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Becoming a Golden Hawk means more than just cheering on our (really good) varsity teams – it means being a student who cares about your community, who works hard in the classroom, and who takes advantage of all the learning opportunities that can happen outside the classroom, too.

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.

Since 2016, my research team has completed multiple national studies, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada, on the ways in which Canadian school principals and vice-principals support students with special education needs in inclusive schools. An important aspect of these studies has been the examination of critical incidents – either positive or negative – that significantly impact the perceptions and practices of school leaders in their work to foster inclusive schools. The various projects are described in the tabs below. More information is available on the Lead to Include research website.

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

2016-2019 SSHRC funded study: 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 2016-2019 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.

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." 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

2018-2019 SSHRC funded conference: Intersectionalities in Leadership for Supporting Students with Special Education Needs in Canadian Schools

This SSHRC-funded event brought 80 university faculty members, Indigenous Knowledge Keepers/Educators, school system administrators (e.g. superintendents and those responsible for professional learning of school principals), and representatives of government ministries, and professional educational associations together for a one-day conference. The conference was held on June 1, 2019, at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, British Columbia. 

An overarching theme of the Intersectionalities in Leadership conference was: How can we foster the competencies of school principals to support students with special education needs in inclusive schools? 

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 featured keynote Indigenous speaker, Kevin Lamoureux, former National Education Lead of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, to address integrating Traditional Knowledge inclusively within Canadian education. A second keynote, Dr. Sheila Bennett (Brock University), a leader in inclusion research and policy development in Canada, provided national and international perspectives on how school leadership influences inclusion for students with special education needs.

Papers presented at the conference were published in a special volume of Exceptionality Education International. The conference was broadcast live via VoicEd and a series of recordings are available.

2018-2020 SSHRC funded study: Choose your own adventure case studies for principals' professional development

This SSHRC-funded project involved 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 "choose your own adventure" 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.

The case studies are open-access and available on the Lead to Include website.

2019-2025 SSHRC funded study: 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.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also examined how principals support students with special education needs in crises. Multiple articles have been published from the pandemic-related studies including in International Studies in Educational Administration.

This study is on-going and expressions of interest can be directed to me by email.



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