‘Relationships are the foundation of everything I do as a school administrator,’ one principal told researchers. (Shutterstock)

Every child matters: What principals need to effectively lead inclusive schools

Canadians continue to grapple with what it means to be an inclusive society. Despite a general trend to inclusive education in provinces across Canada, policies and services are inconsistent.

Inclusive education is quality education that aims at the full participation of all learners with a belief that all students can make valued contributions to classrooms and schools.

Recent education announcements by the Ontario government, for example, are emblematic of challenging contexts both for families and school communities.

Decisions such as increasing class size, changing the funding model for children with autism and potentially changing the full-day kindergarten framework could dramatically affect students with special education needs in inclusive schools.

Reports of escalating classroom violence have drawn widespread media attention, as have accounts that students with special education needs are being asked to stay home from school.

In Newfoundland, the Advocate for Children and Youth released a January 2019 report on chronic student absenteeism within the province. The report found that factors such as learning disabilities, mental health issues, behavioural issues and developmental delays contributed to absenteeism.

In 2018, Inclusion Alberta reported that 53 per cent of children with disabilities had been secluded or restrained at school. The same year, Inclusion B.C. reported that many students with special education needs are still being negatively affected by inappropriate and outdated teaching practices.

Prior to this in British Columbia, two legal cases exemplified how contested and precarious inclusive education is in Canadian schools.

In 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and against the province with regard to limiting class size and composition.

In 2012, the Court also affirmed the legal right of students with learning disabilities to receive adequate special education supports in schools in what became known as the Moore case. At the centre of this case was student Jeffrey Moore and his father.

New Brunswick has provided a model of inclusive education that has served as an example for other contexts, most recently Ireland.

Creating an inclusive school culture requires leadership support. (Shutterstock)

As a former elementary and secondary school teacher and school administrator, I am aware of the lived realities of teaching students with special education needs in inclusive classrooms.

Many teachers experience having classes with 25 or 30 students, sometimes with combined grades. Such a scenario could include teaching two grades of curricula, plus teaching multiple students with individual education plans, who may require accommodations, support staff and specialized equipment.

Leadership and inclusion

The realistic challenges inherent in this worthy ideal in pursuit of human dignity and belonging are lived out every day in schools. Students, teachers, support staff and principals are in many ways at the forefront of inclusion in society at large.

Yet one area that has been lacking has been an informed understanding of what kinds of support principals need as they provide leadership for inclusive schools.

Our research team, made up of members of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education, recently completed a study on this topic.

We collected data from 285 principals and vice-principals about their experiences in inclusive schools — that means schools practising the full participation of all learners, as defined by the Council of Ministers of Education Canada.

We asked principals from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland to consider the ways in which they support students with special education needs in inclusive schools. The participants were from elementary and secondary schools, in both English and French language school systems, in urban and rural areas.

Professional learning should also develop leadership competencies in fostering a healthy school culture. (Shutterstock)

After this initial data collection, we interviewed 46 of these participants. We wanted to further examine the types of experiences principals described about leading inclusive schools and what kind of professional learning they felt would be helpful.

The results of the study point to some key lessons for school systems across Canada. Three of these lessons include:

1. Invest in the right professional development

School systems and professional associations responsible for the preparation of future school principals need to invest in professional development specifically about inclusive education.

Professional learning needs to be extended beyond technical aspects related to special education such as legal requirements or staffing needs.

One principal said:

“I say to staff right at the beginning, if you feel like running away, that’s when you need to run into my office. When you find that you are withdrawing and you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s when you need to run in, not out.”

This principal had fostered a leadership competency that reflected empathy and a skill in supporting the mental health of staff.

Professional learning should develop leadership competencies in fostering a healthy school culture, including enhancing communication skills to support students, staff, parents and other caregivers.

2. Strong professional relationships matter

Principals who developed strong professional relationships with students, parents and caregivers, and teaching and support staff were best equipped to support a wide variety of student needs.

One principal commented:

“Relationships are the foundation of everything I do as a school administrator.”

The feeling behind this statement was shared by many of the participants who identified relationships as core to their work in supporting inclusive school environments.

Another principal described a conversation with the father of a child with special education needs:

“At the end of the conversation, the dad came around the table and gave me a hug and said ‘I have never had someone want to include my kid in the school before.’”

Principals have complex and competing demands on their time. Those who prioritized spending time interacting with students, engaging with parents and caregivers and supporting staff reported high levels of effectiveness in supporting inclusive schools.

3. The demands of the job take a toll

Despite being surrounded by people, principals frequently reported that they often work in isolation and without a lot of support. There is a strong indication that the demands of the job, particularly with diverse and pronounced student needs, take a heavy toll on them.

Our society has become increasingly aware of the complex mental health needs of students in Canada and there needs to be a recognition of the similar mental health needs of teachers and principals.

Further research and knowledge mobilization is needed to build the capacity of principals to effectively lead inclusive schools.