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From conception to implementation – reflections on creating the MeLSA training intervention

This blog details the journey taken by a group of EPs in the development of a training programme for TAs centred on learning.

We share how the idea grew, what we wanted to achieve, the skills required and the facilitators to our work. Our hope is that the blog inspires others to ‘take a bold step’ whilst being transparent about the hard work required to get a new project off the ground.

An idea from where?

It has been interesting to reflect on ‘where did it all begin?’. When writing this blog, exact dates were hazy. Consulting the trusted ‘project notebook’, initial notes began in January 2020, before COVID-19 struck the UK.

Like many ideas the concept grew and evolved rather than just ‘appearing’. A discussion here, a discussion there. It started with a growing frustration of writing the same things about learning skills in reports. Then there was a desire that all adults working with learners were privy to the psychological knowledge EPs gain through training about learning. There was also a growing desire to share all that has been learnt about mediating to those that work with learners’ day in and day out (educational staff and parents and families). This last point became poignant during the COVID-19 lockdowns as parents found themselves in the role of primary educators with minimal input in to ‘the how’.

A comment from a colleague that ‘we just need an intervention like ELSA (Emotional Literacy Support Assistant) but around learning’ was perhaps key, putting the mediating into ELSA and forming MeLSA (Mediating Learning Support Assistant). ELSA gave the framework, we then needed to decide on the content about learning we wanted to share.

How the MeLSA idea grew

The collective EP practice of the MeLSA creators was an initial resource. What aspects of learning did we wish learners, educators and parents knew? We asked teaching assistants (TAs) what they wish they knew more about with regards to learning when working with children and young people. We asked special needs coordinators (SENDCos) what they wished their staff knew more about with regards to learning. Theming the answers gave us a broad content framework. We also considered key psychological theory and evidence that would have maximum impact for all learners.

What was important to us as EPs about the MeLSA training content and style of delivery

Maximising impact of the training was an important consideration as any training is only effective if the content impacts on practice. Research indicates that teaching assistant staff can have a breadth of experience and qualifications, from a few months in practice to decades and qualifications from GCSE level through to masters. To work with this and in addition to appreciating we all learn differently, we decided to have workbooks where the spoken content of the sessions were prewritten and extended.

The idea was that MeLSA participants could then be ‘in the moment’ of learning, discussing and practising during training but have a resource to refer to after for clarification or deepening knowledge. We opted for a mix of important theories, evidence-based interventions and experiential learning as key principles to the training content.

The psychology behind the MeLSA intervention

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects has been deciding on the psychology that informs the content. Sometimes the psychology to include was clear, especially where the evidence base of impact is substantial, like precision teaching for example. Other times the complexity of the psychological theory was difficult to distil into accessible and meaningful ‘take aways’.

This has probably been one of the most interesting and engaging aspects for us as the developers. Key questions we asked ourselves were ‘but what does this mean for the learner in the classroom?’ and ‘what are we asking TAs to actually do about [developing X learning skill]?’. What use is psychological theory if it cannot inform and effect practice?

The skills we brought to the process

EP training requires a big piece of project work, usually a 35-45,000 word thesis detailing a piece of original research the individual has carried out. This thesis writing process requires a lot of planning, thinking, organising, determination, tenacity and flexibility. All these skills are required for a project such as MeLSA. Additional to this, there was a need to work together as a group but also to carry out aspects of the work independently. MeLSA is very much a collaborative journey, with each contributor singing to their strengths and area of interest and expert knowledge.

Facilitators to the MeLSA project

Whilst prior experience helped, there were some definite facilitators.

Group collaboration

MeLSA is most definitely a collaborate piece of work. Nine EPs were involved in the writing of the course and materials, but we had conversations and input from so many more people. The expertise brought by each individual is an important part of MeLSAs depth, breadth and hoped success. Contributors to various sections were usually drawing on their area of interest and expertise when forming the content.

Global changes in working conditions

COVID-19 was an unexpected facilitator. As an EP service we focused on mental health and wellbeing during the March 2020 pandemic. One action was to meet weekly in small groups and work on something psychological and useful we could communicate to families during the pandemic. Given families were suddenly thrust into home teaching, the planned content of MeLSA was ideal content to communicate.

We knew that parents understanding aspects of learning could be really helpful in the home education that was going on across the country. So…we met weekly, spent 55 minutes bemoaning all things COVID-19 and 5 minutes deciding what we would action before the following week. We kept the actions small as many of us were juggling family and caring responsibilities but we always achieved what we set out to do each week. This was a productive time. We probably wouldn’t have met so frequently if it had been pre- the virtual working that COVID-19 enforced.

At a time of uncertainty the project gave us something tangible to do, that to us, seemed helpful to others. Additionally, despite wanting to communicate via video prior to COVID-19 there had always been numerous blockers. Video was perhaps the only way to communicate quickly and easily to families so green lights were given. We created six videos covering different aspects of learning.

Autonomy from line management

One of the greatest facilitators was the supportive guidance, when needed, from those in the senior leadership team and the corresponding autonomy to ‘do what was needed’ to make MeLSA happen. The already mentioned videos were received very positively by schools and families in the local authority.

There were other competing agendas for EP time and involvement but MeLSA was given space to grow, perhaps because there was an Ofsted review that had highlighted an ‘over identification of social, emotional and mental health needs in children and young people and a corresponding under identification of learning needs’.

Practical support from assistant educational psychologists

A big project such as this, where the EPs were creating the content, required some practical support. We were fortunate enough to have two outstanding assistant educational psychologists who provided a scaffold of support, particularly at the end of creation and the pilot roll out. Proof reading was key. Did the assistant EPs, fresh to the MeLSA workbooks, actually understand what we talking about? Their formative feedback was helpful in shaping the written content in an accessible manner.

The assistant EPs also booked training rooms (we managed to do it in person in July 2021), marketing and printing all required precision and timing. At this point the EP creators were madly finalising and practicing and deliberating. Without the assistants in the background doing the groundwork the pilot MeLSA training would have likely been delayed even further.

Rollout of MeLSA

Seventeen MeLSAs have been trained in total, 9 in the pilot group (June 2021) and 7 in the first cohort (November 2021). Whilst the numbers are low, given the innovative content and the COVID-19 restrictions on group gatherings, we are pleased with the beginnings of training rollout.

Following some initial input from the pilot cohort, we are currently revisiting the content of MeLSA and polishing the input to make the links within it more explicit. We are aiming to grow the training cohorts from September 2022. The feedback has been exceptionally positive, with one MeLSA commenting “It’s one of the best courses I’ve been on”.

You can also watch the videos that were created during the MeLSA planning stage

About Mary Stanley-Duke

Mary is an educational psychologist working within Bristol City Council for 14 years. Mary is currently leading on cognition and learning across the city and has a keen interest in EP assessment and the communication of assessment findings that are accessible to all.

View all posts by Mary Stanley-Duke

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