Educational workers being harmed: not a news flash but a daily reality

Although there have been recent alarming news articles in the GTA, it is not a recent occurrence that educational assistants (EA) are being harmed in their day to day work. Unions who support these workers have been speaking out for years and years on this issue. Since legislation was put in place in Ontario in the early 1980s to integrate students with disabilities into mainstream schools, education frontline workers have been hurt. The funding to properly support students and those workers continues to be abysmally insufficient and the problem deepens every year. That is why the frequency and severity of educational assistants being injured is rising and doing so at an alarming rate. 

It is important to stress: students with special needs are not to blame. Certain disabilities have a component in which the cognitive abilities of students are impaired or affected and therefore the idea of ‘blame’ or ‘ability to understand the consequence’ is not appropriately placed on those students. There are mainstream and special education students who do purposefully and with full understanding harm staff and/or other students; that is a whole different situation and not part of this discussion.

The students I am referencing may not know how to deal with and express their frustrations/anger/pain/needs in a way that is understood by even the most caring of individuals in the role of educational assistant. 

Here’s an oversimplified explanation: The student has a request made or expectation placed on them – perhaps putting on their outdoor shoes for recess. This is the antecedent, the expectation that causes that frustration/anger/pain/need in the student.

The student is unable to meet the request: they don’t understand what is being asked; their shoes bother them; the shoes are not lined up the way they like them – whatever is the roadblock for the student to meet the request. As the student cannot express or perhaps does not understand the reason they cannot meet that expectation or request, they ‘act out’ – they throw themselves on the floor, throw something, or lash out. This is the behaviour. 

The consequence is what comes next: if the request/expectation is dropped (the EA is injured and now is not requesting the student put on their shoes), then the student is no longer frustrated/in pain/angry/in need of escape from the request they cannot meet. Therefore, harming the people charged with supporting them is one possible route to meeting the need to escape the situation. 

In a perfect world, educational assistants have the time to observe students, find out their triggers – what causes frustrations and how to teach the student effective coping techniques. With time and dedicated energy to that one student, a skilled educational assistant can discern what is the best way to support the student and teach them the skills needed to function in school and society. 

This is not a perfect world. 

The ‘blame’ is not the students. Nor is it the person working to support them. 

Educational assistants have multiple students, often over multiple classrooms and they are expected to work with them concurrently. This is on top of duties like school wide supervision; bus duty; toileting; lifting; feeding – the list goes on.

In this imperfect world, these same educational assistants are frequently made out as the villains. They are “not doing their jobs” because they are not ‘managing’ their students.

The people on the front lines taking this abuse are some of the lowest paid people in provincially funded sectors. And yet, they show up and take the abuse that few other professionals would ever be expected to endure. 

Is special education underfunded? You bet. And there are a slew of other unaddressed factors. But money is a big part of it and not just in special education: take money out of the education system anywhere and it’s going to put pressure downward onto the most vulnerable students and staff. 

When did educating students become a business model?

Oh right; when educational funding became a bottom line item and not based in the reality of the classroom.

So, news reports are coming out about educational assistants being injured at work yet again. Will that bubble up the chain and land in the hearts and minds of Ontario politicians? 

I’m an educational realist. The only way things will change is if the voting public gets behind the issue of underfunding and takes care of the most vulnerable people in society.