Assistants quoted in the report An Ambiguous Relationship: Learning support assistants and the students who receive their one-to-one support, admitted finding it difficult not to cross the line between enabling students to do work and doing it for them.
The study, which was presented to the British Educational Research Association annual conference in Exeter yesterday, examines the role of LSAs in two further education colleges. It warns that their "desire to protect and the students' desire to maintain a friendship (with the LSA), conflicted with the development of students' independence".
One student doing A-levels at a FE college said that she had no real friends there except for LSAs and that without them she would have quit her course.
Wayne Veck, of Canterbury Christchurch University College, who wrote the report, argues that LSAs are being asked to support pupils emotionally and socially as well as supporting their learning and, in many cases, teaching them.
While students viewed LSAs as friends, they themselves were more likely to view their role as that of a parent or older sibling.
"The ambivalence that characterises this relationship reflects and in part results from the ambivalence of the LSA role.
"That role is low status and low paid but nevertheless requires constant professional judgment," the report says.
The nature of the relationship and lack of assistants' status put them in a difficult position when they were asked to discipline students.
"There is an immense irony in placing the responsibility for teaching and disciplining a student, deemed extremely difficult by lecturers, upon LSAs, who are in all other ways made to feel of secondary significance."