10+ strategies for strengthening educational assistants’ practice
Educational assistants need practical strategies that go beyond simply ‘helping’ and instead create supported opportunities that increase students’ participation in learning and build their personal autonomy.
These are strategies that many classroom teachers use in their practice, often intuitively. Giving them a name will help build common understanding and creates a language for professional conversations between teachers and educational assistants.
Successful students understand how the classroom works. They typically know what behaviour is appropriate, how to relate to peers.
Typically, developing students figure out how the classroom works by using their prior knowledge and reading subtle cues. All of this learning is invisible.
Educational assistants can perform a vital role by identifying what may be ‘invisible’ in a given classroom to an individual or small group of students. Then, they use tactics like encouraging the observation of others (“Notice that all of your friends are gathering up their library books”) or using a think-aloud to point out cues in the environment (“When I hear that bell I know it is time for recess”).
It is important that students see the classroom as a safe and predictable place. When strong routines are in place, the day ceases to be a series of stressful unknowns. When educational assistants are always directing students about what to do and where to go, students become dependent on these prompts.
Educational assistants can make classrooms routines KNOWABLE without making students dependent by helping learners use visual schedules and other physical cues.
Being able to follow routines on their own build learners’ confidence and create opportunities to experience autonomy and a degree of independence.
Educational assistants need tools and strategies for figuring out what the right level of support is for individual students, within different contexts.
Sharing a model like this, would give an educational assistant a reliable framework for making informed decisions across the learning day.
Students who don’t have regular opportunities to experience success gradually lose confidence in themselves and eventually give up or begin acting out.
To break that negative cycle, educational assistants can introduce more difficult tasks within contexts and routines that are currently successful and non problematic for a student. It may be necessary to ‘back pedal’ to success by using previously mastered skills or tasks as a starting point. Educational assistants need to ensure that there are opportunities for success in all areas of schooling, including the social aspects. Students who struggle in a particular area need more opportunities to be successful—not less.
An important component of explicit and systemic instruction is adult modelling. This is an important role for an educational assistant. Focusing on modelling, rather than directing, an educational assistant can support a students’ active participation in learning tasks. Pairing modelling with guided practice will build student confidence, and increase learning.
When teaching students anything new, it is important to start with the concrete and build up from there. Concrete typically means beginning with something that students can see and experience in some way. For example, the number ten is an abstract concept; ten unifix cubes provide a concrete example for understanding the meaning of ten. Identifying and sharing tangible examples related to new concept is a strategy educational assistants can use to support students across the subject areas.
Strategically-asked questions can help students focus on their own thinking process. For example, “What do you do when you come into the classroom? What do you need to do to get ready for work? What do you do when you want to join in a game?”
Questions can help students transfer what they know to other settings and new situations. For example, “Where else have you seen this kind of ….?
Educational assistants can use metacognitive questions to prompt students to monitor their own learning and strategies. For example, “Does this answer make sense? How do you know you are finished this task?”
As educational assistants become skilled with questioning they can use them to challenge students to justify their responses and stretch their thinking and communication. For example, “Yes, that’s right, how did you know?”
Research identifies timely and descriptive feedback as one of the most powerful strategies for supporting learning. Keeping feedback positive, as in telling students what they did right, reinforces and motivates students and makes them less likely to repeat errors.
When educational assistants move from only providing one-to-one support to providing support for small group work, they create opportunities for individual students to experience the benefit of peer role modelling, Working with others is often motivating for an individual student and it can provide authentic contexts for communication and social interaction.
Educational assistants need to have a strong understanding of positive behaviour supports so they can use low-key responses to prevent or stop problem behaviour and maximize students’ opportunities for learning.
Fostering social interaction is a new role for many educational assistants and this strategy requires flexibility and creativity.
As well as role modelling, educational assistants need to use low-key techniques such as stepping out the way. For example, if two students are starting to interact, the most helpful thing to do might be to get out of the way (even by inventing a fictional task) and encouraging students to continue with a simple prompt such as “You two have a great start. I need to pick up something from the printer, so just keep going, you are on the right track.”
Other techniques include looking for opportunities and then providing low-key prompts for social interaction. For example, “There is room on the bench beside Ben, why don’t you ask him if you can join him? Beth is looking for a partner, why don’t you invite her to be yours?”
Some students will need more support than others, and may benefit from preparation ahead of time. Social stories and visual supports are samples of the types of techniques that educational assistants can use to foster positive social interactions.
Another technique educational assistants can use is pulling in peers. They can do this a number of ways, including introducing students to one another or arranging (in a low key way) for students to sit together. Making purposeful errors is a creative way to engage students. For example, “I’m not getting how this thing goes together, Tommy? Billy? How does this work?”
Please take a few minutes to hear Erik Carter’s insights on how educational assistants need to work differently and the importance of fostering social interactions between students.
Effective supports are flexible supports. Ultimately educational assistants need to be able to adjust the type of support and level of intensity to align with changing task demands and evolving learning contexts. For a variety of reasons, students’ support needs can change from context to context. It is less about fading supports, and more about adjusting supports to enable optimum success.
This model of supporting for independence offers a snapshot of what a gradual release of responsibility can look like. Models such as this can give educational assistants the language and framework for thinking about the needs of individual students and making decisions about how best to provide support.
This was just a quick tour of potential strategies and supports. Take a moment to reflect on which had the most resonance for you and also add some strategies to this list.