Adam Green, Murdoch University, ITAC CEO, January 2022.
This literature review explores the recent academic research on the work, roles, responsibilities, problems, challenges, training and management of Teacher Aides (TAs).
The term ‘TA’ is used in this review because it is the most common term used by the general public as well as by researchers in both Australia and other English speaking countries. Practising TAs and members of the school community commonly use jurisdictionally specific terms such as Education Assistant or EA (Western Australia), School Support Officer or SSO (South Australia), Integration Aide (Victoria), Learning Support Officer or LSO (NSW) and Teacher Assistant in Queensland. Specific titles can also be assigned to staff working in specialised roles such as Aboriginal and Indigenous Education Officer (AIEO) used in WA, or Special Needs Education Assistant – also used in WA.
Research related to TAs began to emerge circa 1995-2010 as scholars began exploring the implications, issues and practices as a result of the growing number of TAs being employed by schools. Giangreco (2010a) for example, proposed that the assignment of a TA to students with additional needs fails to solve the inclusion problem and, in fact, often leads to further exclusion. These questions laid the foundation for future research efforts which sought to clarify some of these challenges e.g. Armour et al., (2014); Carter et al., (2019); Coates et al., (2017); Harris & Aprile, (2015); Kalogeropoulos et al., (2020).
Earlier studies often concluded that TAs were ineffective and even detrimental to students’ learning and development (Blatchford et al., 2007, 2011). More recently this sentiment has shifted, and the general view today is that TAs can successfully contribute to students’ learning and development when trained and managed appropriately. Ideally TAs should be tasked to implement highly-structured programs such as reading interventions, and not be asked to take on roles that require pedagogical decisions (Griffiths & Kelly, 2018; Hurst & Sparrow, 2012; Johnson, 2018; Webster et al., 2011). A more recent shift is the question as to whether TAs could be trained to ‘teach’ and make pedagogical decisions similar to that of a teacher albeit within the limited scope of individual and small group instruction e.g. Andersen et al., (2020).
TAs work under the direction of the teacher with the primary role to support students' learning and development. To achieve this, TAs also assist teachers in monitoring and managing students’ behaviour because doing so maximises learning time. From time-to-time, TAs complete non-instructional tasks such as cleaning and record keeping. These tasks reduce the teacher’s workload and free the teacher up for other tasks. TAs predominantly work with students with special needs which includes neurological and learning disorders, physical disabilities, and behavioural disorders (Western Australian Department of Training and Workforce Development, 2021).
Broadly speaking, TA can be employed in one of three positions. First, and the least common, is general classroom support. This is most often found in the lower grades where teachers need an extra set of hands for logistical tasks such as toileting and reading to children. Second, TAs can work in a mainstream class (known as an ‘integrated class’) with an assigned focus or target student (a child with autism for example). Focus students are those who require one-on-one support for some or all of the school day. In this role, the TA will occasionally circulate and help other students (Rutherford, 2012) which is known as ‘roving’ or ‘circulating’. How exactly TAs should divide their time between the allocated focus student and helping other students is a point of contention for some researchers (explored in later sections of this review). The third role involves supporting students with complex needs in schools, centres or programs specialising in one or more additional needs (Coates et al., 2017; Mackie et al., 2016).
While TAs do not instruct whole classes, they may be responsible for ‘pull-out’ sessions (Fernandez & Hynes, 2016). This involves supporting one or more students in a separate room usually for reading, writing or maths instruction (Kalogeropoulos et al., 2020). Pull-out sessions are commonly seen as the primary tool for addressing learning issues with students who are at risk of low academic achievement (Fried et al., 2012). Moving to another room removes distractions and effectively reduces the size of the main class. This has the added benefit of significantly reducing the teacher’s pedagogical workload (and stress) given that the 2 or 3 most disruptive and/or time-consuming students can be removed from class.
In terms of TAs supporting specific disabilities and disorders, autism was the most common disorder discussed in the research literature e.g. Coates et al. (2017), Knight et al. (2019) and Page & Ferrett (2018). Other conditions included attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Greenway & Edwards, 2020), intellectual and developmental disabilities (Brock & Carter, 2013), emotional and behavioural disorders (Maggin et al., 2012), language impairment (Towson et al., 2020), visual impairment (Whitburn, 2013), Dyslexia (Griffiths & Kelly, 2018) and deaf and hearing impaired (Salter et al., 2017). Some TAs are employed to support physical and personal care needs such as glucose monitoring, toileting and peg feeding (Abbott et al., 2011).
Many argue that the TA’s role and job description is often ambiguous and complex (Clarke & Visser, 2019; Howard & Ford, 2007; Stephenson & Carter, 2014; Stewart, 2019), and as such a typical day is not easy to accurately describe. A seminal and influential UK project reported that TAs spend more than 80% of their time in direct instructional roles and that they engage in sustained interactions with their students nine times more often than teachers (Webster et al., 2011; see also Blatchford, 2009c and Blatchford et al., 2007).
Similarly, a Queensland study by Harris and Aprile (2015) found that TAs spend most of their time supporting students one-on-one or in small groups and they undertake a limited amount of non-instructional work. A 2018 study in the ACT noted that TAs are primarily used to support students with additional needs (Butt, 2018). In an earlier study, the same author found that students with disabilities receive the majority of their instructional support from their TA while teachers mainly instructed non-disabled students or engaged in non-instructional tasks such as organising students (Butt, 2016b).
Giangreco et al., (2013) showed that the two most common reasons for deploying TAs was for instructional support and behaviour management. This was confirmed in the Australian context by Gibson et al. (2016) who surveyed teachers and TAs to learn that inclusion, curriculum modifications, behaviour management and instructional support were rated as the top reasons for hiring or requesting a TA. The overwhelming evidence points to the fact that TAs are ‘teachers’ and they do ‘teach’ albeit with a smaller numbers of students.
Role confusion therefore continues to be a problem in many ways. In terms of behaviour management, TAs walk a fine line between managing children with the most complex needs and the ambiguous and unwritten limits of their power (Clarke & Visser, 2019). They are expected to be assertive towards students with behavioural problems while simultaneously mindful of being seen as impinging or challenging the teacher’s authority.
It should be of no surprise that teachers have a greater pedagogical skills base than TAs. Radford et al., (2011) for example, found that teachers ‘open up talk’ while TAs shut it down. For this reason, many studies have recommended that TAs should be better trained in foundational instructional skills such as fading and prompting (Brock & Anderson, 2020; Brock et al., 2021; Bosanquet & Radford, 2018; Da Fonte & Capizzi, 2015; Mason et al., 2020). Academics also recommended that TAs learn more advanced teaching and learning strategies such as metacognition, self-scaffolding, self-repair, overlearning, formative assessment, the zone of proximal development and phonics instruction (Bowles et al., 2018; Griffiths & Kelly, 2018; Slater & Gazeley, 2019).
While challenges with the widespread use TAs are well-known (and have been for many years), the origin and causes of these issues has become more apparent in recent times. Many researchers suggest that a key contributing factor is a lack of training in foundational classroom strategies e.g. Bowles et al., (2018); Brock et al., (2021); Da Fonte & Capizzi, (2015); Mason et al., (2020). Bowles et al., (2018) suggest a lack of understanding of general scaffolding concepts e.g. fading, transfer of responsibility, withholding correction, fostering independence and self-scaffolding. Bosanquet & Radford (2018) suggest training to help TAs avoid basic scaffolding mistakes such as moving on after partial self-repair or closing down talk.
A well reported issue in the literature is the lack of awareness with regard to the pedagogical mistakes that TAs commonly make when instructing students. These ‘mistakes’ are difficult for teachers and trainers to identify because they have no immediate detrimental effect on student learning, and their existence as a problem is not widely known outside of academia. As an example, TAs almost exclusively focus on task completion as opposed to concept understanding (Gretchen & Bailey, 2020; Radford et al., 2011; Rubie-Davies et al., 2010; Slater & Gazeley, 2019). Another lesser known issue is the tendency of TAs to provide answers to direct questions instead of having students engage in some form of self-repair (Rubie-Davies et al. 2010).
Aside from instructional skills, many researchers have focused on the TA’s role in behaviour management e.g. Andersen et al., (2020); Blatchford, (2009b); Brock, Cannella-Malone et al., (2017); Griffiths & Kelly, (2018), Leslie, (2018) and Maggin et al., (2012). This focus is important because teachers rate behaviour management as the most important task of TAs (Butt & Lowe, 2012) particularly in keeping children on task (Brock, Seaman et al., 2017; Webster et al., 2011) and reducing teacher workload and stress (Blatchford, 2009a; Page & Ferrett, 2018). Some studies suggest TAs can be trained to implement more advanced evidence-based strategies to support students with complex needs such as discrete skills training (Knight et al., 2019; see also Butt, 2016b; Kalogeropoulos et al., 2020; Salter et al., 2017).
Carter et al., (2019) surveyed 361 teaching assistants in New South Wales public schools to find that the most commonly reported task for TAs was keeping students on task. This resulted in behaviour management being the number one self-reported need in terms of professional development. Butt (2018) also noted this and found that TAs wanted additional training in order to extend their knowledge of disabilities. Carter et al., (2019) suggests that TAs are over-confident in their abilities and don’t know what they don’t know. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect and it’s symptomatic of a lack of training in this area.
The current issue de jour for schools and TA trainers is the prevalence of autism and their associated idiosyncratic behavioural, communicative and learning needs (Coates et al., 2017; Knight et al., 2019; Page & Ferrett, 2018). The majority of students in special needs schools have an autism diagnosis and it is the fastest growing cohort requiring support (Long, 2019). This has been noted for some time (e.g. Butt & Lowe, 2012) and is the only condition to have a dedicated unit of competency listed in the Education Support qualification rules.
To work in this space, TAs require training in specific skills including managing challenging behaviours such as meltdowns and implementing strategies to increase students’ independence (Greenway & Edwards, 2020; Page & Ferrett, 2018). Knight et al., (2019) suggest this could be achieved in a number of ways, such as by facilitating scaffolded social supports and peer learning. As children with autism often require individual support (particularly for those who are non-verbal or who have comorbidities), they are regularly provided with a permanent TA. Researchers have criticised this arrangement for various reasons most notably that TAs often have little or no pedagogical training which results in continued poor practices which can be detrimental to student learning, behaviour and development (Coates et al., 2017; Stewart, 2019) particularly in the long run.
Other areas where the classroom skills of TAs may need addressing includes non-instructional tasks such as collecting data (Mason et al., 2019), knowledge of school and departmental policies (Butt, 2016a), and planning Carter et al., (2019). Armour et al., (2014) suggest training in culturally aware and appropriate instructional practices. Gibson (2015) found that only 26% of TAs felt highly confident in implementing individualised programs and therefore additional training was essential (especially given that almost all students assigned a TA are placed on an individualised education or behaviour plan). Harris et al., (2015) noted the need for additional training in reading practices because many TAs struggled to answer basic questions such as why learning to read is important. In terms of mathematics and numeracy, Raeburn (2015) was successful in teaching TAs to implement pre-planned programs but noted that participants requested additional training in areas such as mathematical language.
While TAs themselves have the best of intentions, using their skills effectively in the classroom can present hidden challenges as identified by Butt, (2016b) and Carter et al., (2019). The most noticeable impact of employing a TA is their physical presence in the room which is usually 1-2 feet from their focus student for the majority (74%) of the day (Mason et al., 2020). From the student’s perspective, hovering in such a way is intrusiveness (Giangreco et al., 2005, 2010; Whitburn, 2013), however the most detrimental unintended consequence is that it isolates focus students from their peers (Giangreco, 2010a, 2010b; O’Rourke & West, 2015; Suter & Giangreco, 2009). This may result in increased stigma (Broer et al., 2005) and is a reason for why only 21% of students with a disability reported that they actually wanted a TA compared to 89% of teachers, 96% of special educators, 90% of TAs and 88% of parents (Giangreco et al., 2013).
It would seem that the person most impacted by the provision of TA support (the student) is rarely consulted at any point e.g. initial deployment, roster, curriculum planning, behavioural plans, role description and boundaries. This raises serious questions of rights, agency and voice (Suter & Giangreco, 2009), as well as whether the school has met its legal obligations. For example, the Disability Standards for Education 2005 requires schools to ‘consult the student’ prior to making any adjustment, as well as to consider ‘whether there is any other reasonable adjustment that would be less disruptive and intrusive and no less beneficial for the student’ (Disability Standard for Education 2005, pt. 3.5 (a) & (c)).
Why TAs ‘hover’ to the extent that do they has not been confirmed by research, however prima facie it seems logical that a TA would feel compelled to focus on the student that they were expected to support. They may not feel comfortable roving the room unless invited to do so, or they may not understand the importance of developing students’ social skills and independence (Rutherford, 2012). Research by Blatchford, (2009a) showed that TAs roved only 4% of the time in primary schools, however they did move around the room one third of the time in secondary schools.
Webster et al., (2013) famously showed that the higher a student’s support needs, the more time a TA will spend with them. While this may not seem problematic at first glance, the result is that students with the most complex needs receive the least amount of attention from their teacher. In fact, there is a conceptually linear relationship between a student’s level of need and the lack of time a teacher provides a student when a TA is present. This has been shown to impact on a student’s academic progress. An influential quantitative study by Blatchford et al., (2011), based on data from 8000 students, showed that students with TA support made less academic progress in English, maths and science – even when accounting for other factors. As a result, researchers continue to call for TAs to no longer be expected to formally teach content other than in terms of general support or in highly structured programs (Carter et al., 2019).
Whilst it is acknowledged in the literature that there are challenges with the TA’s role in the classroom, studies show that TAs can have a positive effect on student learning when they are trained in best practice instructional strategies and techniques. In general, the research corpus has a positive view on the effectiveness of TAs in terms of their capacity to improve student learning outcomes (see for example Johnson (2018) for interventions, Jones et al., (2018) for direct instruction, Fried et al., (2012) for reading, and Hurst & Sparrow, (2012) for maths). This is of course provided the TA is working in a structured program for which they have been adequately trained to operate.
Andersen et al. (2020) showed that TAs could improve students’ reading skills by 13% provided that they were trained in how to systematically implement the program with fidelity. A US study showed that providing TAs with proper training resulted in an immediate positive impact on students’ writing performance (Lushen et al., 2012). Similar results were found in a Western Australian study which involved reading skills and second language learners (Fried et al., 2012). While some of these studies are short intervention studies, it provides useful information for the development of accredited training programs i.e. that TAs are more capable of learning advanced skills than first thought.
A UK study showed that TAs could be taught instructional strategies to help students progress as much as 1.5 years in a 4 month period (See et al., 2019). The same study showed that TAs could be as effective as teachers in typical one-on-one situations. Brock et al., (2020) used video feedback to show that TAs used widely accepted evidence-based practices such as praise and prompting, even though they struggled to do so consistently and systematically.
Providing TAs with a clear system of instruction resulted in immediate improvements in students’ writing skills (Lushen et al., 2012). Even in highly structured environments such as Direct Instruction, TAs were able to implement lessons with 95% fidelity following training (Jones et al., 2018). Johnson, (2018) found that that TAs could be highly effective in early literacy learning. Gottfried (2018) showed that having TAs in kindergarten classes had a positive impact on students’ reading and mathematical skills including for students with disabilities.
Not only do TAs become an expert at managing their allocated student (Griffiths & Kelly, 2018), they also manage time consuming behavioural issues such as ‘meltdowns’ and ‘runaways’ (Page & Ferrett, 2018) which is common for students with autism. Additionally, as the TA becomes the go-to expert for their focus student, they are (potentially) in the best position to teach targeted pro social skills (Punch, n.d.). While a TA’s presence can isolate a student, they also provide opportunities to practice interacting with adults (Blatchford, 2009b).
In order to increase their effectiveness, teacher and school managers needs to ensure that TAs are included in the school community (Page & Ferrett, 2018). TAs rarely have access to information because of organisation-wide structures, policies, processes and other barriers that systematically exclude their access e.g. not being paid to attend staff meetings (Butt, 2016a). They are therefore disempowered (Bourke & Carrington, 2007) and this hinders their work.
TAs are expected to work with students with the most complex needs while rarely being invited to participate in IEP and IBMP meetings (Gretchen & Bailey, 2020). For the most part, they are provided with little information in terms of student background information, medical needs, behavioural history, educational goals and performance in diagnostic tests. Few teachers spend time thinking about and planning the best ways to use their TAs (Giangreco et al., 2010, 2011) and most don’t share lesson plans or lesson goals in advance (Lehane, 2016). TAs should be invited to plan and collaborate with their teacher (Cockroft & Atkinson, 2015) especially given that they usually know much more about their target student than the teacher.
At the administration level, researchers have been critical of the ambiguous and unclear role description provided by employers. Good corporate governance requires all staff to be provided with a JDF that clearly outlines their tasks and responsibilities (in order of importance) and delineated job roles, work methods and authority limits (Stewart, 2019; Clarke & Visser, 2019). Brock & Carter (2013) argue that TAs should be provided with clear directions in what they can and can’t do such as for behavioural interventions.
All of these efforts should be part of a whole-of-school approach led by the principal and planned to include ongoing TA specific professional development and coaching (Bourke., 2009; Parsons et al., 2012; Sharma & Salend, 2016; Sobeck et al., 2020).
The work and roles of TAs is many and varied. Administrators hire them to prevent behavioural issues, to appease parents and to reduce teacher workload. Teachers use them as the go-to expert for focus students, to keep students on task, and to reduce their pedagogical workload. Students rely on them to facilitate social opportunities, for personal care and for curriculum accommodations. Research however, indicates that an over reliance on TAs can lead to unintended consequences particularly for students who receive a large amount of instructional time from their aide. TAs are not as skilled as teachers and should not be used to replace the instruction of teachers. Teachers and school managers also need to ensure that students are provided with the freedom to naturally engage with their peers and to develop their independence.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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