Not everyone appreciates the true value of the teaching assistant in the classroom but for pupils with learning difficulties and other support needs, it is the teaching assistant who helps them to access the learning opportunities on offer. How does a teaching assistant perform this vital function?
School budgets across the country are being squeezed. Along with other roles, the teaching assistant is under threat. With schools not replacing TAs or cutting hours, it is hard to see how some children with additional learning and support needs will be able to access mainstream learning.
With the TA being so vital to the smooth running of the classroom, what is the secret that lies behind their success? How are TAs able to help pupils with all kinds of barriers to learning?
TAs have traditionally been used as an ad hoc support system in the classroom or an ‘extra pair hands’ for helping out in the learning environment. From fetching and carrying to sweeping up glitter, the role of the TA took some time to professionalise but slowly, over the years, this has come to fruition.
In some schools and colleges, TAs are still used to step into the breach where their teaching colleague doesn’t have the time nor the expertise to deal with low-attaining pupils. But again, this is an attitude that is slowly changing too.
There is no denying that the investment in robust training of teaching assistants to deliver structured help and support in the classroom has made for significant improvements. It means TAs can successfully support students to not only access education but to take responsibility for it.
Many schools are now offering a structured training approach in how to become a teaching assistant and people interested in working as TAs in the classroom or other learning environments, are also taking steps to become trained.
As a resource, the TA can also be the specialist in many cases. From dealing with and managing challenging behaviour to working with specific needs and barriers to learning, such as autism, the TA can be the connecting bridge between the child and their learning.
But for many TAs, they remain underutilised in the classroom because teaching staff are sometimes how sure to best deploy their skills and abilities.
Structured interventions and programmes
There is no denying that the most successful teaching assistants are those who are confident in the structured interventions they are to offer.
For example, teachers create detailed lessons plans for each session they undertake with students. By sharing this with the TA, they are equipped to understand how these can be modified so that a student with learning difficulties can access the learning in a way that makes sense to them.
Research suggests that TAs carrying out structured interventions in the classroom with a student or group of students with learning difficulties have a positive effect – around three to four months’ worth of extra academic progress a year.
The most effective sessions have been shown to be those that are brief, regular and consistent. In other words, a structured intervention for part of a lesson is more effective than that carried out every lesson, with no guiding structure.
This evidence-based intervention means that the TA understand what they need to deliver, and how they need to do this, with a student or group of students so that they can access learning.
They are a bridge
And finally, the trained TA having completed one or more teaching assistant courses will understand that their work has more value when they are in the classroom, connecting the work of the student with learning or support difficulties with the ‘more formal’ learning setting of the classroom.
There are times when the TA works away from the classroom – providing this forms parts of the structured intervention, it can have the desired results. But, say education experts, TAs are more successful when they work in the classroom (or other learning settings) with students, rather than apart from it.
Understanding, empathy, knowledge and skills
TAs bring a lot to the classroom. As well as knowledge and skills from training, they bring a natural understanding and empathy that a child with learning and support needs can identify with. They connect a child with their own learning, helping them to understand what is happening around them and to be part of the learning process in a way that fits them.
Students who work with TAs will often have a respect that lasts for a lifetime, a person that they will remember as being the person who could really help. Are you this ‘special’ someone who could make a positive difference?