Special Education Paraeducators
Table of Contents
- Roles and Responsibilities of the Paraeducator
- Certification and Training
- Performance and Evaluation
- Voices from the Field
- In this course we will focus on the special education paraprofessional through the lens of the special educator/case manager, who will hire, train and supervise the paraeducator. The terms paraprofessional and paraeducator as used interchangeably throughout this chapter.
Paraprofessionals are widely employed in schools in the United States and Canada, and in some European countries.
In the United States these educators have over 30 titles, but a recent national trend has encouraged states to title these positions as “paraeducators” under their various job positions (example: Support Staff>Paraeducator>Special Education).
Paraprofessional educators are frequently used to help support student/s in special education settings. Paraprofessional educators in these roles work with students with a variety of disabilities, including learning disabilities, emotional disturbance, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, schizophrenia, developmental disabilities, and communication disorders. Paraprofessional educators may work in special classrooms, resource rooms or serve as inclusion assistants who accompany individual students throughout their day. Paraprofessional educators in these roles may require specialized training in behavior management, de-escalation, personal-professional boundaries, and sometimes physical restraint.
Roles and Responsibilities of the Paraeducator (paraprofessional)
Some paraprofessionals provide services for special needs pre-schoolers, which include toddlers and infants and their families. When they provide this type of service in family centered practices, paraprofessionals are required to know and possess necessary cultural competencies, which include social, ethnic, as well as economic aspects of the family and community. Knowing this, the paraprofessional can best understand the particular needs of both the child and the family (Stiffler, 1993). When teachers utilized paraprofessionals in the inclusion model, paraprofessionals modify materials and lessons as directed by their general and special education teachers, taking and recording data and monitoring student behavior. They also correspond with the teachers to discuss behavior strategies for all or individual students, and communicate information to the students about class assignments (Carroll, 2001; Broer, Doyle, & Giangreco, 2005). Another role and responsibility of paraprofessionals is to accompany special education students into the general education class for instruction; these general education/inclusion teachers assume that the paraprofessional has the needed and required skills to teach those special education students (Giangreco, 2003).
Paraprofessionals are visible and vital individuals throughout the school setting. One can see them involved or performing in the following duties or tasks: assisting in kindergarten, resource, collaborative and other classes, monitoring students during bus duty, helping in technology labs, working as media aides, transporting students in wheelchairs from classes to buses, working with students with visual impairments, working with students with severe and moderate disabilities and facilitating Title I Programs. Teachers reported in one study, that for the most part, paraprofessionals performed more responsibilities in teaching techniques (French, 1998). Paraprofessionals stated in one study that little or no training is given by the local school district in regards to preparation and education about tasks and responsibilities they will be doing (Riggs & Mueller, 2001). Paraprofessionals reported they wanted more information in regards to their job, including (1) instructional methods used in the classroom, (2) behavior management procedures, (3) characteristics of students they would be working with, (4) information in regards to the student’s Individual Education Program (IEP), such as goals and objectives, and (5) how these goals are to be implemented within the classroom. In addition, concerns from paraprofessionals included (1) lack of time to communicate and plan, and (2) lack of feedback on their performance (Railsback, Reed, & Schmautz, 2002).
(Archibald, D.L. 2008)
Requirements to become a paraprofessional vary widely, normally ranging from a high school diploma, G.E.D., two years of college education, or an associate degree. Some positions may require experience, particularly as an aide in an instructional role like in special education and in English as a Second Language instruction.
In the United States, the No Child Left Behind federal legislation requires that educational paraprofessionals be “highly qualified”. The definition of highly qualified is left to the individual states, as are the means for measuring qualification. The United States Department of Education has issued guidelines regarding paraprofessionals whose positions are funded under Title I of the federal legislation. According to the Department of Education, “Paraprofessionals who provide instructional support”, include those who:
- Provide one-on-one tutoring if such tutoring is scheduled at a time when a student would not otherwise receive instruction from a teacher,
- Assist with classroom management, such as by organizing instructional materials,
- Provide instructional assistance in a computer laboratory,
- Conduct parental involvement activities,
- Provide instructional support in a library or media center,
- Act as a translator, or
- Provide instructional support services under the direct supervision of a highly qualified teacher.
In 2015, The Every Student Succeeds Act was passed replacing No Child Left Behind. This gave more autonomy to the individual states and local school districts to make guidelines/standards that fit the needs of their particular demographics. It also created guidelines to provide greater voice and support to paraeducators citing the need to adequately train, support, evaluate and include in decision making forums.
Some jurisdictions offer or require certification for some paraprofessionals. Others may require a contracted paraprofessional to pass an examination. Some require none of the above.
A paraprofessional certificate is typically a certificate that an educator has obtained by passing an exam, enabling them to perform a task requiring extensive knowledge, but not requiring a college degree and a teaching license. Subject areas could include any areas of education such as a GED Teacher, Alternate School Teacher, ISS Teacher, After School Tutor, Home School Teacher, Credit Recovery Teacher, Continuing Education Teacher, and any Special Education area which could be but is not limited to CML, tutoring, and providing any needs to an individual student.
The training of paraprofessional educators varies widely by state and district. (Research your state standards to find out more about individual requirements) The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) in collaboration with the National Resource Center for Paraeducator has validated some guidelines for use in training paraeducators to serve “individuals with exceptionalities” A link to these can be found here [link]. Professional development companies, such as 321insight.com and PD360 provide targeted training to enhance paraeducator competency.
Wikipedia, (n.d.) Paraprofessional educator. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraprofessional_educator
Merriam Webster Dictionary list several definitions for “Training,” such as (1) to form by instruction, (2) discipline, or drill, to teach so as to make fit, qualified, or proficient: to make prepared (as by exercise) for a test of skill. Training can also be defined as preparation and/or activity leading to skilled behavior. Training serves a very important function within any organization, even if those people to be trained have prior education or prior work experience (Smith, 1995). With increased pressure from legislation, and mandates such as the reauthorization of IDEA 97, ESEA, and the NCLB Act, which defined further job responsibilities and job duties as well as noted the increased and wide use of paraprofessionals, much focus was directed on paraprofessional training provided by and putting much pressure on states and school districts.
Pre-NCLB paraprofessional qualifications and training specified that in order to be hired as a paraprofessional, individuals applying for the position only needed only a high school diploma, and the desire to work with and around children. Once the individual was hired, the paraprofessional received a series of training. These training sessions could be delivered in three ways: pre-service training, on the job training, in-service training which was provided by the county the paraprofessionals worked (Trautman, 2004). In the piece entitled “Managing and Preparing Paraprofessionals” (2004), Trautman defines pre-service training as a prearranged amount of time used for instruction and observations. In the case of paraprofessionals, Trautman states that this pre-service time should occur prior to the paraprofessional’s start of the job, usually during the summer months. In addition, preservice training is defined as an experience that will communicate job expectations and provide a level of knowledge appropriate for further training During this time such information as the roles and responsibilities of the position, the school orientation, opening and closing times of the school, a description of the types of children with who the paraprofessional will be working, and instructional methods used by both the teacher and the paraprofessional would be discussed.
Of the three forms of training, pre-service was the least recommended of the forms (Riggs & Mueller, 2001). The trouble with pre-service training was: problems arise from scheduling paraprofessionals to come in early or stay late for such training. In most cases, these paraprofessionals are usually not paid to attend this pre-service training. In addition, Firth & Mim (1985) stated that inadequate pre-service training was one of the major reasons that paraprofessionals in special education did not stay on the job.
On –the- job training is defined as training provided by an employer on the job site. The United States Department of the Interiors defines On-The-Job Training as one of the best training methods because it is planned, organized, and performed on the employee’s worksite (US Department of Interior ). The Vermont Paraeducator Survey conducted by Mueller, discloses that paraeducators in that state who completed the survey reported receiving 40% of their training on the job. The U. S. Department of Interior also concurs that by employee’s conducting an effective on-the-job training program at their jobsite, moral, productivity, and professionalism will normally be high (US Department of Interior).
The third type of training; in-service training is defined as training and professional development offered by the employer and given during the regular work hours. In a survey conducted by Causton-Theoharis and Malmgren (2005), which tried to increase the interaction rate between paraprofessionals and students with severe disabilities, by the use of in-service training of paraprofessionals. The training was held at two elementary schools and consisted of a four hours training session. held one-to-one with instructor and paraprofessional. This study consisted of four paraprofessionals who had not received any prior training prior to employment in the schools. Presented as an in-service, the purpose of this study was to increase purposeful behavior by paraprofessionals that would increase students with disabilities interaction with students without disabilities. Results indicted that by paraprofessionals applying interventions the interaction between students with and without disabilities increased. In the survey completed by Mueller (The 62 Vermont Paraeducator Survey) paraeducators (57%) were presented with in-service training and completed it, however of that 57%, 48% questioned its relevance. In one survey taken by Ashbaker and Morgan in 2001 when paraprofessionals were asked what type of training they received, 90% stated they had received training ranging from short workshops to college classes; however, the majority of the training came from the school district or colleges. (Archibald, D.L. 2008)
Performance and Evaluation
Another way to fulfill the requirements of NCLB lies in passing an assessment that is approved by the district and state in which the paraprofessional works. These written formal assessments determine whether a paraprofessional, has the skills to assist teachers in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics. These types of assessment used can be classified as “Competency-Based Assessments.” Such assessments measure an individual’s performance against a standard of acceptable performance, or score, and are not compared against other individuals taking such assessment. (Archibald, D.L. 2008)
Evaluation tools and methods like checklists and rubrics can be used to evaluate and provide performance feedback to paraeducators. Paraeducators should be formally evaluated at least once a year (Douglas & Bowles, 2018). However, it is important for a paraeducator to receive more frequent feedback from their supervisor and ideally be informally evaluated quarterly, giving them a chance to improve their practice. In many schools, administrators evaluate paraeducators, whether that’s an assistant principal or coordinator of special education. (Rachel Stoudt).
Council for Exceptional Children Resources
Iona County ISD-ASD Team, (2007). Effectively Utilizing and Supporting Paraprofessionals. (working with students on the autism spectrum).
Parker, D. (n.d.) Supporting Paraprofessionals to Support Students with IEPs. , Association of Wisconsin School Administrators
Voices from the Field
It is federal law that allows paraeducators to assist in instruction but requires paraeducators be trained if they do. The reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004 allowed paraeducators to be involved in special education services as long as they are “appropriately trained” but did not give any clear guidance to schools on how to appropriately train them (Gerlach & Peterson, 2017). In order to evaluate paraeducators, it’s important to make and share a job description with them as soon as they take the position. Job descriptions should be clear and detailed (Gerlach & Peterson, 2017). NCLB did provide role clarification for paraeducators (Stetson, 2015 Sep 1). In 2015, NCLB was replaced with Every Student Succeeds Act, which gave local schools more flexibility in how they use paraeducators, although they still must be “appropriately trained” according to the IDEA.
Individual school districts choose how to train and evaluate paraeducators; the state of NH does not have official evaluation processes for paraeducators. (Rachel Stoudt).
I believe that any school district that is prepared for orientation of a Paraprofessional can effectively provide training and expectations for the job. Part of that obstacle is the unique needs and strengths in individual personalities of adults and students in the school environment.
Just like measuring goals and plans for teaching, Paras would also need goals and objectives for Professional Development. There are so many aspects to working in Special Education. A few have always stood out for me. Creating a weekly or monthly time committed to addressing ongoing concerns of a Para is good for morale, it is good for the growth of a Para as an employee, and it is a concrete time to give feedback from the Sped Teacher and the Classroom Teacher. I currently meet every two weeks with my supervisor 1:1, for about 15-20 minutes. This is new for us and I am excited for the time to collaborate for my student. Teachers may have different needs of a Para, depending on how the student is responding to the classroom. When a Para also receives measurable goals for PD, they can better gauge their own progress and keep their goals aligned to standards and the needs and IEP goals of the student.
I have worked in a behavioral program and another program for children with Autism. We do have a one-hour monthly meeting to review Professional Development topics and sometimes to vent! As a Para, we go through our day, often without a minute to speak privately with a teacher or peer to get feedback or direction without a student with us. We have addressed many topics like Trauma Informed Schools, Social and Emotional Learning, behavior challenges, safety concerns for students and staff, and some very funny and sweet lines from the children. When all Paras went home last March due to Covid-19, we did an online Google class where we got a topic to read and questions to share after reading. It was a great way to exchange with peers from all over the district about how we have learned and addressed many aspects of our jobs and different approaches to different disabilities. I believe we are pretty successful in this area. Tracey O’Brien
A standard I feel paraeducators are receiving adequate support is: PCCG.2.S3: Use knowledge of an individual’s strengths and interests to encourage engagement in varied school and community activities as determined by the instructional team. Over the last five years that I’ve worked as a paraeducator, identifying student interests and tying them into their work whenever possible or appropriate has always been a goal. Not only can this help keep students engaged in their work, but knowing their interests helps when building relationships. I have worked with various students with intensive behavioral needs over the last few years, and have learned that before anything else, getting to know your students is crucial to both their and your success. Three years ago, I worked with a child diagnosed with ODD and ADHD. One of her strengths was arts and crafts. Once a week in the library, there would be crafts left for students to do during the day. If she had completed her work and followed teacher expectations throughout the week, we would take twenty minutes to do crafts together. She looked forward to this time and this allowed us to connect and continue building our relationship. Karissa Peltier
Within our district, we include paraprofessionals in all professional development days so they learn the same content as the teachers. This is a great start. We also have monthly paraeducator meetings, however staff meetings with teachers are after hours and paraeducators are not expected to attend since they will not be paid for their time. This leaves a gap in the information the teachers receive versus what information paraprofessionals receive. Shari Gauvin
Training in the content areas is a great idea. One year, we offered training in math, not everyone’s favorite subject. We had a lot of para support in math classes, and the paras were telling us that they were not strong in the math skills themselves. We invited the adult education math teacher to come in for a series of lessons during the day and provided the paras this class time to go over math skills they were lacking. It was great. I wish we could do more of that, but as mentioned in other posts sometimes the bottom line is the budget and staffing availabilities. Kari Grimes
Another way that special educators can support paraprofessionals effectively is by facilitating open lines of communication. Regular communication, like daily check-ins, can keep everyone focused and working towards the same goal. Knowing that a special educator is ready to enthusiastically support allows paraprofessionals to feel “safe” reaching out with questions or concerns. Also, reviewing students IEP’s with paraprofessionals is another way that special educators can support paraprofessionals. There can be professional language or procedures that a paraprofessional is not familiar with but are necessary for the paraprofessional to be aware of and include when working with a student. This information should be reviewed together, so that everyone working with a student can be effective and follow the IEP. Alicia Jobson
Where I work we have 45 minutes to an hour every day that the paras meet in teams to debrief how the day went, plan with the teacher and administrators next steps and prep for the next day(s). Because of students have such intense needs, we usually have a lot of one on one paras. For instance, in the middle level group we have 5 students with 1:1 para support and two general paras provide support for three other students. . . sometimes that isn’t even enough support! Twice a month we have all staff meetings (right now remotely via telephone conference call.) I feel we do a great job with preparation Standard 1: Learner Development and Individual Learning Differences. We also do a great job standard 2: Learning Environments due to our daily debriefs and group work helping all our students. We also have lots of professional development workshops. Last year it was about IEP development etc. with the NH-DOE. We had about 8 workshops on it. This year we are working on learning LSCI philosophies and how the brain works with children with Trauma. This year we have about 12 workshops scheduled There are usually on early release days for an hour or sometimes after school. All paras have access to IEPs of the students in their class and are invited to participate in IEP meetings and conferences with parents. I also think we do a great job with collaboration, Standard 7. Jacqueline Godin
As I am sure is common everywhere, the special educators are overwhelmed and overworked, and often do not have the time to spend meeting and training the paraeducators that work with them. I love the school where I work, but we really do not receive much in the way of training or professional development. A few times a year we are included in a full staff professional development day, but very little is set aside just for us. I think setting up some sort of mentor program, especially for new paras would be extremely helpful. I also feel that setting up a consistent meeting time for the special education team, once a month or once a quarter, would be invaluable. Judith Moore
As a 1:1, I do always worry that I hover too much. My first year working as a para one of my very favorite classroom teachers told me to “Aide and fade” and it has stuck with me. Some of my students this isn’t possible to do and for safety reasons I am always within an arms length of them, and I can see how this can affect their relationships with peers. Students will ask me questions instead of the student I work with. Or if I see students in the hallway they will ask me where my student is because they think I am supposed to always be with them. Some have even thought I was their Mother. I like the idea of rotating paras, I have been with one of my students for five years and I feel like he sees me as “School Mom” now and would benefit from some new faces. Anonymous
My school does a really nice job emphasizing collaboration and communication between members of the multidisciplinary team. I have always felt comfortable and encouraged to ask questions; get feedback from the special education and general education teachers; and familiarize myself with the students’ IEPs, goals, and appropriate learning supports. I am 1:1 with a student for half of the day. He is high needs and I work with him on his IEP goals, provide behavioral support during class specials and OT/ST services, etc. The general education teacher is great about providing me and the student’s other para with school work relative to the general education curriculum (Standard PCCG3.K2). I was not expecting, however, to feel like his classroom teacher is primarily communicating with me and his other para more than with his special education teacher. It makes sense as she sees us with him every day, but it is a reminder of how vital communication between all members of the instructional team is and the central role that paras play in that. Both of these examples are meant to emphasize the importance of training classroom teachers to provide clear expectations and responsibilities to paras in their classrooms (Sauberan, 2015). This is valuable because of how differently classrooms are “run” and what the teacher expects from the para. Rebecca Foss
My district does a Para Academy once a month, but the topics are preplanned and not always relevant to our needs. I would love to have them poll us! Also, math refreshers are wonderful! Especially since many of us do not understand how to teach math in the new ways. I was thrown into teaching a first grade class for the last week and a half and if it wasn’t for having a seven year old daughter, Khan Academy and YouTube, I would not have been as successful in teaching the math lessons I was given. Thank goodness for resources and technology!! Deanna Hanley
I believe that a lot of paraeducators should receive professional development on all of the different assistive technology options that are out there and how to use them. I work with a couple non verbal students who use AAC devices, and I didn’t receive any initial training, it was all learn as you go which can be extremely frustrating for yourself and your student. Having, either companies or specialists come in and give informational workshops on different options that are out there and the benefits that they have for students with exceptionalities would be very beneficial. There are so many forms of assistive technology that are out there that people are not made aware of, and that one piece of equipment could make a huge difference in a students ability to learn.
I also think it is important that paras and assistants get educated in the way that culture impacts the way a student learns. It is something that we don’t always necessarily think about until we are faced with that situation. Nicole Coonrod
When I started in my position, I had only one education class under my belt and almost no experience. It really has been my classroom team, administrator and GSC that has help me come so far over the last year. I feel that I can now check many of the boxes on the CEC list. One thing our school did with me was just spend the time incorporating me into the process and encouraging me to ask questions. The open line of communication we had is the reason why I have learned so much. Our special educator has been consistent with ensuring I am looped into all special education conversations regarding our students. Without her focus on ensuring I truly understand the practices, I would be lost. She also has been adamant about letting me help with strategy and researching ideas to implement with our identified students. This has been key to helping me, especially with the “Learning Environment” and “Instructional Strategy” standards. Deanna Hanley
Archibald, Donna Lynn, “Roles and Responsibilities of the Georgia Special Education Paraprofessionals and the Impact of the NCLB Mandates: An Assessment by Georgia Administrators, Special Education Teachers, and Special Education Paraprofessionals” (2008). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 245. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/etd/245 CC By 4.0
Douglas, S.N., & Bowles, R.P. (2018). Michigan Applied Public Policy Brief: Paraeducator Training, Supervision, and Evaluation in Michigan. Michigan Applied Public Policy Research Program. Retrieved from http://ippsr.msu.edu/sites/default/files/MAPPR/Paraeducator%20Training,%20Supervision,%20and%20Evaluation%20in%20Michigan.pdf
Stoudt, Rachel, Granite State College Student, winter 2021, EDU 606
Vierstra, G. (n.d.). Paraprofessionals: What you need to know. Understood For All Inc. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/for-educators/learning-and-thinking-differences-basics/paraprofessionals-what-you-need-to-know
Wikipedia, (n.d.) Paraprofessional educator. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraprofessional_educator