A very happy Easter to all my readers as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I trust those in the UK didn’t find the lost hour too jarring!
Something a bit different this week, I trust that’s all right with you. My PhD examined the experience of children in the mathematics classroom, particularly looking at differences by gender, ethnicity and social class. When it came to doing classroom observation in London schools, it rapidly become apparent that many children’s experience of the classroom included working with teaching assistants (also known as classroom assistants, paraprofessionals in an American context and, curiously, non-teaching assistants), so that became a subtheme of my PhD, later written up as a journal article (Tennant, 2001).
Whilst at Leicester I worked in a team headed up by Dr Wasyl Cajkler which produced a series of three systematic literature reviews on the role of the teaching assistant (Cajkler et al., 2006; Cajkler, Tennant, Tiknaz, Sage, Taylor, et al., 2007; Cajkler, Tennant, Tiknaz, Sage, Tucker, et al., 2007). When I moved to Reading I continued to work on this theme, but shortly afterwards was advised to concentrate on my research efforts on mathematics education, ie. to bring my academic and research interests closer into line, advice which I have passed on many times since. It’s difficult enough maintaining a research profile alongside teaching and administrative duties, more difficult again if there’s no connection between them.
I was preparing to teach a class this coming week when I reread the below, drawing to some extent on the literature reviews and written shortly before refocusing on mathematics. It was not clear at the time how to get it published and it slipped through the net. On rereading it, I decided, even though it’s somewhat dated (written in about 2009) and slightly rough around the edges, that I did want to share it. So here it is! Very interested to hear any responses, and if you’re interested in coming in as co-author to update the contents with a view to having them published in a forum other than this blog, do please get in touch.
One of the recurring themes in the literature on teaching assistants (TAs) across the world is the importance of their role in promoting inclusion (eg. Ebersold, 2003; Groom, 2005; MENCAP, 1999). But this stance raises a whole number of questions. What exactly is meant by inclusion? Where does inclusion fit in to the aims of education more generally? Do TAs promote inclusion? If so, how? If not, why not and what can be done to ensure that this is happening?
Drawing upon ideas developed in compiling three literature reviews on the role of the TA (Cajkler et al., 2006; Cajkler, Tennant, Tiknaz, Sage, Taylor, et al., 2007; Cajkler, Tennant, Tiknaz, Sage, Tucker, et al., 2007) this paper aims firstly to look at the nature of inclusion, with a brief look at what needs to happen in a school generally for inclusion to happen, before then considering the role of the TA within this. Whilst behaviours can be observed of TAs acting in ways which would appear directly to contradict the notion of inclusion, useful pointers can be found as to what TAs can do to make inclusion a meaningful reality for all children.
What is inclusion and who is it for?
The concept of inclusion is that everybody is included. However, in reality it is not possible to proceed with a consideration of the concept without facing up to the question as to who it is who may be in danger of being excluded. Long lists can be compiled (eg. Mitchell, 1997: 2). However, for the purposes of this paper, unless otherwise stated, it is assumed that the children who are in danger of being excluded are either physically disabled or have specific learning difficulties.
In order to attempt to clarify the issues within inclusion, the concept will be subdivided into three: physical inclusion, social inclusion and academic inclusion.
A definition of physical inclusion (albeit that they do not use this language) can be found in Stainback and Stainback (1990: 3): “An inclusive school is one that educates all students in the mainstream.” And indeed, writers can be found who view the notion of all children being educated in the same classroom as a basic human right:
It is worth noting, however, that the Salamanca agreement (UNESCO, 1994), which set out a vision for inclusive education across the world, gave the following important proviso:
And, indeed, definitions of inclusion can be found which do not necessitate all children being in the same settings:
To debate the relative merits of these positions is beyond the scope of this paper. To proceed, it is assumed that inclusion necessitates what is being termed here physical inclusion – whilst one may consider that there are children for whom a segregated setting is more appropriate in meeting their academic and social needs, this is not being called inclusion for these purposes.
It can readily be seen, however, that physical inclusion by itself is not enough: if children with physical disabilities or specific learning needs are placed into the mainstream classroom without any support, then it is perfectly possible that they will neither have any meaningful social contact with other children, nor that they will have any meaningful access to the curriculum. This corresponds to the notion of ‘maindumping’ (Stainback & Stainback, 1990: 20), and it can readily be seen that a TA can be allocated to a child being included into the mainstream classroom with no further thought as to what needs to happen (Lacey, 2001; Marks, Schrader, & Levine, 1999). This therefore leads to the notion of social and academic inclusion as considered below.
According to Koster et al. (2009), meaningful social inclusion necessitates reciprocal friendships and relationships, interactions and contacts, perception of the pupil with SEN and acceptance by classmates. In a review looking into the integration of children with severe learning difficulties into the mainstream, Farrell (1997) found that the 'degree of social and linguistic interaction between the children with SLD and their peers in integrated settings is limited and tends to be didactic and one way in nature" (page 10). Farrell commented initiatives in which other children learnt to interact with children with SLD in a meaningful way, noting that such initiatives are necessarily going to take up considerable time. Whilst one might well consider that this represents valuable learning for everybody concerned, realistically there is going to be a tension between these kinds of initiatives to promote inclusion and an agenda in looking to increase academic standards, as noted by Lloyd (2008) and Armstrong (2005).
It is a standard piece of initial teacher training to consider that any group of children will have different experiences and enthusiasms for the work going on, and can reasonably be expected to work at different speeds with differing quality of outcome, and dealing with this under the general heading of differentiation.
If children with physical disabilities and specific learning difficulties are to be included in the mainstream classroom, then this notion needs to be re-examined. A series of examples of how academic inclusion might be achieved is given by Stainback and Stainback (1990: 10-11) which are worth considering in some detail:
At one level one might consider that what one has here is a useful series of examples as to how academic inclusion might be achieved. But there are a number of problems here. There is a strong sense through these examples that the curriculum is chosen first and foremost with the needs of the majority in mind, and other children then fitting in as best they can. It may well be that the development of motor control and social skills are suitably challenging objectives for a particular child, but is it not appropriate to be asking: if we were to organise learning activities with this child primarily in mind, would we be going about it like this? These are clearly not easy issues to resolve: later in this paper there will be some consideration as to what the role of the TA can be in ensuring inclusion – physical, academic and social – for children in mainstream classrooms.
A somewhat different view can be found in OFSTED (2004: 16). An example of a literacy lesson in a primary school in which most children were working on ‘advanced’ punctuation marks. Within the class were three children with very limited writing skills. With considerable support from a TA, they were able to complete an exercise on full stops and capital letters. In one sense, this would appear to be within the spirit of inclusion: they were physically included, and given work to do, designed to be appropriately challenging for them, which came under the same heading as other children. It is clear from the commentary that OFSTED felt that this was unacceptable – the level of support given meant that the work ultimately was not the children’s own, with their time better spent on “focusing on their own next steps in learning” (ibid). But this would surely mean that the children would be included only in a physical sense – if academically segregated it is difficult to see how children can be socially included.
Again, it is beyond the remit of this paper to debate the relative merits of these positions. It is important to note, however, that somewhat different views are held on the ideal position, with important consequences for the role of the TA.
Making inclusion happen: beyond the role of the TA
Before considering the role of the TA in promoting inclusion, it is important to consider what it is that needs to happen in a school beyond the TA. As noted above, there are philosophical differences as to what inclusion is and how it is meaningfully achieved. These differences need to be resolved by the senior leadership in order that a clear underpinning be established from which teachers and TAs can work.
Important also that all staff believe in the principles of inclusion and are prepared to work hard to that end. A number of studies can be found which make the point that meaningful social and academic inclusion takes a considerable amount of hard work, requiring a huge commitment from those involved, particularly the mainstream teacher. The point is put in the negative by Evans and Lunt (2005: 47) who give a range of difficulties in implementing inclusion, including the the feeling of mainstream school teachers that needs were too complex or challenging to be dealt with in the mainstream classroom. Similarly, Norwich (2000) quoted a number of surveys undertaken in which teachers started off by expressing support for the concept of inclusion, but, as the questions became more detailed as to what that would mean in the classroom, became noticeably less enthusiastic in the answers that they gave.
The role of the TA in promoting inclusion
How TAs might help with inclusion is considered below in the categories physical, social and academic, in accordance with the above.
TAs helping with physical inclusion
It can easily be seen that, from an administrative point of view, employing a TA could be viewed as putting a sticking plaster over this situation, which is consistent with the perceptions of TAs as described, albeit in an American context, by Marks et al. (1999), of being left alone to cope with a problem, and the class teacher giving all responsibility to the TA unthinkingly. This has been termed ‘maindumping’ (Thomas, Walker, & Webb, 2005). It is important, therefore, to think of the help that TAs give in facilitating physical inclusion for children as a means to an end rather than an end in itself – the end being facilitating also social and academic inclusion.
There are a number of categories of children needing help in order that they can be physically included in the classroom. This would include children with physical disabilities, and also those vulnerable in some respect, either to being bullied, or to being excluded from school.
One key point which emerges from the literature is the need to keep the support as low key as possible. Studies reporting the voices of deaf pupils (in Jarvis, 2003) and young adults with restricted mobility looking back at their experiences as children (in Skär & Tamm, 2001) give weight to this argument, with youngsters, not least teenagers, wishing to blend in as far as possible. Indeed, a powerful argument can be made that it can frequently be the case that the place for support to be given to promote inclusion is actually outside of the classroom. Vulliamy and Webb (2003) described the work of home-school support workers, trained in a social work context, working with disaffected youngsters at risk of being excluded from school. Much of their work was of a counselling nature, sometimes in the students’ homes. It is worth noting also that an early report on the role of the TA by the Audit Commission (1992) suggests that:
Also, as youngsters become teenagers particularly, there is a strong argument (see French & Chopra, 1999) for separating out help required for physical inclusion from academic and social – so that, for example, it is a different person taking the child to the toilet to the person who helps with academic work or facilitating group discussions. There may be, of course, cost implications to this, but in terms of preserving the child’s dignity, there could well be considerable advantages. In a similar vein, hard-of-hearing children reported in Jarvis (2003) complained of being ‘over-helped’. One way of thinking of this is to consider that the TA is there to provide support for physical inclusion, which in the case of hard-of-hearing children means sign language or other similar support, rather than necessarily academic support which any child might be needing.
TAs promoting social inclusion
TAs can have a key role in facilitating peer group relationships when, for whatever reason, youngsters may have difficulties in effecting these themselves. Alongside this, there is the clear possibility, backed up by a number of research papers (particularly Giangreco, Edelman, Luiselli, & MacFarland, 1997) that having additional adults in the classroom has precisely the opposite effect, in isolating youngsters from their peers. This therefore needs to be thought about carefully.
Some helpful case studies are given by Lacey (2001) of TAs working with children with severe learning difficulties (SLD) in the mainstream classroom:
And same page:
Another important contribution to this topic was compiled by Farrell (1997), which was a review of then current literature on how children with severe learning difficulties were included. One key point, allied to comments above between tensions between inclusion and good results, is that facilitating social inclusion requires time and training for the children involved – time which might be spent on curriculum work. Whilst one may argue that such time and effort is worth expending. In the absence of such work – which needs constant updating (page 10)- 'the degree of social and linguistic interaction between the children with SLD and their peers in integrated settings is limited and tends to be didactic and one way in nature."
Of crucial importance in considering social inclusion is what happens in the playground. This point is picked up briefly in Moran and Abbott (2002), with a respondent advocating a ‘hands off’ approach in general, concerned that children should interact with each other rather than be tied to a TA during that time. There would appear to be, however, very little literature specifically on this point – children’s experience of breaktimes, and the role of the TA within that, could well be a fruitful ground for future research.
TAs promoting academic inclusion
An interesting point is made by Hunt and Goetz (1997: 17), which would give a possible explanation as to why social inclusion appears to get more attention than academic inclusion: “the impetus for the movement to include students in the mainstream of education was grounded in human rights guaranteed by the Constitution and ethical considerations rather than in theories of learning or research on effective teaching." Similarly, in a survey by Lacey (2001: 161), only 9% of comments of TAs and parents about inclusion related to academic issues, although teachers rated academic inclusion as a higher priority.
As considered above, there are key issues to resolve as to what model of differentiation is being used. Particularly, using the example given by OFSTED above, whether the intention that all children work under the same broad heading (‘punctuation’) at their own level, or to work to a curriculum putting each child at the centre of the thinking, even if that means that different children are doing quite different work in the same room at the same time.
One key aspect of the TA role within promoting academic inclusion can be acting as a role model. So Chambers and Pearson (2004) give examples in a modern foreign languages classroom of TAs learning alongside the children, exemplifying the use of different coloured pens for the purposes of taking good notes. Roaf (2003) also gives examples of TAs acting as role models, asking questions on behalf of pupils when they either don’t understand themselves or feel that the children may not be doing so.
Of crucial importance is that TAs should genuinely be helping children to do their own work rather than doing it themselves. This points to the need for training of TAs, ensuring that it is understood that is children's learning rather than what gets down on paper which is of paramount importance.
Over and above the role of the TA, there are a number of crucial things to be happening in a school for inclusion to be a meaningful reality. There needs to be a clear commitment to the concept of inclusion – which, as has been noted, conflicts with other priorities in a school, particularly the drive for increasing examination results. Within this, the teaching staff need to be fully behind the idea, both in principle and in practice, and not simply regard inclusion as the exclusive domain of the TA. And there needs to be a coherent philosophy as to what model of differentiation is being used.
In terms of the role of the TA, a number of key points come out of this paper. From the point of view of physical, social and academic inclusion, an aspect which comes out each time is that of role model. For physical inclusion, children can see the TAs embracing difference and diversity, ensuring that all children feel comfortable and welcome in the mainstream classroom. For social inclusion, TAs can model appropriate forms of communication. And for academic inclusion, TAs can be co-learners, displaying an enthusiasm and curiosity for the subject matter, in some cases genuinely learning alongside the children.
In terms of the support that TAs can provide in promoting inclusion of all types, an important message which emerges from the literature considered in this chapter is that it may be appropriate to spend relatively small amounts of time providing that support outside of the classroom, in order that much larger amounts of time can be spent in the mainstream classroom able to access the academic and social opportunities it has to offer. And a message which has come out before is the need to keep help as low-key in ensuring that children’s independence is enhanced rather than curtailed. The help of TAs can be crucial in ensuring children’s inclusion, but this does not happen automatically, with the clear possibility that if TAs are deployed unthinkingly, it is exclusion and isolation which is being promoted, not inclusion. I trust that this paper will help TAs, teachers, special educational needs coordinators, school leaders, and trainers of TAs to move towards a situation in which children in mainstream classes can benefit fully from the opportunities presented.
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