Perspective of a Special Needs Assistant

by Niamh O’Reilly Rosedale School Woodlands Centre Renmore, Galway.


I work as a special needs assistant (SNA) in a school for children and young adults in Galway. There are approximately forty students enrolled in the school, all of whom present with severe and profound learning disabilities. Some of the students also experience severe physical disabilities, while others have a diagnosis of autism and/or exhibit challenging behaviour. The school works through a partnership mode—the Department of Health and Children provides nurse-educators and care assistants and the Department of Education supplies teachers and special needs assistants. There is a heavy emphasis on multidisciplinary input, as the ethos of the school revolves around a holistic
approach to education.

On a day-to-day basis, my work as an SNA is highly participative and less ‘assistive’ than its title would suggest. Each member of the individual classroom staff team has a turn in leading or facilitating programmes, in assisting with self-care, in one-to-one work, etc. This is one of the greatest strengths of my particular SNA position. I am not employed simply as an ‘assistant’ to a particular student or teacher, but as an equal member of a collaborative team. The relatively equal status of a SNA within each classroom team helps to promote independence in students in that they do not depend on any one particular team member for specific activities. When a member of staff is not in school, students are skilled so that the daily routine can carry on with a replacement staff without undue difficulty or disturbance.

I work in a class which has six students and four staff members. My average school day consists of structured programmes built into a reasonably flexible timetable depending on the activities scheduled for a particular day. The day always starts with each member of staff working with different students for table-top activities. After table-top work each student performs a ‘chore’ which he/she has been given for the week, together with a staff member. Such chores involve delivering the post, feeding the goldfish, setting the table, etc. For the rest of the day the students work as a group; they enjoy a snack and return to the classroom for ‘circle-time’. As an SNA I share equal responsibility for supervision of students during snack-time and often lead the circle-time programme, which involves discussing who came to school, the weather, the day of the week etc.

Both snack-time and circle-time provide excellent incidental-learning opportunities for students in terms of turn- taking, language and communication and social training. The use of communication strategies such as PECS and TEACCH throughout the school day facilitates communication and enhances the motivation of some students for verbalisation. Once the circle-time programme is completed, students embark on curriculum theme-related programmes. For example, a weekly schedule for this time-slot could entail swimming on Monday, drama on Tuesday, sensory work on Wednesday, etc. Such programmes may also include social outings, PE, physiotherapy, relaxation or computer work. As an SNA, I am fully and equally involved in whatever programmes is being carried out. A social outing such as a trip to town, a restaurant, the library or the shops helps to educate students on socially appropriate behaviour, how to purchase items, functional use of money and so forth. This is a popular activity and students have shown great progress in this area over the past few years. Another classroom activity is drama. While this may seem quite abstract for students who experience severe and profound learning disabilities, their enthusiasm and understanding in various role-play scenarios has proven otherwise. Drama provides a tremendous way to engage with students and for them to engage with each other. Some examples of role-play/drama include a visit to the dentist, picking up litter, washing clothes and going to the shop. The themes involved are practical and serve the students well when their ‘real-life’ versions are carried out on an outing or at home.

Application of the National Curriculum to students’ programmes provides significant challenges. Naturally, the teacher carries much of the responsibility and all of the accountability for the programme, but the entire classroom team collaborate in its planning and execution. History, geography, science and mathematics often require more inventiveness than visual arts or physical education. Since ‘incidental-learning’ does not satisfy the requirements of the National Curriculum, it is necessary to prepare and engage students in formal lessons for each subject areas. Whether a programme is designed to teach the ‘geography’ of where each student lives or the ‘history’ of what we did in school last month, the themes involved are practical and can be incorporated into other areas of the students’ day, such as social outings, swimming or relaxation. This helps to reinforce the subject matter and makes the lessons more relevant to the students.

I have had the opportunity to be fully involved in consultation with members of the multidisciplinary team as well as key-workers within the classroom. In this way my ability to carry out whatever recommendations or programmes are implemented for students is enhanced. I have also had great opportunities for in-service training in intensive interaction, challenging behaviour and personal outcomes. This training has supported my improved performance in a variety of classroom scenarios and has aided in the development of productive and reciprocal relationships with students.

Our students are teenagers and will leave school at eighteen. Given that we have a high staff/student ratio compared with adult services, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture for our students. While all areas of the National Curriculum are covered in formal and structured lessons, there is also a strong emphasis on developing life skills that will enable the students to maximise their potential, receive an appropriate adult service and cope with an immense change in their lives. All of the students with whom I work will have spent at least ten years in the school by the time they leave. Moving to adult services is a huge step for the students and for their families. It is my personal view that all of us in the school must endeavour to equip our students with the skills necessary to move on to the next phase of their lives.

I have worked in my school since December 2001 and throughout this time I have been studying part-time at NUI Galway. I hope to pursue further study and to work in the area of learning disability as a qualified professional in the future. I would recommend this job very highly and I would like to encourage anyone contemplating a career in any of the multidisciplinary areas associated with young people with special needs to take some time to work as a SNA and gain some invaluable experience.