Planned programmes of support
ELSA support is much more than having a friendly chat with an anxious pupil. It is also much more than problem-solving some difficulties a young person is having. ELSA support is about developing a respectful relationship in which the young person is enabled to think about their situation without feeling judged or criticised. It is intended to be short-term purposeful support, usually to help develop new skills or coping strategies that enable the pupil to experience greater success. In order to know when an intervention should end, ELSAs need to work to specific programme aims that are realistic. These need to be stated clearly enough to know whether or not they have been achieved. Ideally they should be achievable within a school term. Sessions are planned with objectives that build towards the programme aims. Some guidelines to assist with programme and session planning have been developed in Hampshire – please click here to view them.
It is not expected that ELSAs set programme aims unaided. Those referring pupils for support have a responsibility to help identify some hoped for outcomes. Included here is a possible referral form to provide some background information to an ELSA and suggestions about desirable outcomes – please click here to view.
Session planning does not need to be arduous. It needs to reflect some thinking ahead of the session about what the next step should be. It therefore needs to identify an objective for that session and may refer to something the pupil is able to do or something that the ELSA does for the pupil. It should be small and specific. The ELSA then needs to think about an interesting way to achieve the objective and the resources that will be needed. It is strongly recommended that games and activities should be included rather than relying upon worksheets. ELSA sessions need to feel qualitatively different from school lessons. They are not about teaching pupils or telling them what to do, but about facilitating greater self awareness in pupils and helping them to reach their own solutions and coping strategies. This requires well developed active listening skills on the part of the ELSA and a skilled use of questions that promote reflection. Session plans do not need to be regarded as being set in stone. There will be occasions when it is more respectful to deviate from the plan in order to respond to a young person’s immediate need. The plan can then be picked up again or modified for a subsequent session. Immediately following a session it is beneficial to have a few minutes reflection and note some brief evaluative comments that may guide future session planning. Please click here for a sample ELSA session planning form.
Communicating with parents
It is good practice for schools to inform parents when providing their children with additional support. With young children this can sometimes be done in person because the parent accompanies the child to and from school. If not, a letter may be sent to let them know that an ELSA is going to work with their child – please click here to open a suggested letter. It is helpful if parents are already aware of the work of ELSAs through the general information that schools send out to parents. Some ELSAs have produced colourful leaflets explaining their role. If parents know this support is made available regularly to pupils they are less likely to anxiously interpret this as indication that there is something seriously wrong with their child.
Liaison with parents is to be encouraged. Parents may be invited to contact the ELSA if there is anything about their child they would like to discuss. During or following intervention the ELSA may invite the parent to a meeting to discuss the work that has been done. Depending upon the school’s preference this may be with the ELSA alone or with the ELSA and the ELSA’s line manager. Working with parents not only gives the ELSA access to a valuable parental perspective but may give parents greater insight into the needs of their child, leading to support at home that complements the work done in school. ELSAs who have worked in this way have reported useful outcomes from parental liaison.
As this is an intervention carried out within school by school staff, it is not necessary to gain parental permission for the work to take place.
The following guidance does not apply to safeguarding issues, where the ELSA is obliged to share information out of concern for either the pupil’s safety or the safety of others.
In their work ELSAs need to respect the privacy of pupils and their families. With the development of a trusting relationship an ELSA may find that a pupil talks freely and in detail about incidents or situations that are troubling them. There may be times when the ELSA thinks it would be helpful for other members of staff to be aware of a child’s concerns or a family situation. Sharing information should be done with sensitivity to the youngsters and their families. For example, to say that a young person is anxious because of some current parental conflict in the home is respectful. To divulge personal details of who said or did what to whom verges on gossip and should be avoided. It may sometimes be appropriate for an ELSA to talk with the pupil about what they would like to share and to secure their agreement so that their trust is maintained. The key guideline is for ELSAs to ask themselves who needs to know and how much they need to know, always keeping the best interests of the pupil in mind. It is not always in the best interests of a pupil for an ELSA to observe the strict code of confidentiality that applies to counselling or psychotherapy. Schools are communities where staff are expected to work cooperatively to support children’s wellbeing and some sharing of information is appropriate. Each school should have its own confidentiality policy that all staff are expected to observe.
A supportive line manager
ELSA work can be emotionally demanding and it is important for each ELSA to have the active support of a sympathetic line manager. There are times when the ELSA may need to offload following a challenging session, as not everything can wait until the next supervision meeting with the educational psychologist. Or there may be a difficulty within school that requires the support of the line manager, such as the reluctance of a class or subject teacher to release a pupil for an ELSA session, or even to release the ELSA from other duties (most are also classroom teaching assistants for part of their working week). There may be problems in identifying a suitable work space that is free from interruptions. Teachers may have unrealistic expectations of what an ELSA can hope to achieve through a programme of support. There may be too great a demand put upon ELSAs for the time that has been allocated for the work (pressure to see too many pupils). Other staff may try to use the ELSA to sort out behavioural incidents, creating a role conflict for the ELSA. Someone may be asking the ELSA to undertake a piece of work that is beyond their level of training and expertise. And like any other staff member, an ELSA needs a line manager who will be proactive in ensuring their professional development needs are supported. The work of an ELSA will be more effective if there is a line manager who understands and promotes this role in school.
Ongoing support of pupils
It is not intended that an ELSA work indefinitely with a pupil. If realistic intervention outcomes are identified at the start of the programme or a short way in (when the ELSA has developed an understanding of needs), it should be clear when those outcomes have been achieved. At this point the normal sessions should draw to an end. In some cases however, a different kind of work may continue more informally, involving a lower level of contact. Some pupils may need to regularly ‘touch base’ with the ELSA to review their progress. They may need the opportunity to talk about difficulties as they learn to apply with greater consistency the new coping strategies they have developed. New learning will rarely follow an even path. It is helpful however to gradually reduce contact as time goes on. This will avoid over-dependence and encourage the pupil to develop supportive relationships with other adults in school, especially classroom support assistants. If an ELSA feels he or she is the only person that can meet the child’s needs it is possible that the pupil is fulfilling the ELSA’s own need to be needed. They then become mutually dependent upon each other, which is unhelpful to both. The ability of a child to move away from ELSA support is something to be celebrated as it signifies a degree of success. There will always be pupils with long-term complex needs. This should not mean perpetual ELSA intervention. Such pupils need a broader support network so that the ELSA is free to work with other pupils needing support.
Frequency and duration of support
A good starting point is to think of a programme lasting for between half a term to a term. This will encourage the work to have a clear focus. There will be some variation depending upon the needs and circumstances of the pupils. Generally ELSAs deliver support programmes on a weekly basis. Regularity is important as it provides consistency and gives pupils a clear message that they matter. Care should be taken to avoid taking them out of their favourite lesson or activity. How long each session should last should depend upon the developmental needs of each pupil, not on convenience of school timetables. Younger children usually have more limited attention span and some may engage well for only twenty minutes. Often half an hour may be a good length of time for individual work, and an hour would be considered a maximum for older secondary pupils. A good rule of thumb is to always leave a pupil wanting more, rather than asking how much longer!
Supporting ELSA work in school
To get the best out of having an ELSA there needs to be a good understanding by all school staff of the ELSA role. A leaflet has been produced for staff outlining key principles for effective practice. Click here to open leaflet. (When printing, the page will need to be inverted for the reverse side. The leaflet then folds into three.)