“LESS IS MORE”: THE EDUCATION ASSISTANT – PRACTICAL TIPS FOR TEACHERS (NO.3)

By Catia Malaquias and Dr Robert Jackson

This is the third in a series of short articles aimed at providing practical tips for teachers to improve the inclusiveness of their general education classrooms. You can read the other articles at SWJ IncludED and their respective titles and weblinks are also listed at the end of this article.

An education assistant can be an invaluable resource in the classroom to support the teacher to include a student with disability.  They can assist the class teacher to provide a great educational experience to all students as well as increase the independence and social connection of the student with disability.

However, we know from research that if an educational assistant is closely attached to a student with disability, sitting next to them as a “substitute teacher” and closely overseeing them in the playground, the result is a poorer academic and social outcome than for a similar student with no assistant at all.

At one level it is hard to conceive of any other relationship where an individual has a greater capacity to affect the long-term development outcomes of a vulnerable person, particularly where the student has a significant intellectual disability.  In that sense, it should be appreciated that the “student-education assistant relationship” necessarily involves trust that the education assistant will discharge their role in the student’s best interests.  In the long term this has to include the development of maximum independence and meaningful peer relationships.

 “It is hard to conceive of any other relationship where an individual has a greater capacity to affect the long-term development outcomes of a vulnerable person, particularly where the student has a significant intellectual disability.”

A second noteworthy aspect is that, whilst most employment roles are better performed with greater diligence, effort and engagement, the academic, social and independence benefits of inclusive education for a student with disability are likely to be maximised by an educational assistant doing, increasingly over time, as little as is necessary, as unobtrusively as possible. In this sense, “less is more”.

Here are some tips to guide teachers in setting the proper role and classroom relationships for education assistants in their inclusive general classrooms.

1.  AS THE TEACHER, YOU MUST BE THE PRIMARY ACADEMIC INSTRUCTOR FOR ALL MEMBERS OF THE CLASS

As the classroom teacher, you are the primary instructor of the whole class, including your student with disability.  The education assistant’s role is to help you to prepare and carry out the teaching lesson, as required to be adapted by you for your student with disability.

The education assistant should not usurp your role as class teacher in relation to your student with disability.  It is critical to a student’s sense of belonging and connection with his or her classroom that the student perceives, and that their fellow students perceive, the class teacher to be primarily responsible for the academic instruction of every member of the class.

If the education assistant assumes primary responsibility for academic instruction of your student with disability it will mean that:

  • the student with the most challenging learning requirements will not receive their instruction from the most qualified staff member; and
  • the “student-education assistant” relationship will be separate and distinct to the “teacher-rest of class” relationship – in other words, it creates micro-segregation from the class lesson and social disconnection from peers.

A useful reflection is to ask “how would it look if a student without disability was singled out to receive most of their academic instruction from an education assistant rather than the class teacher?

2.  BEWARE THE WELL-INTENTIONED VELCRO EDUCATION ASSISTANT

Extensive international research has shown that an education assistant closely attached to a student hampers effective social and academic development of the student and sends the exclusionary message that the student belongs with the education assistant, rather than to the class.

A “velcro” education assistant can inhibit the development of the teacher-student relationship, as well as social relationships with peers – both from the perspective of stifling interactive opportunities and by creating the impression that the student still needs to be “mothered”.  In time, an overly protective, yet caring and well-meaning, education assistant may, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, foster in the student an unnecessary dependence on adult assistance – “learned helplessness”.

Further, challenging behaviour in some students may well be a response to an overly attentive education assistant.

The education assistant should be instructed (empowered) by you to provide your student with as much space as possible and as frequently as possible, taking into account the student’s need for supervision and assistance.  The greater the space able to be afforded, the greater the likelihood of:

  • a healthy and robust teacher-student instructional relationship;
  • social interaction and connection with student peers (studies show that students are much more likely to engage with the student with disability when an assistant is not with them); and
  • the educational assistant developing an assistive and interactive relationship with the broader class.

A “one-on-one” education assistant should endeavour to minimise the perception in the classroom and in the playground that they are “dedicated” to a particular student.

3.  PLAN FOR REDUCING THE STUDENT’S RELIANCE ON THE EDUCATION ASSISTANT

Even with students requiring significant support, your goal for your student should be to progressively decrease reliance on “one-on-one” education assistant support.  Initially, this may be done by substituting some peer tutoring (assistance from another student in the class) which benefits both students and promotes social connection between peers.  Over time, your objective should move to including the building up of “independent learning time” (even if starting from a few seconds or minutes in each lesson).  Many education assistants feel that their primary role is to provide continuous teaching support and accordingly need to be empowered by the teacher to withdraw from the student to promote their independence and peer connection

4.  EXPLICITLY INSTRUCT THE EDUCATION ASSISTANT TO FACILITATE SOCIAL GOALS, AS WELL AS ACADEMIC GOALS

For all students, including students with disability, the development of meaningful social relationships is critical to their sense of self and belonging – to their future social connection in workplaces, the community and life generally – and ultimately to their long-term mental health and quality of life.

You should instruct the education assistant to facilitate, when necessary, your student’s communication and social interaction with peers and to actively monitor the quality of that interaction.  Students with disability are susceptible to becoming “class mascots” – through overtly warm but shallow “friendships” with their peers.  An education assistant that is able to help initiate and deepen peer engagement and peer understanding is invaluable. Maintaining healthy and meaningful peer connection throughout the schooling experience is critical to both academic and social inclusion outcomes.

5.  DO NOT DELEGATE PARENTAL COMMUNICATION TO THE EDUCATION ASSISTANT

A healthy and collaborative relationship between the class teacher and the student’s parents is a key component of successfully including a student with disability in a general classroom.  The teacher-parent relationship is generally more delicate than most given that the parents have greater cause for concern regarding the progress and experience of a more vulnerable child, whilst the teacher is more sensitive to his or her capacity to meet their expectations.  In that context entrusting parental communications to the education assistant:

  • adds an extra layer of dialogue and increases the risk for miscommunication;
  • stifles opportunity to develop a collaborative parent-teacher relationship through regular direct contact; and
  • sends the message to the parents that the student’s education is effectively being entrusted by the school to the education assistant, rather than to the class teacher.

There is natural tendency for a “hands on” education assistant to see their assistive role in relation to a student with disability as extending to them being the primary contact for communication and feedback to the parents.  However, in the same way that each student must see the class teacher as their primary instructor, each parent must equally see the class teacher as primarily responsible for the education of their child. 

6.  FORMALLY PLAN USE OF EDUCATION ASSISTANTS

The teacher is in reality, the manager of the education assistant in the classroom.  Leaving the education assistant to manage themselves would be to relinquish that managerial role, so teachers have a responsibility to regularly formulate written plans as to how an education assistant will be used in relation to the student with disability and the class generally. This planning will prompt you as the teacher to identify new objectives and plan for their achievement, whilst creating cause to review the progress of the student and the education assistant.

The review of the effectiveness of the plans and the performance of the education assistant must include measuring the level of independence and social connection of the student with a disability. This will usually involve the educational assistant over time being less involved directly with the student with disability and more involved with you as the teacher in the overall class learning processes.

7.  ENSURE THAT THE EDUCATION ASSISTANT DOES NOT BECOME THE MAIN DECISION MAKER

Sometimes an education assistant can develop a strong relationship with a student with disability so that the assistant becomes seen as the ‘expert’ and increasingly relied upon to make decisions about that student’s education.  Over time, such a relationship builds dependence in the student and the school overall, leading to poorer development of independence and social relationships.  As the class teacher, you need to be aware of this danger, and where it is apparent, should recommend changing the education assistant as soon as practicable.

8.  SEE “INSTRUCTING” AS “EMPOWERING

Although it is usual to speak of teachers “instructing” education assistants as to what is required of them, in the case of many education assistants supporting students with disability, it may be more helpful to see the giving of some instructions as “empowering” education assistants to perform their role in a manner different to the often assumed and limited “hands on” teaching assistant model.  In particular, many education assistants must be empowered to see:

  • their roles as extending, in particular, to facilitating and maximising meaningful social connection with peers; and
  • that reducing the need for their support over time and retreating into the background is, in fact, a desired objective.

Steps to properly structure the role of the education assistant must be taken as soon as possible – to establish as early as possible the appropriate relationships between the education assistant and the student with disability, the teacher, the classroom and the student’s parents. 

These “tips” are a few more of the “stepping stones” to an inclusive classroom.  They are intended to highlight the delicate but invaluable role of the inclusive education assistant – so critical to maximising the benefits of inclusive education.

Other articles in this series:

Creating An Inclusive Class Culture – Practical Tips For Teachers (N.o1)

Supporting Peer Connection in the Inclusive Class – Practical Tips For Teachers (No.2)

Getting the “Big Idea”: Including All Students in the Same Curriculum – Practical Tips for Teachers (No. 4 Part A)

Making the “Big Idea” Achievable: Including All students in the Same Curriculum – Practical tips for teachers (No. 4 part B)

Presenting the “Big Idea” for All: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) – Practical tips for teachers (No. 4 part C)

Summary of General Comment No 4 by the the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

UN Committee Clarifies Right to Inclusive Education.

*Catia Malaquias is a mother of three young children, a lawyer and the Founder of Starting With Julius.  You can connect with Catia on Twitter @CatiaMalaquias or on Facebook

*Dr Robert Jackson is an Associate Professor of Education at Curtin University in Western Australia, a registered Psychologist and a Director of Include.  You can connect with Dr Jackson on Twitter @include108 or through include.com.au

[Cover photo © Phil Roeder]

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