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The impact of paid adult support on the participation and learning of pupils in mainstream schools. Professor's perspective

I. Purpose and scope of the review

This review examines international research evidence documenting the impact of teaching assistants, learning mentors, technical support staff and teachers who work alongside colleagues, on pupils' learning and participation in mainstream schools and classrooms. It focuses on the impact of these individuals on marginalised groups and/or individual children and youth in school. The review also examines whether or not impact varies according to the type of support offered.

II. Defining 'impact'

'Impact' is defined as the effect of adult support on students' learning and participation. Studies are included if they report 'measured' change or when professionals, parents or pupils report that the learning and participation of students increases following the introduction of paid adult support. Thus, both 'objective measures' and/or the perception of those closest to students that the students receiving support had changed and developed were used as criteria for inclusion in the review.

III. Findings

Four dimensions or 'clusters' of impact emerged from the articles included in the review. The following, taken from the actual EPPI review summary, presents the findings in each cluster:

Cluster A: The impact on paid adult support on the inclusion of students seen as having special educational needs (SEN)

Paid adult support staff can be effective mediators or 'connectors' between different groups and individuals in the school community.

Paid adult support staff who are valued, respected and well-integrated members of an educational team are seen as positively impacting the inclusion of SEN pupils in mainstream classrooms, particularly in regard to these pupils' participation.

Paid adult support staff who are not valued and not included with teachers and school management in the decision-making process are seen as being less effective in promoting the inclusion and participation of SEN pupils.

Sometimes paid adult support staff can be seen as stigmatising the pupils they support.

Paid adult support staff can sometimes thwart inclusion by working in relative isolation with the pupils they are supporting and by not helping their pupils, other pupils in the class and the classroom teacher to interact with each other.

Paid adult support staff are generally seen as having a positive impact on the inclusion of pupils with SEN and this has been reflected by parents, teachers and pupils.

Cluster B: Effect of paid adult support on overall achievement

Paid adult support shows no consistent or clear overall effect on class attainment scores.

Paid adult support may have an impact on individual but not class test scores.

Most studies do not distinguish between all the ways in which paid adult support staff can work with students.

Qualitative evidence of impact is much more positive. The perceptions of participants in the same studies that indicate little impact of paid adult support on attainment, stress the significant effect on attainment that support staff can have.

Cluster C: Sociocultural issues on impact

Sociocultural aspects of pupils' lives and the school community are important, but often neglected elements of the thinking about paid adult support staff's impact on pupils' learning and participation.

Paid adult support staff fulfil important roles as mediators in a number of contexts, as they mediate between pupils, teachers, specialists, parents and even different cultures.

Knowledge of pupils' cultures, behaviours, languages and interests can be utilised by paid adult support staff to impact positively on their learning and participation.

Cluster D: The detail of effective paid adult support practice

Paid adult support staff can positively affect on-task behaviour of students through their close proximity.

Continuous close proximity of paid adult support can have unintended, negative effects on longer-term aspects of pupil participation and teacher engagement.

Less engaged teachers can be associated with the isolation of both students with disabilities and their support staff, insular relationships between paid adult support staff and students, and stigmatisation of pupils who come to reject the close proximity of paid adult support.

IV. Use of the review by the user

This EPPI Centre review was applied in three areas of my work:
1. teaching graduate education students
2. working with mainstream schools serving students with SEN
3. preparing my own research.

  1. The review was used during a seminar designed for preparing education doctoral students for developing their dissertations. It was presented as an example of a rigorous process designed to be used when developing a review of the research literature related to a specific research question. Students were asked to apply the EPPI Centre process to a hypothetical research question selected by the group. This aided setting parameters for the scope of individual literature searches and was particularly useful for setting criteria for inclusion and exclusion of material.
  2. The findings of this review have been cited to teachers and administrators concerned with the use of a 'paraprofessionals' in mainstream classrooms that include children with SEN. The finding that teaching assistants may, at times, limit a student's autonomy and participation with peers has been particularly useful in cases where a student has become overly dependent on one adult for support.
  3. The use of 'qualitative' findings regarding the perception of impact in this study has been useful in my analysis of reports by teachers, parents and students regarding other types of in-school interventions. The discussion on definitions of impact, support, and participation has also expanded my thinking on these issues.

The writer is an Associate Professor of Education

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