Lessons from the Field: 9 Tips for Leading Inclusive Change

by Steve Smith, Ed.D.


Image text reads "inclusion" in black letters. Below the text is a black arrow encircling colorful stick images of people, two of whom are depicted using wheelchairs.

The new school year has arrived and with it new energy, dreams, and opportunities. Each year brings a new chance to improve one’s self, one’s practice, and one’s environment. For some educators and leaders, those aspirations involve creating a more inclusive school where the doors to an engaging and meaningful education are open to all. MCIE met with seven leaders from the Allegany County Public School District (ACPS) who have shared this vision for the past five years. These school and district leaders discussed their thoughts about their own school and district’s progress over the past five years. From their insight came nine key commonalities for what is needed to start the shift towards a more inclusive school.

The following nine recommendations can be used by a district or school leader who envisions a school environment that is inclusive and open to all students. Aspiring school leaders or those on a school leadership team may also find that many of these tips, identified by current school leaders, are helpful in beginning to transform their own schools.

1. Form Your Team

The first step in leading any new initiative is to create the team that will share and help execute your vision. In his book, Leading Change, John Kotter calls this team the “guiding coalition” and their involvement is key to driving and sustaining change (Kotter, 2012). ACPS principals found leaders from across multiple departments in their schools. This ensured that the vision and change were embedded and represented in all aspects of school life.

It is worth noting that although school administrators had an idea of who they would like on the team, membership was voluntary. It is key for these leading team members to have the passion and desire to work collaboratively. ‘Voluntelling’ people will not work as the authenticity and passion behind the efforts will be lost.

2. Model Diversity

Schools are diverse environments where variability is the norm. A school can have any number of students from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, socio-economic situations, and native languages. It would stand to reason that having that diversity represented on the leadership team would play a key role in valuing that variability and addressing it with proactive planning.

Successful leadership teams across ACPS had members from various content areas, backgrounds, passions, ethnicities, and skill sets. These diverse teams were able to leverage their individual strengths and plan for the various needs of their school. ACPS leaders also reported how close these teams grew during the process as commonalities were discovered and solutions were found to address their schools’ priorities.

3. Facilitate, Don’t Dictate

It’s okay to get excited about the fantastic vision you’ve developed and the great changes your school is going to make. It is also critically important to step back. If your vision is communicated well and your leadership team shares that vision, your school will be able to develop and implement new practices with the administration acting as a facilitator of that transition. Your leadership team will have the pulse of the school. They will know what the students’ needs are, what the teachers need, and what major priorities need to be addressed. ACPS principals saw their leadership teams embrace this shared responsibility and “roll with it” as their plans progressed and evolved.

As the school leader, your job on the school leadership team is to facilitate the process. Make sure team members have the resources they need, keep the meetings focused (i.e., with a timed agenda) in order to make the most of your time, and most importantly let them discover their own strengths and needs.  A building-based self-assessment can help a school team identify priority practices for implementation. Through work with the MCIE systems change process, school teams use a number of ways to look at data, ranging from student outcomes to stakeholder input. School teams use data to identify strengths and needs in relation to the MCIE Framework. Once schools identify their strengths and select opportunities for growth, the leadership team is ready to make a plan!

4. Identify Priorities – and Plan Implementation

An implementation plan will lay out the steps, responsibilities, and timelines for the steps to prepare and begine to install for new practices. Remember that this is a PLAN of action. You want to know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there before running full steam ahead. Once the team identifies the initial steps for practices to develop, the team can begin to implement, review, and update the action plan in each meeting as they understand “what works” and what they need to modify. Initial implementation of new practices is often focused on a few teachers or grades (such as collaborative planning teams, co-teaching, supporting individual students in an academic subject, improving participation of students with significant cognitive disabilities, strengthening positive classroom-based positive behavior supports – just to name a few!).

Allegany teams created action plans for schoolwide changes, classroom shifts, and addressing the instructional and support needs of individual students or groups of students. Principal Heather Morgan from John Humbird Elementary described the importance of planning for her school: “I think when we plan and prepare, …anyone is willing to take on a situation …having all of those components in place makes it easier on everyone, the student included...”

5. Ready… Set… Install

Before actually beginning new practices, it is important to install the supports that your educators will need to be successful. This “installation” period is critical to ensuring that staff are skilled and have what they need to implement new practices with fidelity. Are there resources that need to be made available for the change to be successful? Will staff need training on new systems, methods, strategies, tools, etc.?? Will you ‘pilot’ the change in a specific class/grade/content area? Who will the implementers turn to for questions and advice or coaching?

It is important to provide your school staff with this foundational support in order to assuage fears, minimize anxiety, and implement the new practices with fidelity. As you gradually and systematically roll out supports, you’ll begin to generate momentum with these small victories, gaining trust from those involved. Kathy Eirich, Assistant Supervisor of Special Education said that school staff were, “more willing to want to get involved. Not asking as many questions. We’ve trained them, everything’s in place. So I just think overall there’s more of a willingness to want to learn more and to put out better practices for all students.” Be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. Don’t overload your staff’s plates with too many initiatives or new things to learn all at once. Change can drive more change if it is installed systematically and gradually.

6. Greater Co-planning = Greater Co-teaching

You’ve probably noticed that most of these steps so far are about planning and setting up, rather than actually implementing change. This is particularly important when developing co-teaching practices – whether it is two content area teachers, a general educator and special educator, or a classroom teacher with a paraprofessional or other support staff. Many inclusive schools will speak to the value of great co-teaching on their ability to deliver truly effective inclusive education (Kluth and Causton, 2016). However, great co-teaching (like all great efforts) requires great co-planning. A school leader can play a major role in ensuring that co-planning (and thus co-teaching) can achieve greatness.

Allegany’s district leadership put a high priority on effective co-teaching for their district. School leaders collaborated with MCIE staff to find ways to embed common planning times into the master schedule, and assign special education teachers to classroom teachers for collaborative planning relationships while considering grade level assignments to ensure service delivery and avoid being over-extended.  Teams also used MCIE planning tools to guide team conversations and document their meeting decisions.

These changes paid dividends for schools as they began to see a variety of effective co-teaching methods employed beyond the “one-teach/one-assist” structure. They began to see roles and responsibilities merge as both teachers were invested in the learning of all students regardless of their job title. Even related service staff got in on the fun as speech therapists would blend their services within the objectives of the lesson content in the general education classroom. Principals reported a greater sense of shared ownership among staff and a greater sense of belonging among students as a result of these strong co-teaching practices being in place. Of course those strong co-teaching practices wouldn’t have been possible without strong co-planning.

7. Schedule and Group Proportionately

Inclusion is not a place, a classroom label, or a method of instructional delivery. A truly inclusive school respects and strives for the equitable participation of students in all environments regardless of ability or intensity of academic or behavior supports needed. In an inclusive school, leaders attend to equity in practices and equity in outcomes with consideration to students of all abilities, races, ethnicities, and economic background. We begin this process by scheduling students in natural proportions across classes within a grade. There is no “inclusion class” because each and every class may have any student who belongs in the school and that age-appropriate grade.

 An inclusive school understands that all students have unique abilities and realizes the social and educational pitfalls of grouping students based on disability or behavioral needs. By using the MCIE “scheduling activity,” students are dispersed in general education classes; and adults share responsibility to make collaborative data-based decisions for designing instruction and interventions for all learners within a tiered system of supports.

Marty Crump, the principal at Mt. Savage Middle School, “took a look at scheduling and how we could better schedule to not only support students, but support the teachers in terms of their ability to plan together, in terms of our ability to group students in a better way. So I think we saw a big impact there.” Scheduling proportionately can address many of a school’s needs and can further expand inclusive practices and mindsets. 

8. Identify Barriers, Find Solutions

“There are things that you can’t change, you know. You can’t change the amount of teachers that are assigned to your building. You can’t change the amount of funding you have to implement programs and those kinds of things but that doesn’t mean that problems aren’t solvable.”

 – Marty Crump, Mt. Savage Middle School.

Now you’ve formed a diverse team that has identified your school’s strengths and the practices to develop or improve in order to more effectively include all students. You have empowered the team to use a variety of MCIE tools to plan actions, engage in professional learning, and  provide or realign resources and support. You’ve also established co-planning time, and assigned students proportionately to grade level classes.

The team also learns a “strengths-based” approach to continuous team planning, and sees upcoming “barriers” as opportunities to improve. As Mr. Crump said, there will always be barriers so it is imperative to keep a positive, goal-focused mindset. A variety of brainstorming processes can be used to find solutions and continue the momentum in a positive direction. Ensuring that the school leadership team meets monthly can provide problem solving time and keep the change process moving on pace.

9. Repeat, Remain focused

By the end of the school year, you will be proud of your school’s accomplishments, and will know what changes you want to make to your leadership team and teacher supports. You will know what professional learning should be fostered and what community messages to strengthen. Change is an ever-growing process. Repeat the process each year, and you can focus on new areas to improve or dive deeper into mastery of things you’ve already started. Celebrate your successes and offer new opportunities for growth among your staff and students. Before long you’ll be seeing yourself leading an inclusive school where students and staff both value hard work and a culture of learning.



Kluth, P., Causton, J. (2016) 30 Days to the co-taught classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Northloop Books
Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.About the Blog Author

Steve Smith is a Professional Learning Facilitator at MCIE and, among other assignments, is working on evaluating MCIE’s projects.