Inclusion: How to plan lessons with your teaching assistant

Written by: Sara Alston | Published:
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How can we work and plan with teaching assistants to support inclusion and learning for SEN and other pupils throughout the lesson? Sara Alston offers some pointers

The focus of teaching assistant support in lessons tends to be on the teaching assistant supporting a child during individual working.

For much of the rest of the lesson teaching assistants are often either passively listening to the teacher, focused on behaviour management, or indeed are absent completing admin tasks or leading interventions.

However, to ensure that teaching assistants have the biggest impact, they need to be supporting learning throughout the lesson.

In our book The Inclusive Classroom (2021), Daniel Sobel and I identified the importance of using small tweaks and adaptations to support inclusion throughout five phases of the lesson (see SecEd, 2020). Effective teaching assistant deployment is a key element of this.

Below, I consider the potential roles a teaching assistant can play in each of the five lesson phases. I also offer some general ideas and reflections.

Phase One: Entering the classroom and preparing to learn

Unfortunately, many teaching assistants arrive with the children making it difficult for them to proactively support the transition into the room. Where possible, the teaching assistant can support the meet and greet for children. The process of saying “hello” and making eye contact supports effective relationships within the classroom and enables the adult to make a quick assessment of where children are and their readiness to learn.

Some individuals need a personalised “meet and greet” – such as spending a few minutes with an adult, coming in earlier or later than their peers or completing a set activity – to feel safe in the classroom.

Visual timetables are extensively used to support children through the day, but many benefit from a visual or written plan of what to expect in a lesson. This can be a full timetable or a simple written list to be ticked off or rubbed out when the activity is finished. This reduces the unexpected and enables children to plan.

Phase Two: Delivering instructions and whole class engagement

Too often teaching assistant support means that they take children out of the delivery of instructions. This means that the child misses the instructions and teacher modelling, so starts their independent work at a disadvantage. Alternatively, a lack of preparedness means that the teaching assistant needs to be listening to the teacher’s input as well in order to understand the new material that they will shortly be expected to teach and differentiate. But even in this situation a teaching assistant can explicitly model learning, recording ideas and information to support the children’s learning later. Supporting children’s access to instructions is vital if they are to be able work independently at a later point in the lesson.

Teaching assistants have a key role in supporting children to respond to questioning. Oral rehearsal allows a child to “practise” their response before sharing. This also reduces children’s anxiety, so they are more able to focus and listen and so contribute their ideas.

A note on using visuals

Using visuals is fundamental to supporting children’s understanding of language, focus on learning, and to promote access to instructions throughout the lesson.

A teaching assistant using symbols and/or pre-printed pictures for regular instructions (e.g. writing the date) and/or a quick sketch on a whiteboard for less regular instructions makes them easier for children to understand and recall.

Equally, visuals are critical to support vocabulary development, comprehension, and processing, particularly for any child with language or communication difficulties. While some children can access visuals independently, many need an adult to direct them towards the prompt and/or explain it to them, particularly when it is first introduced.

Phase Three: Individuals working as a class

This is often when teaching assistants come into their own in their role actively supporting learning. Many teaching assistants “take ownership” of a group – often the less able or those with SEND – and lead their learning. However, this can quickly become a model of segregation, where the most vulnerable learners are separated from the teacher.

There are alternative methods of deployment. “Helicopter” support is where the teaching assistant provides a child with a prompted start, modelling what they need to do, possibly completing the first calculation or planning sentences together, so they do not face a blank sheet. This means the child can work independently before the teaching assistant returns and provides further support in a repeated cycle. This promotes the child’s independence and enables the teaching assistant to support others.

Alternatively, the support can be “flipped” so the teaching assistant undertakes the roving role in class while the teacher sits with an individual or group, scaffolding and breaking the task into short segments.

Scaffolding and other support

Visual checklists, now and next cards, and task-management boards can all support children to identify and plot their way through lessons. By scaffolding the task, asking what they need to do next, and what they already know, an adult can move the child towards greater independence. Supporting self-talk can be an essential part of metacognition and key to enabling children to identify the stages and structure of their learning.

Elsewhere, key to children accessing learning is enabling them to focus on it, rather than being distracted by admin, e.g. writing the title or sticking in worksheets. This admin can become overwhelming and a barrier to learning. If it is completed by an adult, the child can focus on learning.

Where difficulties with reading and recording inhibit children’s learning, teaching assistants can become key to supporting the child to demonstrate their understanding. Developing independence for recording is a slow process, but these difficulties should not be a barrier to children demonstrating their learning.

The default often becomes for an adult to scribe and the child to copy. This is not good preparation for adulthood and deprives children of opportunities to develop their communication skills. To move on from this requires a change of mindset where we look beyond the one lesson to developing inclusion and independence through alternatives, including IT for recording learning. However, IT is not a magic wand – we should not underestimate the skills, dexterity, or understanding needed before a child can make effective use of IT.

Some children find motivation, concentration and recognising they are making progress difficult, so they benefit from short-term rewards often led by teaching assistants. This could include teaching assistant involvement in “live” marking.

Phase Four: Group working

It can be easy for adults to take a back seat during group work, but for many children working with their peers adds a layer of anxiety and difficulty to a task. Asking them to work with others means managing academic and social learning simultaneously, making both more difficult. Further, being part of a group makes a child’s difficulties more visible to their peers.

Many children need support to understand that they are part of a group and adult prompts to join their group and fulfil their role in it. Teaching assistants can facilitate interactions in group or partner work. It is important that adults promote interaction between children, and do not replace it by taking the role as the child’s partner. The use of learnt scripts, sentence stems and supports for turn-taking can all help with this.

Phase Five: The last five minutes

At the end of the lesson the teaching assistant can become so involved in tidying up, preparing resources for the next lesson, or moving to the next lesson that their interactions with children become fleeting and focused on organisational issues. This loses vital learning opportunities and a lack of support at this point can undermine a child’s readiness for the next lesson.

Some children benefit from individual time checks and clarification about expectations of the work to be completed. This depends on clear agreements between staff about the individual expectations so that the teacher and teaching assistant do not push for different expectations, confusing the children and undermining each other.

To promote engagement in children’s evaluation of learning, teaching assistants need to repeat the strategies of modelling, supporting focus and rehearsal of ideas.

Many children struggle to identify when they have done well and benefit from an individual check to establish this. For children with low self-esteem this work needs to be noted, so that it can be shared with home or others in school. I have written previously in SecEd about getting the last five minutes of lessons right for SEND children (Alston, 2021).

Further ideas and reflections

Teaching assistants can also promote learning by supporting children’s sensory needs. Many children, like adults, struggle with focus. Fidgeting and fiddling can support their engagement and learning. While the use of “wobble cushions”, “kick bands” and fidget objects may improve some children’s focus, many still need regular movement breaks.

In an ideal world, children can manage and organise these themselves. However, many need to be supervised when they leave the classroom and supported to engage in the exercises they need to help calm and self-regulate.

Most importantly, throughout the lesson a proactive teaching assistant can act as an “extra pair of eyes” and identify who is or is not accessing the learning. This may include formal observations with an agreed focus, e.g. the use of a particular strategy or on-going informal observations. However, to be valuable this needs to be shared with the class teacher.


These key roles supporting learning throughout the lesson should be adapted to meet the needs of individuals or groups of children. While the teacher remains in the charge of the class, the teaching assistant and teacher should be able to swap roles to ensure that all children receive focused support and quality teacher time. For this to be effective, it requires good communication and the teaching assistant being in the room and engaged in the support of learning.

  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Sara is currently working on a book entitled Working Effectively with your TA, due out in February with Bloomsbury Education. Visit or read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & resources

  • Alston: SEN: Getting the last five minutes of your lesson right, Headteacher Update, February 2021:
  • Headteacher Update: Differentiation: Time to rethink our approach? February 2020:
  • Sobel & Alston: The Inclusive Classroom, Bloomsbury Education, January 2021.

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