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Lead to Include: What does it mean to effectively lead schools to ensure that all students belong?

This is the first post in our monthly series of blog posts from the Lead to Include research team members. Our first blog post is provided by Dr. Steve Sider, the lead researcher in the project.

I remember early in my school leadership career talking with a family about the school experiences of their daughter who had been ostracized because of her learning disability. Britney (not her real name) talked about often being placed at a table in the back of the classroom where she would be given worksheets to complete. She talked about regular visits out of the class with the school's special education resource teacher. On the playground, she struggled to make friends. Britney was a quiet, shy student who became more reserved as she experienced bullying at the school and on the school bus. Britney felt little sense of belonging in the school.

Now Britney was moving into Grade 7 in my school. I attended the transition meeting that occurred in May at her previous school. I listened to the comments of her teachers, the resource teacher, and the principal. I heard her mother's angst as she described the challenges they experienced at home trying to encourage Britney, not only in her school work but in her emotional well-being. And I listened as Britney quietly expressed a deep desire for a different experience as she changed schools.

In our research, we have been studying "critical incidents", that is, experiences that shape and inform the perspectives and practices of principals. That transition team meeting was a critical incident for me. Even 25 years later, I can clearly see the room in which we met and the various people around the table. I distinctly recall the conversation. That experience would inform and frame my own work as a school administrator. It has also served as a catalyst for the research I have been engaged with for the past 10 years.

What does it mean to effectively lead schools to ensure that all students belong? Britney's experience in our school provides three insights.

First, our team of educational staff met regularly to discuss Britney's progress. Often these meetings involved Britney and family members. One office assistant had a very positive connection with Britney and would often attend these meetings. We insisted on a holistic, dynamic, and flexible approach that was responsive to her needs.

Second, we made a commitment to support Britney to the greatest degree possible in the classroom. This support was not at a separate table at the back of the classroom. She was fully included in all aspects of the class including in a peer-to-peer support program that encouraged students to identify and use their strengths to foster a healthy school community. And when individual help was needed in the class, classroom teachers and support workers coordinated as a team so that every student could have access to that support.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we strove to engage Britney - and every other student - in activities outside of the class. For Britney, this included being involved in an annual musical production and supporting a school drama production in which she helped manage the sets. Britney shone in these activities and her circle of friends grew. Belonging is fostered through relationships which often are strengthened in out-of-class activities.

So what does this all have to do with leadership? Effective schools leaders have guiding beliefs that drive their practices. Their perspectives shape their practices. If a principal is committed to "lead to include" then they will be more apt to actually implement, support, model, and nurture practices which foster classrooms and schools where all students belong.

Britney attended our school for Grade 7 and 8 and then transitioned to high school. Occasionally, I would run into her or her family over the next few years. Although there were definitely challenges at our school and in her high school experience, the trajectory that began at the transition meeting enabled Britney to successfully complete high school and embark on a career she found rewarding. I tell of a similar experience, "Who is your Nathalia?" in Principal Connections, a magazine for principals in Ontario.

Principals have enormous capacity to foster healthy, supportive, inclusive schools. For more resources that can support leadership competencies in this journey, please see the resources we have provided on our research website.

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