Patti Bacchus: Do we really need more special-ed assistants?

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      Parents of kids with special needs will often tell you there are never enough special-education assistants (SEAs) to help all the kids who need them. Heck, I’ve said it myself, many times. But what if we’re wrong?

      My kids started school at the turn of the millennium, and I had a front-row seat on what happened after the B.C. Liberals were elected in 2001 and the effect of their 2002 teachers’-contract stripping. Cash-strapped school boards used the “flexibility and choice” that government gave them—through legislation—to cut teaching positions across the province to balance their inadequately funded budgets.

      Specialist resource-teacher positions, which didn’t have assigned classes and worked with students with special needs individually or in small groups, declined with each round of cuts. Special-education-teacher jobs—which in school-board jargon often fall into the “nonenrolling” category, along with counsellor, and school-librarian positions—were hard hit, as those positions were no longer protected by contract language and were unaffected by legislated class-size limits.

      The resource-teacher jobs that remained were pared down and become piecemeal assignments with heavy workloads. Often the resource teachers, who may have had specific postgraduate training in special education, were expected to be the English-as-a-second language teacher as well. Experienced resource teachers with seniority and expertise could choose to retire or go back to classroom assignments, and many did. The remaining jobs, or pieces of them, often got picked up by beginner teachers with no specialized training and little district support or mentorship to address the complex needs of the students they were tasked with helping.

      When special-ed teacher jobs were being cut, more SEAs were being hired

      While teaching jobs were being cut, I noticed that the one employee category that increased during that period was SEAs, which were variously called student-support workers and education assistants.

      SEAs are usually required to have a certificate from a one-year postsecondary program, although some positions require specific training in sign language, severe-behavior support, or autism. SEAs make about $25 an hour, but they only get paid for the hours they work, which is often only about six hours a day, 10 months of the year. Many take on second or third jobs to make ends meet.

      That can lead to fatigue and increased illness, resulting in high absentee rates for SEAs, which creates more challenges for the students who rely on their help and the school districts trying to backfill their positions with on-call staff.

      It’s easy to understand why parents want more of them. It’s awful to think your child is getting left out and struggling with no extra help. It’s comforting when you know there is someone there to support them and assist them with their work and to ensure they aren’t left to flounder or be socially isolated.

      In my years as a school trustee and as chair of the Vancouver school board, I was acutely aware of a chronic shortage of qualified applicants to fill the district’s SEA positions. Turnover was high. We’d hire 100 new SEAs in June, but only half that many would turn up to work in September, having taken other jobs over the summer. When an SEA was off work due to illness, it was hard finding someone to cover for them. 

      We often talked about the need to offer better pay and more hours, to attract and retain more people to SEA jobs. But what if we were trying to solve the wrong problem?

      Universal design for learning

      Architects and planners have learned a lot since the days of old, inaccessible buildings with narrow staircases, raised doorsills, and no elevators. Modern public buildings are designed for everyone, with wheelchair-friendly doorways and elevators, and features like braille by the elevator buttons for the visually impaired. Build it right and almost everyone can use it independently, the thinking goes.

      What if we took that approach and applied it to education? Design curriculum, classrooms, and the whole school system to work for everyone and recognize the diversity range of students our schools are supposed to educate. If it was done right, we could need fewer SEAs and “special” designations.

      B.C.’s new curriculum is a step in the right direction

      B.C.’s new curriculum, with its increased flexibility, is a step forward to creating more truly inclusive schools. By recognizing that the student population comprises everyone from highly gifted students who need to be challenged, to those who struggle with learning due to a range of disabilities, schools and classrooms can and should work for all students, regardless of abilities.  

      In theory, if the curriculum is truly inclusive and teachers are trained to differentiate teaching for students with a diverse range of abilities, and classroom sizes are small enough and the right learning resources are provided, fewer students would need the help of SEAs.

      The approach of the last couple of decades seems to have been more about making kids deemed to have “special” needs fit in to a system that isn’t designed for them. Instead of changing the system to work for them, we give them labels and assistants to figuratively carry them up the stairs instead of building ramps and elevators.

      The past couple of decades saw more kids getting crammed into fewer classrooms, with SEAs added to help those with special-needs designations. I’ve been in Grade 7 classes with 29 kids, a teacher, and two SEAs. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. That’s just too many bodies in a room all day. I find noise and crowding stressful (who doesn’t?) and can’t concentrate without peace and quiet. I can’t imagine trying to think straight in a room as crowded as many of the classrooms I’ve seen, much less learn new, confusing information.

      Broken trust

      It’s hard to talk about changing the way B.C. public schools support students with special needs without making parents and educators nervous. Years of forced budget cuts have left classroom teachers—and SEAs—with bigger workloads and have shattered whatever trust there once was that decision makers were putting the interests of students ahead of the bottom line.

      Former B.C. education minister George Abbott floated the idea that teaching emotional self-regulation could reduce or even eliminate the need for individualized programs and special student designations. It was an overly optimistic overreach for a minister of a government that had done nothing to establish any kind of credibility with parents or educators.

      Self-regulation isn’t the answer, but a more universal-design-focused education system might turn out to be a wiser and more successful approach for many students with special needs than filling classrooms with more special-education assistants.

      What if each class had two teachers who had training in teaching a diverse range of students, from the lowest functioning to the most gifted and motivated? What if all schools were designed to provide quiet learning spaces and areas for students to relax and calm themselves, and outdoor settings where they could safely go blow off steam when they felt the need?

      SEAs do important and essential work, and there will always be students who need their support. I’ve dealt with many SEAs over the years who have specialized training and valuable skills when it comes to working with some of the most challenging kids. In some schools, the SEAs are the glue that holds everything together. But SEAs aren’t teachers and they aren’t there to educate kids—they’re there to help those who do.

      If we created truly inclusive schools and gave teachers the conditions they need to do their very best work, we might discover that many students who aren’t currently graduating and finding their own kind of success might surprise us. We may find some who need SEA support now could function more independently in an educational setting that was designed for all students, not just “typical” ones.

      Every student deserves to be taught by a fully trained teacher, but too often SEAs are tasked with teaching or tutoring students with special needs, because classroom teachers need to focus on the rest of the class.

      I’ve been around too long to think the answer to whatever ails us is bringing in more employees with the least-level training at the bottom of the pay scale.

      Sadly, with senior, highly qualified teachers earning two to three times what an SEA makes, government isn’t in a hurry to change the way we’re doing things.

      It’s up to the rest of us to push the conversation. Consider this an opener.

      I’d love to hear from SEAs, teachers, parents, and students about their thoughts on this topic. Please add your comments below or email me at

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.