Role of the Principal in Special Needs Education
About the Author
Denise W. Anderson has an Education Specialist Degree in School Psychology and a Special Education Administration Credential. She became familiar with the special education process as the parent of a child with special needs and has worked as a paraprofessional in a special needs classroom, a School Psychologist, and Special Education Director.
School principals are busy people. They frequently put in long hours at their schools due to the heavy load of paperwork, accountability, and activity schedules. They are responsible for hiring, training, and supervising staff; seeing that instructional goals are met by students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds; reports are submitted in a timely way to state and national entities; and budgets are followed.
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); however, requires that an administrator representing the school be on the individual educational planning (IEP) team of every student in their building involved in special education. On more than one occasion, I have overheard a principal say that they do not have time to attend the IEP meetings of their students.
It has been my experience, both as a parent and as an education professional, that those principals who become integrally involved with the special education process accomplish a number of vital goals simultaneously, and significantly improve the morale of their constituents, employees, special education service providers, and parents. They:
- Provide educational leadership
- Hold teachers and staff accountable for instruction provided
- Share important information on school policies and procedures
- Give input on the allocation of resources, and
- Offer moral support to staff, teachers, parents, and students
Each of these roles is discussed further below:
Principals Provide Educational Leadership
Much like parents provide leadership in the home, the principal provides educational leadership in the school. The principal's role is to provide a vision of what the school should be and how its mission will be accomplished.
The effective school has a system in place whereby individuals and their learning styles are assessed, and situations are created to help them learn and progress. Within that system, provision is made for those with high levels of ability that excel in academics, sports, music, and other disciplines; those who fall into the mainstream of ability; and those who struggle, take longer to learn, or may have disabilities.
Attending the IEP meetings of students in the special education system enables the principal to see how the system is working in behalf of students with disabilities. Are learning styles being effectively assessed? Is curriculum being taught according to established standards and benchmarks? Are staff seeing to the needs of the parents? Is the student responding to the interventions being provided? These and many other questions can be answered as the principal takes an active role in the special education process.
The Principal Holds Teachers Accountable for Instruction Provided in the Classroom
The purpose of special education is to allow the student with disabilities access to the general education curriculum. The disability inhibits this process in some way, therefore, the IEP is written with goals and objectives that allow the student to be taught in such a way that the affects of the disability can be overcome and learning is facilitated.
The building principal, the regular education classroom teacher, and the special education teacher work together with service providers and parents in the IEP meeting to create a plan whereby the student has the opportunity to learn what is being taught to same age peers. As the supervisor of all faculty and staff that work in the building, the principal provides a steadying and mediating influence when present at the meeting.
Communication between team members increases in quality, a greater effort to work together for the benefit of the student is made by all present, and questions concerning the student's status in the regular education curriculum can be addressed. Issues such as grade retention, credit, absenteeism, and state standards and benchmarks may also arise during the planning process, and the principal is in a key position to facilitate decision making in these matters.
The Principal Shares Important Information on School Policies and Procedures
The principal of the school is responsible for seeing that the school policies and procedures are followed. These are listed in the school handbook, and are to be updated on a regular basis. Information concerning student behavior, discipline, transportation, attendance, emergency procedures, grading, credits, transition from one class to another, and parental responsibilities are addressed.
The handbook also delineates the procedure to follow when a student is at-risk of school failure. All parents are given a copy of the handbook. It contains proper procedure for referral to special education. According to IDEA, anyone can make a referral when they see that a student is struggling and once the referral is made, the school is obligated to meet with the child's teacher and parent to find out what is happening.
Most elementary schools have a pre-special education intervention system, called a child-study team, Response to Intervention, or teacher assistance team. This team is an integral part of the school system's intervention program to help struggling learners. Team members may include teachers, parents, para-professionals or aides that work with students, and a building administrator. Student standardized test results are used to determine the level of instruction students receive and their classroom placement.
Once it is determined that a student needs further assistance, a referral is made to the special education department. The regular education teacher and building principal bring continuity of information from regular to special education. Having knowledge of the student's past achievement, behavior record, and standardized testing results, the teacher helps special education personnel know how best to provide services to the student.
Students referred to the special education program may have frequent contact with the principal due to behavior, attendance, and grading issues. The IEP team comes up with a plan whereby these issues are addressed. Behavior issues may require specific personnel or protocol to be followed. Attendance and/or credit requirements may need to be waived if the student is frequently absent for medical reasons. Grading requirements may need to be altered, or graduation dates extended. All of these require the building principal's administrative approval.
The Principal Gives Input on the Allocation of Resources
Although IDEA provides funding to schools specifically for students that are part of the special education system, that funding may or may not be available at the time it is needed for specific students. Budgeting in the school systems is a juggling act at best, and requires advance planning and preparation.
Students with disabilities have needs that are many and varied. Each school is limited in the services available, and the school may be a part of an education cooperative or medical services unit that provides services that the school cannot. When a student with an IEP comes into a school system, it is necessary for the school to review the IEP, and determine what services can be handled by the school itself, and what must be outsourced.
Funding is required for all services provided, and the principal of the school is an integral part of the decision making process to determine where the funds will come from to provide the services rendered. All students within the public school system are to receive educational services at no cost to the student or their family. Students with disabilities may require such things as adaptive equipment, special technology, occupational or physical therapy, and speech language services.
Grants from IDEA come at a flat rate that is determined by the student's disability placement within the system. High maintenance disabilities are provided more funding than those requiring less services. The amount received, however, is not based on services rendered, but on placement status. States may or may not provide additional funding for these individuals, depending upon their own funding capabilities. IDEA funds are issued at specific times during the school year.
Resources available on the local level determine where the student receives services, who provides those services, and how frequently they are given. The principal needs to know and understand the student and their specific needs in order to see that funds are allocated properly and in a timely manner. Special education personnel cannot make promises to parents without receiving administrative input. Principals who are involved in the IEP team planning process are less likely to be faced with unexpected expenses for their students.
The Principal Offers Moral Support to Staff, Teachers, Parents, and Students
In many schools, special education teachers and staff serve under dual leadership. They may be hired by the principal under which they serve, but they are also accountable to and trained by their respective special education units. These LEA's (Local Education Associations) may comprise only one district or many districts. Some teachers and service providers have circuits which they travel on a regular basis.
The individuals and professionals who come together in an IEP team meeting have varying levels of ability and understanding, as well as interest in the outcome of the meeting for the student. Although the special education case manager facilitates the meeting, morale is largely determined by the presence of the building level principal.
The principal is familiar individually with the student, parents, teachers, and in some cases, service providers. Encouragement given and feedback offered to all in their daily encounters with the principal has a cumulative effect on the functioning ability of the entire team. Their familiarity with the principal, his or her leadership style, and the overall mission of the school, and how they fit into that mission, brings a culture of cooperation if that contact is positive in nature.
The principal has a vital role in the effectiveness of the special education program of the school, providing educational leadership, holding faculty and staff accountable for their various responsibilities, lending expertise into the policies and procedures of the school, allocating funds for the provision of services, and providing moral support to all involved. Indeed, the principal is a key player in the special education process!