Learning for All

Rethinking the role of educational assistants

As the concept of inclusive education evolves, new information is emerging on the use of one-to-one educational assistants to support for students with disabilities. Current findings by leading researchers challenge this common classroom practice.


The most comprehensive research on the use of educational assistants has come from Michael Giangreco.

What Giangreco articulates so well is how current models of educational assistants’ use have allowed us to include more students with disabilities without substantially addressing or changing how separate special and general education systems function.

Giangreco also appears to make an assumption that those educational assistants working within specialized setting, because of their proximity to a special education teacher, are serving students well. Other researchers would argue that this is not necessarily true.


Too often educational assistants are used to relieve perceived pressures, despite the lack of compelling evidence regarding the effectiveness of this support strategy.

Attempts to meet the needs of students with disabilities in grade-level classrooms are often addressed from a reactive stance. School staff in reactive mode may perceive themselves as being at the brink of capacity and ill-equipped when faced with a perceived stress (such as a new student with a disability who has significant support needs).

What constitutes perceived ‘capacity’ is relative. Giangreco cites a study that documented that whether a school had a teacher assistant for every three students with an Individual Program Plan, or for every ten students, they reported perceiving themselves as being under resourced or at the edge of capacity.

Too often a scarcity mindset is driving how we make decision around supporting students with specialized needs.


Giangreco also talks about the myth of that ‘prototypical student’ who needs all day one-to-one assistance.

Certainly some students require different and more intensive supports than others.

But there is nothing inherent about a student’s characteristics that necessities an educational assistant per se, as opposed to other combinations of supports that might be less intrusive and more appropriate options, such as assistive technology, differentiated instruction, and small group work in the classroom.


Over-reliance on educational assistants can result in the education of students with significant disabilities being delegated to the educational assistant, who does the assessment, planning and provides instruction for the student, with minimal or no input or supervision by the classroom teacher.

This can create a double standard and begs the question: “Would this be okay if the student did not have a disability?”


For example, it is not unusual for an educational assistant to be the only adult with a small group of students’ with significant disabilities about 75 per cent of the day—would that scenario be okay if these students did not have a disability?



It is also common practice for classroom teachers to rely on the educational assistant to communicate with the parents of a child with a disability, and also report progress. Would this be acceptable practice if the student didn’t have a disability?


By over-relying on educational assistants, we are compromising students’ educational experiences and we not providing educational assistants with the supervision and guidance they need to most effective in their role.


We need to be considering a broader and more robust continuum of supports, that do include educational assistants, but are not limited to educational assistants.

We also need to consider new roles for educational assistants, and how they can best support students, teachers and school communities.


Participants in the community of practice offered the following responses to the above question:

  • use a collaborative approach to determine how best to meet the needs of a student
  • be very clear that communication with the parent is a teacher or administrator responsibility
  • I like to introduce schools to the ATA document around teacher-educational assistant collaboration to begin the year so that roles are clearly defined
  • role of the educational assistant is to support student participation in classroom activities and therefore must be in the classroom working as part of the whole group
  • include educational assistants in collaborative meetings of grade-level teachers
  • we all work as a team to support all students but we must define roles and responsibilities… and teachers must be responsible for the education of all students
  • the goal should be support to independence for all learners
  • use the educational assistant’s skills to support students completing a teacher-designed and directed activity with the larger group in the classroom, and the teacher can work one-to-one or with a small group of students
  • educational assistants needs training in how to implement positive behavioural strategies and how to adapt particular activities
  • educational assistants are not responsible for coming up with the programming, that is the classroom teacher’s responsibility

Questions for reflection

  • How are schools in your district currently using educational assistants to support students with significant disabilities? How are they measuring effectiveness?
  • How could you use the Alberta Education video Rethinking the Role of Educational Assistants in your work?
  • What do you see as key issues in how schools are currently making decisions related to educational assistants?
  • What kind of strategies and understandings do you think educational assistants (and the students they work with) would benefit from most?
  • What resources do you recommend to schools that want to build capacity of the teachers working with educational assistants?

Next… 10+ strategies for strengthening educational assistants’ practice