Teaching assistants’ role in managing behaviour

Written by: Dr Emma Clarke | Published:
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Your research has highlighted an important issue at school. Teaching assistants also need to ...

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Research has shown that fear of ‘overstepping the mark’ can stop teaching assistants from managing behaviour. Dr Emma Clarke outlines some of the issues uncovered during her research and suggests ways in which schools, teachers and teaching assistants can support effective behaviour management

Although there has been increased interest in recent years into the work of teaching assistants in classrooms, this has mostly focused on how they can support children academically (Blatchford, Russell & Webster, 2012; Sharples, Webster & Blatchford, 2015) rather than the development of other “soft-skills” such as managing behaviour.

This in turn has led to discussions around quantifying teaching assistants’ contributions to schools, and debates around value-for-money in teaching assistants’ work (Houssart & Croucher, 2013; Roffey-Barentsen & Watt, 2014).

This focus on teaching assistants’ “measurable outcomes” and emphasis on quantifying their contributions to schools does not take into account the broader social, emotional and behavioural support they can provide for children.

Teaching assistants and behaviour

It has been suggested that teaching assistants’ deployment should be part of whole-school improvement, with key decisions on deployment being where “all other decisions about teaching assistants flow from” (Sharples et al, 2015). However, rather than being at the centre of schools’ strategic plans, the deployment of teaching assistants has sometimes been ad-hoc and reactive.

Most schools deploy teaching assistants to support children academically and as a result teaching assistants largely work supporting children who have SEND (Blatchford et al, 2012; Sharples et al, 2015).

However, the Department for Education (2012) has previously highlighted a link between pupils identified as having SEND and “higher levels of misbehaviour”, as well as significantly higher rates of both fixed-term and permanent exclusions. It is this aspect of deployment of teaching assistants with children who may exhibit difficulties in behaviour that requires discussion and specific consideration.

Research suggests that teaching assistants see managing behaviour as a “vital” aspect of their role and that they can have a positive impact on children’s behaviour (Cajkler & Tennant, 2009; DfE, 2013, 2016). Many schools also have an “overwhelming perception” that part of the teaching assistant role is supporting the management of behaviour, and that even when teaching assistants are used as support in the classroom more broadly, there is still an implicit expectation that they will keep pupils on task, remind them of class rules and so on (Groom & Rose, 2005).

Ofsted (2008) has also stated that, with their “range of experiences”, teaching assistants could “engage successfully with disaffected students”. Findings from a range of research also highlights the positive impact teaching assistants can have on children’s behaviour and motivation, as well as the emotional support they can provide both children and teachers (Blatchford et al, 2012; Johnson, 2010; Sharples et al, 2015).

The DfE amended its advice on “behaviour and discipline” stating in 2013 that teaching assistants have the “power to discipline”. However, in their most recent guidance (DfE, 2016), the caveat of “unless the headteacher says otherwise” was included.

The lack of clarity from the DfE about teaching assistants’ role in managing behaviour (and teaching assistant deployment more widely) presents both a challenge and an opportunity for schools. It would seem that teaching assistants can, and want to, play a key role in supporting teachers and children in managing behaviour. The problem arises when this happens as a coincidence rather than a considered intervention.

What stops teaching assistants managing behaviour?

Teaching assistants who participated in my research wanted to manage behaviour and specifically wanted to support the teacher in doing so, but found themselves in the “frustrating” position of being passive bystanders. This was due to teaching assistants’ concerns that they would “undermine” the teacher by stepping in and was rooted in what they described as not knowing “their place”.

Although the notion of “place” sounds pejorative, teaching assistants’ lack of understanding of their place in the classroom was associated with a lack of clarity in what their role was and, as a result, what the expectations of them were. Teaching assistants in the research noted that they “could not recall a single conversation” with teachers about what was expected of them in terms of managing behaviour. Rather, teaching assistants stated they were left to work on “assumption” and “common sense”.

It appears that time constraints in schools have significantly limited occasions for schools as a whole, and teachers and teaching assistants specifically, to consider, discuss and communicate teaching assistants’ role in managing behaviour. This lack of clarity has stopped teaching assistants intervening and undertaking a key part of their role, which has resulted in a missed opportunity to provide support for children and teachers.

What can schools, teachers & teaching assistants do?

Findings from the research show that the teaching assistants who took part did not feel empowered to manage behaviour and as a result had to “sit back and watch”. This led to them feeling excluded, and that they were not supporting the children or teachers in the way in which they wanted. Schools, children, teachers and teaching assistants vary so much in the needs they are meeting and the challenges they face that there is not (and should not be) a one-size-fits-all model for teaching assistant deployment. However, the suggestions below can be implemented and discussed to support teaching assistants working in a range of different ways.

Schools could...

  • Ensure that teaching assistants are included in whole-school decisions on behaviour in a meaningful way. One way to do this would be to speak to teachers and teaching assistants together where possible to provide an opportunity to discuss practice and share expertise. Teaching assistants should also be included in any specific behaviour training provided.
  • Consider how teaching assistants are deployed. Is there time available for teaching assistants to talk to class teachers to share specific incidents of behaviour and discuss strategies for managing subsequent issues, or to discuss general classroom behaviour management?
  • Check the wording in their behaviour policy. Are terms such as “staff” used, which includes teaching assistants, or only “teachers”? If the policy details rewards and sanctions, are these accessible for teaching assistants and can they implement them in class/groups/individually, or do they need to refer to the class teacher?
  • Can a teaching assistant “refer-up” behaviour issues to the senior leaders or do they have to refer it to a class teacher?

Teaching assistants in my research called for schools to “value their contributions” and “include them” in relation to managing behaviour. Schools and senior leaders need to think explicitly about what role they want teaching assistants to take in managing behaviour in their school and ensure that policy, training and the school’s ethos give a consistent message to teaching assistants.

Teachers could...

  • Find some consistent way of communicating expectations for behaviour management with the teaching assistants they work with.
  • Address key issues of teaching assistants’ “place” in managing behaviour. Are teaching assistants expected to take a full, active and equal role in managing behaviour? Should teaching assistants take their lead from the teacher? Should teaching assistants only manage the behaviour of the children they are deployed with? And so on.

This could take the form of a longer chat at the beginning of the academic year or each term, setting out the general parameters of teaching assistants’ role. It could be a brief chat each week, day, or session, or it could be a communication book where notes, concerns or actions taken in relation to behaviour are kept. The aim of these conversations is to encourage teachers to be explicit about how they would like teaching assistants to support them in managing behaviour. Teachers are often very good at sharing with teaching assistants how they want them to support children academically, but leave expectations associated with managing behaviour unspoken. Once both teachers and teaching assistants have more clarity on each other’s role, issues of “place” and concerns over “undermining” teachers or “crossing a line” can be addressed.

Teaching assistants could...

  • Find opportunities to ask teachers and senior leaders about what their role is in managing behaviour.
  • Request additional support, training or mentoring to support them in developing skills in managing behaviour if they lack confidence.
  • Ask to shadow or observe other teaching assistants or teachers to support the development of their behaviour management skills. Time must be built into this for discussion, so that the underlying reasons for specific strategies can be discussed.


The main aim of any action taken by schools, teachers or teaching assistants should be to empower teaching assistants in managing behaviour. This open dialogue with discussion and clarification, or negotiation of the roles of teachers and teaching assistants in managing behaviour, aims to stop teaching assistants feeling “awkward” and “uncomfortable” if they manage behaviour. Schools, and particularly senior leaders, have a key opportunity to strengthen team-work between teaching assistants and teachers by facilitating discussions and giving strategic consideration to teaching assistants’ role in managing behaviour.

  • A former primary school teacher with 17 years’ experience, Dr Emma Clarke now lectures in education and teaches on the PGCE course at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln. Her research has been presented and published nationally and internationally. You can email her at emma.clarke@bishopg.ac.uk. Dr Clarke’s research into teaching assistants was the subject of her recently completed PhD.


  • Blatchford, Russell & Webster (2012). Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants. London: Oxon: Routledge.
  • Cajkler & Tennant (2009). Teaching assistants and pupils’ academic and social engagement in mainstream schools. International Journal of Emotional Education – 1(2), pp71-90.
  • Clarke (2018). How do teaching assistants view their role in managing behaviour in relation to a whole-school behaviour policy and what are their points of tension in fulfilling this role? Unpublished PhD thesis: University of Northampton.
  • Department for Education and Skills (2001). Schools Achieving Success.
  • Department for Education and Skills (2003). Developing the Role of Support Staff.
  • Department for Education and Skills (2006). Raising Standards and Tackling Workload Implementing the National Agreement.
  • Department for Education (2012). Pupil behaviour in schools in England. Research Report DFE-RR218.
  • Department for Education (2013). Behaviour and discipline in schools.
  • Department for Education (2016). Behaviour and Discipline in Schools: Advice for Headteachers and school staff: http://bit.ly/2LNeGzC
  • Groom & Rose (2005). Supporting the inclusion of pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in the primary school: the role of teaching assistants. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 5(1), pp20-30.
  • Houssart & Croucher (2013). Intervention programmes in mathematics and literacy: Teaching assistants’ perceptions of their training and support. School Leadership and Management, 33(5), pp427-439.
  • Ofsted (2008). The deployment, training and development of the wider school workforce.
  • Roffey-Barentsen & Watt (2014). The voices of teaching assistants (are we value for money?). Research in Education, 92(1), pp18-31.
  • Sharples, Webster & Blatchford (2015). Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants: Guidance report. Educational Endowment Foundation: http://bit.ly/2fiIrc1

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Your research has highlighted an important issue at school. Teaching assistants also need to included in managing behaviour effectively. Teachers and Assistants need to work as a team to enable all the children have a positive environment for learning. Children then can see that the TA has some authority too.
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