What steps can principals take to create and maintain truly inclusive schools?

Find out in this Q&A with the authors of The Principal's Handbook for Leading Inclusive Schools

About the authors

Julie Causton, Ph.D.

Julie Causton, Ph.D., is an expert in creating and maintaining inclusive schools. She is an associate professor in the Inclusive and Special Education Program, in the Department of Teaching and Leadership, Syracuse University. She teaches courses on inclusion, differentiation, special education law, and collaboration.

Dr. Causton also works with families, schools, and districts directly to help create truly inclusive schools. She co-directs a summer leadership institute for school administrators focusing on issues of equity and inclusion as well as a school reform project called Schools of Promise.

You can find tutorials on inclusion and other helpful resources from Dr. Causton at inspire

George Theoharis, Ph.D.

George Theoharis, Ph.D., is an associate dean in the School of Education, and an associate professor in Educational Leadership and Inclusive Elementary Education in the Department of Teaching and Leadership, at Syracuse University. He teaches classes in educational leadership and elementary/early childhood teacher education, and has extensive field experience in public education as a principal and as a teacher.

Dr. Theoharis's interests, research, and work with K–12 schools focus on issues of equity, justice, diversity, inclusion, leadership, and school reform. He co-runs a summer leadership institute for school administrators focusing on issues of equity and inclusion as well as a school reform project called Schools of Promise.


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BONUS: Read about a 7-step process for implementing inclusive school reform in this excerpt from the book.

Q: How crucial is the principal's role in creating and maintaining inclusive schools?

A: The principal is perhaps the most important factor in setting the course of inclusion. There are good inclusive classrooms in many schools but in order for entire schools to become inclusive this requires committed and visionary leadership. We have seen schools all across the country embrace the legally supported notion of inclusion, and these schools have become much better places for ALL of the students.

Q: People have different definitions of "inclusion." What do you mean when you say inclusion in your new book?

A: Inclusion is a way of leading schools that embraces each and every student (those without disabilities, those with mild disabilities, those with autism, those with behavioral challenges, those with significant disabilities, and so on) as full members of the general education academic and social community.

Some of the indicators of good inclusive classrooms include

  • utilizing natural proportions – the number of students with disabilities should reflect the natural population of students with disabilities in the school

  • team teaching – inclusive classrooms often have two teachers (one general and one special education teacher) with equitable responsibilities for teaching all the students; a paraprofessional often provides additional support to the students who have disabilities while also working with all students in the classroom

  • building community – teachers continually use community-building to ensure that students feel connected to one another and to their teachers

  • differentiation – learners of various academic, social, and behavioral levels and needs share one learning environment; students might work on similar goals, but they do so in different ways

  • students remaining in the classroom – therapies and services occur within the context of the general education classroom

  • engaging instruction – students experience active learning; they often are up and out of their seats, with partner work and group work used frequently

Q: What critical goals must a principal set to usher in and lead a fully inclusive school?

A: The first goal needs to be setting a clear vision of inclusion for the school. Then, we recommend examining current realities, aligning school structures and staffing to the inclusive vision, re-thinking staffing to create inclusive teams, and influencing change in classroom practices through the implementation of a professional development plan.

In addition, the leader needs to commit to ongoing problem-solving around logistics and supporting staff in a variety of ways including celebrating their hard work and success.

Q: What kind of support do teachers need for successful implementation of inclusion?

Much of the support comes from making good administrative decisions regarding providing common planning time, resources, and necessary professional development.

Most often, teachers need professional development in the areas of differentiation and collaboration and providing effective adaptations for students with disabilities. Some of the support is also emotional, as change is difficult.

Q: What shifts in perception are usually required to implement successful inclusion?

A: Principals need to believe that each and every child (specifically children with the range of disabilities) is profoundly competent and has tremendous potential. They need to help their entire staffs feel collective responsibility for the education of all of the children in the school.

General educators and special educators need to embrace new collaborative roles in co-planning and co-delivering instruction together. This can certainly mean letting go of more traditional roles of all service providers.

Q: In your new book, you devote a whole chapter to "caring for yourself"; why is this so important?

A: We know that while leading this kind of change is rewarding, it is also exhausting physically and emotionally, as there is much resistance to creating inclusive schools. We need leadership committed for the long haul and this requires taking seriously issues of self-care.

The Principal's Handbook for Leading Inclusive Schools

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Be sure to see these other titles:

Quick-Guides to Inclusion: Ideas for Educating Students with Disabilities, Second Edition

Quick-Guides to Inclusion: Ideas for Educating Students with Disabilities, Second Edition