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Educators in Canada face unprecedented challenges in supporting students with special education needs in inclusive schools. These complexities include increased programming requirements, greater legal expectations, and amplified diversity of needs. Further, there is a gap between research in the area of inclusive education and the practical, day-to-day experience of school principals; researchers and school principals are often working in isolation of each other. At this important juncture, school leaders have a clear need and a vital interest in linking practice and policy with evidence-based research insights about inclusion.

From 2016-2018, my research team completed a national study, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), of the ways in which Canadian school principals and vice-principals support students with special education needs in inclusive schools. The research examined the types of training that school leaders have experienced in this area and documented the types of day-to-day activities they engage in. An important aspect of the study was the examination of critical incidents – either positive or negative – that significantly impacted the perceptions and practices of school leaders in their work to foster inclusive schools.

The study indicated that more work needs to be done to understand the work school leaders do in supporting students with special education needs. As a result, a SSHRC-funded conference will be held in Vancouver, British Columbia on June 1, 2019. The conference will bring together academic and non-academic audiences from across Canada to further discuss the issue and determine new opportunities for collaboration and research.

This research is closely associated with the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education (Western University). We are strategically identifying areas of further research on inclusion and school leadership, and invite others interested in this area to contact us for collaborative opportunities.

Research Projects

Exploring Principal Leadership for Inclusion of Students with Special Education Needs in Canadian Schools

There is a significant and persistent gap that scholars and practitioners alike have identified in inclusivity research for Canadian K-12 education. First, a significant amount of literature examines the experiences of teachers and students in inclusive classrooms and, second, a substantial body of literature identifies the critical role of school principals in affecting positive student achievements. However, there has been limited research connecting these two bodies of literature; that is, examining how school principals support inclusive school environments for students with special education needs. School principals are confronted daily with significant challenges that require versatile and nuanced skill sets and competencies.

This 2016-2018 SSHRC-funded study addressed this gap by surveying 300 principals and vice-principals from across Canada and conducting in-depth interviews with 50 of these participants. Six key themes emerged from the study:

  • Importance of Relationships: Principals invest significant time on the school site with students, parents, and staff to support a wide variety of student needs.
  • Modelling Desired Behaviour: Principals set the example in attitude, language, and actions for students, teachers, support workers and parents/guardians.
  • Communication: Principals invest a lot of time in communicating about a wide variety of issues related to supporting inclusive schools including formal and informal meetings and consultations with parents, students, staff and community members.
  • Principal Isolation: Principals frequently report that, although they are surrounded by people involved with students with special education needs, they often work in isolation and without a lot of support. There is a strong indication that the demands of the job, particularly with diverse and pronounced student needs, takes a heavy toll on them.
  • Limited Preparation: Principals indicate that they have had limited professional development specific to fostering inclusive school environments.
  • Critical Incidents: Principals can identify specific instances of interactions with students, teachers, and/or parents/caregivers that have significantly impacted how they view and support inclusive education.

Early results of the study have been published in the Canadian Journal of Education in the article, "School Principals and Students with Special Education Needs: Leading Inclusive Schools." Further results have been submitted for publication. As well, eight case studies were developed from the results. These case studies were developed with the support of the Ontario College of Teachers and are being used in the professional learning of school principals in Ontario.

Learn More

Intersectionalities in Leadership for Supporting Students with Special Education Needs in Canadian Schools

This SSHRC-funded event will bring university faculty, Indigenous Knowledge Keepers/Educators, school system administrators (e.g. superintendents and those responsible for professional learning of school principals), and representatives of government ministries (e.g. education) and professional educational associations together for a one-day conference. The conference will be held on June 1, 2019, at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, British Columbia. This conference will involve internationally-renowned speakers and will incorporate recent research on the subject of how school principals can support the inclusion of students with special education needs. Special education needs, such as learning disabilities and Autism, have historically been regarded as pedagogical or behavioural challenges and not viewed through a holistic, intersectional perspective.

Bringing together an estimated 100 participants, the Intersectionalities in Leadership conference will target a truly diverse audience of experts and knowledge users. These include faculty involved with inclusive education research, Indigenous educators, school system administrators, and representatives from government ministries (e.g. education) and provincial educational organizations (e.g. British Columbia Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association, Ontario College of Teachers, New Brunswick Teachers’ Association, etc.). Leadership will be provided by university faculty and Indigenous Knowledge Keepers/educators involved with research on school leadership and inclusion. The location of the conference will facilitate participation from Indigenous leaders in British Columbia who have developed robust infrastructures and frameworks.

An overarching theme for the conference is: How can we foster the competencies of school principals to support students with special education needs in inclusive schools? In response, the conference’s purpose is to engage internationally-known speakers, nationally-recognized researchers, and resources that have been developed as key outcomes of the 2016-2018 SSHRC study, then connect these outcomes with cutting-edge research and policy expertise in Canadian education.

Historically, there has been very little consideration for how Indigenous Traditional Knowledge can foster leadership for inclusive schools. As such, and in recognition of the important role of Indigenous educators in Canada, the program will provide a platform for a keynote Indigenous speaker, Kevin Lamoureux, National Education Lead of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (accepted), to address recent advances in integrating Traditional Knowledge inclusively within Canadian education. A second keynote, Dr. Sheila Bennett, leader in inclusion research and policy development in Canada (accepted), will provide national and international perspectives on how school leadership influences inclusion for students with special education needs.

The conference will provide an intersectoral approach by bringing Indigenous experts together with non-Indigenous scholars, in many cases for the first time. It will provide leading education researchers and decision-makers in inclusive school leadership with Traditional Knowledge Expertise.

Technology-Enhanced, Interactive Case Studies for Principals' Professional Development to Support Students with Special Education Needs

This SSHRC-funded project involves a partnership with the Ontario Principal Council (OPC) to learn how principals perceive of the inclusion of students with special education needs and, based on this research, to develop innovative, technology-enhanced case studies to support their professional learning in this area. These interactive case studies use a web-based platform and multi-modal delivery mechanisms (audio, video and text) to provide multiple options for decisions and feedback.

Technology-enhanced, interactive case studies hold great promise for synthesizing two types of 21st century skill areas: learning and innovation, and information, media and technology. These skills are crucial for principals as they are tasked with the job of developing inclusive schools, one of the challenges confronting global societies.

This partnership between Laurier and OPC addresses future areas of challenge by developing new ways of learning and leveraging emerging technologies to benefit Canadians. These skills will be crucial for solving challenges such as how to build inclusive schools and others currently challenging our societies and those that will evolve in time.

2019-2025 SSHRC Study on Inclusive School Leadership

In 2019, my research team was awarded a new SSHRC Insight Grant to further explore the types of experiences that principals have in supporting students with special education needs in inclusive schools.

I am the principal investigator on this five year study and am joined by the following researchers:

  • Sheila Bennett (Brock University)
  • Cam Cobb (University of Windsor)
  • Jeffrey MacCormack (University of Lethbridge)
  • Kimberly Maich (Memorial University)
  • Donna McGhie-Richmond (University of Victoria)
  • Jhonel Morvan (Brock University)
  • Nadia Rousseau (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières)
  • Monique Somma (Brock University)
  • Jacqueline Specht (Western University)
The research project is situated in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Contact Us:

Steve Sider, Associate Professor

T: 519.884.0710 x2832

Faculty profile


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