Teacher assistants, also referred to as School Service Offices (SSOs) in South Australia and School Learning Support Officer (SLSO) in NSW, are invaluable in supporting students with disability to access education. The employment of assistants is a response to the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and the Disability Standards of Education (2005) where schools are expected to make adjustments for students with disability so they can access education on the same basis as their peers. Before this legislation, the primary role of an assistant was as a classroom helper and administrative assistant who was responsible for tasks such as organising and maintaining the classroom environment. In the past assistants may have supervised non-instructional activities, but they did not deliver instruction. Over time there has been a shift of responsibility with assistants taking on more teaching tasks. Research (Butt 2019; Clarke & Visser 2019; Webster & Blatchford 2020) currently indicates that many assistants are the primary educators for students with the most complex learning profiles. This blog will examine the emerging research base on whether the current method of deploying assistants results in positive outcomes for students with disability. It will end with practical suggestions that acknowledge and honour the important role of assistants, but also lead to strong outcomes for our students.
What does the research say about the deployment of assistants?
The research on assistants is not pleasant reading, and it tends to polarise people on either side of the debate. On one side of the debate, some are unaware of the research, or they believe the research on assistants is incorrect and would rather be guided by their intuition of what feels right. The other side believes in evidence-based practice and that the role of assistants needs to be reconceptualised. This blog argues for the latter through a positive and transformative alternative to the current approach. However, it is not seeking to cast blame. In particular, it is important to note that assistants often work in challenging positions that are not secure, with low wages, lack of role clarification, training and insufficient respect. The intention is to advocate for improved outcomes for students with disability, to raise awareness of the difficult working conditions for assistants and to suggest ways that assistants can be utilised effectively in classrooms.
the United Kingdom (UK) the number of assistants has risen dramatically, with this
workforce trebling in number in the last twenty years. In Australia, the number
of assistants has risen sharply, but not to the extent that it has in the UK. It
was this context in the UK that led to the most extensive and most in-depth
study by Blatchford, Russell and Webster (2012) on the use and impact of assistant
support in schools. This research involved:
740 interviews with school-staff and students
Detailed analysis of the effect of support provided on the academic progress of 8,200 students
Extensive observations of over 100 assistants through work diaries; transcripts that provided systematic accounts of assistant activities and interactions; and in-depth case studies
Research by Butt (2018) in Australia was informed by Blatchford, Russell and Webster’s (2012) work. As well, Sharma and Salend (2016) wrote a literature review on this topic that included seven Australian research papers. The study by Blatchford, Russell and Webster (2012) largely forms the basis of other small-scale research on assistants and has led to reviews of current practice of the deployment, practice and preparedness of assistants.
The research reveals there can be severe unintended consequences when students with disability, particularly those with complex learning profiles, are supported by assistants. In short, the more support provided by an assistant, the less progress is made by the student. Importantly, these results cannot be explained by student characteristics. As well, the results are not attributable to assistants but rather are decisions made by schools.
In summary, the research reveals a number of negative outcomes when assistants teach students with disability including:
Separation of students from their class
Interference with peer interactions.
Students developing an over-reliance on adult support.
Loss of student autonomy.
Stigmatisation of the student.
Interference with teacher interaction.
Loss of independence.
Low-expectations and presumed incompetence.
How can assistants be utilised effectively?
Assistants can be utilised in ways that improve student outcomes, but this requires a complete overhaul of the current approach to the teacher/ assistant partnership. There are a several steps to create much-needed change.
There needs to be greater awareness and acceptance of the research on this topic. As well, decisions about assistants should be based on evidence.
There needs to be a greater focus on positive relationships and respect between teachers and assistants.
There needs to be a shared vision between teachers and assistants of the education of students with disability, with a focus on inclusive education.
The assistant should supplement the teacher, not replace the teacher. Teachers, not assistants, need to plan and design the instruction for all the students. While assistants can be involved with this task, there are adverse consequences when assistants take on the role of planning and designing instruction without input from the teacher.
Assistants require training on the processes of learning so they do not focus on task completion to the detriment of student independence. As Webster and Blatchford (2020 p. 391) state ‘The evidence is quite clear: students with disability who experience high amounts of TA support are at risk of developing learned helplessness’. Yet, many assistants do not receive training in how to support students in ways that allows them to experience purposeful effort. And many schools lack clarity in the roles and responsibilities of assistants, and expectations may vary from teacher to teacher and from classroom to classroom. The lack of a consistent approach in the training and deployment of assistants compounds the challenges faced by assistants and damages outcomes for students.
The research also revealed that students with disability have very different interactions with teachers and assistants. When interacting with teachers students are more likely to be part of the class, yet interactions with assistants tend to result in the student being the focus of attention, resulting in exclusion from classmates and interactions with teachers. In some cases, students with disability are viewed as dependent and different by their classmates when they receive support from an assistant. To deflect this, some students engage in behaviour to distance themselves from their assistant.
Schools need to develop school-wide, consistent, thoughtful plans to the work of assistants in the classroom. These plans require documented information sharing and meetings for planning and feedback. Establishing and prioritising a regular meeting time conveys the pivotal role of assistants, establishes a formal line of communication and emphasises the importance of collaboration. This is important as communication between teachers and assistants is reported in the research as problematic.
In an attempt to meet the needs of students with disability for inclusive education, assistants are employed to relieve the pressure from teachers. However, research indicates that the role of assistants has evolved from supporting teachers to replacing them. Assistants often design, plan and deliver instruction to students with disability, yet rarely receive adequate supervision and training in these tasks. This has resulted in poor academic and social outcomes for students with disability as it results in a disconnection from their teacher and classmates. Yet, assistants are an important resource. With a school-wide framework in place for the work of assistants that addresses the need for effective communication and collaboration, role clarification and targeted professional learning, assistants can make a significant contribution to the education of students with disability.
Blatchford, P., Russell & Webster, R. (2012) Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants: How Research Challenges Practice and Policy Abingdon: Routledge
Butt, R. (2018) ‘Pulled in off the street’ and available: what qualifications and training do Teacher Assistants really need? in International Journal of Inclusive Education Vol. 22 No. 3
Clarke, E. & Visser, J. (2019) Is a good Teaching Assistant one who ‘knows their place’? in Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties Vol. 24 No. 4
Sharma, U. & Salend, S.J. (2016) Teaching Assistants in Inclusive Classrooms: A Systematic Analysis of the International Research in Australian Journal of Teacher Education Vol. 41 No. 8
Webster, R. & Blatchford, P. (2020) Rethinking the Use of Teacher Aides in Inclusive Education for the 21st Century: Theory, Policy and Practice Allen and Unwin: Sydney