How to Find an ILSA for Your Child: A Guide

We frequently hear parents of children with additional needs expressing how challenging and stressful the process of finding a good learning support assistant (LSA) for their child has been. If you are now navigating this task, we're here to help. Inclusion specialist, Louise Dawson, has provided considerable information for this guide, with additional information from school inclusion leaders and parents.
How to Find an ILSA for Your Child: A Guide
By Susan Roberts
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We frequently hear parents of children with additional needs expressing how challenging and stressful the process of finding a good learning support assistant (LSA) for their child has been (and continues to be).  Few parents would be an expert in what and how to choose an LSA when they do so for the first time. Feeling lost therefore is entirely understandable.  

To help us, and we hope you, we have enlisted the help of UAE school inclusion leaders and well-known inclusion expert, Louise Dawson, who provided considerable information for this guide. We also received a great deal of input from parents, some of whom have had to learn lessons the hard way. Kindly, they have shared their reflections in the hope of easing the process for you.

So, what is an ILSA?

An Individual Learning Support Assistant (ILSA) is an additional adult whose role is providing one-to-one support to a specific child with additional needs in a mainstream classroom. These needs may be due to a physical impairment such as challenges with sight or mobility, a neuro-developmental condition such as autism or a range of other scenarios that may prevent the child from accessing the curriculum or making social connections. Previously, this role was also known as a shadow teacher.

There are three different ways that ILSAs can be employed:

1. Employed by parents, funded by parents - in this scenario parents recruit and employ the adult directly. 

2. Employed by school, funded by parents - in this scenario the school will recruit and employ the adult directly, but request funding (part or full) from the parents.

3. Employed by agencies, funded by parents or school - in this scenario either the school or the parent will enter a contract with an agency to provide the ILSA.

In the UAE, the first scenario is the most common, and this guide is largely based around this scenario.

Does My Child Really Need an ILSA?

School inclusion leaders will not, in the vast majority of cases, require your child to have an ILSA if the need is not there. Your child’s school wants your child to flourish, just as you do. There are, however, multiple variables at play here and a child who is deemed to need an ILSA in one school, may not require one in another school.

Typically, schools have a team of LSAs who support multiple children in the school, with children identified as needing this support experiencing different adults working with them at different times. This structure can work very well in many cases, as inclusion expert, Louise Dawson, tells us:

"It is considered good practice to rotate the adults working with learners and you will see this in schools where each year the learner moves on to a new teacher, providing them opportunities to grow and develop, as well as teaching our learners to to work with a variety of people, in a variety of situations."

The practice described above, unfortunately, is not practical or appropriate for all children, and is not something that all schools have the resources to implement. A child may require such specialist support that the role cannot be shared or may emotionally need a consistent familiar adult (particularly for very young children). It may simply be the case that the school's inclusion team cannot stretch to support children with higher needs and for the child to fully participate, will require an additional adult's 1:1 support. 

Work With Your Child’s School

As a parent, you are the expert on your child, but you don’t have to be the expert on everything else too. Your school’s Head of Inclusion is a good person to closely connect with for guidance and support as you start the process of hiring your child’s ILSA.

“Leaders of inclusion often have vast networks of professionals in this field. They are very well placed to advise you on recruitment processes and the requirements for working in schools. Working together can not only reduce your anxieties but will also ensure that the transition into school is as pain free as possible.”  Louise Dawson

Remember, you school’s head of inclusion will also be responsible for monitoring your ILSA’s work to ensure that your child is receiving appropriate support at school. Having their input from the start is truly in the interests of everyone concerned.

Make Safety Your Priority

Your child’s ILSA will take up a very important position in their world, they will be involved in your child’s day-to-day care, in nurturing and encouraging them, in supporting them emotionally and educationally and perhaps most importantly, they will form a close bond with your child, gaining their trust. It goes without saying that safety should be at for forefront of your recruitment process and in the selection you make.

“When hiring an ILSA directly, it is vital that parents ensure that all of the necessary checks are implemented to protect their child and school community. At a minimum the candidate should have no gaps in employment and Police Clearance from the UAE. If the candidate has come from overseas in the past five years, then request a Police Clearance from their previous country.” Louise Dawson

Ms Dawson also recommends parents do a short online course to gain an understanding of how to recruit safely.

Advertising the Role

As with any recruitment, it is best to have a strategy before you start. Ensure you are very clear on your requirements (this is something you can discuss with your “team” i.e. the school’s head of inclusion and any specialists who are familiar with your child’s needs). Collaborate on writing a checklist of specific skills, capabilities, professional experience, knowledge, qualifications and personal characteristics, that are specific to the needs of your child.

Consider whether you require the candidate to have experience in any specialist areas e.g. non-verbal communication, speech and language therapy or occupational therapy. Do you require someone with knowledge of the school’s curriculum?

Of course, you will also have to approach this realistically, as the salary you are able to pay your ILSA and the hours you will require them to work will significantly influence who you are able to attract. It may be necessary to prioritise some areas over others.

“Should you recruit through an agency, do not drop your guard. This is your child and your school, and you have a ‘duty of care’ to ensure that you have first-hand knowledge of the qualifications, skills and ensure that all safeguarding checks have been taken. It is professional to ask for proof, and even to double check yourself. Anyone who denies you that right and transparency should be avoided.” Louise Dawson.

Interviewing Candidates

Talk to your school’s head of inclusion about whether they would be willing to support you in interviewing candidates. While they may not be able to support in the full selection process, they may be willing to support you in interviews once you have narrowed down your choices.

At this point, you should have your prepared checklist ready and feel clear on the kind of person you are looking for. Many candidates will likely claim to possess the skills and personal characteristics you are looking for but to determine whether this is the case, you will need to observe closely and read between the lines.

Louise Dawson provides us with some examples of the kind of characteristics you may want to look out for and how you may detect them:

“Look for skills such as ability to follow instructions and communication. If your advert said ‘email a CV’ and they called you for a chat instead, this may be a sign that the candidate is not strong in this area. Compassion and patience - being with children all day, every day, is tiring and emotional work. Feelings of frustration or irritability experienced by your ILSA will likely also be felt by your child; for children with additional needs, who often lack self-esteem and confidence, this can lead to many challenges."

Of course, it is not possible to detect everything you need to know in an interview scenario. Perhaps one of the most important considerations is whether the candidate will be able to connect with your child.

Mum, Stephanie, tells us of her approach:

“Interviewing candidates at our home allowed us to see how they were going to relate to our son. My priority was finding someone that he liked, he needed to see them and spend time with them, which some candidates found quite odd, but it allowed us to see if there was a connection there. I remember when we found one of our ILSAs, she was on her hands and knees playing outside with him in the garden, our son loved her immediately.”

Qualifications

One of the challenges of working internationally is understanding the huge variety of qualifications and certificates. The level of a qualification may not be in line with what you know from your home country and may not be accredited. Louise Dawson tells us more:

“There are no set guidelines for the qualification level required for an ILSA. When I am recruiting, I always put the needs of the learner at the heart of my decision processes. For example, a non-verbal 5-year-old with autism is going to need very different support to a 16-year-old with a visual impairment. As a guideline, I always request the adult to be educated at least one level about the student. So, an adult with a 5-year-old will need to have graduated high school, an adult working with an A Level student should possess a degree. You will also want to check for level of reading, writing, speaking and listening in the language of instruction."

Reference Checks

Reference checks can be a challenge, particularly when the candidate may be new to the UAE. You may encounter communication barriers, differing professional norms, and there may be convincing stories about why the candidate’s past employers cannot provide a reference for them. If you do encounter any of this, remember the priority here is safety, and stick to your guns. Requesting at least two references ensures you have a broader view of the candidate’s past performance, ensuring that one of those is their most recent employer.

Louise Dawson tells us what to avoid:

“As a rule, I do not accept references from a general email address, such as 'gmail'. There is no guarantee that the candidate has not created their own account. I would also not accept a telephone conversation with a mobile number, as we have no idea who we are talking to. A school or business email address, or phone number, is the safest way to ensure the referee is who they say they are.”

Your school may be willing to share a standardised reference request format. Using a format likes this ensures you receive all the information you need (particularly with regards to safeguarding), rather than only receiving the information the referee chooses to provide.

Employment Laws

If you are employing directly, you are responsible for being aware of and following all employment laws and regulations. Keep in mind also that there have been recent changes to UAE employment law (Jan 2022).

Employment Contract and Job Description

Without a clear contract and job description in place, the chances of your new ILSA meeting your expectations, and being happy in their role, are dramatically lower. Unnecessary surprises are best avoided when it comes to employing someone, particularly for a role as important as this.

It is a good idea to prepare these documents before you advertise as it will help form your requirements and will also ensure you do not inadvertently misinform candidates. Your school may be able to help you with this; ask your school's inclusion leader if they have any standard templates to get you started, or if this is something they can prepare with you.

Some factors to consider when drafting the contract are:

  • How long will the probation period last?
  • Will the adult be required to attend to your child’s physical routine care needs?
  • Do you need them to have a visa?
  • Will the candidate be entitled to gratuity, sick pay, holiday pay, maternity pay, medical insurance ?
  • Will the candidate provide their own transport?
  • What are the terms for termination of contract, on either side?
  • Will you require them to undertake any training or medical assessment?
  • What will the expectations be if the child is sick or if the adult is sick?

Mum, May, experienced real challenges as a result of not having clarity on each party's role:

"Our ILSA had very different expectations to us on communication, and it caused us to feel a lot of mistrust and anxiety. We would ask her how our son's day was and she would say 'better you ask the class teacher'. We didn't know if something was being hidden or not. I'm sure this could have been prevented."

Some schools will take care of the contract for you, as is the case in Arcadia School. John Paton, Head of Inclusion, tells us more:

"At Arcadia, we enter into a tri-party contract, between the parents, the school and the hired person. As part of that contract, their quality of work is managed by the school, as part of the school’s performance management system. They have access to all our CPD opportunities, in line with the rest of the team. We are really committed to making sure that our LSAs are trained and working with our staff to provide the best opportunities for our children."

If your school wishes to have this level of involvement in supporting your ILSA, you are in a great position. This can allow your ILSA to become integrated into the school's inclusion team, resulting in their skill development, improvements in the support they provide for your child, and increased work satisfaction for the person doing this role. 

Of course, not all schools are as hands-on as this. It is a good idea to discuss how this arrangement would work with your school in advance, as this will likely be a key issue. Mum, Heather, shared her experience of this with us:

"At our old school, we had to find the person ourselves and manage them ourselves. We just had a contract between us and the ILSA, and the school were completely detached. That meant the person was always asking for more money, which is not what a parent of a special needs child wants, with expenses often being high already."

Memorandum of Understanding

Talk to your head of inclusion the requirements specific to the school that should be included in this document. A Memorandum of Understanding for an ILSA will typically contain specifications on areas such as confidentiality, safeguarding and child protection protocols and will contain similar information to the employment Contract. 

“This document is intended to ensure transparency between you and school and should cover situations such as adult sickness, child sickness or even deployment of the adult should your child be working independently. If the school is receiving additional funding from you to employ, then they are required to inform KHDA by way of an ‘Individualised Service Agreement’. This agreement is signed by the school and by parents to ensure transparency of the need for support.” Louise Dawson.

Keep the Goal in Mind

Above all else, it is important not to lose sight of the goal during this process. Louise Dawson explains what most families and inclusion professionals are aiming for:

“In inclusion, we always joke that the aim of our work is to make ourselves redundant. The aim of an ILSA should always be to allow the learner to complete tasks independently, and where they are unable to do so, teach and guide them to learn the skills for the future. This is an understanding that is worth exploring when interviewing.”

Your child’s ILSA is not in place to do things for your child, but rather to support your child to do as much as possible for themselves. It is important that your ILSA also has this mindset and views their role in this way.

 

Louise Dawson is an independent consultant, supporting schools with SEND, EAL, G&T and inclusion across the Middle East. With more than a decade of experience as an inclusion leader in Dubai schools, Louise has an in-depth understanding of the UAE's inclusion journey. In addition to her work with schools, Louise provides tailored support and guidance to families seeking to access SEND support and inclusive education. 

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