Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Increasing Peer Interactions for Students with Severe Disabilities Via Paraprofessional Training

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Increasing Peer Interactions for Students with Severe Disabilities Via Paraprofessional Training

Article excerpt

The general education classroom has become the place where increasing numbers of students with disabilities are educated. Nationally, there are 5 1/2 million students with special needs, and slightly under half of these students in elementary schools are served in general education settings with their general education peers for more than 79% of the school day (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). Specifically, students with severe disabilities are included in general education settings with growing frequency, and increases are predicted to continue as inclusionary practices become the norm (U.S. Department of Education).

A major impetus for placing students with disabilities in general education classrooms is to allow them to reap the social and academic benefits afforded their peers without disabilities (Cullinan, Sabornie, & Crossland, 1992; Ferguson & Asch, 1989; Johnson & Johnson, 1991; Madden & Slavin, 1983; Wehman, 1990). Educational scholars have suggested that in an inclusive environment, being afforded the opportunity to learn from and care for one another enriches the lives of students (Vandercook, Fleetham, Sinclair, & Tetlie, 1998). The general education classroom is considered to be a fertile ground for the development of peer interactions and relationships. These peer interactions have been empirically linked to increased achievement (Johnson, 1981; Yager, Johnson, & Johnson, 1985) and increased self-esteem (Branthwaite, 1985; Kirova, 2001; Nave, 1990). However, for students with severe disabilities, these interactions and relationships may not occur naturally without appropriate support (Evans, Salisbury, Palombaro, Barryman, & Hollowood, 1992).

The most common strategy that school districts use to support students with severe disabilities in inclusive classrooms is to allocate a paraprofessional to work with the individual student (Giangreco, Broer, & Edelman, 1999; Giangreco, Edelman, Broer, & Doyle, 2001; Werts, Wolery, Snyder, & Caldwell, 1996; Wolery, Werts, Caldwell, Snyder, & Liskowski, 1995). In some cases, the involvement of paraprofessionals may be the crucial support that allows a student with intensive academic or behavioral needs to be educated in a general education classroom or school rather than being placed in a more restrictive, segregated setting (Martella, Marchand-Martella, Miller, Young, & Macfarlane, 1995).

Although the assignment of a paraprofessional is intended to positively impact the student, several studies have shown that the presence of a paraprofessional can actually have detrimental effects on the peer interactions of a student with a disability (Giangreco, Edelman, Luiselli, & MacFarland, 1997; Marks, Schrader, & Levine, 1999; Shulka, Kennedy, & Cushing, 1999). Specifically, Giangreco et al. (1997) found that paraprofessional proximity had a profoundly negative impact on peer interactions, which affected relationships with classmates. Paraprofessionals were considered to be a physical barrier that caused many of the peers in the study to avoid the student with a disability. Giangreco et al. (1997) also reported that peers sometimes saw students and paraprofessionals as a "package deal."

A second major problem that students with disabilities who are supported by a paraprofessional face is separation from classmates (Giangreco et al., 1997). Paraprofessionals were routinely observed removing the students with disabilities from their peers or class grouping (e.g., moving the student to a back table to work or to another room without consultation with or resistance from a teacher). Similarly, in a qualitative study by Malmgren and Causton-Theoharis (2003) of a student with emotional disturbance in an inclusive classroom, paraprofessional proximity was found to be the single most important classroom condition that negatively influenced peer interactions.

A growing body of research documents that paraprofessionals are not well prepared to perform their specific job responsibilities (Brown, Farrington, Knight, Ross, & Ziegler, 1999; Giangreco et al. …

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