TIES Inclusive Education Roadmap

Supportive Leadership

It is impossible to make meaningful change in any system without having engaged and supportive leaders (Howley & Telfer, 2021; Tian & Huber, 2019). Supportive inclusive leaders are change agents. They are actively engaged in the change process, lead by example and are the early adopters of the change goals. They provide clear and consistent messaging and expectations about the change efforts while also acknowledging the challenges that are a part of any change processes. Supportive leaders consistently listen to the needs of the people “on the ground” who are responsible for implementing the changes in their practice and engage in collaborative problem solving to identify and eliminate barriers to implementation.

Purposeful and systematic change driven by the values of equity and inclusion leads to increased educational opportunities for all students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities. Inclusive leaders focus on implementing effective instructional practices for all students, nurture and sustain a collaborative culture (e.g. trust, openness, inquiry), and build the capacity of all staff and families to meet individual student needs and the needs of the system. They also emphasize accountability and continuous learning as they move their systems forward (Telfer & Howley, 2020).

Supportive leaders for inclusive education:

  • Demonstrate a commitment to inclusive education through their actions and words
  • View inclusive education for students with significant cognitive disabilities as an equity issue that must be actively addressed
  • Communicate their expectations for all students clearly and frequently
  • Are aware of the research describing the improved outcomes that inclusive education brings to all students in the system
  • Provide school personnel with the knowledge and skills they need to effectively meet the needs of all students in general education classrooms
  • Engage in ongoing honest discussions with teachers, staff, families, and students to ensure that inclusive education is working for everyone

Building a sustainable inclusive education system is complex. This necessitates the use of a wide variety of leadership skills and talents. Leaders committed to systems change for inclusive education use a combination of technical and adaptive leadership skills (Heifetz & Laurie, 1997). Technical challenges are relatively straightforward and one-dimensional. What to do to solve these challenges have reasonably clear steps. Leaders with technical challenges can engage in the typical problem-solving processes, resources, and administrative structures that are already in place in the system. Adaptive challenges are more complex. They include concerns that have not previously been raised and/or solved in the system and usually have more complex solutions. They are not solved with what is currently known or practiced. Adaptive challenges need a deeper level of reflection and consensus-building as possible solutions emerge. Adaptive challenges are solved through continual learning, collaboration, problem solving and even trying to do things in ways that have never been done before. They are inclusive of more voices, including educators, families and students (Bal et al., 2014).

Developing a sustainable, inclusive system of education requires adaptive leadership. The process is complex. It requires planning that breaks the process down into doable steps, robust implementation, and continual learning cycles. What do technical and adaptive challenges look like in an inclusive system of education? Here are some examples:

Inclusive Education Examples

Technical Challenges

  • State Education Agency (SEA) or Local Education Agency (LEA) messaging does not use person-first and/or self-advocate preferred language in its communication. The administrator made a concerted effort to model person-first language (e.g., the 5th grader who has a disability, rather than a disabled fifth grader) except if a self-advocate requested to be referred to differently.
  • Newly included students with significant cognitive disabilities do not have access to district general education online learning platforms (i.e. Google Classroom) because using the platform was not an expectation in the previous self-contained placement. Leadership ensured that all students had access to the online platform and that all teachers received training in using the tools.
  • A student who uses a wheelchair is rostered into a class on the third floor which does not allow for safe fire evacuation. Leadership adjusts the student's classes so they can be safely accessed and ensured that no class that was offered only one time in the term was scheduled on the third floor.

Adaptive Challenges

  • An SEA wants to develop cadres of inclusive coaches in its regional centers that will support districts and schools in implementing inclusive education using the MTSS framework. This is a new concept for the SEA. There is not a plan for how to proceed. It requires reallocation of resources, changing roles, and capacity building, along with collaborative relationships between SEA Special Education, regional center personnel, and local districts. Leadership needs to determine baseline information, identify the priority needs, and develop a multi-staged implementation plan that integrates all of the implementation drivers.

Supportive leadership is essential to all stages of implementation of inclusive practices. Both technical and adaptive leadership skills are needed to support organizations throughout the change processes. It is impossible to make change at a systemic level without engaged and supportive leaders (Tian & Huber, 2019).