Fórsa outlines role of SNAs in mental health

SNAs need appropriate training to support students’ mental health needs – Fórsa

Special needs assistants (SNAs) should have access to appropriate training and supports, to enable them to support the mental health needs of the students they work with. That was the message today delivered to the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science by representatives of Fórsa trade union, which represents more than 12,000 SNAs nationwide.

Gary Honer, industrial relations officer with Fórsa, told the committee that the close bond and rapport between SNAs and the students they work with meant that SNAs were often the main point of support for a student experiencing grief, trauma or other mental health challenges.

Mr Honer told the committee that, in circumstances where the National Education Psychology Service (NEPS) was called in to provide support to students – for example following the death of a fellow student – the service provided was time-limited: “NEPS, while providing a valuable service, only deals with students in the moment and at a particular flashpoint in time.

“We have heard several personal accounts of situations, for example, where a student under the care of an SNA may pull out a book or a toy that happened to be the favourite of their deceased classmate, and that child is brought back into the grief and loss of their friend,” he said.

SNAs require additional professional training and support in order to be better equipped to respond to students in similar circumstances.

Mr Honer added that SNAs require additional professional training and support in order to be better equipped to respond to students in similar circumstances. He told the committee: “With the introduction of schools-based mental health supports at primary level, there is an opportunity to strengthen and protect the mental wellbeing of children, while also supporting parents, teachers and SNAs, as well as effect a reduction in the number of children requiring specialist mental health treatment.”

Mr Honer told the committee that the inclusion of SNAs in the ‘Mind-Out’ programme, developed by the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway and the HSE’s Health Promotion and Improvement department, would enhance the benefits and supports available to students in primary and secondary schools: “The programme is proven to strengthen young people’s social and emotional coping skills, and to improve their overall mental health and wellbeing.

“While teachers can avail of extra personal days (EPV), to participate in the ‘Mind-Out’ training programme, SNAs do not have access, and this inhibits the capacity of schools to build these valuable supports into the school community. As their representative union, Fórsa believes SNAs should be included in the roll-out of this programme,” he said.

Mr Honer said the exclusion of SNAs from the training was symptomatic of an existing lack of recognition of SNAs as a professional grade in the education sector. Mr Honer added: “For example, in comparison to social workers, who have a defined career hierarchy and support structure, with senior social workers and principal social workers, which encourages reflective practice and child-centred interventions based on the individual child’s needs.”

He said the union will continue to campaign for this this model of professional infrastructure for SNAs, because it would ultimately benefit the students availing of SNA support.

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