It’s a Monday morning and the class are reading Macbeth. The students are all sat in rows as one reads out a line. One girl pushes away her book and puts her head on the table. She has given up. She has dyslexia and she finds reading normal books hard enough without adding Shakespeare to the mix. I pick up the book and encourage her to open it again. She refuses. ‘What’s the point?’ she says, ‘I’m dumb.’

As a learning support assistant, I work with secondary school students who struggle to cope with the academic, social, and emotional pressures of school life. Many of them have complex needs and difficult home lives and are struggling with a multitude of learning difficulties from dyslexia to autism and ADHD. My job is to help them cope and to make the long school day that little bit more bearable. To many students, a learning support assistant is the friendly face in an overwhelming crowd. Vulnerable students may be more comfortable opening up to a learning support assistant who seems less intimidating to them than a teacher.

To many students, a learning support assistant is the friendly face in an overwhelming crowd.

Learning Support has become an increasingly important, though sometimes under-appreciated, aspect of school life over recent years. It can be frustrating and demanding as well as deeply satisfying. The main joy of the job is the huge mix of students that you get to work with and getting to know their individual personalities. Often, I support students in-class, but also do 1:1 or small group sessions. However, I have found that working with SEN children in learning support encompasses far more than academic support; for example, I have also worked alongside a speech and language therapist running communication groups, I have taught social skills groups, spelling and handwriting lessons and been a support mentor. The wide variety of experiences is partly why I love working with special needs. With students that have special educational needs, you are not just teaching them English and Maths, but how to cope in the real world.

It is hugely gratifying when students acknowledge and are thankful for your support. Of course, there are always the students who are not. It can be disheartening when a child pushes you away and says, ‘I don’t want your help’, ‘I don’t want you.’ In this job, you will always face ‘difficult’ students- the ones with behavioural problems or are uncooperative. These students can be disrespectful and destructive but it is important to be resilient, patient and not take it personally. Often, they are not really angry at you specifically and can be just as baffled by their emotions as you are. You have to try and see the life behind the behaviour. While a child’s background cannot completely justify their actions, it can give you some insight in to their choices.

You have to try and see the life behind the behaviour

I support one boy with autism and there are days where I struggle to get through to him as I can see in his eyes the multitude of racing thoughts that are not allowing him to focus on the page I am pointing to. Sometimes his frustrations get the better of him and it breaks out in fits of rage. He will punch the walls and kick the table legs, swear, and shout. However, I also know that along with having autism, he struggles to fit in at school and his mum has a hard time giving him the care he needs because she is on her own and struggles with her mental health. When the rage dies down, you can see in his eyes that he is more frustrated by his actions than you will ever be.

From these experiences, I have learnt many strategies for supporting and working with SEN children, from dyslexia to autism. It is important to remain open minded and non-judgemental. And although you are never going to be able to solve all their problems, sometimes just being there for them is enough to make a difference. For students going through tumultuous experiences in their personal lives, often just having someone at school that they can trust is massively important. Whether it’s staying behind to help a student with homework or a positive phone call home, going the extra mile can really help you to build the strong relationships with the students that need it the most.

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