Helping children reach their potential: Explaining the role of special needs assistants

By helping children with educational needs, special needs assistants play a key role in mainstream schools, writes Andrea Mara.

SNA is an acronym with which most parents are familiar — many of our kids have a special needs assistant in the classroom, and anecdotally, it’s seen as an advantage for everyone to have an extra adult there to help. 

But what exactly is the role of the SNA, what are the common misperceptions, and what benefits do they bring?

One common misunderstanding is that SNAs are teachers or teachers’ assistants who provide educational support. 

However, as set by the National Council for Special Education in their circular defining the scheme, SNAs are not qualified teachers, and all students, including those with special educational needs, are taught directly by the class teacher.

The role of the SNA is to assist the teacher to support students with special educational needs who also have significant care needs.

“Depending on the diagnosis, the SNA would have a certain role, and it’s usually around self-care issues, for example using the bathroom — that would be considered a very high need,” says educational psychologist Deirdre Griffin. 

“Their job is to be there to facilitate the child attending school — they’re not there to teach the child.”

Having someone there to help with care needs is what enables a child with special needs to be in school in the first place, and to have access to the teacher.

Deva O’Connor has been an SNA for 15 years and sees the benefits every day. 

“When you have a child with Down syndrome or autism, they get to be the same as every other child. They get to fulfil their potential. It takes away that old thing of past generations — that fear of people who are different. It’s magical.”

Vicki Casserly’s son James is 11 years old and in fourth class. He has cerebral palsy, which affects his lower limbs, an autoimmune condition, and juvenile arthritis. Casserly, who is a local councillor in Lucan, explains the huge benefits of having an SNA.

“She gives him an opportunity to participate equally in his classroom setting. She is his arms and legs where needed.”

She gives a concrete example: “Because of his autoimmune condition, James suffers with extreme tiredness, so he needs someone to tell him to take a break and come back. If he’s sitting there half asleep or in pain, he won’t keep up with the curriculum.”

Many SNAs invest their time and money in training, but the reality is that the required qualifications are minimal, and schools have the right to give the job to whomever they wish.

“There’s no training required,” says Lorraine Dempsey, chairperson of Special Needs Parents Association.

“To be an SNA you don’t have to have done an SNA course, although they are available in third level colleges. So that’s a concern — parents may assume that an SNA is a very qualified member of staff but that’s not always the case.”

Deva O’Connor sees this first-hand. 

“SNAs have up-skilled themselves but the problem is, there’s no formal training. We do need some kind of compulsory training in order to make it equal and make it fair for all children.”

On the flip side, there’s a misconception that SNAs are effectively providing a babysitting service.

“An SNA shouldn’t be viewed as in loco parentis — they are there to facilitate access to the educator in the room, not restrict access through isolating the child,” says Dempsey.

“It’s often thought that they’re there to just mind the children,” says Casserly. “They’re not, they’re there to empower the kids — to afford them the same educational opportunities as everyone else in the classroom. It’s an equality thing.”

So what of the future of the scheme? Although 860 new SNA posts were approved last June, this is just keeping up with demand.

“It’s giving back some of what was taken away — it’s a step in the right direction but it’s still not servicing the needs of the children we have,” says Deva O’Connor.

Lorraine Dempsey agrees. “They’re literally keeping up with the demographic demand.”

So if she had a magic wand, what would she change about the scheme?

“Give SNAs access to funding for training. If you want someone who can provide quality outcomes for your child, they need training. Parents are making the assumption that the SNA is trained but they may not have any experience behind them.

“They need tailored training to meet the needs of the children, the changing profiles, and the demands that are put on them.”

Deirdre Griffin believes in the power of positive reinforcement. 

“As Henry Ford says, ‘Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right’.

“In my opinion, a dedicated SNA can help a struggling child see that, with support, they too can reach their potential.”

CARING ROLE

Key responsibilities of an SNA:

* Assist a child with eating, because of difficulties swallowing or with mobility.

* Assist a child who needs to take medicine.

*Help with toileting and general hygiene.

*Help with mobility, for example, if a child uses a wheelchair.

*Move or lift students if needed.

*Withdraw a child temporarily from class, for example for medical or personal care reasons.

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