Building Independence and Self-Esteem With Seamless & Silent Supports

A young girl hiding behind a door holder her fingers to her lips to sush the camera holder.

What is the best way to support our students?

The right support starts with a new way of looking at the role of teaching assistants. In the TA training course I developed in cooperation with SENIA, we uncover theories and strategies that ensure our support staff has the tools they need to be the most effective at their jobs. One of the strategies we teach is something called seamless and silent supports.  

What Are Seamless and Silent Supports?

If you’ve spent time in any classroom, you’ve likely observed a support staff member sitting or standing directly next to a student who’s been flagged as needing extra help for a significant amount of time — possibly even the whole day. Imagine yourself in that student’s shoes. How does it feel to be the one always standing out as needing help? How does having a teacher next to you all the time influence how you talk to your peers? What does this constant reminder of your challenges do to your self-esteem? 

In their book, The Paraprofessional’s Handbook for Effective Support in Inclusive Classrooms, teacher, professor, and educational consultants Julie Causton-Theoharis and Kate MacLeod emphasize what they call ”burning the chair.” According to Causton-Theoharis and MacLeod, we need to modify the adult support often placed directly next to our students with high-needs in the classroom. When a chair for the TA is placed next to the student, we communicate to everyone in the classroom that the assistant is there only for that one child, singling them out and creating barriers to making friends and fitting in. We are also sending the message “You can’t do this without me” and snuffing out any spark of encouragement to become independent. 

There will always be students who need extra support. But there are strategies to help them subtly and in a way that promotes independence. These strategies are called seamless and silent supports and work just the way the name implies — by ensuring all our students get the help they need without feeling singled out. Seamless and silent supports make every student feel included in the classroom, no matter their needs. In classrooms that use these supports, TAs are viewed as helpers for everyone — not for a specific student. Students begin to move away from dependence on the adults in the classroom and learn to rely more on their classmates and friends, removing the barriers that make it difficult to feel part of the classroom community. 

If I Knew Then What I Know Now

A perfect example of a situation where seamless and silent support could have made a huge difference is my experience with one of my former students, Andrew. Andrew was a 2nd grader I spent a lot of time with in the first few months of school due to his tendency to duck under a table whenever he was uncomfortable or didn’t understand what was happening. If only I had known about Dr. Ross Greene’s CPS method at that point in my career! 

I would be called in whenever Andrew was stuck under a table, and no one could coax him out. I’d hear, “Mrs. Remfrey, please report to room 206,” at least once a day from the school’s PA system. 

I can’t tell you specifically what it was about me, but somehow I almost always got Andrew out from under the table. Not even a fire alarm could get him out without Mrs. Remfrey showing up. At the time, it made me feel needed and good about myself.

While I enjoyed my self-esteem boost, you can imagine the fallout when Mrs. Remfrey was at home with a cold or had a meeting outside of the building. I had no idea I was creating a ticking time bomb by making Andrew completely dependent on me.

What I learned in that first year of my teaching career was that I was teaching Andrew to be reliant on me. What I should have done in that situation was to teach the adults to step back, encourage Andrew’s peers to help, and create a path toward independence. 

Benefits of Seamless and Silent Supports

Using seamless and silent supports not only prevents dependency on adults but also has several other benefits for the student. When these supports are in place, students will:

Learn to express their needs

Seamless and silent supports teach students to recognize and articulate their needs effectively. Communicating what they are having trouble with and what could help them overcome it is a step toward independence. Understanding who they are as learners empowers students to ask for appropriate support without hesitation, giving them ownership of their own education.

Feel more in control

Seamless and silent supports extend beyond mere assistance, allowing students to exercise controlled decision-making through choices. For example, if a student needs a reminder to bring their calculator to math, they could decide if they want it written on a Post-it or in their notebook. By providing controlled choices, educators enable students to actively engage in their learning journey. This empowers students and nurtures their ability to make informed decisions, a skill that extends beyond the classroom into real-world situations.

Become more independent

As we saw in my example with Andrew, helping him without teaching him how to help himself created an overreliance that became a big problem whenever I wasn’t available. Furthermore, asking for help from Andrew’s peers would have been a great first step toward creating a more positive, sustainable support system. Our goal is to provide the right level of support — not too much or too little. We should also remember that this level of support should and will change over time. If we do our jobs correctly, our students will need us less and less over time.

Build meaningful peer relationships

It is important that supporting our students with high-needs doesn’t create a physical or social divide between them and their peers. By providing that just-right level of support and then stepping back, students can have more natural conversations with each other. Learning to help each other builds empathy and understanding, an essential step toward creating an inclusive and supportive classroom environment.   

Remove the stigma

It’s human nature to want to fit in with our peers. In childhood and adolescence, this is even more critical. When we constantly highlight the differences in our students (which is what we’re doing when a support teacher is parked next to a student all day), it creates feelings of isolation, shame, and embarrassment. On the other hand, if we encourage students to help each other, and they view a support teacher in the room as helping everyone, instead of highlighting differences, we’re strengthening the classroom community, promoting independence, and empowering students to embrace support as a natural part of learning. 

Training our TAs to use seamless and silent supports is an essential step in creating a classroom environment that not only meets students’ needs but does so in a way that fosters independence and positive relationships and focuses on growth rather than limitations. To successfully implement seamless and silent supports in the classroom, there are several ideas to keep in mind. In my next blog, you’ll learn what to do (and what not to do) to ensure the supports in place are the most beneficial. 

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Causton, Julie, and Kate Macleod. The Paraprofessional’s Handbook for Effective Support in Inclusive Classrooms. Baltimore, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co, 2021.