What is an Educational Assistant Supposed to Do?

This is a really important question that a lot of people, including school staff, are confused about.  Before we answer it, we should take a quick look at what we hope that school should do for our children.

The Purpose of School

To answer this question, one pair of researchers asked tens of thousands of parents what they thought – and their answers fit into four categories (Villa and Thousand, p. 42):

  • belonging (forming meaningful relationships),
  • mastery (of skills and learning strategies, motivation, reaching potential),
  • independence (having choices, taking responsibility), and
  • generosity (offering abilities and efforts for the benefit of others).

These goals require interaction with other people.  The ideas behind inclusion says that everyone has gifts and abilities that can be extended in any community for the benefit of all.  Inclusion is more than being physically in the same location as others.  So having a child in the same classroom (or building) as all the other students but doing his own, separate program is not an opportunity to develop most of the goals of education that parents seem to want.  The question is, how can diverse students learn together?

Roles and Responsibilities

Your child’s teacher is legally responsible for your child’s education.  This is for several reasons.  Teachers are trained and continuous access to training.  They are specialists in how best to deliver the curriculum and in ways to engage students and help them grow, academically and socially.  They see the big picture, and have access to resources outside the classroom.  This means that they should be connecting and relating with your child as they would with any other student, and plans to support your child’s academic and social/emotional development need to come from them.

The teacher is supported by resource teachers, clinicians, and educational assistants (often shortened to EA).  The EA acts under the direction and supervision of the teacher.  They may also have training or access to training, but their focus is on fostering engagement with class activities.  That could mean helping students take needed breaks, creating materials to allow unique learners to participate in learning activities, or supporting the class while the teacher supports one particular student.

An EA is a valuable team member with much to offer.  But there is an idea out there that special needs funding results in an EA being assigned to a student as their own specialized teacher.  But consider this:  why do we want to place the students with the greatest learning needs under the care and responsibility of the least trained professionals?

Many years ago, I had a student who had some difficulty with self-regulation and who needed help managing his emotions.  The plan in place at the beginning of the year was for his EA to take him from the room when he became upset, so that I as the teacher could continue to do my job uninterrupted.  I went with it then, but it was probably one of the pivotal learning experiences of my career.  The result was more disruption, rather than less.  We were inadvertently telling this student that he was a disruption, that the needs of others were more important to me than his well-being, that he was “different.”

The next year, a wiser teacher made a point of helping him directly.  The EA supported her by supervising the class when she needed to step outside and consult with a student.  He had a very positive experience in her class, and was much happier and focused.

This story is not at all to criticize that EA – who was one of the best I have ever worked with.  It’s about teachers establishing relationships with all students, because each one belongs on the same terms, as people who are growing and learning and who deserve equal opportunities for support from their teacher.

So What About My Child’s Funding?

The special needs funding for students with autism (or any other disability) is meant to support programs and resources that allow them to be included and educated in the least restrictive environment possible.  I want my children to read and do math and think to the greatest level that their abilities allow, and so I want their teacher to be using their knowledge, experience, and resources (such as a resource teacher or additional training) to figure out how best to support their learning.

A well-thought-out plan is what we should be looking for when our child is funded as a special-needs student.  How can our child best be supported so that he or she is a successful learner?  It may or may not be best for someone to be assigned to them all day.  The solutions will look different for every child.  As much as possible, their learning support should come in the same kinds of ways that all children find support – the inclusive structuring of learning experiences, the teacher, and other students.  That will give them meaningful opportunities to contribute, build relationships, and learn.

1:1 Support – Some Pitfalls

In fact, the research raises some questions about the assignment of educational assistants to individual students.  One study interviewed high school graduates who had the support of a 1:1 EA, about their feelings and memories around that support.  Themes that emerged were:

  • The students were treated as younger than they actually were, and were perceived and treated as immature
  • Although the EA often protected the students from bullies, having an EA sometimes made them a target
  • Students were isolated from the instructional content and interactions among the students and with the teacher in the classroom
  • Students were less likely to be receiving adequate instruction when paraprofessionals were doing some or all of the work assigned

So What Does an EA Do?

Educational assistants are necessary and valuable team members.  They allow time and attention to be distributed among varied student needs.  They can privately care for unique needs of some students in a respectful way.  But their role is not the same as that of a teacher.

As much as possible, EA’s should be considered a support to a class and teacher, rather than to individual students.  In a sense, an EA’s job is to work themselves out of a job, promoting the competence and independence of the students under their care.  Each student deserves the guidance and support of their teacher.  The most skillful EAs know how to be a support, rather than an obstacle to growth, developing relationships, problem-solving skills, and independence.

Appreciate your child’s EA – they are an important part of the team.  When you’ve got questions, consult with your child’s teacher.  Encourage them to build a supportive relationship with your child.  It’s their job to make sure your child’s educational needs are being met, in the most inclusive way possible.  In considering the roles of educational professionals, it’s important to not lose sight of the reason our students are in school – to develop their gifts and abilities, and to be contributing community members.

Further reading:

Perspectives of Students With Intellectual Disabilities about their Experiences with Paraprofessional Support

One-to-One Paraprofessionals for Students With Disabilities in Inclusive Classrooms: Is Conventional Wisdom Wrong?

Educational Assistants in Manitoba Schools

A Middle School Essay on Inclusion: Counting Everyone in the Everyone Category

Villa, R. and Thousand, J.  (2005).  Creating an Inclusive School.


  • Shantala

    I’m a mom of an autistic daughter not experiencing full benefits of a school. I liked the example of class teacher not treating the special needs kid as a disruption.

  • Sandra Cramer

    Yikes! I am an E. A., and have A LOT of training. That’s incredibly insulting to assume that we don’t. I have worked with amazing teachers over many years, but some had no training in special education.
    Yes, the teachers definitely need to not just pass kids over to us, but many E.A.s have many years of experience dealing with all sorts of disabilities, health /medical conditions, neuro diverse kids, trauma, etc etc etc.

  • Sandra Cramer

    Otherwise, it’s a great article, and I absolutely agree….we are not teachers, but we DO teach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *