Special Education Assistant training program more relevant than ever

They may be male or female, spanning the age range from 20 to 65. Whether hipster or quilted-vest-wearing grandmother, they have one thing in common: a desire to be with kids and to help them achieve their potential. They are known as TAs, EAs, SEAs, or SSSWs, and schools would most definitely fall apart without them. 

In BC school districts, Special Education Assistants, or SEAs, have a broad job description that includes everything from diaper-changing to academic support. In today's inclusive classrooms, SEAs are usually assigned to a particular student or students. Most often they shadow a student with special needs throughout his or her school day, helping support the specific IEP goals.

Diane Koch, co-ordinator of Capilano University's Special Education Assistant Program, said that SEAs with a high school education used to be routinely hired and trained on the job. But, according to Koch, the increasingly specialized skills required for supporting low-incidence students in BC classrooms are changing this pattern. Candidates are flocking to the Capilano University training program, as well as to the other 16 post-secondary institutions that offer such training.

"We get a lot of SEAs [in the program] who have been in the system and find student needs very complex and complicated," Koch said when reached by phone. Students attend the Capilano University program part-time in the evenings, so that they can upgrade their skills while continuing to work in the field. They learn, most critically, what it means to support students with special needs in an inclusive classroom. Among other things, they also become versed in learning and support strategies, communicating with students' families, and professional practice and accountability.

Koch says that SEAs are the only educator group in British Columbia that still does not have a professional standard. In most districts, hiring processes are in place to help select those with appropriate skills and credentials. There is, however, a consortium currently aiming to set standards for SEAs across the province.

Koch underlines the importance of qualified personnel working with children who have special needs. "It comes down to a legality issue," she said, adding that she would be very concerned as a parent if the person working with her child had little understanding of special needs support.

SEAs that have experienced some formal training are probably better
at understanding inclusion, and less likely to fall into the trap of
thinking that children's problems would go away if educators simply
ramped up the pressure to perform.

Programs like the one at Capilano University are especially relevant today, considering that the role of the SEA in BC classrooms is very different from what it was just a decade ago.

SEAs' job descriptions were changed almost overnight in 2002 when the BC government changed its education funding formula. Under then-Education-Minister Christy Clark, the 2002-2003 budget was streamlined so that the only specifically-funded categories of special education were for the neediest children: those with diagnoses of Autism, deafblindness, and other serious physical and intellectual disabilities. The funding formula thus changed the population of children that SEAs were hired to support. For example, now, SEAs often do not specifically support students with learning disabilities who struggle to read but are otherwise very bright.

Koch maintains that there will be a need for SEA training programs as long as there are students in the schools who are generating government funding. Although some districts are laying off SEAs this year because of funding shortfalls, Koch says, "Grads from our program are being scooped up."

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