Seeking Opportunity in Special Ed

Recognizing where to lend support while building your leadership toolbox

Topics: Assistant Principals, The Wallace Foundation

As noted previously in APs Rising, it’s up to assistant principals (APs) to engineer their own leadership development journeys. They will have assigned tasks, but to ensure proficiency and prepare for a move into the principal’s role, they need to pursue a complete range of leadership experiences— learning everything they can about running a school.

One area in which assistant principals commonly experience a steep learning curve is special education. Pipeline and other preparation programs don’t often focus on educating students with disabilities, so unless they rose from the ranks as special ed teachers, APs often assume the role without a substantial familiarity of its demands.

In other words, individualized education plans (IEPs), 504s, discipline, behavioral assessments, and other aspects of providing students with disabilities with a free appropriate public education might be new territory. Where can APs look for opportunities to lead?

Take on New Tasks

APs who are lacking in training and experience in special education must bone up quickly on its demands. They’ll need to learn and understand eligibility criteria, referrals, and evaluations to get children the supports they need. Naturally, learning on the job is the best place to start. Here’s how:

Make a list. APs can point to a long list of responsibilities that schools must accomplish in educating students with disabilities, any or all of which they might be called upon to do in support of the principal and the school’s special education staff:

  • Facilitating child study and IEP/504 meetings;
  • Supervising teachers in conducting behavior assessments;
  • Supervising implementation of behavioral intervention plans;
  • Ensuring that effective, positive behavioral supports are available to all students;
  • Monitoring classes to ensure adequate support for students with disabilities;
  • Monitoring extracurricular activities to ensure that students with disabilities have equal opportunity to participate;
  • Building a multidisciplinary team that includes the parent when developing an IEP;
  • Leading IEP team members in developing and implementing IEPs according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); and
  • Providing oversight of special education services in the least restrictive environment.

If some of these items aren’t on your task list already, it’s an opportunity to take the reins. “The assistant principal should have a conversation with their principal about the experiences they would like to have in order to build their leadership capacity,” said Shanessa Fenner, principal of William T. Brown Elementary School in Spring Lake, North Carolina, in “Being Your Own Best Advocate” (Principal, May/ June 2022).

Tap into training. Though APs want more training in special education responsibilities, supports aren’t always available, even when a district has a preparation program in place, according to The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership, a research review commissioned by The Wallace Foundation and published by Vanderbilt University/Mathematica.

School and district leadership should be ready to provide training. “School administrators must ensure that assistant principals are provided with opportunities for professional development in special education leadership,” says “Building the Bridge Between Neuroscience and Education for Pre-Service and In-Service Teachers to Promote Inclusion for Students With Disabilities,” a 2017 brief published by the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Ensure Inclusion

Special education doesn’t happen in a vacuum. APs must build familiarity with the whole school and an infinite variety of students and capabilities. Most students with disabilities participate in general education classes, and many students without disabilities have challenges learning, so it’s important for APs to champion inclusive tactics that support every child.

“Special education teachers don’t just work with students with disabilities,” said University of Florida researcher James McCleskey in an NAESP webinar, “Special Education Do’s and Don’ts: Supporting Implementation of Help for Students With Disabilities.” “Practices that accelerate learning apply not only to students with disabilities, but also any other student who’s struggling.”

To support inclusion:

Model respect. APs must build a climate of respect for diverse populations including disabled students, communicating that all children and families are welcome, modeling inclusive practices, and interfacing with parents to create a bridge to the community. “That provides the foundation to ensure that students can learn in a classroom and teachers can deliver effective instruction,” McCleskey said.

Embed inclusive practices. Cale Whicker, a 2022 National Outstanding Assistant Principal (NOAP) and former teacher of students with autism, says schools must build inclusion into their systems. Toward that end, every student at his school is screened for its multitiered system of supports, whether or not they have IEPs.

Collaborate and Support

This aspect of the AP’s role isn’t much different from what’s expected in general education, but it’s worth underscoring because the special education staff might be able to help APs build their knowledge in a specialized area. To make learning a two-way street:

Seek staff input. Build relationships with the teachers and paraprofessionals who work closely with students with disabilities. They will have suggestions about how APs can get more involved in special education and be able to offer advice from their own experiences.

Form a team. Knowledgeable individuals must make key decisions for students, including decisions about eligibility and accommodations. The most important participants include the child’s parents, their teacher, and an administrator (that’s you).

Schedule collaboration time. Lakeshore Public Schools in Stevensville, Michigan, for example, sets aside special education PLC time every Wednesday and uses a calendar that allows teachers to meet with their departments, course partners, and grade level teams monthly. Once such meetings are established, APs can sit in.

Discipline With Data

Students with disabilities are often singled out unfairly for discipline. Subtle and unconscious biases against what’s regarded as “not normal” come into play, and APs—usually charged with disciplinary tasks— are in a good position to lead equity efforts for students with disabilities. Here’s how:

Assess equity. Tap school data to determine if discipline is being dispensed fairly and equitably in your building. Are students with disabilities being disciplined at higher rates than other students? What’s causing the disparity, and can it be mitigated?

Ready a response. Develop a continuum of response strategies that acknowledge appropriate student behaviors and discourage problem behaviors to ensure consistency in response among all students.

Plan to Prevail

Want to be more adept at IEPs/504s? Need more experience crunching school and student data? Looking to enhance communication with parents? Whatever your growth opportunities in special ed might be, define the steps you need to take to get there, list the resources that will aid in that effort, and set benchmarks or deadlines for what you want to achieve.

Make the time. Regardless of your other responsibilities, make time for your own leadership development. “It takes a lot of time, effort, and change to make things happen,” Fenner told Principal. “Make time for your career development, and continue being a lifelong learner who will become highly skilled in your role.”

Mind your mentors. Mentorship inside and outside the school can offer advice independent of formal evaluations. APs can also look to outside sources for advice or an unbiased assessment of the choices they make.


APs can also pursue knowledge independently. Many look to the following sources:

Live and virtual conferences and workshops. The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) stages a convention and exposition ( annually, and organizations such as the Learning Disabilities Association of America ( host conferences and sessions.

Special education journals. Read up on topics related to leading the education of students with disabilities in CEC’s journals, the Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs (, and other media outlets.

Twitter, blogs, and other online resources. Follow thought leaders on social media platforms, keep up on Department of Education updates with IDEA’s accounts (, or peruse any of Feedspot’s suggested special ed blogs and resources (

Aim High

As you expand and enhance your leadership skills in the special education arena, remember to anticipate student and school needs while filling the gaps in your own expertise. You’ll find that what you can learn to enhance your practice is almost unlimited.

“I truly love this part of my job, and there is so much more we can do together,” Diana Brown, a 2022 NOAP from Virginia Beach, Virginia, told NAESP. “Special education for me is all about endless possibilities—and nothing is more exciting than the thought of shooting for the moon for every student.”