Every teaching assistant, whatever type of school they work in, should take stock of their skills in working with children with Special Educational Needs (SEN). The most recent figures show that 12.2% of pupils in English schools receive SEN support, with 3.7% requiring an Education Health and Care (EHC) plan.
Every teaching assistant in the country either currently works with at least one SEN pupil or is certain to do so very soon. TAs are already classrooms’ most frequent first responders when it comes to managing pupil behaviour. Their experience in maintaining norms of conduct, plus their closer, less formal bonds with pupils make teaching assistants integral to many schools’ SEN support strategies.
A child’s condition could be any combination of the four types of special needs: physical, developmental, behavioural/emotional or sensory impaired. This means that TAs can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.
While TAs should always differentiate as much as possible, there are certain universals that should guide your practice. Whether you’re a dedicated SEN teaching assistant at a special school or working in a mainstream setting, these core principles will help you empower the pupils who need it most.
1. It all starts with mental health
The classroom isn’t just a place to learn a set curriculum. Our experiences at school shape our social and emotional development and, with them, our futures.
Unfortunately, heightened stress and anxiety are a part of life for many SEN children. Without strong adult presences to support them through their struggles, these children can fall behind their peers, losing hard-won progress and precious self-confidence.
Every teaching assistant should equip themselves with a toolbox of strategies to boost young people’s mental health. The best TAs have both a theoretical grasp of the factors that can hinder children’s wellbeing and a practical set of techniques to remedy them.
Teaching assistants who work with Protocol Education have access to a range of accredited CPD training courses designed to develop educators’ understandings of mental health among children.
2. Help pupils get used to group work
Those issues around self-confidence and self-esteem can manifest in withdrawn behaviours in pupils with SEN. Teaching assistants can help these pupils expand their comfort zones by supporting them in group work.
For more solitary children, the prospect of working in groups of their peers might feel like a torment. Yet the social skills that group participation engenders are critically important. Part of what makes a good SEN teaching assistant is supporting these pupils in their efforts to engage and work with other learners.
When it comes to group work, there are two options: mixed ability and ability grouping. However, students must be exposed to a range of learning contexts, including whole-class work and individual work, which will prevent them from becoming passive learners.
3. Centre the individual
A well-functioning school gives every pupil the chance to grow into a happy, autonomous individual with a sense of their own self-worth. TAs have a big role to play here.
Person-centred learning is a relatively new term referring to a very old idea: that education is at its best when it responds to the traits, talents and strengths of each individual learner.
For TAs, this means actively involving SEN pupils in the discussion about their learning. Giving kids the sense of a stake in their own education helps them grow their independence and feel more in control of their future.
‘Special education needs’ is a broad umbrella term, encompassing some very distinct conditions, difficulties and disabilities. Proper differentiation and a person-centric classroom technique will help ensure that no child gets left out.
4. Praise positive behaviour
Classroom behaviour runs in both vicious and virtuous cycles. When negative behaviour is not addressed carefully, it can end up being reinforced and embedded in patterns. But when good conduct is acknowledged and appreciated, it can help set a more positive precedent. This is particularly true for pupils with a history of challenging behaviour.
Effective praise is a critically important behaviour management strategy. Praise takes three general forms: personal, effort-based and behaviour specific. Yet not all of these are areated equal.
Personal praise zeroes in on the child’s core traits and talents, but an undue focus on abilities that are inherent to the child can make them and other pupils feel like they can’t improve or change.
Much more important is to provide effort-based and behaviour-specific praise: praise that recognises pupils work to improve and excel.
As well as delivering direct praise, learning support assistants working with SEN pupils should be adept at giving the more subtle signals that can give pupils the praise and reassurance they need to contribute productively to lessons. For instance, if a pupil with a track record of challenging behaviour is managing to control potentially disruptive impulses and maintain their attention, a simple thumbs up or a smile from a TA will acknowledge correct behaviour without distracting other students.
Find an SEN teaching assistant job with Protocol Education
These principles will hold true for any teaching assistants who work with SEN pupils. If you’re ready to put them into practice in a mainstream school, we’ve got a range of teaching assistant positions available in primary schools, secondary schools or as part of the National Tutoring Programme.
Whatever your ambitions are, our dedicated SEN branches and consultants can help you make them real.