The Key to Cost-Effectively and Compassionately Improving Outcomes for Neurodiverse Students

Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash, Crane Beach, Ipswitch, USA

How can international schools support students of all needs and abilities while keeping an eye on their bottom-line? 


For many schools, the answer is developing a team of talented teaching assistants (TAs) to support their neurodiverse students and gen education teachers. These cost-effective specialists do more than simply make inclusion possible. The best TAs help students: 


  • Learn to ask for assistance when they need it
  • Develop self-determination & advocacy skills
  • Foster a sense of agency & empowerment
  • Find their unique voice


Of course, there’s a catch — to achieve all these goals and more, TAs need to be trained well. Unfortunately, without standards — or even a common Individual Education Plan (IEP) or Individual Learning Plan (ILP) format — international schools are often challenged to craft their own training policies and procedures. 


The TA’s role has changed quite a bit through the years, but they remain critical members of a school’s educational team and dramatically affect student outcomes. 


Teaching Assistants & Me: A Tale of Twelve Teaching Assistants


I’ve experienced the pitfalls of poorly trained TAs firsthand. I started my first teaching job twenty-three years ago, full of energy and optimism, though still getting my teaching legs (and getting used to being called by my married name!). For my very first gig, I was assigned twelve students with extremely high needs. In fact, more than half were medically fragile. 


I was absolutely thrilled with my student caseload because it was exactly what my schooling had prepared me for. Unfortunately, my education had completely failed to prepare me to manage the twelve teaching assistants assigned to work one-on-one with my students.


The “qualifications” for these twelve teaching assistants were slim. It seemed like if you were a mother and enjoyed being around children, you were hired. All twelve had huge hearts, yet none — not one — had experience in the classroom, much less experience working with children with any type of learning difference. In addition to developing and executing lesson plans for a diverse group, it was up to me to teach the TAs how to help with the students’ educational and medical needs. As a first-year teacher, I was left to make up the rules for these assistants without much oversight, let alone an established training and evaluation system. 


We did the best we could under the circumstances, but I struggled to effectively meet the needs of my students, and it nearly convinced me that teaching was not a good fit for me. My handkerchiefs and pillowcases were frequently soaked with tears during those two years in the Great Plains of the United States. I loved working with my students (and the assistants, for that matter), but it was incredibly frustrating — especially since I knew it didn’t have to be this way. And yet schools all over the world are still dealing with situations like mine, and have been for decades.


From Secretaries to Inclusive Education Specialists: The TA Trajectory


Some of the most concrete and longitudinal statistics about the use of TAs come out of the US. We know that in the United States in 1965, fewer than 10,000 teaching assistants were employed nationwide. Jump ahead to 1985, and that number increased to 150,000. By 1995, it was reported that nearly half a million teaching assistants were being used in public schools for various purposes. If we compare these numbers to the number of children identified as having special needs during those last two time periods, the percentage of assistants quickly escalated from 3% to 10% in just ten years (French & Picket).


Early on, teaching assistants were assigned tasks like clerical work, housekeeping, and monitoring chores. Some were even called secretaries for teachers. In the 90s, improved testing and awareness led to rising numbers of special educational needs (SEN) students — and a shortage of SEN teachers. More assistants were needed for inclusion, language assistance, early childhood education, supporting student transition to adulthood, and guiding at-risk students.


Full-inclusion policies only exacerbated the need. While full inclusion was the epitome of the pendulum swinging swiftly away from the immoral practice of full exclusion, the one-size-fits-all approach was just as detrimental. No matter the needs of the students, they were to be taught within the four walls of their assigned general education classroom. Many schools assigned one-on-one assistants to alleviate the pressure on general education teachers, lift their student-teacher ratio, and of course, help students with learning differences achieve more.


There’s no question that supplying SEN students with caring and competent TAs improves student outcomes. The problem only arises when TAs are woefully unprepared for their positions. 


Simple & Effective TA Training to the Rescue


The good news is that the challenges caused by poor training can be prevented. A study by Giangreco, Suter, & Doyle showed that when schools revamped how they used TAs and implemented intentional training programs, they reported positive student outcomes. These included improved student achievement, more inclusive opportunities, improved student behavior and safety, and increased peer interactions (Giangreco, Suter, & Doyle) 


Students in international schools face even more challenges, especially since they often deal with more frequent transitions. The best thing international schools can do to improve the lives of their students and TAs is implement a strong and systemized training program. Is your school creating time for general, EAL, and learning support professionals to collaborate and spend more time directly instructing students that need extension and review? At a minimum, schools should:


  • Consider the social impact of supports
  • Increase gen ed teacher engagement
  • Listen to the voices of those with disabilities
  • Include students in making decisions about their own supports


Ready to get started? Remfrey Educational Consultants has a forthcoming series of classes to fill the TA training void, all designed to fit the unique needs of  international schools. Contact us for more information on our school audits, professional development programs, and comprehensive teaching assistant training options. 


Now that you’ve seen how quality teaching assistant training impacts students, stay tuned for our next blog post on the ways training helps TAs and gen ed teachers.  


References


Fisher, M., & Pleasants, S. L. (2011). Roles, Responsibilities, and Concerns of Paraeducators. Remedial and Special Education, 33(5), 287–297.


Giangreco, M. F., Suter, J. C., & Doyle, M. B. (2010). Paraprofessionals in Inclusive Schools: A Review of Recent Research. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 20(1), 41–57.