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The Shadow’s Role in the Classroom

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Classroom shadowWhat is a teacher to do when she is given a student who has behavioral or  learning challenges?  It seems like the go-to solution for some schools is to recommend that the student have a shadow in the classroom.  Sometimes, this is referred as an Educational Assistant or a Special Needs Assistant.  This solution pleases the already busy teacher because it takes the load of this student off of her plate.  It also usually satisfies the parents because they feel that their child is getting individualized attention.

Now, what if I were to tell you that some classroom shadows actually make situations worse?!?!

The Goal of the Classroom Shadow

The goal of a shadow is to increase independence and manage negative behavior.  But what we usually see is the opposite.  Often, the classroom shadow will sit beside the student (um, as if that doesn’t attract attention?!?!) and “help” the student through the work he was given.  The student is thinking, “Wow, if I keep this person around, I don’t have to do any work myself!” – Smart kid!  It seems like the more incapable the student becomes, the more prompting the shadow provides.  Then, LESS independence is achieved.

The other main goal is to manage challenging behavior.  However, if the shadow isn’t properly trained (unfortunately often the case), the consequences often result in the reinforcement of negative behavior.  Recently, I was in a classroom where the student struggled to transition from a preferred activity to a work activity.  They began the early stages of a tantrum.  In order to keep him from being disruptive, the shadow removed him from the room and took him to the library to “calm down.”  Surprise!  This reinforced his escape-maintained behavior.

There are times when a shadow is necessary but then implementing it properly will make all the difference.

What is the shadows role in school?

The Shadow Should Prompt the Student

A prompt in a classroom should always be given in the LEAST intrusive way.  This means that instead of standing beside a student and verbally prompting him to, “Go line up” or “Go get your snack”, the shadow should be well-prepared with visuals or picture schedules that get the job done.  Instead of waiting for an error to occur, the shadow can even use the visuals to prompt the child BEFORE the activity begins and then send him off to complete the task on his own.  For example, if the child is expected to participate in circle time, the shadow can review the “circle time” rules with him beforehand.  The shadow can be in the background watching circle time (NOT sitting beside the student) and then offering reinforcement if completed to the expectation.

TIP: Remember to think about “What’s in it for him” in terms of reinforcement for following the rules (this can be a sticker, checkmark, or a 5 minute break). Classroom shadow


The Shadow Should Prompt the Teacher

A well-trained shadow will act as an intermediate between the student and the teacher.  Sometimes, as a result of being dependent on a shadow, the student doesn’t know who his teacher is!  Instead, the shadow should prompt the student towards the teacher. Prompt the student to listen to her during instruction time, to answer her questions, and to let her know when his work is done.  Alternatively, the shadow can prompt the teacher.  The teacher can do things like choose the child to answer a question when she knows the answer, or to repeat an instruction that the student may not have heard.

TIP:  The shadow should make the teacher feel supported.  Be careful making suggestions so that the teacher doesn’t feel like she’s being told how to do her job.

The Shadow Should Help the Child Make Friends

If a child has difficulty making friends, this is something the shadow can help with.  If Jenny has trouble making friends, telling her to go approach other students and ask, “Can I play” may not result in the desired friendship.  Instead, the shadow can befriend the other students in the class.  Have them approach Jenny and say things like, “Come sit next to me”.  Always thinking two steps ahead.  If it’s before snack time, the shadow can manipulate the situation.  Jenny can give out the snacks and the other students have to ask her for a cookie.  Or if it’s arts and crafts time, the shadow can give the crayon box to another student.  This may help Jenny to ask that student for a crayon. (If Jenny loves crayons!)

TIP: Click here for visuals to prompt initiation statements

A property used shadow should be in the background.  They can influence the situation to increase independence and reduce negative behavior.  Giving a student a classroom shadow is often a temporary band-aid solution.  Although it may seem to provide some relief, only makes it worse in the long run.   When a shadow is in the classroom, goals should be carefully implemented.  They should be monitored by a professional with experience (ideally, a BCBA).  I’ve seen successful classroom shadows.  Students in the class, including our student, all thought that she was just another teacher.  When done right, a good shadow unfortunately puts herself out of a job!


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