A parent’s perspective

All children deserve access to an education. Those with extra needs are entitled to proper support in order to access that education. This support is provided by Education Assistants. As well as academic support, EA’s may provide support with communication, behaviour, medical needs, or personal care. It is expected that they manage these extra needs while at the same time support their students to be fully included members of their classroom and school community.

Currently, there are no standards of practice for EA’s in our province and because of this there is a huge variance in training programs from curriculum to length of program (anywhere from two weeks to two years). The result is a workforce with vastly inconsistent levels of knowledge and skill and EA’s who may be unprepared for the realities of the job. Not only is this a detriment to the EA, it is also hugely detrimental to the students they support. EA’s support some of the most complex and vulnerable students, but without any standards of best practice, sometimes that support can cause more harm than good. As a parent of a special needs child, I can attest to this personally.

Sending any child to school for the first time is stressful. You hope those first steps into the school system will be positive ones, but for parents whose children have special needs, those first steps into school can be downright terrifying. Knowing that your child will have support from a skilled, well trained and competent Educational Assistant can help alleviate some of the anxiety and ultimately lead to a successful school experience for all involved. If EA’s had standards of practice, as parents, we could have this confidence.

My youngest son has autism and communication challenges. When it came time for him to start school, I was nervous, wondering if he would get the support he needed. As an EA myself with 20 years experience, I hoped whomever was assigned to him would have the right skills to make his school life a success. We were fortunate. While the transition was not without bumps and hurdles, for the most part, it was a positive experience both for us as parents, and for our child. We had a great school team, the foundation of which were our child’s two Education Assistants. Not only were they enthusiastic, caring individuals, they were also knowledgeable and skilled. The EA’s knew how to reach my child. They knew how to encourage him without overwhelming him, and how to manage when he did become overwhelmed or dysregulated. They knew how to give him the support he needed while still fostering his independence. They knew how to make him feel like a valued member of the class. My husband and I were thrilled.  Our child was happy and making progress.

Unfortunately, our elation didn’t last.

The following years were hit and miss when it came to EA support. Although he always got 1:1 support, the quality of that support varied widely. The people assigned to support him during this time, while kind and caring, just did not have the skills needed for our son’s complex needs. Some struggled with his communication system, others struggled with behaviour management and de-escalation, still others struggled with presenting tasks to match his unique learning style or to accommodate his sensory needs. Some lacked basic understanding of autism.

The result was devastating for our son. He went from being excited to leave for school in the morning, to crying at the mere mention of school. At the worst, our once happy child was in tears multiple times throughout the day. He was having huge meltdowns almost daily. He was hitting and biting his EA’s and teachers and us. He was purposely banging his head against desks and walls. He was unhappy, dysregulated, and frustrated and we were stressed and worried.

Eventually our son was assigned a more experienced EA. The change in our son was immediate. He was calm, there were no aggressive behaviours, the meltdowns reduced greatly.  He was regulated and able to learn. He was happy, and we were relieved. This is not to say there were never any issues, but when issues came up, the EA was able to positively navigate them because she had the skills and training to do so.

With standards of practice, all the EA’s would have had the skills and training to successfully support our child. Unfortunately, due to a lack of standards of practice, this situation could happen again. We could again find ourselves with an EA with inadequate training.

Having standards of practice for Education Assistants would ensure that new EA’s are given the essential tools and skills needed to assist our children to have a successful and inclusive education. Our children deserve the best support possible, and as parents, we deserve to know the people providing that support are well trained.

Kemi Nordstrom, EA of more than 20 years and Parent of a Neurodiverse Child

If they have not been appropriately trained, then the system is to blame.

As an Education Assistant (EA) of 24 years, I think standards of practice for Education Assistants are crucial for a variety of reasons. The first and most obvious reason is the students. The students that are being supported by EAs across the province deserve to be supported appropriately. They deserve, and are entitled to, their best education. Having standards of practice will ensure the people supporting students have the skills and understanding to be able to meet the needs of students who may have complex learning challenges.

Standards of practice are also important for the EAs who are being trained currently. While I understand we do not have enough EAs in our education system to meet the needs of the students, I do not feel that we should be taking shortcuts to fill the need. If we do not prepare EAs appropriately for the job they will do, then we have set the EAs up for failure, and ultimately the students they are supporting, and all the professionals and other students working in the classroom. We do them a disservice by not preparing them fully for their role.

While all new jobs will have a learning curve, the role EAs play in supporting students with complex needs means they need to be appropriately prepared for the important job they will be doing. If we do not have standards of practice, we may have people that are not appropriately prepared for the job, as the training available varies greatly from 2 weeks to 2 years. This could be a safety issue for the students and the EAs, as often the EAs with the least amount of experience will work in positions with students who have high needs. If they are not adequately trained then we have set them up to fail. They have been told they are ready and prepared, but they are not. When this happens, the student is often blamed and then labeled as bad or difficult, and the EA is blamed, but ultimately, if they have not been appropriately trained, then the system is to blame.

I believe that everyone who decides to become an EA does it because they genuinely want to help children. We need to give them, and the children they will be supporting, the best opportunity to do that by having a minimum standard of practice so everyone can be at the same starting point when they begin working as an EA.

Natalie Taylor-Lane, EA of 24 years

Two week EA training programs: are they what our children deserve?

In B.C. like much of the world, education assistants (EAs) perform a multitude of tasks during their workday and with increasing regularity are in “direct pedagogical roles” supporting students in classrooms and schools. There are currently ~13,000 EAs in B.C., with pre- Covid plans to hire an additional 1,000, making them the second largest educational employee group in the province.  In previous years, EAs primarily supported students with “disabilities and diverse abilities”, but with policy changes the majority of EAs now support whole classes. This means EAs’ time and resources are now shared among all students in the classroom.

Like teachers, EAs are governed by the B.C. School Act. However, unlike teachers or even early childhood educators, EAs – referred to as teaching assistants in the School Act – require no relevant education, qualification or certification beyond a high school diploma. In fact, according to the School Act, school districts and boards determine the qualification requirements of EAs. This practice means some districts and boards only hire EAs from recognized post-secondary programs, while others, particularly those with significant recruitment challenges, will either create their own short-term EA training programs, or hire EAs without any recognized credentials. In their 2008 survey of 4,000 EAs, CUPE BC found that less than half (47%) of EAs had any recognized credentials. With no standards of practice governing the second largest educational employee group in B.C., almost anyone can be “pulled in off of the street” to be an EA.

EA training and education programs vary in content as lengths range from 25 hours in Manitoba and two weeks to one to two years in B.C. Short EA training programs, referred to by some as “training traps”, contribute to alarming educational inequities across the province as the outcomes of these programs impact the ability of EAs to deliver equitable support to all students. This is why EA standards of practice governing their practice need to be adopted.

The call for EA standards is not a new request. In 2012, Nancy Hoyano, Sylvia Woodyard and Diane Koch released their White Paper: Call for Standards of Practice for Education Assistants in B.C., in which they implored the government of the day to implement EA standards of practice based on a growing body of international research identifying significant challenges in the way EAs are educated and trained. More recently, the five-year Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project – the largest research study of EAs to date – unequivocally found that that while EAs can have a positive effect supporting students and teachers, with their increasing pedagogical role supporting all students, more, not less training and education is needed.

Historical and emerging research findings indicate that EAs are undertrained and underprepared for the realities of the ever-increasing complexities they encounter in their work. This begs the question why training and qualifications standards remain so low. Can an EA attending a two-week training program provide the same level of skill and knowledge as an EA with one or two years of education?

Policies regarding the education and training of EAs, how they are utilized in schools and classrooms and their increasing pedagogical role supporting all students have happened in a vacuum, outside of public view and scrutiny. School district and boards facing recruitment challenges may think that reducing the education and training programs will solve the problem, but again, research shows us that EAs often leave their work because they did not fully understand responsibilities of the job and had little if any prior experience.

Standards of practice guide and inform education and training programs ensuring potential graduates have the necessary training. They also help inform human resource practices, leverage research to identify best-practices and set job requirements so potential applicants fully understand their responsibilities, which leads to better retention.  

EAs have been referred to as the “glue that holds everything together” and the “bricks and mortar” of schools. But the considerable inconsistency in their education, training and qualifications has only exacerbated educational inequities across classrooms and schools, districts and boards, and the province through no fault of well intentioned EAs. Addressing this gap, using standards of practice as a starting point, will ensure that all of our children receive the best education we can provide and that we keep our support staff safe and thriving.

Ryan Kappmeier, MAEd has dedicated over fifteen years of his career to working with marginalized and diverse learners in education and youth justice systems in B.C. and Ontario. Leveraging experiential learning tools and positive behaviour interventions, Ryan has supported a variety of educational programs including outdoor adventure therapy, day treatment, and traditional elementary and high school classrooms. He holds a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership and Management from Royal Roads University, where he focused on a re-envisioning of the role that education assistants can play in improving outcomes for underserved learners in B.C

Reducing Qualifications is Not a Remedy to the EA shortage

I am a public post-secondary instructor providing preservice training to Education Assistants (EAs) through a blended model that attracts students from all parts of Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast, and sometimes beyond. This program includes 10 courses that are university transferable. Students complete Practica in K-12 schools and for the most part work in those schools upon graduation. Over the last 12 years, I’ve watched the shortage of qualified EAs reach a crisis point caused in part by low pay, poor working conditions, and an under valuing of the EA role. Unable to deal with these root causes, schools and school districts have often addressed the shortage by reducing the qualifications for EA positions. While on the surface, this approach may seem to be a remedy, it is not. The role of EA is complex and challenging and unprepared workers can inadvertently contribute to stressful situations for their students, their colleagues, and themselves. Instead, I believe that recognizing and valuing the important work done by EAs by establishing standards for practice and improved working conditions will attract and retain skilled workers able to contribute to the overall quality of our education system.

Standards of Practice will ensure that EAs begin their career already able to collaborate effectively with teachers, develop student-centered relationships that build on strengths and interests, utilize teaching and learning strategies to meet diverse learning needs, understand and support development of positive social behaviours, and meet the personal and health related needs of individual students. As an integral part of the education team, they will contribute effectively to the creation and implementation of IEPs, and promote the conditions that lead to the successful inclusion of all children.

Standards of Practice will ensure that post-secondary training is comprehensive, and that skills are well-developed and anchored in an understanding of the values and attitudes that promote learning and full inclusion. Standards for practice will ensure that all future EAs come to the job well prepared for their duties and role. Teachers, administrators, and families will then be able to consistently rely on high quality EA support for children and classrooms. I believe this reliability will increase the awareness and value placed on this critical role and over time will improve our education system.

Alison Taplay, Public Post-Secondary Instructor

A 25+ year EA weighs in

Why are Standards of Practice for EA Training Important? An EA Perspective

I started as an EA in 1994 in Surrey.  At that time, we were called Teacher Assistants.  Many TAs in the early 90s had no formal training.  I enrolled at Kwantlen College and did the two-year part-time course.  Many districts started requiring new hires to have taken similar training and the TAs already hired were not affected by the new requirements.  The scope of the position and the number of students EAs support have grown exponentially since then. 

As the number of EAs increased over the years, districts could not keep up with hiring enough trained EAs.  It became harder to work 25-30 hours a week and get by so less people considered an EA as a possible career choice.  But instead of looking to why it was harder to attract people, districts, in their wisdom, thought shorter, less expensive courses would attract people.  So, we find ourselves with more complex students and less trained staff, a recipe for disaster in my opinion.

So, why do I think Standards of Practice are needed?  The role of an EA has many facets including but not exclusive to academic support to personal care assistance to medical procedures. EAs are being hired with no real understanding of what the job entails leaving them very ill prepared to deal with many situations which can potentially be dangerous. In a short course there is not enough time for some to realize that this career path is not what they thought it was.  Whereas a longer course can teach the students about the complexities of the position and what they need like roles and responsibilities, being a team player, communication skills, data keeping, behaviour modification, promoting independence and so on.  EAs work as a team, they must be on the same page and that includes having similar knowledge.  EAs will always gain more knowledge and competency on the job but new hires must come to the position with enough knowledge and competency to not be a liability to themselves, their co-workers and ultimately the students they support.

Janice Meehan, EA and CUPE President, retired

Why do Parents want Standards of Practice for EA’s?

Guest post from Tracy Humphreys, Parent and Chair of BCEdAccess.

Why do Parents want Standards of Practice for EA’s?

EAs are the lifeline for so many students with disabilities. As parents and guardians we rely on them to know that our children are safe and secure when we leave them at school.

EAs perform a wide range of duties and those can vary from School district to school district depending on their job description, and also from child to child as everyone’s needs are unique.

In addition, EAs take the work off the hands of the teacher for students who need a little to a lot of extra support, so the teacher can teach to the whole class, including the students the EA is supporting.

So why is it that these important people do not have any standards of practice?

EA programs around BC vary from 2 weeks to 2 years! I ask you, are the EAs in both programs learning the same things? It’s impossible.

Can they work anywhere in the province? No. Some districts limit the credentials they accept while others do not. Several districts now run their own short programs to get ‘warm bodies’ in place because of the severe EA shortage.

Don’t you think that if EAs had professional standards of practice, and one job for 35+ hours a week instead of 2 or 3 part time jobs they pull together to pay the bills, we might find that those positions are easier to fill and retain?

If you were offered a choice between 2 weeks and 2 years to get the same job, same pay, same hours, what would you do? We all want to get to work as soon as we can and get our career started!

As a parent, honestly I worry about my childrens’ safety. It’s possible the person who took that 2 week program had other skills or experience coming into it and they’ll be okay. They can hit the ground running. But it’s also possible that they are not going to have the depth of knowledge required to support my kid who has certain triggers and needs skilled support to navigate the day or they will be unable to learn – and may make it difficult for others around them to learn, too!

Teachers rely on EAs to have specialized knowledge and training in order to reach and educate each child. I would also think that other EAs who have a great deal more education and experience may find it frustrating to see the inequities here.

Tracy Humphreys, Parent and Chair of BCEdAccess