Serving Students With Special Needs: Five Key Values We Instill in Our Leaders


By: Toni Barton

One of the ugliest words in education is “compliance.” Think of the teacher who has to enforce ineffective discipline policies that shame students and hinder their learning. Or the principal who spends all day on school district paperwork rather than observing and coaching her teachers.

In a perfect system, educators would rarely worry about checking boxes or meeting bureaucratic demands. Instead, they’d make decisions based on the unique and immediate needs of their students and schools.

Of course, no system is perfect. But too often, public schools function like factories or corporations, emphasizing compliance over creativity and connection.

Nowhere is this problem more pervasive than in the ways our schools serve students with special needs. The vast majority of special education is oriented around following the law. This compliance-based approach unfortunately discourages educators from developing strategies that yield powerful outcomes for kids. For example, special education leaders report spending a majority of their time running individualized education plan (IEP) meetings or completing paperwork. Principals also report that they lack the special education pedagogical expertise needed to effectively coach teachers to support students with special needs. So, if special education leaders are spending their time on compliance-related tasks and principals lack expertise in special education, who is coaching the teachers?

Teachers should be trained and encouraged to adopt approaches that are designed to best support students with special needs. At Relay Graduate School of Education, which supports school leaders nationwide, we’ve developed a one-year program to help special education (SPED) leaders step beyond compliance in order to deliver intentional, student-centered instruction.

First off, we don’t refer to students with institutional labels like “special education students” or “special needs kids.” We call them “exceptional learners.” This language shifts from a deficit lens to an asset-based mindset.

We work with our leaders to nurture five values that we’ve found make a powerful difference in empowering exceptional learners. We then help our school leaders translate the following values into tangible action in the classroom:

  1. Collective responsibility. Too often, exceptional learners are treated as the responsibilities of “certain teachers.” In fact, they’re everyone’s responsibility. What does that look like? Educators should design structures and systems with exceptional learners at the forefront. Teachers and support staff who work exclusively with exceptional learners should be included in school-wide decision-making. In classrooms with co-teachers, both should be seen as leaders, and all teachers should be held accountable for the academic growth of exceptional leaders. In addition, all leaders should be responsible for the growth of all students.
  2. Rigorous academic opportunities. Being an exceptional learner doesn’t mean being denied opportunities to fulfill their full academic potential. Rather, exceptional learners should be empowered to master grade-level content. Teachers can do this by making sure that students with the highest level of need receive instruction from the most effective teachers. While it’s important to provide remedial instruction to students who are behind, it’s just as crucial to ensure that remedial instruction does not replace standards-based grade level instruction. Teachers should design lessons that are universally designed to meet the range of learners in a classroom and should consistently monitor the impact of their instruction as they tailor it to their students’ individual needs.
  3. Respect difference. Educators must be careful not to overtly or subtly disparage students’ differences. This can be especially tricky when students present behavioral challenges. Teachers and leaders should start by identifying these challenges not as disruption, but as socio-emotional needs. It’s crucial not to treat students in a way that makes them feel dejected or singled out. The right tone is one that conveys compassion and empathy. Restorative practices can make a big difference in addressing students’ socio-emotional needs.
  4. Inclusive professional development. All staff should be trained to support exceptional learners. Professional development should be collaborative, so that teachers develop a shared sense of their roles in educating exceptional learners. And while all teachers should be well-equipped to provide academic and socio-emotional support to exceptional learners, the best teachers should be assigned to those students. Leaders must also have a focus on continuous improvement so that they have the skills needed to coach teachers to support exceptional learners.
  5. Inclusion-first instruction. We all remember the days when exceptional learners were cordoned off in their own classrooms. Sadly, in some schools, those days are still here. Schools should make every attempt to educate every student in an age-appropriate general education classroom no matter what type or degree of disability the student has. Inclusive classrooms are typically the best settings to promote maximal academic and socio-emotional growth. Students should be placed in specialized programs or classrooms only after every attempt was made to modify systems to meet their needs.

These principles are a roadmap for educating exceptional learners. This map leads us out of the dark days of compliance and into a bright future in which students’ differences are celebrated, their unique needs are met, and the entire system is geared toward advancing students’ academic and socio-emotional growth.

For more, see:

Toni Barton is Dean of Special Education Leadership Programs at Relay Graduate School of Education. 

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