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If you are passionate about the education sector and want to help children learn, you might consider becoming a special education assistant. In this role, you will be able to make a difference in the lives of children with special needs and give them the support they deserve when pursuing their education. We spoke with Suzanne Adams, the coordinator and the instructor of Special Education Assistant program at Ashton College in Abbotsford, about the benefits and challenges of this profession.
What is the primary role of a special education assistant (SEA)?
Their main role is to assist the teacher by supporting students with special needs. It is important to clarify that special education assistants work alongside teachers. Their main responsibilities include assisting students with physical disabilities with mobility, communication, feeding and personal hygiene. They monitor students and support with behaviour modification, personal development, speech therapy, math help, reading and writing, etcetera. All of this is done under the guidance and supervision of teachers.
Can you tell us a little about the history of the profession?
SEAs have always existed, but their role has continually expanded. Since the inclusion model came into practice in the 1980s, SEAs have been needed more and more. Of course, their training was not as extensive as it is today. As we continue to embrace inclusion in the classroom, teachers require trained SEAs to assist with students.
How has this profession evolved over time?
Teachers now understand that special education assistants bring a level of knowledge and skill that they may not have themselves. By working together, they can support the students in the classroom.
Other changes include the increase in the use of computers, smart boards, assistive and augmentative technology for those students who require alternative communication.
What qualifications and skills are required to become a special education assistant?
To get into this field, you need to complete a Special Education Assistant program with the required number of practicum hours. You also need to obtain a criminal record check. However, there are other skills and abilities that are equally important. You need to be genuinely committed to helping children learn, and have cultural and ability sensitivity.
During the time of your studies, you will begin to develop the habits you will need in the workplace. You will need to develop and increase your awareness, problem solving and critical thinking skills. You will be required to manage time for assignments and projects. Most of all, you’ll need to remain open to what may seem to be new ideas and new ways of thinking.
A SEA program will prepare you for the real world. It will help you develop and increase your awareness, improve problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Apart from teaching you time management skills, a good program will train you to be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking.
Once you start working as a special education assistant, you will use all these new habits. Your job will be to work with the students you are assigned and to do so while being caring and respectful. It’s important to realize that every child is unique, and every child can learn. Your job will be to figure out, with the teacher’s guidance, a teaching plan based on the specific needs of the child.
Please tell us a little bit more about the Special Education Assistant program offered at Ashton College?
Special education assistants have never been in more demand. Teachers need support staff who are trained to encourage the development and empowerment of the students they are working with. Ashton College’s curriculum covers exceptionalities that are high-incidence (Autism, Down Syndrome) to low-incidence (Angelman Syndrome, Williams Syndrome, PKU, Prader-Willi). We feel that it is vital for our graduates to have an in-depth knowledge of all the special needs their future students might have.
There’s also an increasing need for SEAs to work with students who are new to Canada. Such students need help not only in learning English but also in understanding the many complexities of their new environment. As a result of violence and oppression around the world, many families are forced to flee their countries. Consequently, schools across the country are welcoming and serving students from diverse nations. These students bring their unique individual cultures and backgrounds while bearing some of the challenges and stresses of the refugee experience. We pay a lot of attention to cultural sensitivity and understanding in our program.
What are the benefits of completing the SEA program from Ashton?
There are many. The biggest one is that students will acquire quality education, and by that I mean that our students have more than the surface-level knowledge of being a SEA. Anyone can read a textbook, but we bring our students into a classroom environment that is rich with opportunities to ensure the comprehension and application of the required skills.
Instructors at Ashton are passionate. They have the skills to get students to a level where they can become a professional. We also train students on Mandt, which has some similarities to non-violent crisis intervention. Mandt offers a level of training that supports the diversity of behaviours we currently see in schools and agencies that NVCI does not cover. More and more schools and agencies are seeking this training, and we are pleased to offer it to our students.
What are you some of your focus areas when teaching this program?
There are two main focus areas. Firstly, we aim to go beyond merely understanding the prevalence and characteristics of a certain disorder/syndrome. Future SEAs will need a paradigm shift in their understanding of what it means to the student they are working with. No student should have their skill level and abilities underestimated. Secondly, we concentrate on what Universal Design for Learning and Differentiated Instruction is and how to use it.
Who should opt for the Special Education Assistant program? Who are the best candidates for this job?
The best candidates for this field are people who truly enjoy working with children. This means that regardless of how the child is behaving, you realize that the child is developing as best they can based on the models they are learning from. The best candidates for the SEA work are those who are understanding and are sensitive to the obstacles children face while in their care. Children in schools deserve the best assistance they can get. Being a SEA is a challenging and sometimes frustrating career. But the rewards far outweigh everything when you know that every day you are trying your very best in making a meaningful difference in the life of a child.