TA deployment in structured and unstructured times

The traditional approach to supporting children with SEND is to focus on lesson times. This is correct in that additional support should be focused on children’s learning which is concentrated in lesson times. However, for many children with social communication issues, high levels of sensory issues, difficulties managing change and high levels of anxiety, including those with ASD, ADHD and attachment issues, this leaves them unsupported at the times of the school day they find most stressful.

Lesson times are often described as ‘structured times’ and the rest of the school day as ‘unstructured’. If you need structure, routine and predictability to manage the school day, clearly the ‘unstructured times’ when these are missing are going to be more stressful. However, in these times children are often left to manage alone or to find their own way to a hub, resource centre or other area to access support.

There have been ongoing controversies over the deployment of Teaching Assistants in schools. They are a very expensive resource, but one which when properly deployed can have a significant positive impact on pupils’ learning and progress. Most pupils supported by an EHCP in a mainstream school have hours of support indicated on their plan which usually are covered by a teaching assistant.

School leaders need to be clear what they are asking TAs to do and why, so that they are able to deploy them effectively. The role of a TA should be to promote children’s learning; their support should be focused on the child’s learning and overcoming the barriers to it. In class, the supporting TA may focus on work with individuals, pairs or small groups including for example:

• Prompting vocabulary recall and understanding
• Pre- and over-learning
• Structuring, organising and chunking learning through scaffolding
• Providing additional visual supports and prompts
• Enabling children to access additional learning aids
• Supporting oral rehearsal of ideas
• On the spot differentiation
• Supporting and prompting focus and attention
• Leading intervention groups

This work must be under the direction of the teacher and should be working to promote children’s independence, not develop their dependence on adult prompts. Equally, it should not prevent the child accessing quality teacher input and time first hand or act as a barrier to their interaction with their peers.

For many children this support for learning is key and effective, but it needs to be placed within a wider understanding of the barriers that are preventing them from learning. Support for academic learning is key for many children with SEND, but there are those who are

• academically able
• able to access learning with an effectively and appropriately differentiated curriculum
• able to access the curriculum with the right technological support
• able to access learning after specific and additional learning support for example pre-learning, so that they are confident and familiar with the vocabulary needed for the lesson beforehand.
• able to access particular areas of the curriculum.

For these children the support they need may be different. Their need for support is not necessarily always directly with the learning, so we need to consider how we overcome their barriers to learning. For those with difficulties with social communication, high levels of sensory issues, difficulties managing change and high levels of anxiety, including those with ASD, ADHD and attachment issues the learning time is just the tip of the iceberg. For these children the lesson transitions, playtimes, lunchtimes and assemblies are the most difficult part of the day. This is compounded as each day is different. For some of these children the ‘structured’ lesson times is the easier, more predictable part of the day. When they are calm and given the support of a differentiated curriculum, these children need less support for learning. But often they are not given the opportunity to enter lessons with a manageable level of anxiety as they have had to cope with the ‘unstructured’ parts of the school day without appropriate support.
For all these children it is key to remember the different stresses placed on them within a lesson and across the school day and consider the balance between the social and academic demands. As teachers we need to decide the learning priorities and support them by reducing other demands we place on pupils.

So, if the purpose of the task is to work effectively in a group, we need to make the academic demand lower. However, if the focus is academic- don’t ask a child with social communication difficulties to work in a group to complete it or if you do adjust your expectations of their achievement accordingly. Consider if the child’s learning is best promoted by supporting their learning or supporting them to manage the social interactions around it.

There are children who can manage learning when their anxiety levels are controlled, but not at other times. It is vital to support them to manage their anxiety levels, so they are able to learn. Many of these children need support to manage transitions.

In a secondary school, each day the English lesson is followed by a different lesson requiring the child to navigate the noisy, busy school building full of other people behaving unpredictably to a different room within a set and limited time while remembering and managing the equipment needed for the next lesson. And that is just one of up to 7 lesson changes a day.

The ‘down time’ of breaks and lunch is even more difficult for many children, as this is supposed to be ‘fun’, but there are so many complex unspoken rules, social conventions and demands. There are ‘rules’ about movement, where to go, who to speak to and how to speak. This is unpredictable and constantly changing. For those with poor social understanding, heighten sensory needs and anxiety, it is a minefield.

Lunchtimes become even more stressful with crowding, queuing, smells from food and people, as well as possibly making food choices, managing dinner money, finding somewhere to sit and eating in public. The potential for sensory overload and anxiety is myriad.

Very often the child is left to negotiate this unsupported and then the school wonders why the child hits out. Or when they manage to arrive in the next lesson without incident, they are in such a state of heightened anxiety they are not able to access the learning.

These times are also in many ways the most difficult times to support children because it is essential that they have the opportunities to develop social interactions without an adult barrier or intermediary. This is highly problematic. This is a time when we need to be aware of the difference between the ‘Velcro’ TA constantly stuck to the child and the ‘Helicopter’ TA constantly surveying and ready to support if needed, intervening before events escalate, but equally willing to allow children to fail safely.

In my work I come across a lot of children with EHCP support for 18-25 hours; essentially lesson times or foundation subjects depending. This is immensely helpful and supportive for the majority of children, but for many it is not enough. We need to consider how we support children at the ‘unstructured’ as well as the ‘structured’ times of the day so that they are ready and best able to access learning.

It is a difficult balancing act to not inhibit social interaction while supporting it, to emphasis support of learning, while providing the support needed to ensure that children are in the right place emotionally to access it. Unless we support children in unstructured times, they will not be able to access the learning in structured times. By getting the support at these times right, we are able to prepare children for lessons enabling them to access learning independently, rather than just providing learning support.

Further reading

MITA: Maximizing the Practice of Teaching Assistants
Article from National Autistic Society on Sensory Overload
Film from National Autistic Society showing sensory overload
My article looking at the difference between Velcro and Helicopter Teaching Assistants

A version of this article can be found on the School Bus Hub 4 Leaders website

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