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Roles and Responsibilities of a Special Needs Assistant (SNA)

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 4844 words Published: 20th Sep 2021

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For this assignment I am going to discuss and evaluate the role and responsibilities of an SNA and the legislation that is in place to protect people with disabilities.  All children have a right to an education whether they have a Special Need or not.

In this project, I will cover all the topics that are relevant to the job of an SNA and the information, that all the people working with children with special educational needs should have. I will also carry out a questionnaire with 2 SNA professionals to find out their perceptions and view of the job. I will write about legislations and policies that are relevant to the profession, good practice guidelines, theory that applies to the Special Education and all aspects of the SNA profession. These include stressors in the workplace, the role of the SNA, and the qualities that an SNA should have. Through completing this assignment, I will learn the theory which supports strategies. This I can use to offer children with Special Needs, care and support specific to them.

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My purpose of doing this assignment is to provide the reader an overview of a Special Need Assistant (SNA).  Also, to understand that, to do the job well as an SNA you must be equip in the knowledge about the area, understanding the role of the job and what it entails and how they can help meets the children’s needs. Knowing the current legislation, theory and knowledge about Irish Educational system is vital to become a competent and effective Special Needs Assistant.

“According to Flood all children have needs, e.g. Physical, safety, security, love and belonging, praise and encouragement. Children with Special Needs have these same needs together with some additional ones. Special Needs can be defined in different ways. They are often categorised according to the area of development affected with their Needs. (Flood, E., (2013) 


From doing this assignment I will gain the information that is related to Special Education and have a better understanding of Special Needs Assistance. The knowledge I will gain from the completion of this assignment will help me to do my job effectively.

Role of an SNA

Special Needs Assisting provide care and support role that is non-teaching in nature and works under the guidance and supervision of the Principal or class teacher, to provide the best care necessary for the child in a safe and caring environment. (National Council for Special Education (NCSE) (2014).

 “Special needs assistant (SNA) works with children with either significant care needs or severe emotional or behavioral needs in either mainstream, special class or special school setting”
(Flood, 2013).

In addition, The Special Needs Assistant needs to be qualified in Special Needs area and has experience in working with children.  Also, The Department of Education and Skills outlines the role of an SNA as, assisting children with special needs in various situations like:

  1. To board and take off children from school buses;
  2. During out of school visits;
  3. With clothing, feeding, toileting;
  4. With typing or writing for students with physical disabilities (NCSE, 2014).

The roles and responsibilities of an SNA consists of assisting the class teacher in:

  1. Preparation and tidying up the classroom where a student with special educational needs is being taught;
  2. Accompanying individuals or small groups who may have to be withdrawn temporarily from the classroom.
  3. Supervision of students with special educational needs during assembly or play;
  4. Duties of non-teaching nature (SNA cannot substitute the teacher at any circumstances)

(Department of Education and Skills, 2019)

In general, all these definitions are accurate, although it can be argued the role of a Special Needs Assistant is underestimated within this definition. Even though the role of the SNA is to meet the needs and facilitate student’s learning in school, this is a very difficult task without the following additional abilities. The SNA must have huge knowledge about the student and their condition and have the skills to be able to work effectively with the pupil.  Also, the SNA’s must have qualities, that will make their work more efficient, some of them includes: Being caring, patient, calm, flexible, non-judgmental, consistent, fair, organized, open to new ideas, reliable and professional. (Flood, 2013)     

From doing my questionnaire my respondents confirmed that all above qualities are very important in their work, a person not having those qualities cannot effectively work as an SNA.  As for the role of the SNA, it depends on the setting, as one of my respondents stated role is exclusively meeting the needs of the child, while the other replied that her role in addition to meeting the needs is also taking part in the planning and organizing activities for children.

Key principles in Education

Each educational institution having contact with children and young people must have appropriate policies, that determine good practice, that must be used by staff, also by the SNA (Flood, E., (2013). Below I will outline some principles which are most important, and which should be applied in each organization catering for children:

  •  Recognize children’s right to be protected, treated with respect, listened to and have their own views taken into consideration;
  •  Acknowledge that the welfare of children is a paramount;
  •  Adopt a child protection policy;
  • Adopt and consistently apply clearly defined methods of recruiting staff and volunteers
  •  Suggest that early intervention is important because it can prevent children not to be vulnerable to the abuse at later stage;
  • Provide child protection training for workers.
  •  Share the information about the concerned child with parents and other child care worker and protection agencies and professionals to achieve the best possible solution to the concern (Department of Health and Children, 2002).

Good practice guidelines in education

(Flood, (2013) states that the good practice principles include confidentiality, use of appropriate language, access and inclusion, independence, advocacy and boundaries.

  • Confidentiality is a foundation for everyone working with persons, who handle private information. Certainly, it is a duty of a SNA to protect child’s identity or not to discuss the issues work outside.
  • Use of suitable language is vital when talking about or to children with special needs. SNA should promote use of appropriate language because it affects self-image of children with special needs and other children will adopt our language.
  • Access is about letting the children with special educational needs into the mainstream schools, removal of physical barriers so children can get around within the school environment.
  • Inclusion is more about removing of the social barriers so the children can participate and avail their right to education.
  • Positive self-image is very important for children with special educational needs, because they are often made to believe that they are uncapable to achieve their goals because of their condition. Giving children bit of freedom (if the condition allows in it) will result in gaining more independence and the child will grow in their self-esteem.
  • Special Needs Assistant is working on behalf of the child therefore he/she needs to know the child and his/her condition so that the child can reach their best potential.
  • Having professional boundaries set is vital in any career but is especially important when working with children with special needs. Both SNA and the child with SEN needs to use of appropriate language. There should be physical boundaries set – physical contact kept to a minimum for carrying out task i.e. helping with writing.

Theories of Special Education

There is number of theories that applies to special education. Some of them are: Gestalt, Connection Theory, Gagne’s Conditions of Learning, L. Atincronbsch and R. Snow, Component Display Theory, Cognitive Load Theory, Sign Learning Theory, Vygotsky’s Social Constructivist Theory.

Vygotsky’s Social Constructivist Theory

Lev Vygotsky (1869-1934) He argued that children become competent learners through activities, interactions and experiences rather than sitting down in a classroom completing work sheets.

Vygotsky’s zone of Proximal Development focuses on three main ideas for learning:

  1. Where is the student at?
  2. What is the next point of their learning?
  3. Teach in depth

These strategies are built on effective teaching where planning and curriculum includes being based on children’s knowledge, differentiating learning according to child’s needs, focusing on deep connected numeracy understanding.

Vital in working within a child’s ZPD is the role of the adult. The adult working with children lay the foundation for scaffolding.

“Scaffolding connotes a warm, pleasant collaboration between a teacher and a learner while the two are engaged in joint problem solving activity. During this collaboration the adult supports the child’s autonomy by providing sensitive and contingent assistance, facilitating children’s representational and strategic thinking and prompting children to take over responsibility for the task as their skill increases.” (Hayes, 2013)

Vygotsky believes in the importance of scaffolding and how much adults can be positive supports for children to learn.

He also put across the concept that both cognitive and social development work together and building on each other, learning leads development, through this, the child learns as social being, with the support of others.

Vygotsky argued that children’s learning takes place through the process of socialization. He therefore placed great emphasis on the role of adults and other children in a child’s learning. Because of the social aspect of Vygotsky’s learning theory, it is often referred to as a social constructivist theory.

Gagne’s Conditions of Learning

Robert Gagne (1916 –2002) was an American psychologist, who worked in the areas of human’s learning and memory. During his work, he identified 5 different kinds of learning, which to be effective, needs different kinds of instructions:

  • Verbal information – describing in own words what was taught, naming or listing. For this kind of learning to be successful, student must be provided in opportunities to practice, the context needs to be explained. In special education, this would also include amending the curriculum to make it more available for the child.
  • Intellectual skills – differentiating between various qualities, like two musical notes. In special education, this would be playing on child’s strengths and interests to make the learning process more effective.
  • Motor skills – to perform certain movements of the body to do something like writing, kicking ball, playing guitar. Observing a model doing a task and having plenty of time to practice is helpful to acquire the skill. In special education, this would be teacher or another child modelling how to do certain thing for the child with special educational need to learn.
  • Attitude – choosing to behave in a certain way. Modelling certain behaviors by observing others. Inclusion of children with special educational needs into mainstream schools allows them to observe their peer in an example for special education.
  • Cognitive strategy – creating ways to make the learning process easier to somebody. In special education providing a student to solve the problems using their strengths.

(www.theoryfundamentals.com, www.instructionaldesign.org).

Connectivism is a learning theory that explains how Internet technologies have created new opportunities for people to learn and share information across the World Wide Web and among themselves. These technologies include Web browsers, email, wikis, online discussion forums, social networks, YouTube, and any other tool which enables the users to learn and share information with other people (Flood, 2013).

A key feature of connectivism is that, much learning can happen across peer networks that take place online. In connectivism learning, a teacher will guide students to information and answer key questions as needed, in order to support students learning and sharing their own. Students are also encouraged to seek out information on their own online and express what they need.  A connected community around this shared information often results. This can be good way for all students to learn not just those with SEN (Flood, (2013).

Connectivism Theory

This a modern theory which stresses that digital technologies of today have impacted people’s life’s, that is, the way we communicate and learn. Important feature of this theory is that people are using the internet to study and to communicate via a network. This theory is relevant to special education, as the computer technologies can assist persons with special educational needs by making the learning interactive or helping people to overgrow own disability. For example, when persons with visual impairment can use audiobooks, or students with hearing impairment can communicate with their peers over the internet. (Flood, 2013).

Stressors in the workplace

Stress is an emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension (MedicineNet, 2019).

Special Needs Assistants in their profession are exposed on different types of stress. These include; challenging behavior, lack of appreciation, lack of support, lack of resources, heavy workload, and isolation in the setting. (Flood, 2013) 

It is understandable that the lack of resources to do a good job can lead to frustration and stress. Sometimes educational institutions due to lack of funds does not have the financial resources to purchase materials or equipment to work with children. This is the obstacle, which is difficult to overcome and that stops the educators achieving certain educational goals. For example, the lack of money to buy art materials for child with visual impairment, who like to create art (Flood, 2013).

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Sometimes SNA’s work is not seen as something important (Flood, 2013). They are excluded from the creation of an Individual Educational Plans or kept from contact with children’s parents.  The ECCE Quality Frameworks and Curriculum which talk about how parentership with parents for educators is very important in a child’s life.  SNA’s  who often work on a very  personal level with the children aren’t included in creating the IEP. Yes they are non teaching staff but in a whole holistic sence, a child’s physical needs, incuding toileting/feeding/personal hygiene/writing or scribing are just as important for providing an environment which allows for learning.  Maslow’s hierarchy of basis needs (Learner Resource Park (2016).

Teachers / SNA, this also leads to underestimation and stress.

Children with Special Educational Needs often display challenging behavior, that SNA must directly deal with. Sometimes due to lack of experience or training the SNA finds it difficult to manage. Often helpful in this situation can be support from other staff, but if not received this can lead to a sense of powerlessness and stress (Flood, 2013). This is confirmed in the survey conducted by me with two Special Needs Assistants since both of my respondents confirmed that dealing with challenging behavior would be the biggest difficulty in their profession.

Both physical health and mental health is important for people and good performance of work depends on it. Some professions are more vulnerable to stress associated with the job and some are less.

Some professions who regularly work with challenging behaviour, with little supports, opportunities for debriefing etc, are known to be very stressful. Professions are heavily exposed to stress in the workplace.

It is very important to have the ability to cope with stress, because its exposure to chronic stress can lead to serious disturbances in the functioning of the body (Flood, 2013)

There are many ways to help with managing stress, some of them includes:

  • Good self-care – healthy diet, mindfulness, sports;
  • Ability to “leave work at work”- this means to place a boundary to differentiate between personal and professional life;
  • Asking for help – support from co-workers is vital in dealing with stress, even having a simple chat about the problem will lead to clearing negative emotions;
  • Good work practices like setting boundaries between professional and child will help to avoid stressful situation. When everyone knows their responsibilities and duties it is easier to maintain balance.

(Learner Resource Park, (2016) 

Educational options for children with Special Educational Needs in Ireland

The Department of Education and Skills is responsible for educating in Ireland (Flood, 2013). The EPSEN Act 4 states that children with Special Educational Needs have the right to be educated among their peers, unless their condition doesn’t allow it. Children with SEN have 3 options for education in Ireland:

  1. Special Education Settings – Advantages: children with SEN have access to appropriate educational materials due to better funding of those settings, low adult-child ratio, low level of education; Disadvantages: children with SEN are isolated, with no possibilities of contact with children without disabilities, no chance for inclusion into community.
  2. Special classes attached to mainstream schools – Advantages: Children with SEN have the contact with their peers, Disadvantages: limited “mainstream” time, it can cause frustration when child needs to go back to the special class because there is time limit
  3. Mainstream schools, that are having an inclusive approach to Special Education. There are advantages both for children with and without disabilities. It gives the children the true picture of society, it gives the children the true picture of society, it makes the children conscious, emphatic, friendly, openminded.  (Learner resource Park, (2016)

Legislation Relation to Special Needs in Ireland

The need for understanding and acceptance of Special Needs in Ireland have come through 3 stages: neglect and denial; era of special schools and era of integration and inclusion (Learner Recourse Pack). The last one was made possible thanks to relevant legislation that was created and ratified in Ireland. Today there is lots of policies and legislation that would relate to Special Needs. Some of them are: Constitution of Ireland, Education Act 1998, Education (Welfare) Act 2000, The Equality Status Act 2000 & 2010; EPSEN (Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs) Act 2004; The Disability Act 2005; Vision Statement for intellectual disability in Ireland for the 21st century (2009); Childcare Act 1991 & 2001; United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) 2006; Aistear (2009); Siolta (2006) (Flood, E., (2013), (Learner resource Park, (2016)

Below I will discuss 3 selected legislations, which I consider most important.

EPSEN Act 2004

This is the most important piece of legislation, as it focuses exclusively on educational needs of persons with disabilities. The Act explains that “A child with special educational needs shall be educated in an inclusive environment with children who do not have such needs unless the nature or degree of those needs of the child is such that to do so would be inconsistent with,

The best interests of the child as determined in accordance with any assessment carried out under this Act, or the effective provision of education for children with whom the child is to be educated.” (Flood, (2013)

(EPSEN Act 2004), (Flood, (2013).

The Act emphasizes the right of children with special educational needs to be educated among their peers, where possible in an inclusive environment. It also makes available for parents to be more involved in education of their children. Moreover, the Act sets out services to be provided for persons with SEN, like assessments or education plans.

(Learner resource Park, (2016).

United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), (2006)

Ireland ratified the Act, which states that persons with disabilities have the same right to be educated and reach their full potential. Also, it says that persons with SEN should have an opportunity to access general education, to develop their talents and interests, and mental and physical abilities (UNCRPD, 2006).

The Disability Act (2005)

The Act was introduced by Department of Justice. The Act imposes an obligation on public authorities to allow access for people with disabilities to services and buildings. It also states that persons with special needs have the right to have their health and educational needs assessed. Likewise, it gives the right to complains. (Flood, 2013) 

Self -Reflection

Working on this project made me even more reflective in my practice as a childcare worker and wonder what other strategies can be introduced to create inclusive, nurturing and stimulating environment for all the children. All that I have learnt so far about the work of the SNA is very interesting to me.  I feel happy to find out more about the special needs and how to help children with SEN feel competent learners so that they can reach their potential. I am pleased that these days access to education for people with learning difficulties is recognized as the right it is, both in theory and in practice. This situation has been created via the creation of relevant laws and thus an inclusive approach to education. As an educator I believe that all people working with children should have an additional training in the area of Special Needs, because it allows a better practice and giving children with SEN better opportunities for learning and development.

I also think it was very necessary to conduct a survey with practitioners practicing SNA’s because it gave me ideas about the practicalities of the workload and practice of an SNA.

I carried out a questionnaire with 2 SNA’s, I asked each of the respondents 2 questions directly related to the work of the SNA.  I received very similar answers on most of the questions. Both respondents agreed that the important features of the efficiency of the SNA are: being caring, friendly, patient, approachable, fair, organized, non-judgmental and good observer. Respondents replied that the biggest challenges in their job, is dealing with challenging behavior and workload as well as work-related stress such as feeling powerless. Despite some challenges related to the job, both of my respondents seem to be pleased with their work. They speak of feeling that they are needed, that they are helping others, that they feel satisfaction and fulfillment from their roll. The questions to which answers were quite different was about the role of Special Needs Assistant and what it involves.  One of my respondents said that her role is only on meeting care needs of students, such as helping in the toilet and bringing them to the mainstream schools. On the other hand, the second respondent stated that his role is to accompany the child in the classroom, “keeping the child on track” during lessons and also assisting teacher to plan activities for the child.

The result of my survey shows that different schools allows the SNA’s in the classroom work, seeing them as valuable support to learners.


Starting this course, I was not fully aware of what to expect and what exactly will be involved in the course. I thought that it will be mainly focused on different types of disabilities and how to work with children with SEN so that they can reach their potential. The contents of this course positively surprised me and let me realize that in addition to knowledge the different conditions, it is also very important to have a backup information such as legislations and policies, education system, different options of education for children with disabilities, good practice guidelines.

When doing this course, I also learnt the role of an SNA in educational institutions. Until now I thought that SNA is involved in planning and carrying out educational activities. However, from the content SNA training and conducting my surveys I found out that the role of SNA is exclusively on meeting the needs of the child, such as the toilet, eating and dealing with challenging behavior. However, my other respondent stated that she is involved in planning, but her main job is to support the child. Surely, it depends on the setting and management in the place.  My overall view is that the content of this course is very relevant, and it’s prepares students for the role of an SNA.  In the future I will surely consider SNA as an extra career as I feel well prepared for this role.


  • Flood, E., (2013) Assisting Children with Special Needs: An Irish Perspective. 2nd Edition, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan
  • Flood, E., (2010) Assisting Children with Special Needs: An Irish Perspective. 2nd Edition, Gill & Macmillan
  • Dare, A., O’Donovan, M., (2009) Caring for Children with Special Needs. 3rd Edition. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes
  • Department of Health and Children (2002) Our Duty to Care: The Principles of Good Practice for the Protection of Children & Young People [Online] Available at:  Department of Health and Children, available at : https://www.dcya.gov.ie/documents/publications/ODTC_Full_Eng.pdf. Accessed on 9/9/19. 
  • Tassoni P., Beith K., Eldridge H., Gough A., (2002). Child Care and Education: Harcourt Education Limited.
  • Hayes, N. (2013) Early Years Parctice. Getting it Right from the Start Dublin: Gill & Macmillan
  • NCCA, (2009). Aistear. Dublin: National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.
  • Sìolta, (2010). The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education, Second Edition. Dublin:
  • Our Duty to Care: The Principles of Good Practice for the Protection of Children and Young People; accessed at www.dcya.gov.ie on 16/9/19
  • http://www.dcya.gov.ie/ accessed on 2/9/19
  • https://www.sess.ie accessed on 2/9/19
  • instructionaldesign.org/theories accessed on 2/9/19
  • theoryfundamentals.com accessed on 4/9/19
  • MedicineNet,  (2019)  Stess  [Online]. Available  at: https://www.medicinenet.com/search/mni/stress
  • Accessed on 9/9/19.
  • Department of Education and Skills (2019). Role of an SNA [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.education.ie accessed on 12/9/19
  • https://www.barrowtraining.ie accessed on 12/9/19


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