The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Catherine O'Farrell

Power in collaboration: Four tips for high-impact LSAs

Learning support assistants (LSAs) provide valuable support to pupils with complex needs but their continuing professional development (CPD) is often overlooked. Catherine O’Farrell explains how teachers and other professionals can work with them to develop the skills they need.

One of the most common areas where teachers and inclusion practitioners seek support is in training and development of in-class learning support assistants (LSAs).

They are like gardeners tending, one to one, our students who have high individual needs. They often provide the backbone of support, for not only students and their families but also for teachers.

A recent study in the Journal of Inclusive Education (2020) investigates the role of the ‘shadow teacher’ (LSA) in inclusive schools, finding that, if deployed well, they can positively impact students’ reading, writing, speaking, listening and peer-to-peer interactions.

In short – they can be superstars!

Yet, because they are usually not tracked or monitored closely, LSAs are frequently overlooked when schools are devising their CPD or induction training.

So what do we, as educators, need to consider to support, develop and train our LSAs so that they can effectively support more complex pupils?

Tip 1: Make sure you both understand your pupils’ needs

Knowing your pupils’ barriers is key in challenging them and breaking them down.

What are the root causes associated with those needs and what are their cognitive, physical and emotional effects?

You and the LSA also need to understand each pupil’s personal likes, dislikes and traits – what makes this individual child tick?

Training and CPD focused on individual needs, tailored to the LSA and their pupils, is key. 

Talking to the pupil themselves as well as to their parents, previous teachers and the inclusion team is a great way of gathering this pastoral information to build a holistic picture of the child.

Referencing existing IEPs, reviewing psychological reports (in line with GDPR guidelines) or informal observation is a good way of doing this.

Encourage your LSAs to collect this information.

Tip 2: Apply your knowledge of the pupil to support them

Once this information has been gathered, the pupil’s passions need to be harnessed to motivate them to learn. 

Equally, it’s important to know what triggers your pupil, what demotivates them and how you can plan to avoid this to the greatest possible extent.

A useful tool for understanding triggers is the STAR method. Carefully observe unwanted behaviours and look for:

  • Stimulus
  • Trigger
  • Action
  • Reaction

Use this to identify patterns and triggers which can later be avoided or mitigated.

Planning with your LSA how to avoid and evade triggers can alleviate the pupil’s stress and prevent breakdowns.

Training and CPD focused on individual needs, tailored to the LSA and their pupils, is key. There are a range of courses available online and face to face on multiple areas of need, from autism to cerebral palsy.

Be patient: it takes time and patience to fully understand each individual pupil and how their needs affect their learning, their development and possibly most importantly, their wellbeing.

Tip 3: Develop the LSA to support you

The study iabout 'shadow teachers' outlined that, with the right training and skills development, the shadow teacher can support not only the pupil but also the teacher.

This is supported by research from the Education Endowment Foundation which analyses the cost, effectiveness and impact of a broad range of educational interventions. The Teaching and Learning Toolkit is a useful resource for assessing different types of interventions.

It found that small-group teaching (lead by a teacher or assistant), along with collaborative learning, can accelerate pupil attainment by up to five months per year for a relatively low cost.

Plan together, as a team, to identify each team member’s strengths and areas of expertise and draw on them.

For example, if your LSA is an excellent artist, utilise this skill to support the whole class while you, the teacher, work one on one with your pupil.

Or set up rotational stations so that your LSA can release you to spend individual time with their pupils and facilitate your support where it is needed.

Tip 4: Build a community of practice

All too often we feel isolated in our classrooms, especially if we are consumed by the needs of a complex pupil.

Teachers and LSAs cannot be expected to support complex needs without receiving their own support!

Remember that you are not alone. Reach out to your fellow LSAs, teachers, inclusion practitioners and leadership teams.

The SLT and the inclusion team are responsible for ensuring that their teams are fully prepared and given the tools to carry out their duties well.

Both teachers and LSAs can approach them for guidance as to what is available in your community, are there help groups, forums, webinars etc.

Always, of course, there is Google – research your area and see what is happening in your community.

There is so much power in collaboration with your LSA

Encourage your LSA to build a community of practice or join an existing one. They can seek out and find people who are in a similar situation through social media, conferences and by simply asking around.

As educators, we are always happy to share and grow knowledge and this is evidenced by the wealth of forums and webinars that are freely available online around inclusive education and special needs.

One of these is the Interactive LSA Forum hosted by Incluzun in the United Arab Emirates. On this free and voluntary forum, LSAs come together to share their experience and practice, talk about methods that work with different pupils and those that don’t. 

By discussing the challenges they face day to day, they grow in their practice through connectivity and support.

 If we follow these guidelines we can replicate the findings of the research – improving our pupils outcomes and ultimately our teaching experience.

There is so much power in collaboration with your LSA – let’s use these amazing powerhouses to the max and build a partnership of support and excellence in every class!

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