Anna Holland works as a learning support assistant (LSA) with students ages 13 to 16 years, at Gosford High School in Newcastle upon Tyne. Here she explains her role and the nature of her work as part of the student support base

My role

I work as a Learning Support Assistant (LSA) with students aged 13 to 16 years, at Gosforth High School in Newcastle upon Tyne. The school is a specialist language college, with 1,700 students in total, and is federated with a local middle school.

I started working for the school in March 2007, and joined a team of five other LSAs who are part of the student support base. As well as providing computer facilities and a range of different resources, the student support base is home to a team of learning mentors, education welfare officers, the school’s special educational needs coordinator, Connexions advisors, a teacher of English as an additional language, and our community police officers.

The main benefit of the department being multi-agency is that it allows for direct communication and eases the sharing of information, which in turn enables us all to fully support the students educationally, socially, emotionally and physically. It also means that they know exactly where to come, whatever their issue may be.

The primary remit of my job is to support students on curriculum-related tasks and aid them in overcoming barriers to learning. This umbrella term incorporates specific special educational needs, such as dyslexia and autism, but also extends to issues such as low self-esteem, anger management problems or school phobia. Because there is such a varied range of barriers experienced by young people, the type of support that an LSA provides is dependent on the individual needs of the student.

I work with a variety of students from across the three academic years. In some lessons I support on a one-to-one basis with a specific student and in others I support the whole class. Working on a one-to-one basis with a young person can be a very delicate operation, as it is important to ensure that they do not become isolated or appear different from their peers. This year I have supported approximately 12 students on a one-to-one basis and five full classes, in subjects ranging from traditional English, maths and science, to more practical lessons such as construction and cookery.

A typical day for me at Gosforth High School

  • 8:30am – As I arrive in the department I am greeted pleasantly by a group of students who have gathered on the soft chairs. While I get organized, some of them approach to involve me in their conversation, before the bell goes and they go off to registration. I then catch up with my colleagues on the plans for the day ahead.
  • 8:55am – In the first lesson I am supporting a Year 10 class in an alternative curriculum ASDAN lesson. They are producing leaflets to inform people about HIV and AIDS. The teacher and I split our time between students, answering questions and prompting them in developing their ideas. It is very much a team effort to get around the whole class and ensure that everyone is on task.
  • 9:45am – My next lesson is a Year 10 maths class, where I support two students who have been identified as being at risk of falling behind. They are continuing with algebra and I work through the first few questions with them. Once they have gained confidence, I move to work with other students but check back on their progress throughout the lesson.
  • 10:30am – Morning break.
  • 10:45am –The next lesson is English, and I support a Year 10 student with dyslexia. The teacher has the differentiated work ready and talks me through what she hopes will be achieved. I ask the student informally to explain to me what he has been asked to do and then assist him in breaking down the task. Once he has attempted the task, he offers it to me to have a read over. I praise him for his understanding and individual ideas and ask leading questions to help him develop his thoughts. He prefers to give his answers verbally, so I jot down key words he uses in his book, which he later uses to help him structure his written answer.
  • 11:35am – For the next two lessons I support a Year 10 class in their practical hospitality lesson, where they are making chicken curry. After each demonstration by the teacher, I move around the classroom and ensure that everyone is following the instructions correctly, working at the correct pace and (most importantly!) acting in a safe and responsible manner.
  • 1:10pm – Lunch.
  • 1:50pm – The final lesson is with a Year 11 student in her maths lesson. She is very capable but lacks confidence. I encourage her to attempt the work and praise her appropriately. I reassure her that she is better at maths than I am and we are able to make a joke of this fact. This has helped her to learn that we are all only human and it is OK to make mistakes.
  • 2:40pm – This part of the day is a chance for students to do additional activities. Within the student support base, we offer guidance and support with homework and allow students to use the department’s facilities to aid their learning.
  • 3:30pm – I spend 20 minutes writing up notes and documenting student progress, before tracking down an English teacher to discuss a student’s piece of coursework.
  • 4:30pm – A quick glance at my timetable to see what tomorrow has in store and then it is time to head home.

‘Explain it to me…’

I use a range of supporting techniques, depending upon the needs of the student. Some students struggle to learn when information is taught to the class as a whole. When this occurs I ‘scaffold’ the students’ learning by working through tasks with them, explaining things in a step-by-step fashion but ensuring that the students are completing the task themselves. As their level of understanding grows, I reduce my input, until they reach a point where they’re confident to work independently. In some circumstances I have to differentiate work to suit the abilities of the young person I am supporting.

A significant number of students I work with have difficulty in understanding what exactly they are being asked to do, as they struggle to take in instructions given verbally. So, when work is set, I ask them to explain it to me and help them to deconstruct the task into manageable goals, jotting down ‘prompt words’ to help them later. Then, throughout the lesson, I will check on their progress and ensure that they are staying on task.

An important part of my job is to give positive reinforcement and encouragement to the young people I support, to help build up their self-esteem and confidence. This is such a very simple thing to do but it can have a substantial impact on their learning and development.

A wider aspect of my role involves monitoring the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of the students. This is a far less concrete element of the job and is primarily achieved through building a rapport with the students I support and by taking a general interest in them. This in turn builds a better working relationship within the classroom and provides me with more leverage when trying to encourage students to work. The relationship that an LSA is able to build with the students they support is unique and I feel that I am in a privileged position that most teaching staff miss out on.

Continually rewarding

Many LSAs are known by their first names, relationships are less formal and sometimes, as a consequence, the students really open up. I often see the students I support in a variety of settings, which allows me to build a profile of their overall strengths and weaknesses and gives me a wider understanding of their behavior, character and progress. This in turn enables me to support them more effectively in overcoming barriers to learning.

I thoroughly enjoy working as an LSA and find it continually rewarding. Through assisting on a residential trip (see below) I have been privileged to witness growth in the students within a short period, both in terms of their level of maturity and their confidence within themselves. Seeing such positive improvements is for me the most rewarding element of working with young people.

ASDAN trips – adventure and independence

What is ASDAN?

ASDAN is an educational charity that promotes the personal and social development of learners through its awards scheme. The awards recognize and reward learners’ skills as they complete ‘personal challenges’ in such areas as sports, healthy living, community involvement, work experience, expressive arts, relationships, citizenship, personal finance and enterprise.

Outside of my normal duties as an LSA, the most prominent activity is supporting the ASDAN classes in a variety of adventurous trips, with the aim of helping the students to complete the course challenges. Many students who participate in the ASDAN course are on the SEN register or have been identified as being suited to the course, as it aims to develop students personally and socially by enhancing self-esteem, raising aspirations and by encouraging them to make real contributions to the community.

While most of the trips are one-day excursions, there is the occasional residential trip, which requires input from the team of LSAs in order to facilitate its organization. The most recent residential trip was to Belgium, which focused on students learning about the First World War.

First time away

For many students, this was not only their first independent trip, ie. away from their families, but also their first time abroad. A lot of support was therefore required to initially encourage and then build up the confidence of these students to go on the trip. Many of them had anxieties about going away and I spent a lot of time at break periods and after school talking through their concerns and answering any of their questions, such as: ‘Where do we sleep?’ ‘What are we going to see?’ ‘Will there be dead bodies?’ Once students had agreed to go on the trip, it was then a race against time to ensure that everyone had a passport – which meant assisting those without, in obtaining one.

Once we were off, the real fun began! The residential trip allowed for the students to develop educationally by learning about the First World War in an active way, but also to develop socially. Four classes were taken, with a mixture of students from Years 10 and 11. This meant that a lot of students were mixing with peers with whom they had not previously interacted. Across the four days of the trip, real friendships were built and students were able to experience an element of independent living and gain that little bit more responsibility for themselves.

The majority of the students who participate in the ASDAN course struggle to engage in learning within a rigid classroom environment. The trips enable them to learn through being active and experiencing things for themselves. In the weeks after the trip to Belgium there was a noticeable positive change in the educational and behavioral performance of most of the students. The residential trip had also strengthened the relationship between the staff and students, which for me has impacted on the support I am able to give the students within the classroom.