Research suggests mixed feelings about the usefulness and effectiveness of teaching assistants for children with SEND in mainstream settings. Some researchers argue that intervention in the form of support staff help low-achieving students make significant progress in literacy and numeracy (Frelow, Charry and Freilich), others have found that teaching assistants are essential to the successful inclusion in mainstream settings of children with severe and multiple learning disabilities (Lacey). Some assert that the more support children receive, the less progress they make.
Let’s consider Oliver, one of my former students, who was diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Oliver’s behaviour could be both unpredictable and challenging, and he struggled to maintain reciprocal social interactions with both staff and his peers. He lacked social awareness in many situations and consequently behaved inappropriately and misinterpreted the actions of others and became upset. Key to the school’s interventions was behaviour specifically relating to social skills. Oliver struggled to moderate his temper, leading him to become verbally and physically aggressive towards others.
In a given week, Oliver received one hour of individual advocacy time, which was spent with the school’s SENDCo. Behavioural treatment was based on developing social skills, with tasks such as answering questions, making friends with peers, and reflecting on episodes which had been brought to the attention of the SEND team. The key aim was to help students like Oliver to adjust to classroom routines and to generalise their skills in settings shared by their peers. Oliver’s advocacy sessions involved a strong focus on social skills and anger management. The inclusion team worked hard to foster a supportive, nurturing environment. Students were free to talk about their feelings, and to reflect openly and honestly about their own behaviour. There was no judgement, and students were quite within their rights to refute what has been reported about them and to argue that their conduct was justified.
Oliver found it difficult to reflect on his behaviour: sometimes out of denial, other times out of guilt. His capacity to see the wrong in his outbursts was usually greater when another person was affected. Oliver was once involved in an altercation with a student, which went unseen by staff but was reported to his tutor and subsequently verified using the school’s CCTV. When asked what he had learned from the event, Oliver said that he had learned not to do it by the cameras. The SENDCo told him that it’s about not getting to the point where he feels compelled to kick things in the first place. Oliver simply replied, “Yeah, and that.”
In addition to his advocacy sessions, Oliver received teaching assistant support in lessons. One of the SEND team would escort Oliver to and from his lessons, and would sit near him throughout. The consistency of having someone from the SEND team present was intended to help promote the work done in his sessions with the SENDCo, but there was more going on than that. One English lesson I observed opened my eyes to the true extent of the support networks that are operating almost unseen within schools. Even before the class filed into the room, this support structure was in full swing. Oliver began challenging other students about whether they had done their homework, which was to bring a book to school which excited them. One boy made it clear he had forgotten, and Oliver seemed to delight in chastising him for it. His teaching assistant spoke to him in hushed tones, telling him to keep himself to himself and reminding him about previous occasions when similar remarks had landed him in trouble. Oliver promptly let the matter drop.
Oliver had elected to bring a book which was considerably below his Accelerated Reader level, a tie-in to a television programme aimed at pre-schoolers. When the activity drew to a close and it looked likely that he wouldn’t be chosen to present his book, Oliver slammed his fist on the table in frustration. His teacher then invited him to read, but not before making him wait one more turn. She later told me that she made him wait in order to ensure he didn’t associate his expression of anger with getting what he wanted; instead, that association was made with waiting quietly for his turn. When Oliver’s turn came to speak, he read from a more age-appropriate book, quoting dialogue and adopting a different voice to represent the character, all much to the delight of a class that showered him with applause.
When I later discussed this event with the Inclusion staff, they told me that the teaching assistant had warned the teacher at the start of the lesson – with enough discretion that I didn’t see or hear it happen. The teaching assistant was concerned that if Oliver was allowed to present the book he had brought from home, he would be ridiculed for it by his peers, and this would doubtless cause him to get angry and lash out. His teacher said that she gave Oliver the choice of presenting the book he’d brought in, but that she told him she would prefer him to present his school reading book. This was done with incredible tact because, again, sitting just two desks away, I wasn’t privy to this exchange. It is easy to see how that situation could have ended very differently if the members of Oliver’s support network hadn’t communicated effectively.
There is incredible work being done to support children with SEND in mainstream settings: work that sometimes goes undetected. When inclusion works best, it is implemented not only by specialists but by the whole school team. Far from abdicating this responsibility to the SENDCo and support staff, teachers must focus on who their students are and what they need in order to learn. Teaching assistants need to know when to offer support and when to withdraw and allow the child the chance to interact with their peers. It is only by working cohesively with support staff that teachers can hope to meet OFSTED’s requirement to offer SEND students the relevant curriculum and adjusted teaching they deserve, and the full involvement in school life to which they are entitled.