How Paraprofessionals Help Students with Disabilities

Some children with learning disabilities receive the support of a paraprofessional. Hear from Noodle Expert Jules Csillag about the training and scope of practice that these professionals provide.

Paraprofessionals are sometimes referred to as “paras” for short — or “aides,” although this latter term is not an accurate reflection of their roles and qualifications.

While these providers may not have the advanced level of training and education as other learning specialists, they play a critical role in the day-to-day learning experiences and successes of children with disabilities.

Learn more about the educational supports that paraprofessionals provide, and how you can work with a para to ensure that your child meets with success in her school experiences.

Education and Licensure

Paraprofessionals come from many different backgrounds, with experiences within and outside of education. The professional standards for paras were established nationally by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which states that all paraprofessionals must have at least two years of college education and hold an associate’s degree or higher. They must also meet a “rigorous standard of quality,” which includes demonstrating their knowledge of reading, writing, and math instructional practices on a state or local assessment. School districts are encouraged to include paraprofessionals in the same professional development courses that teachers take so that paras may continue to promote best educational practices in their work.

Certifications

States and districts vary on the types of certifications or licenses that they require, but all paras must pass some type of certification exam. For example, in New York City, paraprofessionals must pass a Teaching Assistant exam, whereas other states like Vermont and Arizona require prospective paraprofessionals to pass a “ParaPro Assessment.” To learn more about different state requirements for paraprofessionals, read the Education Commision of the States interactive database for paraprofessionals.

Work and Settings

The prefix “para-” means “alongside” in Greek, and indeed, paraprofessionals work alongside teachers and students to enable them “to access the curriculum” — that is, to take part in what is being taught in the classroom. For students with multiple, severe disabilities, paras may help with feeding, toileting, and communication.

For students with learning disabilities, paraprofessionals fulfill many responsibilities, including:

  • Reading parts of texts aloud
  • Helping provide visual supports
  • Repeating instructions
  • Helping with behavior management
  • Acting as a translator for bilingual children

They may also serve as liaisons between teachers and parents. Paraprofessionals are vital to enabling children with disabilities to be educated in mainstream classrooms, or the “least restrictive environment,” as required by the 1990 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This legal language establishes the principle that children with disabilities should be educated alongside non-disabled peers as much as possible.

Paraprofessionals can be assigned to assist a teacher (and therefore a whole class), or be assigned to work with a single child whose Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) establishes that one of her learning supports must include a paraprofessional. If a para is assigned to your child, you’ll want her to help your child gain more independence, rather than developing additional reliance on others. Paraprofessionals can work with students for a portion of or the whole day; their hours should be reviewed on a regular basis (typically every six months) to ensure that the support they are providing is moving your child toward greater independence.

Although some paraprofessionals do have an education background, they should not, according to the No Child Left Behind Act, be “teaching and assisting in teaching when their educational backgrounds do not qualify them for such responsibilities.” That is to say, a para’s primary role is to support the student to whom she is assigned and to provide instruction if it is “under the direct supervision of a teacher.” She should not act as an independent teacher herself.

Questions to Ask a Paraprofessional

When you meet with your child’s para, consider asking these three questions:

  • What worked well for my child today?
  • What was difficult for my child today?
  • What did she learn about today? (This can help you formulate specific questions to ask your child directly.)

Further Reading: Other Members of the Team

Your child may also work with other specialists beyond her para. Find out more about the other members of your child’s support team by reading these comprehensive articles:

Sources:

Carter Ellis, B. (June 2013). Classroom Partners: How Paraprofessionals Can Support All Students to Meet New Standards. Educator’s Voice. Retrieved from Educator’s Voice.

Education Commission of the States (ECS). (2013). 50-State Paraprofessional Report. Retrieved from Education Commission of the States.

Title I Paraprofessionals Non-Regulatory Guidance (March 4, 2004) Retrieved from U.S. Education Department.

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