Evidence for Learning: Teaching assistants

Teaching assistants

A summary of the research evidence on teaching assistants in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of teaching assistants (TAs) on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on TAs. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of teaching assistant interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016. 

TAs are adults who support teachers in the classroom. TAs’ duties can vary widely from school to school, ranging from providing administrative and classroom support to providing targeted academic support to individual students or small groups.

A common issue associated with TAs is that they work in mainstream classrooms with special needs students, requiring the execution of complex tasks (e.g., curriculum modification and differentiation), yet they are not required to have any formal qualifications or training in these tasks. There is yet to be published Australasian research on the impact of TAs on academic outcomes.

The British systematic review by Sheehy, Rix, Collins, Hall, Nind and Wearmouth (2009), which incorporates Australian data, focused on whole-class and subject-based pedagogies, with reported outcomes for the academic and social inclusion within mainstream classrooms of students with special education needs. The review quantified the importance of student and TA interactions, listing student-support staff and student-teacher-support staff as the third and fourth most common interactions in the classroom. However, it did not identify the impact of modulating these interactions on student achievement.

Reliance on TAs in mainstream schools to support students with disability and learning difficulties is an increasing trend in Australia. In 2021, 100,900 TAs were employed; predictions show that by 2026, 118,500 teaching assistants will be employed in Australian schools (DEEWR, 2016). Research conducted over three years in four mainstream schools on the employment procedures and practices that affect teaching assistants found that teaching assistants and teachers have minimal understanding of the teaching assistant role. In addition, teaching assistants within the studied schools have limited understanding of employer expectations, education department system policies, the teaching assistant career structure and school policies. Existing employment procedures and practices, both at the education department system level and at the individual school level, exclude teaching assistants from accessing information afforded to other school staff. As a result, teaching assistants work alone and often fail to provide effective support to students and teachers. The study showed that they become frustrated and marginalised due to role confusion between teaching assistants and teachers, their limited knowledge and skills, lack of clearly defined duty statements, lack of planning time with teachers and restricted access to appropriate training (Butt, 2016). It is not surprising then that the solution to inclusion’ (Rutherford 2012, p760) for supporting students with disability and learning difficulties of employing increasing numbers of teaching assistants has not been proven to result in improved learning outcomes for students (Farrell, Alborz, Howes & Pearson, 2010).

To enable students and teachers to receive maximum benefit from employing teaching assistants, it is recommended that school leaders improve employment procedures, processes and conditions for teaching assistants at both system and school level by (a) inducting teaching assistants into the education department, (b) conducting an orientation for teaching assistants into schools, © reviewing supervision and providing feedback to teaching assistants, (d) reviewing teaching assistant hours of employment, (e) including teaching assistants in information dissemination loops and (f) evaluating teaching assistant models of deployment.

Cain (2015) discussed the role of teaching assistants in helping Indigenous Australian students academically. She suggests that teachers and support staff need to have a strong understanding of local Indigenous culture. While she provides a conceptual discussion as well as implementation models, she did not quantify the academic impact.

Butt (2016) conducted a qualitative case study in Canberra over three years and across four primary schools, to identify issues related to teaching assistants in mainstream schools. Five different models of teacher assistant support and deployment were identified: 1) the one-on-one model; 2) the class support model; 3) the itinerant model, which involves teacher assistants working across several classes; 4) the unit model, which involves one teacher assistant assigned to one same-age unit of classes, moving between students with disability and learning difficulties; and 5) the withdrawal model, which involves teacher assistants withdrawing students with disability and learning difficulties from mainstream classes to work with them. Support models used in mainstream schools were found to be inequitable, as students who did not have a disability or learning difficulty received instruction primarily from a qualified teacher. However, students with a disability or learning difficulty more often than not received instruction from a teacher assistant who may have no relevant qualifications or involvement in broader planning.

Giangreco (2013) discussed the current state and future of teaching assistants in schools worldwide but did not discuss their effect on academic outcomes. Importantly, the article noted the increasing trend of reliance on untrained teacher assistants to provide support for students with disabilities and learning difficulties.

Australian Government. (2022) Education Aides. Retrevied from https://labourmarketinsights.gov.au/occupation-profile/education-aides?occupationCode=4221

Butt, R. (2016). Employment procedures and practices challenge teacher assistants in mainstream schools. School Leadership & Management, 36(1), 63 – 79.

Butt, R. (2016). Teacher assistant support and deployment in mainstream schools. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1 – 13.

Butt, R., & Lowe, K. (2012). Teaching Assistants and Class Teachers: Differing Perceptions, Role Confusion and the Benefits of Skills-Based Training. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 16(2), 207 – 219.

Cain, G. (2015). Support Staff and Indigenous Education. In Chambers, D. (Ed.) Working with Teaching Assistants and Other Support Staff for Inclusive Education (pp. 133 – 151). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Farrell, P., Alborz, A., Howes, A., & Pearson, D. (2010). The impact of teaching assistants on improving pupils’ academic achievement in mainstream schools: a review of the literature. Educational Review, 62(4), 435 – 448.

Giangreco, M. F. (2013). Teacher Assistant Supports in Inclusive Schools: Research, Practices and Alternatives. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 37(02), 93 – 106.

Rutherford, G. (2012). In, out or somewhere in between? Disabled students’ and teacher aides’ experiences of school. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 16(8), 757 – 774.

Sheehy, K., Rix, J., Collins, J., Hall, K., Nind, M., & Wearmouth, J. (2009). A systematic review of whole class, subject based, pedagogies with reported outcomes for the academic and social inclusion of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream classrooms. EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London, UK. Retrieved from http://oro.open.ac.uk/10735/1/Sheehy_and_Rix_2009.pdf

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Support staff; adult support staff; teaching assistants; associate staff; classroom assistants; supplemental educational services.