SEN: Effective partnerships with teaching assistants

Written by: Natalie Packer | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Natalie Packer looks at how teachers, through working in partnership, can make effective use of one of the most valuable resources in their classroom – teaching assistants

Teaching assistants are a crucial part of the school workforce. Despite the current national picture suggesting that shrinking budgets are resulting in some schools having to lose teaching assistants, we still have approximately 380,000 members of staff working in support roles in the UK.

Teaching assistants can perform a range of roles within the school setting, so when you have a teaching assistant or other adult in a lesson, what do you ask them to do?

Many are often tasked with supporting students with SEN or those deemed to be “lower ability”. But is this always the most effective way to deploy them?

Research into effective practice

Although many teachers think that providing additional adult support will help a student to achieve better, research carried out by the UCL Institute of Education (IoE) has shown that students who have the most support from teaching assistants often make the least amount of progress.

Both the Making a Statement (MAST) study and the more recent SEN in Secondary Education (SENSE) study demonstrated that the high proportion of interaction with teaching assistants often experienced by those with SEN can get in the way of teacher interaction.

In these studies, students with SEN were getting most of their “teaching” input from the teaching assistant rather than the teacher. In addition, teaching assistants were often doing too much for the students and this was leading to “learned helplessness”, where the student cannot cope without adult input and lacks the skills to tackle learning independently.

Reflect on your practice

The research from the IoE demonstrates that teachers need to have a clear, well-thought-out strategy about the most effective way of deploying teaching assistants. Consider the following questions to reflect on your current practice:

  • How much direction do you provide to the teaching assistant when they are in your lesson? Do you establish clear expectations right from the start?
  • How do you ensure the teaching assistant knows exactly what you want them to be doing when they are working with a student/group of students?
  • Does the teaching assistant always work with the students with SEN? If so, could they work with a different group or oversee the rest of the class while you focus on the students with additional needs?
  • If the teaching assistant is working with a student with SEN, do they encourage the student to be independent by providing initial input then moving away from them?
  • How do you gather feedback about the students’ progress from the teaching assistant at the end of a lesson?

Communicate, communicate, communicate

The key to building a good partnership with teaching assistants is effective communication. Initially, this means setting clear boundaries and expectations around roles, behaviour management and strategies the teaching assistant will be using.

Establishing agreement regarding classroom structures and routines will provide a solid foundation for your professional working relationship to develop.

It is important that you consider the best way to share your planning with the teaching assistant before the start of the lesson. Provide them with a copy of the lesson plan or notes and check they understand what you want them to do.

Even if you can only manage a two-minute conversation just prior to the lesson, it’s better than nothing! The teaching assistant needs to be clear about the overall learning objectives for the lesson, what their role will be, and any strategies you would like them to use.

During the lesson

Teachers can sometimes be criticised for not making the best use of teaching assistants when they are providing whole class input. Make sure this doesn’t happen in your class by asking the teaching assistant to do some of the following:

  • Model the task, expected learning behaviours or support students to keep focused.
  • Reword instructions or questions for students who find language difficult.
  • Write observational notes to support assessment.
  • Support students to access the lesson/materials – e.g. by modifying resources.
  • Pre-teach students who need additional support – e.g. with subject-specific vocabulary or to start them off on the task.

During the main part of the lesson, the teaching assistant may be working with identified individuals or groups, or the majority of the class. Whichever students they are working with, their role is to help move the learning forward and support students to learn independently through the use of a variety of pedagogical techniques. This might involve them:

  • Remodelling or re-explaining.
  • Scribing for the teacher on the board or scribing for a student.
  • Reinforcing instructions and checking understanding.
  • Helping students to use practical equipment or resources.
  • Encouraging discussion and participation.
  • Questioning students to challenge them in their learning.
  • Assessing students’ learning through observation, questioning and discussion, and checking and clarifying misconceptions.
  • Helping to make links between learning in the lesson and other contexts.
  • Supporting students to identify their next steps in learning and what they need to do to achieve them.

After the lesson

Agree on the ways you will gather feedback from your teaching assistant. Have a brief chat with them at the end of the lesson or, if time doesn’t allow for this, ask them to make comments on sticky notes that can be left on your desk before they leave. This information will help you with your planning for the following lesson.

Special needs

If a student has an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), the arrangements for additional educational provision may include time during the day when the student is given one-to-one support from an adult.

If a teaching assistant is working one-to-one with a student they are likely to be most effective when they are scaffolding the student’s learning by monitoring the progress they are making towards the learning objectives or goals, providing immediate feedback and giving targeted support with parts of the task that the student finds difficult.

However, even when a teaching assistant is working one-to-one with a student, it remains your responsibility as the teacher to plan for the student – you are still responsible for their overall progress.

Delivering interventions

Teaching assistants may sometimes be involved in delivering targeted intervention programmes designed to consolidate pupils’ key skills, perhaps in English, mathematics or social development.

The intervention might take place within the classroom or elsewhere, in small groups, pairs or one-to-one.

More often than not, the intervention will be structured and advice on how to deliver it will be built-in. However, the teaching assistant may still require additional guidance to ensure they:

  • Have a sound understanding of the purpose and content of the intervention.
  • Develop a sound understanding of the pedagogical skills they will need to use to deliver the intervention effectively – for example, modelling, questioning and feedback.
  • Understand how they will assess the students involved, both at the start of the intervention and again at the end to show progress.
  • Monitor and review the progress students are making throughout the intervention and feedback to relevant staff.

If you are managing an intervention, you will need to support the teaching assistant to ensure they are confident they can deliver it effectively. If you’re not directly involved, it is still important to discuss the key skills your students are focusing on with the teaching assistant and agree how you can both support the students to transfer what they have learned back into the classroom.

Adding value

There are many incredibly skilled and talented teaching assistants in our schools who show initiative, creativity and, very importantly, lots of patience! Teaching assistants can add enormous value to what happens in the classroom, enabling students to engage in lessons and make good progress.

However, this will only happen if you communicate effectively with your teaching assistant and you work together as a team. Remember that, ultimately, it is your responsibility as the teacher to direct them and ensure they are making a difference to students’ learning.

  • Natalie Packer is an independent education consult- ant specialising in SEN and school improvement. She has had experience as a teacher, SENCO, headteacher and SEN advisor and is SEND consultant for the Academies Enterprise Trust. Contact her on Twitter @NataliePacker or via

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