Here are some things you might need to know

Is it possible to train and work independently as an ELSA?

In order to train and practise as an ELSA, it is a requirement to work within an organisation working directly with children. This is usually a school and sometimes a preschool or college. ELSAs are required to have supportive line management within their organisation in order to ensure accountability. ELSA training is limited in duration and scope, with ELSAs receiving ongoing professional development via small supervision groups led by an educational psychologist. Organisations have responsibility for ensuring the appropriate selection of personnel to work as ELSAs and for their day to day management, including workload, while educational psychologists oversee the training and supervision. These arrangements are considered important for ensuring safe working, both for ELSAs and for the children they work with.

A school (or very occasionally another appropriate employing organisation) nominating someone for training shows confidence that they think the TA meets person specifications for the role. It indicates a commitment by the setting to support them in the role by providing line management support, releasing them for training and supervision dates, providing them with time to undertake the role responsibilities and a budget for resources. ELSAs need to be undertaking the role during training in order to be developing their experience in a supported context.

The school line management system provides an element of protection for the pupils in terms of taking responsibility for safe practice. Being employed by the school provides safety for the ELSA in terms of personal support and insurance cover in case any complaint is ever pursued, e.g. by a parent.

ELSAs have only 6 days of training. The ELSA Network does not consider this professionally adequate for independent work. Unlike for counsellors, who undertake considerably more training, there is no ELSA professional body with which to register. ELSA has been specifically created as a partnership between educational psychology services and schools, with ELSA registration managed by the local training service.

How often should an ELSA work with a pupil?

This will depend on the age of the child and the context of the work. Normally ELSAs plan to meet with a pupil weekly. Half an hour to an hour is often a good length of time for a session. It allows time to

  • check how the child is
  • review what was done last time to find out what the child has remembered or what may need to be revisited
  • to focus on the new session objective using interesting games or activities
  • to have a rounded ending that prepares the pupil for their return to class

It is helpful for sessions to be at a regular time because children like to know when they will be able to be with the ELSA again. For some younger children it may be better to meet more often for a shorter period of time. The child’s capacity to remain engaged will influence the length of the session and it is always better to leave a child wanting more rather than have them desperate to get back to class.

How long should ELSA involvement last?

Most programmes would last for at least half a term and up to a term, depending on the child and circumstances. Typically they are likely to be 8-12 weeks long, as time is needed to build rapport and identify appropriate targets. If they go on longer than this it suggests that clear programme aims have not been set. It may also create over-dependency upon the ELSA. An ELSA programme is not expected to remediate every need a pupil has. It should have a specific focus. (See Programme and session planning in Good Practice section.) Once the programme aims have been met, it may be appropriate to move from a planned programme to some informal follow-up support while the youngster generalises new learning into the wider school context. This maintenance support would involve seeing the pupil less frequently or more briefly than during the programme itself. Some pupils may at a later date receive a further period of intervention with different programme aims.

Where should ELSA work be done?

Pupils need a quiet space that affords some degree of privacy. In some schools ELSAs may have a dedicated room, but this is not always possible. If there is not a room that can be timetabled for exclusive ELSA use at agreed times, a partially screened area would provide pupils with a sense of containment. They need to feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts and feelings, which might include some sensitive information about themselves and their personal circumstances. It’s good to have somewhere that is personalised for ELSA work with relevant pictures and posters to give it an attractive and nurturing feel. Meeting in the same place each time creates a sense of security. Wandering around school looking for a spare corner gives out a message that this work is not highly valued and, by implication, that pupils’ needs are not paramount. It is important that ELSA sessions be free from interruption, so if the room is used for other purposes a ‘do not disturb’ notice will be important. If other staff disregard the notice and enter, the ELSA may need to halt the session until they leave to protect the child’s privacy.

What degree of confidentiality should an ELSA observe?

ELSAs are not counsellors and do not need to follow such strict confidentiality guidelines. The key point is respect for pupils. Liaison with selected other staff in school is usually beneficial. The question to ask is ‘how much do they need to know?’ A useful principle is to protect sensitive information that the pupil may have shared in confidence. It is respectful for an ELSA to ask a pupil if they may share information with others and then agree with them what will be said and to whom. Share generalities rather than sensitive personal details. The last thing an ELSA needs is to lose the pupil’s trust. The usual guidelines about safeguarding always apply of course.

Do ELSAs mainly work with individuals or groups?

The ELSA project was originally conceived as supporting individuals. Evaluation has shown that one of the key features of success is the quality of relationship that develops between ELSA and pupil. A one to one relationship will be qualitatively different from a group relationship as pupils are likely to be a little more guarded in front of peers. Also, ELSA programmes are intended to be bespoke for an individual’s specific needs. There is nevertheless a useful place for group work, for example when the focus of the intervention is developing social or friendship skills. In some cases a pupil may need some individual support before being placed in a group context to generalise the new skills they have been developing. ELSAs sometimes come under pressure from line managers in schools to do more group work because this is perceived to be a more economic use of time. This may however be a false economy since the impact from individual support may be much greater. Particular caution should be exercised about ELSAs leading anger management groups as the group dynamic may be especially challenging. This support is probably better focussed on individual pupil needs as it affords the opportunity to help the pupil reflect on personal underlying factors contributing to their own stress. Group work focussed on self-esteem, anxiety, loss and bereavement has also been successfully undertaken by some ELSAs. Children can be helped by knowing that some of their peers are facing similar challenges to their own.

Published resources are expensive and I haven’t been given a budget. Can I do ELSA work without buying games, puppets and books?

The quality of relationship and the opportunity to encourage a pupil’s reflective thinking are probably the most important success factors in ELSA work. However, many pupils will find it hard to just talk without the mediation of activities. It is often easier to talk when playing a game or working with creative materials. Also, the demands upon them to do written work in class make it important that ELSA sessions do not provide more of the same, so worksheets should be used sparingly. For some pupils writing is in itself a source of anxiety. Collecting a range of resources over time is essential in order to stimulate pupils’ interest. It is good to have a selection of well chosen resources from catalogues. After all, a subject manager in a school would not be expected to plan a curriculum with no resources to support it! ELSAs have however shown great ingenuity in collecting together useful resources found at car boot sales or unwanted toys/games from their own children. When the stuffing is removed from soft toys they can be turned into puppets. Finger puppets can be created inexpensively from felt and other materials. Collections of stones, shells and other natural objects are tremendously useful in therapeutic work and cost nothing other than the time taken to gather them. Using craft materials can be a great medium for work. Some ELSAs have created ingenious games based on their own ideas or those picked up from others. The school library service is an excellent resource for ELSAs. Many books related to emotional wellbeing may be accessed through the school library service in addition to those available in the school’s own library. It is worth seeking the support of your school librarian or finding out how to contact your local school library service directly. See also the Useful Resources and Useful links section of the website.

The resources section of the website is intended for ELSAs to share home-grown resources and ideas. If you have anything you would like to be considered for inclusion, please send it as an email attachment to sheilaburton@elsanetwork.org

What do I do if a class teacher tells me a child doesn’t deserve to come out for their ELSA session because their behaviour hasn’t been good enough?

This shows that the teacher has not understood the purpose of ELSA work! It is because the child has difficulties that they have been referred for ELSA intervention and without support the difficulties are likely to remain. You need the support of your SENCo or head teacher to help other staff understand that ELSA sessions are not rewarding bad behaviour. You are using these times to help the pupil reflect on their own behaviour and develop improved self-regulation. ELSA works best when everyone in school works together to create a more emotionally literate environment, which includes understanding the needs that underlie problematic behaviour. Merely punishing poor behaviour is unlikely to create long-term change. Some pupils needing ELSA intervention have poor engagement with the curriculum; missing a lesson for a period of time for ELSA support may result in greater engagement later.

Sometimes I am asked to use my ELSA time to talk to a child about an incident of misbehaviour. Is this OK?

ELSA support is not behaviour management. It’s about increasing pupils’ self-awareness and helping them develop more successful coping strategies, which is proactive rather than reactive work. In the course of an intervention programme it may be appropriate to reflect on specific incidents, but this would depend upon the pupil being in a state of receptiveness. Sometimes ELSAs need to overcome defensiveness by using indirect methods such as therapeutic stories or puppet work that separate the ‘problem’ from the person. Day to day behaviour management should be kept outside of ELSA sessions, and not seen as the responsibility of the ELSA. Expecting an ELSA to deal with pupil misbehaviour creates role conflict. Most ELSAs also work as classroom assistants. In this role they may well need to deal with misbehaviour. However when they are delivering ELSA support it needs to be clear to the children that they are ‘wearing a different hat’, otherwise it may inhibit their relationship with the child or young person.

Is it OK to deviate from my session plan if a pupil just needs to talk?

It would be insensitive and disrespectful if you were unable to recognise the need, on occasion, to suspend the plan for that session and respond to the pupil’s need to offload their distress or talk through a worry. The plan can be picked up next time, or modified in response to new understanding of the pupil’s needs.

I prefer to use my ELSA time just to talk with the pupils, so I don’t need to write session plans, do I?

It is important to use ELSA sessions to help pupils develop coping strategies that work well for them. Generally, this will require some creative thinking and planning, with the use of imaginative resources. Well planned activities support pupil reflection and understanding. The reluctance to engage in any session planning suggests that the ELSA has moved into ad hoc and reactive work, rather than than taking a thoughtful approach to interpreting behaviour and planning how to develop the pupils’ understanding and skills. Planned sessions do not exclude listening conversations; they provide a focus for them. Without clear targets an ELSA will not know when the purpose of their involvement has been fulfilled. It is expected practice for ELSAs to write session plans, which then become a record of their involvement with a pupil.

Is ELSA intervention suitable for neurodivergent children?

There has been some suggestion that ELSA is unsuitable for neurodivergent children. The ELSA Network strongly disagrees with the assertion that ELSA is not appropriate for neurodivergent children and believes this assertion is based on a lack of understanding of the fundamental principles that undergird the ELSA approach. It is known that very many neurodivergent children have been helped by ELSA intervention. The ELSA’s role is to help children build resilience, by supporting them to better understand their own emotions and those of others. The aim is not to push conformity to neurotypical thinking. The whole ELSA intervention is predicated upon basic counselling skills of empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard. The 3 keys to success that they are taught is to draw out the pupils’ feelings, create a reflective space in which to explore their lived experiences, and never to try to ‘fix the problem’. This will involve a lot of listening and certainly is not intended to involve pushing the child/ young person to talk about anything they do not want to or even to change anything they do not wish to. It is also a fundamental principal that the pupil/student is invited to receive ELSA support, not made to (either by school or parents).

Extensive research and evaluation of ELSA from various perspectives continues to take place, an increasing amount at doctoral level. Much of this is reflected on the ELSA Network website. Pupil perspectives repeatedly indicate that they appreciate the quality of relationship they develop with an ELSA because of the experience of being accepted and understood, and they value the confidentiality that ELSAs provide them.

All of this is not to say that ELSA is right for every child that an ELSA may be asked to work with. ELSAs are expected to work within the parameters of their training (always provided by educational psychologists, as is the ongoing subsequent supervision). The child needs to want support, aimed at helping them have a better experience of school. There are many reasons that ELSA may not be appropriate for a particular child at a particular time, which is one of the reasons ELSAs are required to access continued supervision throughout their practice. Educational psychologists frequently reflect with ELSAs they supervise whether a child they have been asked to support is an appropriate referral or not, and empower them to resist involvement where it is not deemed appropriate.  There may be some neurodivergent children for whom ELSA is not the best provision at a particular time, but there are very many who benefit greatly from it. Much depends upon the skills and experience of the ELSA, another reason why they are not given training and then left to get on with it, but have regular educational psychology support including casework discussions.