Supporting Principals with Special Education Programming

As special education directors, one of our greatest collaborators in the work we do are principals. “District and school leaders support collaboration by fostering a collective commitment to collaboration, providing professional learning experiences to increase team members’ collaborative skills, and create schedules that support different forms of ongoing collaboration” (High Leverage Practices in Special Education, 2019).
By Trish Geraghty

As special education directors, one of our greatest collaborators in the work we do are principals. “District and school leaders support collaboration by fostering a collective commitment to collaboration, providing professional learning experiences to increase team members’ collaborative skills, and create schedules that support different forms of ongoing collaboration” (High Leverage Practices in Special Education, 2019). Collaboration does not happen spontaneously or accidentally; it must be cultivated to create a successful environment for students and teachers. Here are some tips to support principals:


Share the vision

We all know the importance of a shared vision at the school and district level. However, department or area vision statements are often overlooked. Share the vision for the special education department with all principals. “A vision provides orientation and meaning for leaders and their teams” (Martin, 2014). Have a conversation around the school and department’s vision that includes expectations, opportunities to support one another, and clarify any misconceptions. We cannot expect our colleagues at schools to help in advocating the vision if they are not familiar with it. Sharing the special education department’s vision with principals creates an opportunity to support one another and increase student outcomes.


Create professional learning opportunities

Everyone takes a different path to leadership and has differing experiences. In my graduate work in educational leadership there was one two-hour session on special education in the educational law class. Only two hours for special education and it was only centered on legal aspects. I wish I could say this was an anomaly but in talking with other leaders their lack of formal education in special education is limited.

It is no wonder then why principals may feel apprehensive in dealing with special education matters on their campus. “With the understanding that principals may have limited background in their areas of responsibility related to special education, special education administrators and staff can try to support principals in their work to manage special education. Some ways to provide support include working collaboratively, providing guidance, and maintaining a relationship of trust and open communication” (Vector Solutions, 2018). Don’t assume principals have the expertise or experience in special education. Lend a helping hand by being a thought-partner and readily available to talk through a concern.

Another way to support principals is through learning recommendations. A great resource is the Principal’s Guide to Special Education. This book is, “an essential handbook for educating students in the 21st century,” and, “ has provided guidance to school administrators seeking to meet the needs of students with disabilities. This invaluable reference addresses such current issues as teacher accountability and evaluation, instructional leadership, collaborative teaching and learning communities, discipline procedures for students with disabilities, and responding to students’ special education needs within a standards-based environment” (CEC, 2013).  Consider offering this book to all new school-based leaders to guide them through their first experiences in managing special education.

Joining professional organizations is another wonderful learning opportunity. Two organizations I would recommend are the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). ASCD is a good reference for leadership and special education. “ASCD empowers educators to achieve excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged” (ASCD, 2021). The, “CEC is known as THE source for information, resources, and professional development for special educators” (CEC, 2021). Both of these organizations have tremendous resources and additional professional learning opportunities.


Legal requirements

Even as a seasoned special education director the legal aspects surrounding special education are difficult to navigate. Joining professional organizations and continued learning are great strategies to help as mentioned above. Another idea to consider is to have all school leaders attend special education law updates on a yearly basis. This professional development can be offered by the special education staff. Be sure to include any experiences from the past year in your district, case law, and other hot topics in special education.

In many districts principals are asked to be the Local Education Agency representative in Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings. Make sure to include principals in the LEA training that should be offered yearly to all staff that will perform the LEA representative role. If your organization does not offer a training, look to your state Department of Education for options. Again, don’t assume principles have the knowledge or experience to execute the LEA role.

Another area in special education law that can be tricky is discipline. If a student with a disability is struggling to manage their behaviors the IEP team should address these concerns in the IEP through goals, services, accommodations/modifications, and a positive behavior intervention plan (PBIP). Students with disabilities still can receive disciplinary actions, however, there are safeguards in place that must be considered.

If the school leader is recommending suspension and that suspension will be over ten days within a school year, then a manifestation determination review meeting is required. As the special education leader for your LEA it is imperative that school leaders are aware of the disciplinary steps involved for students with disabilities. “A Manifestation Determination is a process, required by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004), which is conducted when considering the exclusion of a student with a disability that constitutes a change of placement” (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2004).

I highly recommend that a district-level special education team member attend and act as the LEA representative in these meetings. The greatest support we can provide principals is not putting them into roles outside of their area of expertise. “The determination that a behavior is a manifestation of the child’s disability can be a complex process. It must be determined by qualified professionals, on an individual, case-by-case basis. It cannot be determined by the child’s label or category” (Dwyer, 1997). It can be difficult to determine the manifestation of a student’s behavior and the LEA representative must have a strong knowledge of disabilities and about the student.


Behavioral supports

In my experience the greatest concern principals have in supporting special education programming on campus is behavior management. Students with disabilities have procedural safeguards and protections under IDEA that differ from non-disabled peers’ disciplinary practices. Aside from the legal aspects around behavior and discipline there are additional supports students with disabilities may benefit from. Part of the IEP is to consider behavior support through a Positive Behavior Intervention Plan (PBIP) after a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) is created. Help principals understand the process and the importance of  universal behavioral supports for all students. Additional assistance can be added to the IEP using data to determine the appropriate services.

Encourage principals and school leadership teams to adopt universal supports as a proactive stance in behavioral strategies in infusing Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). The premier resource for SEL is the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. CASEL asks us to, “Imagine a school where the leaders consistently model good practices, proactively train staff, welcome parents as partners, focus on relationships (student-student, adult-student, adult-adult), use positive discipline policies, and invest time and resources in and out of the classroom. Research shows that social and emotional learning (SEL) helps create and is most effective in safe and supportive learning environments like these” (CASEL, 2021).

Student behaviors can trigger an emotional reaction from adults. Be proactive in your support with students and staff.


Supporting principals in supporting teachers

Principals have a daunting task of managing a school, supporting teachers, being an instructional leader, on top of many more demands. District leaders can help principals by providing access to professional organizations and learning opportunities. One of the best resources is the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). In partnership with the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR) and the CEC created High Leverage Practices for Students with Disabilities. Here are some tips for principals to support their teachers from High Leverage Practices for Students with Disabilities:

  • Ensure sufficient, common time is provided for team planning and co-planning.
  • Communicate that co-teachers (and other collaborators) are of equal value and are expected to make equal contributions to planning and instruction.
  • Take co-teaching needs into account when creating the school master schedule.
  • Support all professionals in implementation of specially designed instruction and supports noted in IEPs.
  •  Set up data systems to guide teachers’ work and communicate shared accountability in using/maintaining these data systems.
  • Be proactive in monitoring collaborators’ communication and planning – provide guidance to individuals as needed, to help (High Leverage Practices for Students with Disabilities, 2019).

Providing these supports to teachers builds positive relationships and effective collaboration.

Final Thoughts

Being a principal is a hard and often-times thankless job. As special education leaders we can support our colleagues with special education law, collaboration, supporting teachers, and planning positive behavioral supports. Start with forming a relationship and sharing the vision for special education programming.



CEC. A principal’s guide to special education. (2013). https://exceptionalchildren.org/store/e-books/principals-guide-special-education

K. Dwyer. National Association of School Psychologists. Disciplining students with disabilities.  1997. https://www.wrightslaw.com/info/discipline.stud.dis.dwyer.pdf

High Leverage Practices for Students with Disabilities. HLP1: Collaborate with professionals to increase student success. (2017).

Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning. 2021. https://casel.org/

J.Martin, B. McCormack, D. Fitzsimmons, and R. Sprig. International Practice Development Journal. The importance of inspiring a shared vision. 2014. https://www.fons.org/library/journal/volume4-issue2/article4#:~:text=Findings%3A%20Having%20a%20vision%20helped,committed%20to%20a%20shared%20goal.&text=Conclusion%3A%20The%20study%20found%20that,in%20the%20transformation%20of%20practice.

Pennsylvania Department of Education. Manifestation determination worksheet.  2004. https://www.achieva.info/files/Resources/Education/Manifestation_Determination.pdf

Vector Solutions. Supporting principals in effectively managing special education. (2018). https://www.vectorsolutions.com/resources/blogs/supporting-principals-in-effectively-managing-special-education/

Trish Geraghty
Trish Geraghty, an accomplished educational leader with 20+ years of experience, excels in curriculum development, instructional design, and professional development. Her proven track record includes successful support for schools, districts, educators, and students. Committed to ensuring universal access to high-quality learning, Trish is a visionary advocate for inclusive education. Her innovative approach to curriculum development reflects a keen understanding of evolving standards. Trish's transformative influence extends beyond traditional boundaries, actively contributing to the broader advancement of education. A catalyst for positive change, she inspires excellence in others, shaping the future of education through unwavering commitment and visionary leadership.

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