Special Education – 10 Tips for Administrators

Over the years we may have read or heard about cases involving special education that have been taken to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal(HRTO) or even to court. In reviewing these cases one has to reflect on how to avoid repeating similar situations. Below is a list of ten tips that I would suggest school administrators consider in order to help them avoid potential legal problems in the area of special education.

  1. Document all meetings and conversations.
  2. Follow-up with what was promised.
  3. Make sure that you can follow through with something before promising to do it.
  4. Be aware of your legal obligations – the Education Act and Regulations as they pertain to Special Education
  5. Don’t delay providing support services for a student – explore and document options that will benefit the student.
  6. We have an obligation under the Code to accommodate students with disabilities to the point of undue hardship, regardless of whether the students are receiving any medical treatment in the community or not.
  7. We have an obligation under the Education Act to provide appropriate special education placements, programs and services to exceptional students. Parental conduct or lack of parental authority cannot be used as a justification for not meeting an exceptional student’s needs.
  8. A parent’s “fierce advocacy” for his or her child does not prevent us from accommodating the child’s needs to the point of undue hardship.
  9. Always focus on the child’s individualized needs and best interests to determine an appropriate placement and supports for a child.
  10. Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!


Exceptional Students

Students in Ontario can be identified as exceptional in 5 categories through  the IPRC process. The 5 categories of exceptionality recognized by the Ministry of Education are as follows:

  1. behaviour
  2. communication
  3. intellectual
  4. physical
  5. multiple

I have become particularly interested in the Communication – Autism exceptionality because the spectrum is so diverse and the needs are so different for each student. In my role as a Vice Principal, however, I need to think about what it is I need teachers to understand in order to help a student with this exceptionality meet with success. My tentative research of the literature uncovered the following recommendations:

  • Involve parents in the education of their child as they provide perspectives and information that will broaden educators understanding of the student.
  • Establish effective methods for home/school communication.
    Students with ASD often experience difficulty with change. Establishing consistent practices through collaborative planning may help alleviate some of the challenges experienced by the student. Plan for transitions.
  • Use the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and differentiated instruction to plan for and respond to students with various needs.

Paula Kluth(2005) in an online article entitled Supporting Students With Autism: 10 Ideas for Inclusive Classrooms suggested the following:

  • Learn About the Learner From the Learner
  • Support Transitions
  • Give Fidget Supports
  • Help with Organizing
  • Assign Class Jobs
  • Provide Breaks
  • Focus on Interests
  • Rethink Writing
  • Give Choices
  • Include

Some of the essential classroom look-fors and supports for a student with this exceptionality that I will be looking for when doing my walkthroughs are as follows:

  • Is verbal information supported with visuals?
  • Is more intensive levels of assistance provided to the student?
  • Are their opportunities for peer support?
  • Are opportunities provided for the student to practice and rehearse?
  • Are longer activities chunked into smaller segments.
  • Is technology being used and how often?
  • Is task participation and completion flexible?
  • Are a variety of opportunities and ways provided for the student to demonstrate learning?
  • Are visual supports such as graphic organizers or highlighting of keywords provided for the student?
  • Are alternatives to writing tasks provided for the student?
  • Has a visual schedule of daily activities been developed?
  • Is a consistent work system followed?
  • The location and rationale for the student’s seating arrangement.

As a school leader, I will endeavour to better support students with this exceptionality by…

  • Ensuring that teachers and I have a working understanding of Autism and what that means for particular students
  • Ensuring that home/school communication is in place and is effective
  • Ensuring that there is collaboration between all significant parties when it comes to the design and implementation of the IEP
  • Ensuring an IEP incorporates ABA teaching methods
  • Having a plan to deal with behavioural challenges
  • Supporting teachers in preparing the classroom for students with ASD
  • Managing resources (human, material, environmental) effectively
  • Formulating goals and interventions for students with ASD based on data
  • Evaluating outcomes of interventions based on data


Core Beliefs Related to Special Education

The name Special Education, I would argue, has both a positive and a negative connotation and both carry with it a label of sorts. Every student has the right to an education that is differentiated to their unique learning style and ability. This differentiation makes their education special and their learning meaningful. Conversely, if not done correctly, the “specialness” of a student’s education can carry with it a stigma or an identification that the child’s parents may not necessarily
want associated with them.

Larry Leverret in an Edutopia article entitled Closing the Achievement Gap: “All Children Can Learn” states that while we all are familiar with Ron Edmonds(1982) original battle cry “All children can learn”, we also know that certain things must be in place for this to happen, like “varying instructional approaches to match the learning styles of students, differentiating instruction, providing access to high-quality preschool programs, consistently exposing students to high-quality instruction, generating support from families and communities, and consistently scaling up implementation of best-practice instructional strategies and approaches in all classrooms and in all content areas.” Socio-economic status, the colour of your skin, your ethnic background, medical diagnosis etc. should never be factors that determine the quality of what you learn or whether you can learn at all. Every child can learn something if planned and presented appropriately.

I demonstrate my belief that all students can learn by creating a climate of high expectations for all my students and for the staff that I work with. For students, there is an expectation to meet standards as articulated in the Ontario Curriculum and additionally in their IEP if a student possesses one. For teachers, there is an expectation to teach the curriculum in its fullness to their students and to consider any accommodations and modifications that some students may need in order to be successful. My philosophy of leadership in special education incorporates a growth mindset because at its core is the belief that students can always be encouraged to excel beyond their ability especially if the instructional programme is appropriately tailored to facilitate ongoing growth. Likewise teachers are not only encouraged to create and deliver a programme of instruction that meets the learning needs of their students, but one that can also suitably challenge them.

Many teachers definitely believe that all children can learn and have adopted a growth mindset regarding their learning. They demonstrate this belief by differentiating their instruction, exposing students to high quality instruction in addition to forging valuable relationships with the community.

I believe that fostering and maintaining a set of core beliefs about how students learn should be an ongoing endeavour. To this end, one should explore professional learning opportunities around the Ministry’s Learning for All document with staff.

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