Adele Bates

How to help teaching assistants handle poor behaviour

Teaching assistants are often left to handle the most challenging students with little help and no training. Some experience aggressive behaviour daily – a situation that is untenable, says Adele Bates, who has some practical suggestions to minimise flashpoints at school and empower support staff

How schools can support teaching assistants to handle challenging behaviour

Who manages the most challenging behaviour in your school? Alas, the task often falls to the least-paid and least-supported members of staff: teaching assistants (otherwise known as classroom assistants or pupil support assistants in Scotland).

Of course, there are some TAs who take this in their stride. However, there are many in our schools who struggle with intimidating or aggressive behaviour on a daily basis. And, unlike teachers, these members of staff have not always completed a year’s training in education or been eased into their role on a reduced timetable, while having regular mentor support.

When I train support staff in behaviour management, the overwhelming impression I get is a feeling of fear, frustration, uncertainty and disempowerment. Comments such as “we just have to get on with it” and “there’s a new policy we’re supposed to follow but it doesn’t work in practice” are all too common.

Supporting teaching assistants to cope with challenging behaviour

This is not a sustainable approach to leading on behaviour. We need to find a way that works for every member of staff. So, what might that look like?

1. Involve all staff in your behaviour policy

When devising or evaluating behaviour processes, all staff need to be included in the discussion and given space to contribute. A policy can look good on paper but, if it doesn’t work for the people on the ground, there is no point in implementing it.

In addition, it is vital that these procedures are accompanied by behaviour management training. However, this isn’t as simple as just including TAs in the whole-school Inset session about behaviour. They need targeted support, which takes the context of their role into account.

One option is to create TA “support teams”, which will meet regularly and provide the opportunity for TAs to have time to reflect, share practice, have specific training, investigate a certain pupil’s recent difficulties – in short, have a similar type of continuing professional development to the teachers they work alongside. They do, after all, work with the same pupils.

2. Rethink lunchtimes

In many schools, lunchtime can be the most challenging time of day when it comes to managing behaviour. As an unstructured period, this is often when some of the worst incidents occur.

This is also the time when students are left mainly with teaching assistants or other non-teaching members of staff, such as lunchtime supervisors.

Some schools and many alternative provisions tackle this behaviour issue practically: lunchtimes are staggered, so that pupils eat with teacher supervision. The pupils eat with people they have strong relationships with, supported by non-teaching catering staff.

The result is often a calmer cohort that needs less time to settle and refocus into their afternoon learning.

3. Ditch isolation

A common scenario in many schools is that, when a pupil becomes disruptive, they are sent out of the classroom.

In primary, this will usually put them with the TA for the day and, in secondary, you’re more likely to see a variation on an isolation unit – even if it is called the “calm corner”, “detention area” or “nurture space”.

While it is unarguably useful for distressed young people to have time and space to re-regulate, the danger is that the intervention stops there for them. In reality, the pupil is out of the classroom as the teacher does not know how, or is unable, to bring them back into the classroom successfully alongside 33 other pupils.

More often than not, the pupil ends up, again, with a member of non-teaching staff (or otherwise a member of the senior leadership team, who is also juggling meetings and other responsibilities).

The result of this is disempowerment all around, with potential negative long-term effects on the teacher or TA’s confidence, the pupil’s learning and the schoolwide approach to behaviour.

4. Demystify behaviour management

Annoyingly (or brilliantly), there is no one approach to behaviour that will work in every school with every class and every pupil.

The idea that we should all become the Demon Headmaster or Mary Poppins is unhelpful, whether you are a TA or, indeed, a teacher or senior leader.

When staff try to emulate behaviour approaches or characteristics that aren’t their own, it usually doesn’t work. The pupils can smell the inauthenticity a mile off, and the teacher or TA often second-guess themselves and lose confidence.

That’s why having conversations with all staff around identity and behaviour management is key. Leaders need to acknowledge, publicly, that Mr Mott, with his high energy, may engage a class in a different way to Ms Singh, who occasionally twitches her left eyebrow and gets the same result – both approaches work because the pupils are focused and learning.

A behaviour policy that attempts to squeeze the same traits out of every member of staff is bound to fail. It will create a pattern where individuals believe they are ill-equipped to deal with challenging behaviour because they lack the gravitas or the personal touch, and so feel compelled to pass any behaviour issues on or up.

Every time they do this, they reinforce the message to the pupils that “behaviour is dealt with by so-and-so”. But if there were really one “right” way to approach behaviour, we would have solved all the behaviour issues in our schools a long time ago.

Letting go of this idealised model creates room for us to work with what’s actually happening in our context, now, with our pupils. Yes, we need routines and boundaries. Yes, we need to train and empower all members of staff. But we also need to get rid of the idea that only certain people within the school can really “do” behaviour management.

If we focus on helping all staff to form positive relationships and to adapt behaviour approaches for different circumstances, we create a system in which, when the routines and boundaries are broken, staff still have the skills and confidence to engage our young people in their learning, no matter who they are.

Adele Bates has been a teacher for 20 years. Her new book, 'Miss, I don’t give a sh*t': Engaging with challenging behaviour in schools, is out now

This article originally appeared in the 1 October 2021 issue under the headline 'Give TAs the tools to deal with poor behaviour'

Other articles in this issue