Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Paraprofessional Support of Students with Disabilities: Literature from the Past Decade

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Paraprofessional Support of Students with Disabilities: Literature from the Past Decade

Article excerpt

Though no reliable national data are available, leaders in the field of special education believe that the utilization of paraprofessionals to support the education of students with disabilities has increased dramatically over the past 10 years (French & Pickett, 1997). Staff of the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals in Education and Related Services estimate the number of paraprofessionals working in special education in the United States is over 300,000. Lack of standardized reporting procedures from state to state render any such numbers rough estimates (Kent Gerlach and Anna Lou Pickett, personal communication, August 3, 2000).

Despite the proliferation of paraprofessionals to support the education of students with disabilities, it remains one of the least studied and potentially most significant aspects of special education over the past decade. Yet, the most recent scholarly review of the literature on the utilization of paraprofessionals in special education was published nearly a decade ago (Jones & Bender, 1993). In that review the authors stated, "[O]ne phenomenal change in recent years, which has largely gone unnoticed, is the growth in the utilization of paraprofessionals in special education classes" (p. 7). As we enter this new decade, the growth has continued, the context has expanded beyond special class, and undoubtedly the field has noticed!

Since the early 1990s, significant changes in special education have fueled an increase in paraprofessional supports for students with disabilities and a focus on this topic. Increases in early childhood special education services and those for transition-aged students with disabilities have contributed to the burgeoning numbers of paraprofessionals (French & Pickett, 1997; Rogan & Held, 1999). Qualified special educators are in shorter supply and concerns exist that adverse working conditions (e.g., excessive paperwork, unmanageable caseloads, inadequate administrative support) are contributing to the problem (Kozleski, Mainzer, & Deshler, 2000; Pickett, 1999).

Inclusive educational opportunities have expanded steadily as school-aged students with increasingly severe disabilities are being provided with access to general education classes (Hunt & Goetz, 1997; McGregor & Vogelsberg, 1998). Having paraprofessionals accompany these students in general education classes is considered by many teachers to be an essential support (Wolery, Werts, Caldwell, Snyder, & Liskowski, 1995).

This is particularly interesting when viewed from a historical perspective. As a result of Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v. Pennsylvania (1971) and the passage of Public Law No. 94-142 (Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975), federal officials embarked on discussions about the training of personnel to educate a new population of students with more severe disabilities entering the public schools (Sontag & Haring, 1999).

   One of the recommendations that emerged from the discussions was to begin
   training a new cadre of personnel who would, essentially, be
   paraprofessionals. That is, the initial reaction to the need for personnel
   was to create a teacher for children with severe disabilities who would not
   need a baccalaureate degree and traditional certification (p. 11).

This consideration occurred, in part, because some professionals questioned the educability of children with more severe disabilities, arguing that they only needed someone to provide custodial care. They reasoned that such work did not require skilled special educators, so paraprofessionals would suffice and be less expensive. Others presumed that given appropriate instruction and support, children with more severe disabilities were educable, and that the nature of their characteristics required skilled special educators to design individualized curriculum and instruction (Sontag & Haring, 1999). …

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