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Magical Thinking about the Role of Teacher Assistants in Inclusion

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

By Shawna Audet

Over a decade ago, when I first started teaching at a high school in my area, there were seven different programs for special needs students. The programs each served a different purpose, and all were taught by teachers. The school policy was “inclusion when it makes sense.” Special needs students were included in mainstream classes whenever learning situations in regular classes would move the learning of the special needs students forward. The needs of non-special needs students were also considered. If a special needs student needed to leave the regular class, they had a room with their special education teacher waiting for them. When they got there, their learning would continue to move forward.

When funding decreased, I watched the special needs programs disappear until only the life-skills program was left. A teacher was assigned to run the life skills class for several hours each week, but that teacher had other non-special needs courses, so he was only in the room when his class was in operation. The special needs students were all assigned to regular classrooms for most of the day. When the regular classroom wasn’t working for a special needs student, teachers were instructed to allow the special needs students to wander the halls. Of course, teachers recognized that this was an unsafe practice, and some refused to do it. It was also sometimes unsafe for teachers to keep the special needs students in the classroom due to the behaviours being expressed by the special needs students. To complicate matters further, teachers were told not to send special needs students to the office. Creating a safe learning environment for all students is essential. So, what was the solution?

Teaching assistants (SEAs) provided a way for integration to stumble on. A teacher assistant was assigned to sit in the empty life-skills room so that the special needs students had a safe place to which they could retreat when the regular classroom wasn’t working for them. Teaching assistants also worked with some of the special needs students in the regular classroom.

Having the teaching assistants trying to fill the gap created by the disintegration of the special needs classes improved things a little bit, but it cannot be called a solution. Poor inclusion practices hurt everyone. A 2006 study of challenges faced by SEAs in SD36, the report shows that SEAs feel that “cuts to integration teachers are really hurting” them (Malcomson, 17). The Brackenreed report, which studied the impact of poor inclusion practices on Ontario teachers found that poor inclusion practices lead to teacher burnout.

All students suffer from poor inclusion practices. In integrated classes where SEAs are expected to magically fill the gap left by removing special needs teachers from the equation, the needs of special needs students are neglected. Non-special needs students suffer as well because the classroom teacher must spend an increased amount of time dealing with behaviour management which means less time is spent on teaching. In addition, non-special needs students suffer trauma from being trapped in a classroom when students who have unmet needs act out. One SEA from my school district reported that a student frequently hurled chairs at her because he “like to hear the crunch” when it hit her. Since there was no other option than to keep the student in the regular classroom, the SEA was instructed by the administration to wear hockey gear as protection. The fact that every student in the class is in danger when someone hurls a chair was not even part of the discussion.

When will the magical thinking end so that we can create a system in which the needs of all students are properly met? It will happen when districts have the funds to put special education teachers in regular classrooms -in addition to – regular teachers. Currently, SEAs are valiantly stretching themselves across an educational gap that far too wide. In Learning in Safe Schools Creating Classrooms: Where all Students Belong, Faye Brownlie points to the essential role that special needs teachers play in the regular classroom in proper inclusion. When special needs students are put into the regular classroom without support it is neglect. It’s time to give up on the magical thinking that SEAs are proper support. Proper inclusion means that the regular teacher is support by a special education teacher in the classroom.

Works Cited

Brackenreed, D. (2007, November 30). Inclusive Education: Identifying Teachers' Perceived Stressors in Inclusive Classrooms. Exceptionality Education International. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from

Brownlie, F., & King, J. (2012). Learning in Safe Schools Creating Classrooms Where all Students Belong. Pembroke.

Malcolmson, J. D. (2006). Survey of Special Education Assistants in District 36 Surrey Final. BC; Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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