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