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This Issue About Educational Assistants is Bigger Than I Realized

February 7, 2016

My blog arising out of a workshop to two groups of Educational Assistants (EAs) last week has generated close to 19,000 hits in under 5 days. It has literally taken off across Canada and as a result I have received numerous comments, postings and emails from EAs describing their experiences consistent with my blog from one side of the country to the other. It is important to appreciate that the issues identified are not a reflection on any one school board, but a reflection of issues in education across Canada today.

In response to my blog, I  was also pointed to a CBC interview/report on the same issues from 2015 as well as to a Globe and Mail article that came out literally two days after my blog post.

All sources suggest the same issue: EAs are poorly valued; minimally resourced; provided with little to no background on the students they serve; are held responsible for attacks upon themselves by students whose violence they were not prepared for; and they serve the most challenging students in the school system as that is their role.

What does this mean not only for the EA, but for the student and the parents of all students?

Firstly, students who require the services of an EA are rarely able to advocate for themselves, so this means the student has little to no recourse to assure themselves that the service they are accessing is delivered in a way that best meets their needs.

Parents of students who utilize the services of the EA may be in the dark as to the issues affecting their son or daughter and are at risk of having their child’s situation made worse, not by the lack of will of the EA, but by the structural problems in which service is embedded.

Other students are at risk of dangerous and violent behaviour in the midst of students receiving EA services. Even if not subject to the violence directly, it means that some students may still be witness to violent events which in its own right is known to be distressing and in some cases create post traumatic stress disorder for the witness of troubling events.

Parents generally are likely unassuming and may feel that because their son or daughter is not in receipt of EA service, they have no say as to the issues in any given classroom.

What to do?

School boards, like so may other public institutions are tying to do more with less. We need to look at funding formulas and resources to better equip schools to address the needs of these vulnerable and at times dangerous students.

Parents whose students do not access the services of EAs can and should ask of their local school about the policies and training affecting students with EAs as well as policies regarding violence at school and in the classroom. These same parents can ask their own sons and daughters about the use of EAs in their classrooms and exposure to violent events. If issues or concerns surface, then the parent should take the matter to the school for discussion and resolution.

Parents of students who actually utilize the service should ask that the EA attend meetings where their child is discussed. The EA will be responsible for the implementation of any program and the EA will know best about the response to the educational plan given they are the persons working with the student.

This is not an issue just for the EA in terms of working conditions. They are not responsible for widgets. They are responsible for all of our children and at times the safety of the institution.

This is also not to blame our schools either, but to raise the consciousness of everyone concerned. When we everyday folk ask questions, raise and address concerns, then more reasonable solutions can be determined. Supporting our children through their education is in the interest of all society. These children are all society and they will join the ranks of other adults, equipped or not. The costs are even more severe when these children join the ranks of adulthood ill-equipped.

There are too many indicators to suggest that there is a problem in our education system throughout Canada. Can we really afford not to address it?

I can only hope that a researcher from a Canadian university hears the issue. I think this is worthy of academic investigation and if investigated by an academic, solutions can be advanced.

In the meantime, all parents across Canada are now forewarned.

One an individual basis, I remain available to speak with and support families as well as speak with groups, schools and school boards in an effort to improve matters at the various levels identified. I think there is much that can be done given a will do to something. In truth, some solutions are more structural and administrative and will not require more money, perhaps just a different way of doing things. Listening to the EAs directly is an easy way to learn how to improve some things.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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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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  1. I am glad that your post has received wide coverage. I hope that the media also picks up on the information you have shared. Although members of various education groups have been sounding the alarm for a long time, and have taken our concerns to the government and the media, there has not been a shift in the perceptions of what we do and how we are trying to manage within the shaky educational framework.

    Please continue to speak out on behalf of our students and the work we do.

  2. Peggy Murphy permalink

    Man there is so much more that we do..Walk in our shoes for a week…You will be tired at the end of each day..but we get up each morning ready for the challenge that might come our way..I have been doing this job for 27 years and a lot has changed..The only thing that hasn,t changed is that we still don,t get the respect that we deserve..We have to be able to help the students under our care in every subject in our school..Plus use sign language.. when needed..The pay we receive is peanuts compared to what we do..This has also been an issue….But we go in every day with a good attitude hoping we can help the students under our care….Thanks for listening to us vent at your workshop..It helped…and thank you for your articles about our job..

    • Val permalink

      Well said Peggy Murphy

    • Pauline permalink

      I’ve been an EA for 25 years and yes our role has changed tremendously, but your right Peggy one thing hasn’t changed, we still do not get the respect we deserve!

  3. Gena D. permalink

    Kudos to you Gary. Maybe hearing from someone like you, a third party maybe someone will listen. We have been fighting this battle for many years. Many of us on the front lines battle to have a voice not only for us but mostly for our students. Special education is in crisis, people are getting hurt not only on a daily basis, some on a moment by moment basis. But even more disturbing is the fact that people are no longer applying for EA positions. There is a tremendous shortfall because people know what its like. The decision makers need to spend some time on the front lines. Not just an hour but a week, two weeks.
    Our voices are worthy, listen to us. We are vested in the needs of these students and right now the system is broken.

  4. Debra permalink

    I think the education systems are going to have to make some hard but realistic decisions in the near future . Are we offering EDUCATION or TREATMENT ? Taking a workshop on mental health … Etc does not qualify or gift you with a healing hand sometimes we may be doing more harm then good preparing them for the world beyond education . Altering rules , creating environments , making excuses for these struggling students does not prepare them for the WORLD RULES . These don t change

  5. Ang permalink

    I left my EA job 5 years ago for another carreer because of the disrespect, disregard, low wage of our profession and ultimately the violence I had to deal with everyday. I did love working with the students but it is a very broken, dysfunctional profession.

  6. Patricia permalink

    I have been with the board for just over 16 years. I’m on a leave right now and am picking up supply jobs. The past few years I have really started to question why i am in the profession I am in. I haven’t enjoyed going to work so much that it has affected my overall health and well being. However the past few months as a supply has really reminded me how much I used to love my job and how happy i used to be doing it. Until the past two weeks when I supplied for myself! I love the kids and the teachers at my school. I feel lucky to have the principal and Vice Principal that I have. However having said that here is the situation…we have a number of special needs students at the school. 3 are very high needs and require one to one support for their safety as well as everyone else’s. They aren’t getting one to one support because there are only 3 special needs TAs at the school. This means that the other kids who need the support aren’t getting it. I know this is not uncommon but it’s still very unfair. The problem is that the three students that are high needs are all very aggressive. You never know when you or another student is going to get hit, kicked, bit, punched, spit on or anything else. Kids are getting hurt every day and so are the TA’s. ABC charts are being kept, itinerants are being called and parents are in meetings over this. The ISSP teacher feels that it is only a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt (and after seeing an IPad fly across the room two days in a row I understand why!) the TAs are all super stressed out trying to keep themselves and kids safe. When does it become too much?!? What is it going to take for someone to notice that this is happening and who decides that these kids need a different environment? A contained class with smaller class sizes and an entire day that is set up for them would be so beneficial! And having one person work with these students all day everyday is too much. I have seen this at other schools as well. The TAs are exhausted trying to do everything on their own. What can we do to shed some light on these situations???

    • Franka permalink

      Yes, I sub as well and it’s a unique vantage point! I don’t believe the general public has a clue how bad this is all getting- a given class will often have: one child with autism, one with severe behavioural needs ( this may or may not be the child with autism) several with learning disabilities/ADHD and maybe a few ESL! This is the new ‘normal’ and I wonder if the young teachers realize how it did not used to be that way. The older teachers see it. Des institutionalization and diagnostic substitution does not explain it all. In Canada our surveillance of these challenges seems to be done via the CDC (a hugely conflicted organization). No teacher I know would recommend going into the field at this point.

  7. Christina Mills permalink

    So true! No need to say more.

  8. Franka permalink

    Thank you so much, Gary, for writing about this and getting involved. Things are definitely at a crisis point.

  9. Franka permalink

    Where are the doctors in all of this? A typical classroom has at least one child with autism, one with severe behaviours, several with learning disabilities or ADHD. We are seeing a definite increase in ESL children with autism and ADHD.

  10. Cindy permalink

    I am an E.A with the Hamilton District School Board since 1983. Started Full time on 1986. Yep..30 years still at it. Getting tired..though.
    Thanks for the advocacy.

  11. Christine Ouellette permalink

    Hello Gary, first I would like to say thank you for your important message regarding the role of the EA in the school system I have been an EA for 15 years and have witnessed first hand the tremendous increase in the numbers of children coming into our schools with major psychological,emotional,developmental and social issues. And how we are having to cope with sometimes incredibly difficult and violent students with little or no support. Each new year presents challenges that myself and my colleagues are not trained to deal with. It is putting an incredible strain on the mental health of EAs who are the front line personnel dealing with these children. I hope our message gets heard and thank again for bringing it out

    Christine Ouellette
    North Bay. Ontario

  12. Audrey Elk permalink

    Oh thankyou thankyou thankyou … finally …i feel someone is truely listening. Please keep the message going. We need your support.

  13. banderr permalink

    I thought you might be interested in this article on how Educational Assistants are forced to face the prospect of violence in the classroom everyday.

  14. Franka permalink

    I met a teacher the other day who is also noticing how very many special needs as well as ELL there are now. This is someone who has been teaching for many years. She said a doctor friend asked her recently about what is happening in education these days- this doctor is seeing many teachers needing stress leave. Apparently the younger teachers are leaving the field by six years. I mentioned to this teacher that perhaps it is time for the teachers to speak out on this- not as part of a bargaining aspect to class size (although this is also crucial to success) but it should be being brought up as an urgent matter by both teachers and doctors. We cannot have the trend continue for much longer without doing something about it. Why do so many children have neurodevelopmental problems? They may be many environmental factors but it needs to be thoroughly and unbiasedly explored.

  15. Meg permalink

    Deeply troubled and violent students should be in segregated learning situations and not intermingled with other students in regular classrooms. Teachers (and, I gather, EAs) are not trained to handle these kids even on their own, forget with a full classroom to teach. It is ludicrous that it is only between the ages of 4 and 18 (unless we become teachers or EAs) that we are required to spend every day threatened by disturbed, angry, and violent others who will fall away from our daily context as we move beyond the public school system to productive lives amidst productive others. It DOES NOT MATTER what sad circumstances have made these people violent; they need help beyond the classroom and the classroom cannot function positively with them in it.

  16. I am posting this comment on behalf of a parent who messaged me with this. It is posted with her permission:

    A Parent’s prospective:
    As I parent with a child that needs an E.A., I agree that there is a crisis in our school systems. Every year there are more children that need support and less funding available for E.A.s. Insufficient support and training not only puts E.A’s at risk, but all children in the school system, especially those children with disabilities. Behaviour is communication. If appropriate supports and training are put into place, there would be less behavioural issues. But funding cut backs are not the only issue. Every year I fight for appropriate support for my son in a safe environment. There is no guarantee that an E.A. that has been trained to support my son will be available due to the union rules and regulations. Anyone with more seniority and some training can work with my son. From my prospective, the union has more rights than my son. My son has no union to protect him. My son has developed severe anxiety and is academically behind his potential due poor support and insufficient training. This has not only affected my son’s health but the family’s as well. The school system is broke. The School Boards need to be working with all staff, the parents and the Community agencies to develop a plan to deal with this crisis. The Ministry of Education needs to loosen their purse strings and the School Boards need to utilize their resources more efficiently. In a crisis, every- one has to work as a team. I have a great deal of respect for the E.A.s and the struggles that they are facing, but ultimately this is about the children that they support. The Ministry of Education needs to come to the table and look at what is happening at the grass-roots level develop a plan to support all those that are in the school system. The students, teachers, E.A.s and support staff.
    Sorry to tried to leave comment on the Blog page but would not work. Felt it was important to leave my thoughts. Thank you. Susan

  17. Kathryn permalink

    Thank you for your article. To add to what you’ve said I think that schools should start having more say in the students than the parents do. People at the school level have gone to school themselves to be educated about students and teaching. Most parents have not and I’m sorry but when it’s your child you don’t always know best. We need to stop letting parents call the shots. And as for speaking to your school about violent incidents, it does absolutely no good. If a child has any professional diagnoses it is called a mitigating circumstance when a violent episode occurs and nothing can or will be done, at least at the elementary level.

  18. S.Boon permalink

    As an EA of 12 years, 11 of them in a high school setting, the biggest change I have seen is the increasingly high percentage of students with violent behavior in our programs. In fact, I was one of the EAs interviewed for the article. Unlike many of the people interviewed, I have had good support from my administration. However, support is usually offered after the fact, when EAs have sustained concussions, bites, contusions and other forms of injury. The hardest part is when people (sometimes even other EAs) express the idea that somehow this is part of our job description. While we have some training in addressing violent behavior, it is often ineffectual when used with a 6 foot 350 pound student.
    Twelve years ago, I remember thinking “I can’t believe they pay me to do this job!” Last year I considered leaving, as the constant stress of waiting to be hit had me feeling like someone with PTSD. Some changes were made, and I’m less stressed. However, I think Ontario as a whole needs to review who should be mainstreamed, who should be in a contained classroom, and who should be home-schooled. And if they want to get it right, they need to ask the opinion of those of us on the front line.

  19. Msryann lavigne permalink

    We are under appreciated and under payed but you should understand this getting into the job, get out if you can’t handle it.

    • Franka permalink

      People are getting out, but the field is changing toward an increase in special needs with severe behaviours and this really needs to be brought to attention of educational admin and even politicians. We cannot pretend to be acting in the best interests of the child, when in many instances we are putting themselves, staff or other children at risk.

    • This is not as easy as you think. We are trained professionals who chose to do this work. Just get out and do what? Who will do this important work? It’s the system that is broken. We need help.

  20. I’ve been an educational assistant for 28 years. The problems we face are not only the violent behaviour but the lack of training the teachers and administrators have. They have very little understanding of what we do and the daily dangers we face, yet they make all the decisions that place us in often very vulnerable positions. We have no say and are deeply misunderstood. When we try to speak up on behalf of our students, our opinion is not valued and in fact may be seen as insubordination. For example, forcing an often violent student to remain in a mainstream class for the entire day, when we know this is not a safe and healthy situation.

  21. Rick permalink

    My wife is an E.A. and retiring in a few days. She has been assaulted and injured more than I ever was after a 33 year career as a police officer. I also volunteered in her school for 2 years and have first hand knowledge of what they go thru. Your article is so bang on. There are so many many kids nowadays that need the help of an EA but due to lack of resources aren’t getting that help. And most parents are totally unaware of what is going on in their child’s school. Children having to be removed from the classroom because another is having a violent episode, throwing desks and chairs. There needs to be more conversation on this issue. It may come too late for my wife as she is retiring but might help others I n the future

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