The Swedish school system employs approximately 20,000 classroom assistants, and this number is increasing. The classroom assistant’s job is to help pupils who need special support. Although classroom assistants make up a considerable proportion of the school system employees, and the Swedish National Agency for Education views them as special support, the agency does not specify how or what the classroom assistants are to do.
“The Swedish Education Act lays down that teaching is to be based on a scientific foundation. For this reason, we asked ourselves whether this special education measure is supported in science. One conclusion we draw is that it’s not clear that classroom assistants should be used as principal teachers for these pupils”, says Henrik Lindqvist, post-doctoral researcher at LiU’s Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning, and principal author of the study.
Together with Rickard Östergren and Lotta Holme at LiU, Henrik Lindqvist has conducted an overview of the existing research on classroom assistants in the school system. The aim of the study was to investigate the free role of the classroom assistant in the classroom, and to determine whether there is support in science for what the classroom assistants offer. The study has been published in Pedagogisk forskning I Sverige, a Swedish scientific journal.
The criteria for the studies that the researchers reviewed were that they had to be empirical studies, published 2009–2017, focussing on children between 6 and 12 years of age who require special support, and be concerned with classroom assistants with a freer role in the classroom. Sixteen articles, all published abroad, met these criteria.
Untrained, with lots of responsibility
The study of the 16 articles showed that there are risks to using untrained personnel for pupils in need of special support.
One risk factor is that the classroom assistant to a large extent becomes the principal educator for pupils in need of special support. This means that the classroom assistant makes learning-related decisions and adapts assignments – things they are not trained for. Further, the pupil can end up dependent on the assistant, because the pupil needs the assistant to be present to complete their assignments. The collective research indicates that it is the teacher, not the classroom assistant, who should have both the expertise and the responsibility for the pupils’ learning.
Another risk factor is that the “expert” classroom assistants can acquire a particular role, with respect to children who require special support. As expert, the classroom assistant is expected to promote the inclusion of these children, and make learning-related decisions. In addition to the assistants lacking the training for these duties, the research shows that the presence of the classroom assistants leads to the teacher not making the teaching accessible for all pupils.
A further consequence of the classroom assistants’ work could be a decline in the social relations between the pupils in need of special support, their classmates and their teachers.
However the investigative research also identifies certain success factors, for instance that the classroom assistant can mitigate the relationship between certain pupils and teachers who have had difficulty managing pupils in need of special support. The classroom assistant can also have a positive effect in that classroom behaviour improves. However this seems to benefit the work situation of the teacher more than the pupil in need of special support.
Because the study is based on international research, Henrik Lindqvist notes that one must take care with transferring the results to the Swedish context:
“The very fact that there is no Swedish research to consult demonstrates that it is very much needed. Classroom assistants are quite a large professional group, and it is important for us to know how their role works. Possible areas to investigate from a Swedish point of view are to conduct efficacy studies in order to determine how classroom assistants affect the learning of pupils, and how classroom assistants perceive their own work, as well as how pupils perceive them.”
Elevassistenter i skolan - En forskningsöversikt. (Classroom assistants in school – A research overview) Henrik Lindqvist, Rickard Östergren, Lotta Holme. Pedagogisk forskning i Sverige, Vol 25 No 2-3 (2020).