If inclusive education is to be effective, principals should support ALL teachers to implement common high-leverage practices. Principals fulfill many leadership roles in their schools, but arguably, most important, they are servant leaders. The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership explains that servant leaders share power, put the needs of others first, and help people develop and perform at their best. Servant leadership is key when it comes to inclusion of students with disabilities and their teachers. It is crucial that school leaders have a deep understanding of the best instructional practices to meet the needs of all students, including those with disabilities.

In their article, “Systematic Review of Key Leader Practices Found to Influence Student Achievement: A Unified Work,” Dallas Hambrick Hitt and Pamela D. Tucker write about the many ways for principals to create and support inclusive schools. The facilitation of learning experiences that meet the needs of all students is one of the most essential. In 2020, in their article, “Principal Leadership for Students With Disabilities in Effective Inclusive Schools,” educator David DeMatthews and colleagues went further to say, “…principals play crucial roles in both promoting and creating the values and conditions that facilitate and support inclusion.” However, the authors note that principals historically have not been prepared to support students with disabilities. If principals, as servant leaders, prepare themselves to best serve through active listening and learning, it is critical that they continue to build their knowledge of those instructional practices that best meet the needs of all students, notes Chris Thyberg in his blog post, “When it comes to feedback, servant leaders receive first.”

Principal Accountability for Equitable and Effective Instruction

If administrators and teachers are held accountable to provide instruction that is both equitable and effective, they are more likely to improve achievement outcomes for all students, as James McLeskey and Nancy Waldron explain in their article, “Educational Programs for Elementary Students with Learning Disabilities: Can They Be Both Effective and Inclusive?”

General and special education teachers must use practices from both of their educational pedagogies to provide the best instructional opportunities for all learners. High-Leverage Practices (HLPs) provide a foundation for instruction across grade levels and content areas with every student. School leaders can better serve the development of teachers through their knowledge and use of HLPs.

High-Leverage Practices

HLPs represent the fundamentals of teaching and were developed to ensure teachers can implement core practices that produce measurably effective results. Initially, 19 HLPs were identified by TeachingWorks Resource Library for use by all teachers and were incorporated into many teacher preparation programs for general education teachers. Subsequently, the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR) Center and the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) outlined 22 corresponding HLPs for special education. Both sets of HLPs for general education and special education focus primarily on instructional practices. In fact, the CEEDAR Center’s McLeskey and Mary Brownell, in their article “High-Leverage Practices and Teacher Preparation in Special Education,” argue that most of the general education HLPs for instruction are appropriate for all teachers, with many of the HLPs identified for special education only varying in intensity and focus. Implementing HLPs can be key to reaching a diverse learner population in inclusive settings. 

HLP Commonalities 

The HLPs from general education and special education complement each other. The CEEDAR Center created a general and special education HLP crosswalk table (see Table 1) showing the distinctions of the different practices (bit.ly/3BMJiKC). Additionally, the TIES Center—Increasing Time, Instructional Effectiveness, Engagement, and State and District Support for Inclusive Practices, the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies—created a resource with examples of the crossover between the two sets of instructional HLPs in inclusive settings for several topics including supporting group discussions, using small group instruction, checking for understanding, and providing feedback as they apply to students with significant cognitive disabilities (bit.ly/2WVggt7).

Supporting the Use of HLPs in Inclusive Settings

Scholarly work by Jean Crockett and co-authors in the Handbook of Leadership and Administration for Special Education, and Waldron and colleagues in their article, “Setting the Direction: The Role of the Principal in Developing an Effective, Inclusive School,” reiterate that systemic change and sustained inclusive efforts at the school level are often driven by principals. Principals who can support teachers’ implementation of HLPs in inclusive settings develop a schoolwide culture of inclusivity. 

Table 1 (below), adapted from collaborative work conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers and CEEDAR, shows administrator “Look Fors” (or areas to support) of HLPs from both general and special education aligned with the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (4c and 4d; PSEL 2015) and Standard 4: Promoting Principal Leadership for the Success of Students with Disabilities within the HLPs. 

In their book, Teaching Students with Special Needs in Inclusive Settings, Tom Smith and co-authors espouse that the success of inclusive schooling rests on the cooperation and collaboration between teachers to deliver instruction to students with and without disabilities. In their book chapter, “Education Equality for Students With Disabilities,” Sara Bicard and William Heward go even further to recommend that administrators break down silos by supporting teachers to no longer think in a “your kids” and “my kids” mentality, but rather “our kids” to work in partnership to meet the needs of each learner. 

Mutual Core Values and High Expectations

Schools with successful inclusive programs thrive when school leaders and teachers share core values in an inclusive vision—an important aspect of servant leadership. The establishment of shared core values is reflected in every aspect of the school. The expectation for using instructional HLPs in classrooms is likely to result in both social and academic gains for all students. After conducting case study research, McLeskey and his co-authors emphasize the need for administrators and teachers to hold high expectations for all learners and not accept anything less from students with and without disabilities. 

Shared Planning and Decision Making

All teachers should use HLPs in planning and instruction. Teachers in inclusive classes must thoughtfully collaborate to embed HLPs from both general education and special education during lesson planning. When teachers have a protected common planning time, they are more likely to focus on future planning instead of trying to “wing it” during class. School leaders can support teachers in inclusive settings by fostering co-teaching relationships and engaging both general education and special education teachers in decision making as they apply their expertise. To learn more about shared planning for students with significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive settings, see the TIES Center resource for a lesson plan with embedded examples of HLPs (bit.ly/3BKYVT6). 

Teacher Evaluations and Professional Development

In his blog post, Thyberg notes that principals who are servant leaders both give and receive feedback. School leaders should participate in conversations about instruction with co-teachers and identify what is necessary to best support inclusive classrooms. While clear connections between teacher evaluations and professional development are needed to improve instruction, a focus on the HLPs in inclusive classrooms is essential. The use of best practices in an inclusive classroom is evaluated through the same universal assessment tool for both general and special education teachers. Administrators who are familiar with both sets of HLPs and able to articulate how instruction aligns with appropriate HLPs are situated to be more effective coaches and evaluators. High-quality professional development should connect teachers as models for bridging the two sets of HLPs. 

As servant leaders, principals need to be knowledgeable about HLPs from both general and special education pedagogies in order to serve the development of all teachers, and ultimately to deliver the best instruction for all students. By meeting the instructional needs of the teachers and students in inclusive classrooms, principals can fulfill their role as servant leaders. 

Shawnee Wakeman, PhD, is a clinical associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is also a partner in the TIES Center. Elizabeth Reyes, PhD, is a clinical assistant professor at the University of South Carolina and a research assistant for the TIES Center. Meg Kamman, PhD, is co-director of the CEEDAR Center at the University of Florida.

Sidebar: Table 1: Administrator “Look Fors” That Align to Instructional HLPs from General and Special Education

Administrator StandardGeneral Education HLPsSpecial Education HLPs“Look Fors” or Areas to Support
Promote instructional practice that is consistent with knowledge of child learning and development, effective pedagogy, and the needs of each student (4c)*Leading a group discussion (1)Teach cognitive and metacognitive strategies to support learning and independence (14)
Use strategies to promote active student engagement (18) 
Evidence of equitable opportunities to respond in an inclusive classroom
Explaining and modeling content, practices, and strategies (2)Teach cognitive and metacognitive strategies to support learning and independence (14) 
Use explicit instruction (16)
Provide intensive instruction (20) 
Teach students to maintain and generalize new learning across time and settings (21)
Implementation of multiple instructional strategies that match students’ strengths and needs
Eliciting and interpreting individual students’ thinking (3)Provide positive and constructive feedback to guide students’ learning and behavior (22)Differentiated formats for students to respond and show what they know, receive feedback, and utilize feedback
Setting up and managing small group work (9)Use flexible grouping (17) 
Use strategies to promote active student engagement (18) 
Heterogeneous grouping of students with and without disabilities
Setting long- and short-term learning goals for students (13)Identify and prioritize long- and short-term learning goals (11) 
Use assistive and instructional technologies (19) 
Explicit connections between instruction and individual student goals are evident
Providing oral and written feedback to students (18)Provide positive and constructive feedback to guide students’ learning and behavior (22)Feedback is understandable, actionable, and revisited
Ensure instructional practice that is intellectually challenging, is authentic to student experiences, recognizes student strengths, and is differentiated and personalized (4d)*Diagnosing particular common patterns of student thinking and development in a subject-matter domain (4)Systematically design instruction toward a specific learning goal (12)
Adapt curriculum tasks and materials for specific learning goals (13)
Specially designed instruction is embedded for students with disabilities
Coordinating and adjusting
instruction during a lesson (6)
Provide scaffolded supports (15)Individual adjustments during instruction are provided
Designing single lessons and sequences of lessons (14)Systematically design instruction toward a specific learning goal (12)Prior knowledge and prerequisite skills are activated
Checking student understanding during and at the conclusion of lessons (15)Use student assessment data, analyze instructional practices, and make necessary adjustments that improve student outcomes (6)Student understanding is captured in multiple formats

NOTES: This table was adapted from the CEEDAR High-Leverage Practices Crosswalk (2017). *PSEL 2015 and Promoting Principal Leadership for the Success of Students with Disabilities, Standard 4: Ensure that evidence-based approaches to instruction and assessment are implemented with integrity and are adapted to local needs (CCSSO & CEEDAR, 2017).