Teaching Profession

Training Gains a Toehold for Instructional Aides in Special Education

By Christina A. Samuels — October 06, 2015 6 min read
Paraprofessional Stefanie Trotter uses flashcards of words and objects with 7th grader Jack Robinson, 13, while certified teacher Sam Gutierrez works with other students, right, in a special education classroom at Siloam Springs Middle School in Siloam Springs, Ark.

By the hundreds of thousands, the instructional aides known as paraeducators, paraprofessionals, or simply “paras” help enable students with disabilities to take part in the general education classroom through instructional, behavioral, and personal support.

But these workers—crucial in assuring that school inclusion happens for students receiving special education—often are left out of the loop when it comes to professional development.

Change is beginning to happen in some areas. For example, support organizations, such as the Paraprofessional Resource and Research Center, at the University of Colorado in Denver, are training teachers and paraeducators in districts around the country.

Technology also is starting to play a role: The ed-tech firm Rethink has created Web-based training modules for paraeducators, recognizing that they often aren’t given the same time for professional development as teachers.

And some institutions, such as Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, have created programs that enroll both would-be teachers and paraeducators-in-training in introductory classes.

“Imagine actors in a play practicing their roles individually, but never rehearsing together prior to opening night. Or, imagine the quarterback, backs, receivers, and linemen on a football team never practicing together before the first game,” wrote Doug Van Oort, the paraeducator-certification coordinator at Kirkwood, in an article for a paraeducator-resource website. “It would be absurd to expect smooth performances in either example.”

Despite agreement that paraeducators are important school personnel, surveys of paraprofessionals show that many say they have little or no formal training for the roles they are required to take on.

Ranks Are Growing

Teachers, whose academic training is focused on children, have little experience in managing adults, leaving many paraeducators feeling adrift. Or teachers may delegate to instructional aides some tasks that the teacher should be handling.

That dynamic hasn’t budged significantly for years, even as the number of paraeducators has ballooned and their job duties have become more expansive, said Ritu Chopra, the executive director of the Paraprofessional Resource and Research Center.

“This is a very important workforce, but very little attention is being given to them,” Chopra said. “We are putting our least-trained people with students with the most challenging needs.”

To help fill that gap, Chopra’s organization and others train teachers and administrators who are then asked to conduct training themselves, spreading the knowledge around.

Paraprofessionals make up a substantial portion of the education workforce: The National Education Association estimates their current numbers at about 758,000. According to the teachers’ union, the average paraeducator is 50 years old, has about 11 years of experience,and is working at the preschool or elementary school level in special education.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act created a definition of paraeducators and also built a framework for how such staff members should be used in the classroom. The definition, however, doesn’t always match with reality.

Paraprofessional Karla Castaneda works with 8th graders Charod Cohen, 13, and Luke Lowry, 14, right, on identifying signs in a special education classroom at Siloam Springs Middle School in Arkansas.

A 2003 survey of 900 paraeducators in Minnesota found that 80 percent spent more than half their day on instructional tasks, but only 40 percent reported having received training in reading, writing, or math instruction. A little over half the paraprofessionals surveyed felt they had adequate time to plan.

The ranks of paraeducators have grown faster than the overall student population. Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, though now dated, note that the paraeducator workforce grew 123 percent between the 1985-86 and 2003-04 school years—from about 307,000 aides to about 685,000. In comparison, the public school population increased 23 percent during the same time period.

Those burgeoning numbers indicate a problem, writes Michael Giangreco, the director of Project EVOLVE Plus at the University of Vermont, which works with schools and districts on inclusion issues. Instructional aides are being used to shore up inclusion efforts in schools, he said, when a better plan would be to make more systemic changes throughout a school building to promote access by students with disabilities to the general education curriculum.

Instructional aides are not at fault for defects in the system, Giangreco said. But “problematically, teacher assistants have become almost exclusively the way, rather than a way, to support students with disabilities in general education classrooms, especially those with severe ... disabilities,” he said.

Building a Partnership

Within the constraints of the current system, educators have found ways to manage the teacher-paraprofessional partnership effectively, however.

Alexis Gebb, a special education teacher at A.P. Giannini Middle School in San Francisco, worked as an elementary school paraeducator while she was completing her teacher education program at San Francisco State University. She now teaches a class of seven students with autism. Two students have 1-to-1 aides, and there are also two classroom aides. Sometimes, Gebb pulls in paraeducators from other classes as well.

Gebb said she spends 15 minutes each morning in a focused briefing with the instructional aides about the day’s important issues, such as schedule changes, upcoming events, and questions about individual students or assignments. She also keeps a whiteboard updated so that paraeducators can refer to it during the day.

Her classroom-organization methods are built on the kind of information she wanted to have when she was a paraeducator. Gebb said she craves more than 15 minutes daily with the instructional aides. But in her previous placement, she didn’t have even that much time. She was an instructional aide in a classroom for students in multiple grades, and paraeducators were constantly working with students or taking them to activities in other parts of the school, as their jobs required.

“There wasn’t ever a time when we were all in there at the same time,” Gebb said.

Ed-Tech Component

Siloam Springs, Ark., is among several districts around the country trying to tackle professional development through the use of ed tech. The 4,200-student district uses Rethink’s Web-based training modules to supplement the state’s educational requirements for paraprofessionals. The instructional aides in Siloam Springs are hourly employees, so the district pays them for their time spent taking the courses.

The short training videos can be reviewed as needed.

“We found we could use this as a jumping-off point,” said Doris Henderson, the district’s director of special education. “Now we can go back [to a paraeducator] and say, ‘We have a new kid—Remember when we talked about applied behavioral analysis in Rethink? You might want to go back and look at that again.’ ” (Applied behavior analysis is a method of teaching social skills and is commonly used with children on the autism spectrum.)

Chopra, with the paraprofessional-resource center, said that the best professional development for paraprofessionals keeps the teacher-paraprofessional relationship front and center. Both teachers and paraeducators need coaching in how to collaborate most effectively for students.

“If we are talking about individualized services, we can’t do that without paras,” Chopra said. “But at the same time, we need to utilize them effectively.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Training Gains Toehold for Aides in Special Education

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