How to get the best from your TA

Tonight’s 15 Minute Forum was led by our SENCO, Carole Marsh

The Issue

In response to recent research into the role and work of teaching assistants by Rob Webster and others we have been changing the way TAs:

  • support SEND students in class
  • Work with teachers in class

Students with SEND who experience high amounts of teaching assistant (TA) support are at risk of developing learned helplessness.

  • none of this is a reflection on TAs
  • it is a recognition of how a core part of SEND provision has evolved, largely unchallenged.

What the research points to

The traditional deployment of TAs has been based on 2 untested assumptions …

  • support from TAs leads to positive outcomes for students … particularly low attaining and those with SEN … a natural assumption that if teaching assistants work alongside students with SEN there will be an increase in achievement
  • There are positive effects for teachers.

The evidence is much more complex.  It suggests that:

  • there is minimal impact on student achievement
  • there are benefits on behavioural, emotional and social development.

(Russell, A., Webster, R., & Blatchford, P. (2013) Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants. London, Routledge)

The EEF toolkit says the following:

“Research that examines the impact of TAs providing general classroom support suggests that students in a class with a teaching assistant present do not, on average, outperform those in one where only a teacher is present. This average finding covers a range of impacts. In some cases teachers and TAs work together effectively, leading to increases in attainment. In other cases pupils, particularly those who are low attaining or identified as having special educational needs, can perform worse in classes with teaching assistants.”

More on this here.

The big issue

One unintended consequence of the traditional way Teaching Assistants work is that it limits the interaction between the class teacher and the student(s) who need additional help and support.

In the traditional way of working there is an assumption in practice that when a TA is assigned to a student he / she will …

  • support that student through breaking the work down
  • give clarification and explanation
  • deal with student misconceptions.

By sitting with / next to a student a ‘barrier’ is inadvertently placed between teacher and student.  The teacher may think that there is less of a need to check the progress of these students, as they re being ‘looked after’ by the TA.  The consequence of this is that those students in most need of subject specific help are drawing most of their support from a non-specialist.

Hattie (2008) argues that the use of teaching assistants tended to “separate the teacher from the students,” becoming “an alternative rather than an addition to the teacher.” This could have a damaging effect on students because teaching assistants’ explanations of topics were “sometimes inaccurate or confusing” and they were more likely than teachers to “prompt pupils and provide them with answers”. Moreover he goes on to say, ‘Schools should stop placing students who need the most expertise with those who have the least – TAs’

Working with TAs – ways forward

At Durrington, based on these findings, we have adjusted the way in which we use TAs.  The TA circulates the room, instead of sitting with one student for the whole lesson.  This is to support the following:

  • keeping all students on task rather than single SEN focus
  • Still works with SEN students … but…
  • Has a wider classroom role
  • Opens greater opportunity for interaction between the teacher and SEN students

The TA also learns subject specific key knowledge, exam framework and command words.  This allows them to focus on:

  • what is required in the structure of answers
  • much more effective checking of student work

The teacher can then focus on explanations, clarifying misconceptions, re-explaining, to all students, including SEN students rather than relying on TA to do this.  This ensures:

  • more personalised time with SEN students
  • renewed expectations of what these students can achieve
  • increased their scaffolding of work

The diagram above describes ways in which TAs could be working with students in order to grow greater independence:

Self Scaffolding … TAs need to get comfortable with pupils struggling a bit and recognise this as an essential component of learning

Prompting … This is where TAs might intervene with a nudge: ‘What do you need to do first?’; ‘What’s your plan?’; ‘You can do this!’

Clueing … in problem-solving activities … Clues are a question or small piece of information to help pupils work out how to move forward. They should be drip-fed; always start with a small clue

Modelling … TAs, if confident and competent, can model while pupils actively watch and listen, then try the same step for themselves afterwards

Correcting … is where TAs provide answers and requires no independent thinking


  • While there is very little time for joint lesson planning (an ideal situation) … TAs are a very valuable resource
  • Learned dependence and the limiting of interaction between the teacher and SEN student can be minimised by:
    • Thinking again about the classroom roles of both teacher and TA
    • Working with the TA in supporting SEN students by creating a climate and experiences that promote greater independence
    • Using the TA’s increasing knowledge of particular learning difficulties presented by SEN students

The EEF suggests the following considerations:

  1. Have you identified the activities where TAs can support learning, rather than simply managing tasks?
  2. Have you provided support and training for teachers and TAs so that they understand how to work together effectively?
  3. How will you ensure that teachers do not reduce their support or input to the pupils supported by TAs?
  4. Have you considered how you will evaluate the impact of how you deploy your TAs?


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2 Responses to How to get the best from your TA

  1. Pingback: How to get the best from your TA | Making Our Best Better

  2. Reblogged this on Design Technology & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    How to get the best from your TA

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