Fostering Independence: 5 Ways Teaching Assistants Can Provide Seamless & Silent Supports

Blue sky and a lake are in the background of a ladder with a young child at the top.

Last month, we dove into the benefits and background of seamless and silent supports, a way of providing students the "just-right" amount of help they need while simultaneously promoting independence, nurturing peer relationships, and, most importantly, preserving their self-esteem in a truly inclusive classroom environment. We learned the value of teaching students to express their needs, the power of controlled decision-making, and the significance of "burning the chair" —  rethinking how we use our teacher's assistants in a way that students feel the extra support is there for everyone, instead of singling one student out.  

Now that you know the "whys" of seamless and silent supports, it's time to talk about the "hows." What are the best ways to implement these strategies in the classroom? 

Let’s start with how to teach students to ask for the right help.

Use Guiding Questions to Promote Self-Awareness 

Before students can effectively ask for help, they need to understand how they learn best. Learning preferences include a range of factors, including strengths and challenges, whether they like to read directions for an assignment or hear them out loud, or how and when it's best for them to take a break. Once they have this self-understanding, they can communicate their needs effectively without disruption.

One important strategy to help students become more aware of who they are as learners is to ask guiding questions. I like to pose questions like:

  • What do you need during this lesson or assignment to be independent?
  • When we work together at the table, how do you want me to support you?
  • Would you rather I remind you verbally or write a to-do list?
  • Where would you like me to sit during this activity?
  • When you feel ______ (frustrated/anxious/distracted/etc.) like that again, how can I help support you?

Ask these questions one at a time and at moments where it makes the most sense. Providing a few options is helpful if a student struggles to find an answer. 

A colleague recently reached out with a story about a 5th grader, Isla, who had trouble tying her shoes. Naturally, her laces were always dragging behind her at the worst possible times — right after gym class started, getting into the lunch line, or when she was about to miss her bus at the end of the day. Her well-meaning TA would just tie her shoes for her in these moments to make the process go faster. A few weeks into the school year, she started resisting help from her TA, quickly walking away and saying she didn't need them tied. Isla was embarrassed. Everyone else could tie their shoes just fine, and standing there with a teacher in front of her helping to do what most kids could do by first grade was humiliating.

Her teacher asked how the team could better help, and Isla explained that she felt like everyone stared when her TA was tying her shoes for her and that she really wanted to learn how to tie them herself. They made a plan to spend a few minutes each day during recess practicing, and, in the meantime, a trusted friend offered to help her as needed instead of her TA. 

Provide Choices for Independence

Empowering students goes beyond mere conversation. Providing choices like types of seating, writing instruments, and support methods gives students agency over their learning environment. 

While Isla practiced tying her shoes at recess, her TA gave her some options so she had control over her learning. She showed her two methods — the one-loop and two-loop and asked her which one she preferred. She would also give other choices, asking questions like, "Would you like me to tie one shoe, or do you want to do both?" 

By allowing students to make controlled decisions, TAs cultivate independence and self-confidence. 

Address Difficult Feelings and Interactions

Another essential part of fostering independence is teaching students how to manage their emotions. School struggles naturally lead to frustration — something not all students have learned to manage. When these big feelings come up, having calm, controlled conversations about what's going on is essential and helps students learn to express what they need and how you can help. 

Isla was not only frustrated that she couldn't tie her shoes, but she felt embarrassed — especially when she saw some of her peers snickering and whispering to each other when her TA tied them for her. These feelings would manifest as anger, often directed toward her TA. When these outbursts happened, Isla's teacher found time to talk to her quietly about what Isla needed and how to handle the situation differently next time. This was when the idea of getting help from a friend came up. 

Cartoon image of a white chair with brown legs that has an image of a fire on the seat of the chair

Foster Inclusion and Minimizing Division (Burn the Chair)

The core principle of seamless and silent supports is that supporting students should not involve isolating or singling them out. Separating students who need extra help creates division in the classroom, interfering with peer relationships and creating feelings of shame and embarrassment. One of the best ways to foster inclusion is to encourage students to help each other, so it becomes unnecessary for a TA to sit directly next to a student for an entire class or day. 

Isla made it clear she didn't want a teacher tying her shoes anymore. But what if a friend helped her instead? It wasn't a perfect plan; kids would still see her getting help with something most didn't need to think about anymore. But it was a much better solution until she learned to do it herself. 

Use the Prompting Ladder

With Isla's needs known and a solid plan in place, it was time to practice tying. Her teacher ensured she provided a "just-right" level of support with Dr Julie Causton’s prompting ladder technique. The idea is to provide full support first and gradually decrease it until students can achieve their tasks independently. Here are the steps involved and how it looked with Isla:

  1. Full Physical Prompts: At the bottom of the ladder, you might start with someone helping you completely. In Isla's case, this would be her friend tying her shoes for her.
  2. Guided Physical Prompts: As they climb a bit higher, they'll get some guidance but do most of the task themself. Isla's teacher demonstrated two different techniques, and Isla decided which one she wanted to try first.
  3. Partial Physical Prompts: Moving up the ladder, they need less help. At this point, Isla was tying mostly on her own but still needed her TA to help hold the lace while she made the loop.
  4. Visual or Verbal Prompts: Here, the student might need reminders or cues. The TA might say, "Remember, make a loop and pull the lace through," but is no longer physically helping. 
  5. Independent With Support: Now they're getting more independent. Isla could tie herself, but her laces were sometimes too loose or would pull through. 
  6. Completely Independent: Isla could tie her shoes by herself without any help or reminders.

Prompting ladders are a great way to identify the level of support you're giving and be intentional with your plan toward independence. 

Keep in mind, however, that independence doesn’t always mean task mastery. All teachers know that each student and situation is different, and some students may never be able to do things that feel simple to the rest of us — like tying shoes. Isla’s TA knew this was a task she could master, but other students would benefit from creative problem solving (like opting for lace-less shoes) more than the dogged focus on one task. 

Empowering students through effective classroom supports is a dynamic process that requires thoughtful strategies and ongoing collaboration. By fostering self-awareness, offering choices, and avoiding pitfalls, TAs can promote gradual independence and build a more inclusive and empowering educational environment. 

Ready to bring seamless and silent supports into your classroom? I can help. Schedule a consultation at