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If You Only Knew: Today’s Educational Assistant and Your Student

February 2, 2016

Today I met with two groups of Educational Assistants (EAs) wherein we addressed the same issue with both groups. There were about 80 people in the morning session and about 90 people in the afternoon session. Both sessions were about 2 hour’s duration. These EA’s work with high school students.

As per my approach to providing workshops, rather than waiting to the end for questions, I begin my workshop by asking what the attendees were grappling with and what they hoped I would address. After surveying their learning needs, I then provide information to address the identified issues.

I didn’t know I would be opening up a hornets’ nest today.

I was quickly and passionately informed as to the challenges the EA faces as the toe-to-toe support persons to students whose today’s difficulties often include violence, apathy, depression, anxiety and suicidal thought.

Gone are the days when the EA was more simply there to help the challenged learner with educational strategies to meet academic expectation. These folks are the front line to those students who might otherwise not even be granted admission to the educational facility if not for considerable attention.

In addition to the educational challenges posed by such difficult issues, the EAs also expressed dismay and upset for the context in which they provide service:

Limited to no prior background information about the assigned students;

Some students receiving EA services have considerable background issues and diagnosis where access to that information can facilitate the role of the EA. EAs are regularly told they cannot have access to that information leaving many feeling they are flying blind or trying to be supportive with one hand tied behind their back. While there are many reasons as to how or why this occurs, it may indeed be shortsighted from a student support perspective. It may also place the EA at risk of harm when a student with a propensity to violence is unidentified. In addition to being an educational issue, it may also be a health and safety issue.

Limited to no collaborative work with fellow EAs or other teaching staff assigned to the same students, but working in other classrooms;

EAs in the high school setting may work with several different students throughout the course of the day as the students rotate through their various classes. This also means that the same student, who is assigned the services of an EA, may be subject to the service of 4 or 5 different EAs throughout the day. If the EAs and teaching staff or special education staff do not conference together and form a unified educational plan and behavioural approach, then the likelihood of success may be diminished. EAs expressed a desire for greater collaboration to enable better coordinated educational and behavioural plans where all their input can be utilized to the benefit of the student.

Students who have extra funding for added support where the funding is being stretched to provide support to other students;

Several EAs reported that some students present with greater needs than others. In those situations additional funding may be directed specifically towards a single student. However, given other funding constraints, the funding directed to the single individual is at times used to support the needs of other students. This undermines the intent of funding the student who was requiring of this additional support.

Report writing or administrative duties without the infrastructure to carry out those duties;

Not uncommon in today’s world of increased accountability, reporting obligations have increased in many institutional setting. EAs report that while reporting obligations have increased, the time to meet those obligations has remained the same. This creates a conflict of time impossible for the EA to resolve. This creates an added layer of stress and anxiety as the EA seeks to be accountable and of service to students.

Given the above issues, EAs also reported feeling undervalued in their role and having no power to address those issues for fear of retribution by persons in administration. Many hold the view that they are treated as the poor cousin in the education system and can be overworked and their issues overlooked.

Please note, in reporting the above, I am reiterating information as presented and do not purport the issues identified to be as reported. Notwithstanding, there was clearly a consensus between two independent groups of EAs and across the approximately 170 in attendance overall.

What also seemed apparent was that many EAs were distressed given their desire to work comes from a place of loving the students and seeking to be as helpful as possible. If/when feeling thwarted in their duty, they feel not just undervalued but concerned that they are not meeting the needs of their students to the best degree possible. These scenarios are known to lead to poor job satisfaction, worker burnout and absenteeism. These are not trifling concerns.

I offered the EAs strategies to be heard and where their sense of value comes from their own action over the desired recognition and support of others. To that end I suggested:

  1. Opening more channels of communication to those in administration;
  2. Requesting administrative meetings;
  3. Requesting to attend meetings where a student’s educational plan is discussed;
  4. Advancing the profile of the profession by working with the mainstream media to inform others about their role and interests in the education system;
  5. Utilizing social media to go directly to the public through their own existing pipelines with stories and information about their roles, trials and tribulations;
  6. If/when informing the public or administration, to offer not only concerns, but to add to the dialogue by proposing solutions.

I don’t know if the public truly does understand or appreciate the role of the EA in today’s school. These are not glorified babysitters, there to pacify the child to simply get them through the day. Nor are the EAs the in-house security system to guard the would-be violent student and maintain the safety of other students.

The EA is the system the educational system has put in place to enable the challenged students’ participation in education, to facilitate learning, to in turn facilitate later autonomy, independence and social functioning. In fulfilling their role, the EA regularly is at risk of violent behaviour, is frequently attacked, spit upon, harassed and disrespected. That forms their day-to-day experience, all invisible to the general public.

This is an issue for all parents, not only those whose children receive the service of the EA. If all parents want a safe environment conducive for learning, then investment in the EA is a place to start. Investment is more than financial. It includes having institutional structures in place to facilitate the role. When we listen to those who have the job, it becomes easier to figure out what they need to do the job.

Today I listened and they were greatly appreciative.

Oh and as an aside, please don’t indulge your kids and please have them leave the cell phone at home. There are already enough attitudes and distractions to deal with.

I loved meeting with these two feisty groups.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

https://garydirenfeld.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/gary-feb-12.jpg?w=200&h=301

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

gary@yoursocialworker.com
http://www.yoursocialworker.com

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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37 Comments
  1. If you think the EA’s are feisty, let’s sit and talk with the ECEs!

    • I have had the pleasure of sitting and talking with ECE’s on many occasions!. I have provided many workshops for ECE’s over the years and I present several workshops annually through Child Development Resource Connection Peel: http://www.cdrcp.com/

      I happen to believe strongly in supporting ECEs!

      • Franka permalink

        Yes! Things are getting very extreme out there in terms of behaviour. Behaviour support workers are also feeling this frustration. We are seeing children whose behaviour includes choking/punching others students, soiling/wetting pants up to 4 times a day, issuing verbal threats, running away on class trips – and these are 6 year old children put into regular classes! The kicker for me was when the Principal did not want the teacher or myself updating the parent daily and his/her behaviour went downhill quickly after that point. The psychologists felt that it was important for these children to be around ‘normal’ children to hopefully picks up on more pro-social behaviours.
        I agree with other Ed assistants that we are often not given access to enough information in many instances.
        Also, where are the doctors in all this? Do they ever go to the schools and see how many children have ADHD, autism, selective mutism, seizures, learning disorders. I believe we have a health crisis happening with out children and the doctors are not sounding any alarm.
        Further, I feel that we are paid well enough but the system is simply not set up well. Some children do need more structured programs – integrating is not always an answer.

  2. Jan permalink

    Your report is so true! I was an EA for 12 years and most of that time was great. I agree with everything that you wrote and into the 12th year of my career, I had to resign. I wanted so much more for the students that I couldn’t provide being shut down , insulted and had untruths reported about. I attempted to run extra art based programs during my lunch and was shut down. It was so frustrating. I had worked at many other schools and found that doing art with students, especially children with difficulties…went a long way. I found that letting the kids see a different side of me, Icould get them to do the academic work that they had to do. We had many great conversations and listening to their stories was very helpful getting to know them and where they were coming from. It worked everytime ! To this day, I see students that I have worked with, and they always thank me for the time I spent with me and the things we did .

  3. Thank you very much for the time and attention you paid to this issue. One of the points you bring up is regarding getting the word out to the media. This has been an ongoing campaign for me personally as I believe that that the work we do needs to be understood and brought to the attention of the general public and the government (although, I do not believe the government is listening). I also have a blog and one piece I posted last April received some attention, but no media outlet followed up with anyone within our union or with members to get the full story.

    Your professional designations and place of authority might help people to stop and consider and perhaps begin to believe what is happening on a daily basis (which in itself is a sad commentary on public/media/governmental ideology about our professional standing).

    I have long been concerned that the treatment we receive within the institutional process of education reflects not only on us; it reflects on the value our students have within the commodified system that is education. I believe that many school boards are doing their best – as you stated, funding for one student (which is based on a provincial system) is often required to support students who do not fit a narrow criteria that simply does not work in the reality that is the needs of students.

    https://pturnermoments.wordpress.com/2015/04/18/reality-check/

  4. In addition to the comments above, I received these other comments from other sources on this blog post:

    Gary.

    —————————–

    Thank you for listening. I work in the elementary school and deal with the same issues with students starting in grade 3and up. Very stressful without support and knowledge.

    ————–

    Thank you very much for the time and attention you paid to this issue. One of the points you bring up is regarding getting the word out to the media. This has been an ongoing campaign for me personally as I believe that that the work we do needs to be understood and brought to the attention of the general public and the government (although, I do not believe the government is listening). I also have a blog and one piece I posted last April received some attention, but no media outlet followed up with anyone within our union or with members to get the full story.

    Your professional designations and place of authority might help people to stop and consider and perhaps begin to believe what is happening on a daily basis (which in itself is a sad commentary on public/media/governmental ideology about our professional standing).

    I have long been concerned that the treatment we receive within the institutional process of education reflects not only on us; it reflects on the value our students have within the co-modified system that is education. I believe that many school boards are doing their best – as you stated, funding for one student (which is based on a provincial system) is often required to support students who do not fit a narrow criteria that simply does not work in the reality that is the needs of students.

    —————

    Your report is so true! I was an EA for 12 years and most of that time was great. I agree with everything that you wrote and into the 12th year of my career, I had to resign. I wanted so much more for the students that I couldn’t provide being shut down, insulted and had untruths reported about. I attempted to run extra programs during my lunch and was shut down. It was so frustrating. I had worked at many other schools and found that doing extra programs with students, especially children with difficulties…went a long way. I found that letting the kids see a different side of me, I could get them to do the academic work that they had to do. We had many great conversations and listening to their stories was very helpful getting to know them and where they were coming from. It worked every time! To this day, I see students that I have worked with, and they always thank me for the time I spent with me and the things we did.

    —————–

    I have been an Educational Assistant for 16 years and read with great interest your Feb 2 article on my profession.

    I am not sure what group you spoke to you but when I read it you could’ve been speaking to EA’s from my board.
    Whether it’s high school or elementary EAs across the country are facing these same challenges.

    Last year I was elected as our union’s health and safety representative. We are an independent union of over 1,000 EAs and CYWs.

    My goals are to educate our group of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to their health and safety, and to empower them to become advocates for change.

    I would like to speak to you more on your suggestions on how we can raise awareness and start conversations with regard to our profession.

    —————

    Your article hits many of our daily struggles. Thank you for writing this piece. You said we should start by …. And listed a few examples. One being “reach out to the media and educate them.

    Although I loved this piece I feel a bit of education regarding our titles would help. Yes we have EA’s in the school but they are support for the most part. Our DSW’s, CYW’s and ECE’s are the staff that always left out. Everyone assumes we are all EA’s. EA’s need a grade 12 education, the others I listed went on to post secondary school to specialize. We just like to be acknowledged for what we are. I’ve been a DSW for 20 yrs and I’m very proud of that.

    I don’t think a doctor would like to be called a nurse. It’s the same thing for us.

    Just wanted to share but again, thank you for this article.

    —————–

    As a Educational Assistant in the School system, I applaud you on your commentary on what we go through each day. Thank you for listening.

    —————-

    Great post! As a school based social worker I appreciate your perspective and the honor and respect you showed to the front line soldiers. If there’s one thing that stands out to me it’s the bureaucratic mindset that runs school systems places the least value on those that impact our students directly; despite the rhetoric. Often paraprofessionals make 8-15$ an hour and are scantily trained to deal with the increasing mental health needs their charges present. Yet the para sits with the children and often becomes a safe attachment figure. How valuable is that? The paperwork requirements only increase as you go up the chain of command. Thank you for encouraging them to reach out.

    —————

    This blog should be read by teachers and administrators. The role of the EA is vital to the student and their class. It’s disappointing that EAs are not given all of the information.

    —————

    It’s wonderful that you are focusing on educational assistants today. They play a huge role in education. It’s not just the teachers.

    —————

    Hey Gary, thanks for coming to speak to us this week. Your insights are simple but creative and very realistic. By far it was the best PD session I have attended in my 20 year career.

    —————

    This is great!! Thanks so much for writing this article. EAs are definitely a feisty bunch…with good reason.

    —————

    I so very much appreciate EA’s. They are vital in the school classroom. Thank you for your post.

    —————

    Great post Gary! I hope that you’ll present at one of my workshops some day!

    —————

    I am an EA. I work in a school that caters to special needs students who are 14 years of age and older. I have been with the school for over 10 years now. I had just read you article about EA’s in the classroom. I have been working with autistic behaviour students. Day in and day out EA’S are constantly getting hurt. It’s not due to lack of training but lack of staff. I feel that our administration turns a blind eye to the wellbeing and safety of the staff. I’m finding that the administration doesn’t care when staff gets hurt from students as every time someone gets hurt the administration tells us that our students don’t know what they are doing so therefore to just shake it off and get back to work. I absolutely love my job but over the past few years I’m finding it to be more stressful as everyday there always someone getting hurt. As an EA I feel that we are looked down upon and not treated with the same respect as teachers. Sure we may have less education as teacher but we work closer with these students then the teachers do. I guess I’m just ranting now but I just wanted to thank you for bringing to light how valuable EA’S are.

    ————–

    • Molly permalink

      EA’s need more than a grade 12 education. I just wanted to clarify that. 🙂

      • All the EA’s I work with myself included, have a a University degree or college certification on average there is 8 months separating us from teacher’s in terms of educational achievement and about 60 000$ per year! I also believe ECE’s and CYW’s are undervalued they aren’t tasked with dealing with the kids I deal with everyday though.

    • Franka permalink

      Autism shows no sign of slowing down. Where are the doctors in all of this?

  5. Erin permalink

    The administration of many schools I have worked at clearly do not understand the role or capabilities of EA’s. The job is ridiculously broad. As a casual staff member I could be expected to help with physical care, washroom care, to follow physio instructions, provide behavioural interventions, to know how to use supportive technology, hoyer lifts, and smart boards. The board I work for does not offer casual staff training for any of these.
    I can come to work and the office staff may have no idea which classroom I should start my day in, whether I need to sign in or not, or if I need a key for my day.
    While on a 5 month term assignment I had no access to documentation about the students. Teachers in the staff room often will not even say hello to a casual EA.
    And I need to be an expert on Autism Spectrum disorders and their various educational interventions and supports.
    This job needs to be much better defined with more support from board staff for student’s individual needs.
    This post has struck a chord.

  6. Cheryl MacIntosh permalink

    Everything you posted is so true. I was an E.A. in elementary schools for 27 years in Nova Scotia. No matter how hard I tried or how many extra courses and workshops I took, I felt that the school board did not appreciate my efforts. Upon retirement I was earning about $24,000 per year. The gross pay included an extra hour a day I worked as a lunch supervisor.

  7. Tammy permalink

    As an EA in a high school setting, I couldn’t agree more with the concerns stated above. Not only are we not invited to meetings regarding our students such as the weekly student success meetings, we are rarely informed of the outcomes of such meetings. We have challenging students all day with no planning time yet with each class we attend, those students are EXPECTED to be successful because “there’s an EA in that class”. Each class has approximately 25 + students, not all identified. You help all the students for different reasons identified or not. The students talk to us. We know stuff. So much stuff. So much more than the rest of the staff even know. We know sometimes just by the way a student fidgets with their pencil or the way they walk (just examples), that something isn’t ok. We intervene many times before something big transpires. Yet, most of the time, our observations go ignored when we pass along information to admin and teachers or the information becomes information they observed.
    I could go on and on but you get the jyst.
    For a yearly wage that is about at poverty level, I know it leaves me questioning my job choice daily and many times dreading going to work in the morning.
    Thank you for writing this.

  8. Elaine permalink

    I’m clarifying an EA’s qualifications in Ontario. We also need post secondary education to specialize as Educational Assistants. Many of us also have additional specialized training in ASD, self regulation, braille, mental health and much more. Our roles in the school system are more than “just support”

  9. Cassandra permalink

    My son has an amazing EA who helps him focus, stay calm, and be able to learn in a mainstream classroom. However, I believe most EA’s are stretched too thin. They have to handle multiple students with various needs at once which must be very challenging.

  10. Christine permalink

    Re: ..only need grade 12 comment. Not sure if these comments are just from Ontario, but all E.A’s at our Board (Ontario) are required to have at least a related diploma. Many have a B.A. or a couple of health/education diplomas.

    • Franka permalink

      True! I have a Child Stidies degree and have worked as a behaviour consultant and as an Early Interventionist. I am appalled at the state of our children’s health and at the lack of structure for the highest needs students.

  11. Paola Humeniuk permalink

    So many issues, so little funding. I am a practising Speech-Language Pathologist in the schools for over 20 years. Many teachers do not fully understand our role with oral language and literacy, just view us as the “speech ladies”. My caseload has tripled in numbers, increased exponentially in severity, yet our funding is being cut because of declining enrolment…the frustration is universal!

  12. Kathy permalink

    I would also like to clarify that EA’s need more than a grade 12 education. Please do some research before you post comments. It is comments like that one, that make the general public think we are just “babysitters”.

    • Well said Kathy couldn’t agree more.

    • Just want to clarify. I am an EA and the board I work for requires you to have a Gr.12 education. If you were to be a CYW, DECE or ADHA then you would require further college/university education. Maybe you should do some research before you post comments. Instead of putting down others.

  13. Heather permalink

    I am am Educational Assistant AND an Autism parent. My son will require an EA when he starts school in September. I am officially on two sides of a careful 3 partner dance. In my career I have been lucky enough to work with some amazing education teams and even more amazing kids. In my role as an educator (yes, I consider myself an educator) and my role as a Special Needs parent, self advocacy and communication are skills that are non-negotiable. We need to let the public know what we truly do. We are not doing prep for crafts, making bulletin boards cute and doing the photocopying. We are breaking down assignments so our students can learn. We are making the classroom safe for ALL students and teachers. We are using tough love. We are EDUCATIONAL ASSISTANTS.

  14. Franka permalink

    Not sure if my comment went through- I have worked as an EA and behaviour support and we are seeing very extreme behaviours including violence and anti-social behaviours. We often are not given much information regarding students and I have been at regular schools where a child has been a clear danger to self and others- then psychologists even visited 3 times, witnessed punching and heard of choking and still stood by the child’s need to be with regular children. Principal involved with one child I worked with actually took parent communication away from the teacher and behaviour became even worse! Sometimes structured placements are necessary so that the rest of the children can actually learn.
    I seriously question why doctors are not speaking out on why so many children have ADHD, autism, seizures, selective mutism, learning disabilities. This is all increasing and there is no end in sight. Our children’s health is abysmal.

  15. Gaylene Abrams permalink

    I am an EA in a high school in Winnipeg, and you are bang on. Except for your suggestions. Most of them direct us to communicate with administration. Believe me when I say that administration does not want to listen to us or speak to us. They ignore emails and put us off if addressed in person. I honestly don’t know what the solution is except to present your findings to administration and the board offices. Right now you’re preaching to the choir.

  16. Thanks for addressing our issues. Not only can we not ask to be included in the meetings with administration, speech and language and behaviour management, we are specifically excluded to the point where they are done secretly and behind closed doors. We truly are treated as “poor relations” instead of the trained professionals we are.

  17. Reblogged this on Cathy Lynn Brooks and commented:
    I read a very interesting blog written about my profession that really addresses many of our issues.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. This Issue About Educational Assistants is Bigger Than I Realized | Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
  2. Educational Assistants and Self-Advocacy | Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
  3. Educational Assistants and What ALL Parents Should Know | Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
  4. All parents should be informed: Do You Know What’s Going on in Your Student’s Classroom? | Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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