May 30, 2019Print | PDF
Teachers working with children who have special educational needs can have an enormous impact on the lives of those children. But the vital role school principals and vice-principals also play is underrecognized and under-researched, says Steve Sider, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Faculty of Education.
About 16% of Ontario students – nearly 300,000 in total – have special educational needs, some formally diagnosed and others undiagnosed but requiring special supports, says Sider. That means every principal and nearly every teacher deals with special education on a daily basis.
Sider recalls an incident that for him crystallized the vital role of school administrators in special education. At the time, he was a high school principal and had been called on many times to deal with a student whose behaviour was frequently disruptive.
“One day, I noticed this student pick up some garbage and put it in a trash container,” says Sider. “I called him into my office and said, ‘Thank you for doing that.’ Then I called his mom. It was what his mom said that really stuck with me. She said something like, ‘He’s been in school for 10 years and I’ve never received a positive phone call from a teacher or school.’ And that made me wonder, ‘What am I doing as a school leader to create an environment where we only notice the negative stuff when it comes to students with special educational needs?’”
Years later, that incident still galvanizes Sider’s research. Now Sider is bringing together scholars, Indigenous knowledge keepers and educational leaders to discuss the role of school administrators in special education and Indigenous perspectives on inclusion. The one-day Intersectionalities in Leadership conference will be held June 1 in Vancouver.
As everyone ever called to a principal’s office knows, principals often respond to conflicts and other incidents at school. This may involve discipline, problem solving, mediation or just helping a student calm down. But that’s not all principals do.
"That made me wonder, ‘What am I doing as a school leader to create an environment where we only notice the negative stuff when it comes to students with special educational needs?'"
When teachers or parents notice exceptionalities in children, principals may coordinate meetings between students, teachers, parents, special education consultants and medical professionals. These processes can lead to diagnoses and/or individual education plans.
Principals organize timetables and structures, which includes assigning students to classes, arranging for the accommodations and supports they need and, to the greatest degree possible, arranging for students with special educational needs to be fully integrated into classrooms.
Principals also help teachers solve problems. If a classroom teacher is having difficulty balancing the needs of all students in a class, the principal may arrange for additional support or training for the teacher, bring in extra support for students who need it, or come up with other creative solutions on a case-by-case basis.
Perhaps most important, principals set the tone for a school.
“A school is an ecosystem,” says Sider. “You need a principal who encourages that ecosystem to work together in a harmonious way. When a principal is passionate and prepared to support all students in a school, there’s a greater chance that all children will have their needs met.”
Despite the important work principals do when it comes to special education, they face significant challenges, says Sider, who with his research team has surveyed 250 principals from across Canada about the topic and interviewed 45 of them.
One challenge is that principals may not receive much training on supporting students with special educational needs. Although it varies by province, if a principal doesn’t have a background in special education teaching, their only training may be on technical and legal aspects.
“When there are cutbacks and more students with significant needs in regular classrooms, it’s a problematic combination.”
“They know the rules and legislation around individual education plans, when a student needs to receive a formal educational assessment and how many kids they can have in a class,” says Sider. “But very few principals we talked to could identify professional learning they had experienced on topics such as how to communicate with parents, how to communicate with teachers going through stressful experiences involving students with special needs, or how to build collaborative environments for teachers and other professionals to problem solve together."
Another challenge has to do with principals’ mental health. Building inclusive schools can be stressful, and with many schools having no vice-principals, peer collaboration can be difficult.
But perhaps the biggest challenge principals face in addressing special educational needs, Sider says, is resources.
“When there are cutbacks and more students with significant needs in regular classrooms, it’s a problematic combination,” he says. “Without adequate funding, how do we provide a range of options principals can work with, recognizing that every child is unique, every situation is unique? Also, one thing that’s clear from our research is that principals say they need more professional learning on inclusive education. Obviously, that involves resources.”
Sider and his colleagues have been working to help principals with the challenges they face.
With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Sider is working with the Ontario Principals’ Council to develop interactive, web-based case studies to support professional learning on the inclusion of students with special educational needs.
“Real-life cases are never linear. They have all sorts of branches and competing interests,” says Sider. “The web-based format gives a better sense of the complexity. Principals can use these resources based on their needs.”
“There’s still much we need to learn, but I believe we need to sit down with our Indigenous partners and have conversations about how Indigenous ways of knowing can make schools more inclusive places.”
Another area Sider is beginning to investigate is collaboration with Indigenous knowledge keepers and elders on creating inclusive schools for all. The Intersectionalites in Leadership conference will include Indigenous educators, along with representatives of government ministries and professional educational associations.
“There’s still much we need to learn, but I believe we need to sit down with our Indigenous partners and have conversations about how Indigenous ways of knowing can make schools more inclusive places,” says Sider.
Sider hopes the conference – to his knowledge the first of its kind in Canada – will be just the start of a movement to better support principals in leading inclusive schools.
“I’m hoping the ‘so-what-now-what’ will be a commitment to further the conversation,” says Sider. “How do we collaborate to build healthier, more inclusive, better and safer schools and classrooms? That’s what we’re trying to address.”
We see you are accessing our website on IE8. We recommend you view in Chrome, Safari, Firefox or IE9+ instead.×