics — not the corporate world.

In general, the theory is based on “nudging” change along instead of enforcing it. Rather than telling employees what to do and how to change, as one might do in a more formal framework, nudge theory paves the way for people to choose to change of their own volition. One common example is in nutrition. If you ban chocolate from the break room or cafeteria, you’ll encounter plenty of pushback. But if you put a basket of apples, pears and bananas within easy reach and move the chocolate bars to a high shelf, people will usually go for the low-hanging fruit — the healthy choice.

Basic Principles:

  • Clearly define the changes you’d like to make
  • Explore other options from other perspectives and gain feedback
  • Make change easier than the status quo
  • Use positive reinforcement, never punishment
Real-life Example:

As Director of Special Education in your district, your door is always open to offer support to the special educators you work with. After all, you’ve been in their shoes and you know their jobs aren’t easy. In fact, you’ve just wrapped up an emotional meeting with a teacher on your team who had a difficult IEP meeting with a parent. The teacher shared that the student’s parent had trouble absorbing all of the information. Though the teacher patiently tried to explain the special-education process, the parent left the meeting seeming extremely frustrated. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first IEP meeting like this that you’ve heard about – in fact, you’ve heard of several this past year alone that ended in a similar way.

So now you’ve made up your mind that you need to change your team’s procedure for pre-educating parents before the IEP meetings. But instead of making a declaration that all special education teachers must now follow a new procedure to pre-educate parents ahead of IEP meetings, you gather your team of educators together and ask for their feedback about your idea for a new procedure. At the meeting, you propose that your team start thinking about a new pre-meeting process: any educator who is about to send an IEP meeting notice to a parent should also try to contact that parent ahead of the meeting to help the parent feel more prepared for the meeting.

Then, instead of moving forward and asking for buy-in, sit back and say, “But that’s just one possibility — what do you all think? How would this work for you? I know we’re all really busy, but we could create a questionnaire ahead of time that you could use when calling or emailing a parent. That way you wouldn’t have to spend time thinking of what to say or how to help them prepare.”

Back up your idea with evidence about how you’ve seen it work in the past, and show that it’ll be easier on everyone involved — it’s vital that your team agrees to the change. Then, once everyone has the chance to voice their opinions, it’s just a matter of making the new process the easy choice. You may want to make sure everyone has a copy of the new, agreed-upon workflow easily accessible from their computer or desk to reduce the burden of remembering the new steps.

Pros & Cons: Ensuring that employees can see the importance of the issue at hand, and have a choice in what happens next, is a powerful way to motivate them to see it through. It’s a tactic that focuses on the emotional response to change and fosters engagement. For this reason, it’s a good choice when you aren’t in a position to unilaterally effect change immediately, or when you face a lot of resistance from colleagues. However, it can be slower than other methods, and requires a subtle touch.