Avoiding the pitfalls: Teaching assistants, behaviour and learning

Written by: Sara Alston | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The role of the teaching assistant in supporting good behaviour in the mainstream classroom is crucial, but there are a number of pitfalls to avoid. Sara Alston explains


Although the role of the teaching assistant is about supporting learning and/or those with special needs, often their focus is on managing behaviour.

The presence of teaching assistants in a classroom can reduce low-level disruptive behaviour. In addition to acting as a role model, the teaching assistant can be an extra pair of eyes and ears, noticing and responding to behaviours without disrupting the teacher’s flow.

However, doing this without exacerbating problematic behaviours is not simple, particularly when faced with more challenging behaviours. There are many issues related to teaching assistants’ training and confidence – both to manage behaviour and support learning.


Learning and behaviour

It is very difficult to teach a class where one or more children are behaving disruptively. Many children communicate their difficulties and anxieties about learning through their behaviour.

When behaviour management and support for learning become separated neither can be delivered effectively; when a teaching assistant becomes solely focused on behaviour management, they lose the link with learning and become less effective in supporting both.

Yet this becomes the default role for many as they lack the skills, subject knowledge or training to provide effective curricular support, meaning they fall back to “policing” behaviour. This can often disrupt learning and inhibit children’s engagement with it.

Conversely, if we can get the support for learning right, many children’s difficulties with behaviour diminish. Consequently, many of the strategies that teaching assistants need to use to support learning and behaviour are one and the same. At one level we know this and apply it in our classrooms by asking teaching assistants to use strategies with children such as:

  • Visual timetables and now and next boards.
  • Movement breaks and fiddle objects (not toys – these should be support for focus/learning).
  • Checklists and task management supports for learning and routines.
  • Pre-learning and the use of visual prompts to support children to understand the language and context of what is being taught.
  • Sensory work, including calm time and sensory circuits.

However, too often teaching assistants (and teachers) disregard children’s difficulties and anxieties about learning and respond directly to children’s exhibited behaviours without considering the true cause or communication behind the behaviours. This means that their responses are either overly punitive or conciliatory as they tend to blame or excuse. These responses may lead to further disruption:

  • Short-term as the teaching assistant disrupts learning to issue sanctions or trying to cajole children into co-operation.
  • Long-term as bargaining, bribery and complex negotiations around class expectations mean that children are unsure where they lie. Alternatively, excessively punitive responses leave children feeling humiliated, alienated and excluded.

This can be exacerbated as although teaching assistants are required to work within the school’s behaviour policy, their role within it is rarely laid out, making it difficult for them to understand the extent and limits of their role.

This results in questions about their authority – how far can and should teaching assistants issue rewards or sanctions, leading to both children and teaching assistants questioning their role. Often approaches are not consistent between teachers or across a school, leading to conflict and confusion for adults and children.


Communication and flexibility

To reduce these issues requires effective communication between teachers and teaching assistants, so children receive consistent messages about behaviour and learning expectations.

Teachers implicitly understand that successful behaviour management is based in consistency imbued with flexibility. While we aspire to consistency, we understand that rigidity means that we squander time enforcing conformity and are forced to disregard the needs of many children with special needs, or even penalise them for their difficulties with learning.

This is immensely difficult for teachers to manage on their own, more difficult when these subtleties and complexities need to be shared with and explained to another person, and even trickier when the time we have for communication is limited!

This is why so often both teachers and teaching ass7istants fall back onto a one-size-fits-all approach to behaviour management. This can mean that they frequently end up countermanding and undermining each other, adding to children’s confusion and teaching assistants’ lack of clarity about their role.

This issue is still further complicated when teaching assistants have explicit responsibility for children who need an individual rewards system. This risks an effective devolvement of the responsibility for the behaviour of the most vulnerable children to a teaching assistant. Or creating a situation where staff fall into a good cop/bad cop model where one enforces discipline and the other deals with problems.


Deployment and timing

A related issue is the timing of when teaching assistants are deployed to support children. Rightly, the majority of teaching assistant support is focused in learning time, but for many children the structure and predictability of the classroom is easier to manage than the unstructured times on the playground, in dining halls and school corridors with their varied and unpredictable social interactions, movement and noise.

For many this is so overwhelming and anxiety-inducing or so exciting that they struggle to return calmly to the classroom. A change in the balance of teaching assistant deployment so that children are offered more support in these unstructured times could allow pupils to return more calmly to the classroom and so be more able to self-regulate and access their learning.


Planning and support

As in so many areas, the core issue is managing effective communication between teaching assistants and teachers about classroom practice and routines. This needs to include time to co-create clear pupil profiles and support plans that identify not only pupils’ difficulties and barriers to learning, but also their strengths, motivators and strategies that work best for them.

For some children these need to be supplemented by a proactive plan that identifies how a child presents and behaves when they are calm, as their anxieties increase, and what works and does not work to help reduce their anxieties.

This can help ensure a consistent approach among all the adults working with them. These need to be working documents, which are regularly contributed to, reviewed and shared with all those working with a child. This requires a time commitment to be effective. None of us work well when we do not have the information we need, but too often this is the expectation of teaching assistants.

Another key element is robust record-keeping. Too often staff in a classroom feel that they are facing challenging behaviours all the time, though this is not the reality. Teaching assistants can take a useful role in record-keeping, using ABC (antecedent, behaviour, consequences) charts or recording on a timetable what behaviours they are seeing and when.

Understanding behaviours, their frequency and triggers enables us to identify patterns which mean that we are then better able to understand and support children’s behaviour.

Effective communication between the adults needs to be supported by work with children to increase their ability to identify and communicate their feelings successfully and constructively. It is key to find methods that work for the child and setting which they and the staff feel confident and comfortable to use. This will enable children to gain the confidence that adults will listen to, understand and respect their communications.


Language

Ultimately the thing that makes the biggest difference to behaviour in the classroom and is the hardest thing to manage is changing the language used by teachers and teaching assistants. We need to move our discourse about children on from saying that they “won’t” do something, to considering that for the vast majority of children what we mean is that they “can’t”.

We need to work with all staff, including teaching assistants, to reframe our language to ensure that it is supportive and that their positive interactions with children outweigh their negative ones.

Equally, it is important that we don’t assume that because a child is “behaving” that they are learning. A child who is withdrawing should be as much of a concern as a child who is “acting out”.

Time and again when children are asked what they want from their teachers, and they usually mean all the adults in school, they say for them to be “firm and fair”. To achieve this the rules in the classroom need to be clear and rooted in a shared understanding and knowledge of the whole child embedded as an inherent part of the teaching, so that teachers and teaching assistants are able to work together to support all the children.

  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Sara’s book Working Effectively with your TA will be published in February 2023. Visit
    www.seainclusion.co.uk or read her previous articles for SecEd via
    https://bit.ly/seced-alston


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