SEND teaching assistants – Should you use the ‘velcro’ or ‘helicopter’ models of teaching?
Having a TA stuck permanently to their side means children don’t develop the skills to learn independently, says Sara Alston…
- by Sara Alston
As any classroom teacher will tell you, a good TA, LSA or any of the other numerous titles given to these marvellous people is worth their weight in gold, if not more. Yet, the role of teaching assistant remains one of the most controversial in education.
While the majority of TAs are highly effective, there is considerable evidence that some are less so and can even block the learning process. The main reasons behind this are TAs’ lack of skills and training and their poor deployment and direction.
Many TAs start without training or experience and learn on the job. Equally, few teachers are trained to deploy other adults. This is combined with a confusion about time, hours and funding allocations for children with an EHCP or high level of support.
I still meet heads, parents and SENCos who say, “They have 25 hours of support” and believe that this should be one-to-one.
All the evidence is that, except in exceptional cases where there is a high level of physical or safeguarding need, this is not what 25 hours of support means in the mainstream classroom. Yet this belief persists.
This is exacerbated by few people in schools having a clear understanding of what is meant by ‘supporting’ in class. Too often, support is equated with an adult being stuck to a child for a set number of hours: the velcro TA.
A focus on ‘velcro TAs’ leads TAs and teachers to believe that teaching assistants should be with ‘their child’ only and at all times. This belief restricts how teachers are able to deploy TAs in their classrooms and frequently deprives children of teacher time.
Moreover, with an adult permanently alongside them, the child may not be able to develop the confidence to try or the skills to learn independently. Further, they are denied opportunities to fail safely.
The velcro TA endures as staff don’t feel confident enough to consider the alternatives. Swapping the TA and teacher so the latter can work with ‘the child’ is not a long-term solution.
A more effective option is the ‘helicopter’ model.
A ‘helicopter TA’ prepares a child for learning by ‘dropping down’ the strategies and resources needed. Then they lift off and ‘hover’.
They can drop down again when the support is needed to re-focus or remind the child to use the strategies and resources available before leaving again.
This approach means that TAs can both provide children with the support they need and the opportunity to learn independently.
Changing the model
The ‘helicopter’ approach requires TAs to be confident and feel that they have permission to leave ‘their child’. This has to come from a shared understanding between TAs, teachers, senior leaders and parents of what is meant by classroom support.
TAs need to be given the time, resources and skills to prepare children to access learning independently.
Key to this is opportunities for TAs to read and understand teachers’ planning, so that they know what is coming up in lessons and are able to prepare children for it, such as getting maths resources and teaching the child how to use them, rather than sitting beside the child prompting as they complete each calculation.
It may mean that TAs (under the teacher’s direction) prepare resources, provide pre- and over-learning and support the development of IT skills, so may be less visible in the classroom.
The focus needs to be on support to access the instructions.
Rather than concentrating on completing the task, the TA focuses on how to approach the learning using visual reminders and checklists (for example, task management boards, ‘now and next’ cards, visual timetables and worked examples) so the child can attempt the task independently.
By making the support visual, and not dependent on the TA at the child’s side, we reduce the repetition of information and instructions which inhibits learning and leads to confusion and dependence.
There is an ongoing mantra in SEND about preparation for adulthood. Few people go into this next stage of their lives with another adult velcroed to their shoulder.
If we perpetuate dependence on a continued TA presence, we are not preparing children with SEND to be independent adults.
Preparation for independence means schools need to support children to learn independently, enabling them to tackle tasks on their own and experience success and failure.
If we are to improve outcomes for SEND children, we need to ensure that we are prompting children to be independent instead of developing pupils who are dependent on adult prompting to learn.
This means we must reconsider how we use TAs and give them and teachers the confidence that the majority of children with SEND can access learning without a constant TA presence.
Velcro or helicopter?
We explore the pros and cons of both models.
In this model, the TA is constantly with the child in question and works directly with them.
✔ There is always someone there when the child needs help.
✔ It is clear that the pupil has support which can make them and their parents feel secure.
✖ The child becomes dependent on having an adult there to attempt any task.
✖ It undermines the pupil’s and adults’ belief that the child can do anything on their own.
In this model, the TA starts the child off on an activity then moves away and works with others, returning to their focus child to check in, help with any problems, reassure and re-focus. They then move away again, returning as and when they are needed.
✔ The child develops independence.
✔ They learn that they can do things on their own.
✔ The TA is available to support others.
✖ The timing won’t always be right, so there is a risk that the child might not have support available at the point they need it.