What is a teacher to do when she is given a student that is difficult to manage or has learning challenges?  It seems like the go-to solution for some schools has been 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 the shadows we often see in schools actually make the situation worse?!?!

The goal of a shadow is to increase independence and manage negative behaviours.  But what we usually see is the opposite.  Often, the 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 and the LESS independence is achieved.

The other main goal is to manage behaviours, but if the shadow isn’t properly trained (unfortunately often the case), the consequences often result in the reinforcement of negative behaviour.  Recently, I was in a classroom where the student was struggling to transition from a preferred activity to a work activity and 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” (i.e., this reinforced his escape-maintained behaviour).

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

What is the shadows role?

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 will 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). 


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 – 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 to 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 in making suggestions so that she 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 and have them approach Jenny and say things like “Come sit next to me”.  Always thinking two steps ahead, if it’s before snacktime, the shadow can manipulate the situation so that Jenny is giving out the snacks and the other students have to ask her for a cookie.  Or if it’s arts and crafts time and Jenny loves crayons, the shadow can give the crayon box to another student so that Jenny will ask that student for a crayon.

TIP: Click here for visuals to prompt initiation statements

A shadow used properly should be in the background influencing the situation in order to increase independence and reduce negative behaviours.  Giving a student a shadow is often a temporary band-aid solution that, although 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 and monitored by a professional with experience providing behavioural support (ideally, a BCBA).  I’ve seen successful shadows where the students in the class, including the student that the shadow was there for, 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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The Shadow’s Role in the Classroom

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