Pressure on Paraeducators: Special Education Students and ELLs Lead Districts to Ramp Up Training of Aides

By Finkel, Ed | District Administration, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Pressure on Paraeducators: Special Education Students and ELLs Lead Districts to Ramp Up Training of Aides


Finkel, Ed, District Administration


Paraeducators are no longer on the periphery of the classroom. Now a significant part of the learning process, they are facilitating one-on-one and small-group instruction among special needs students.

They increasingly have been tasked with doing so over the past 15 years to ensure that such students receive adequate academic attention and that schools meet their needs as defined by federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act and No Child Left Behind. More recently, paraeducators are helping to ensure that students with special needs keep pace with the Common Core State Standards.

As a result of this broadening of their requirements--and stress levels--paraeducators and their advocates say they need more varied training, increased support from administrators in developing effective working relationships with teachers, and better pay.

Donna Schulze, a paraeducator at Phelps Luck Elementary School in the Howard County Public Schools in Maryland, says that paraeducators have to know how to handle special education students' needs. "We do lunch and recess [duty] because teachers don't anymore," she adds. "You have to know what child is allergic to what, and know who is going to blow up if they eat peanut butter."

Based on U.S. Census data, the National Education Association found the number of paraeducators rose from about 780,000 in 2001 to about 830,000 today, says Roxanne Dove, director of education support professionals for NEA. And the greater numbers of bilingual students and increased class size have demanded more classroom help, Dove says.

And a recent study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that teacher's aides increased from nearly 2 percent of the 3.4 million staff members in public schools in 1970 to nearly 12 percent of the 6.2 million staff collectively employed in 2010.

Collaboration and training

Marilyn Likins, director of the National Resource Center for Paraeducators, says teachers and paraeducators need to work together in different ways, with paraeducators taking lesson plans that teachers develop and homing in on specific students to help them meet their goals.

"Teachers need training on how to supervise [paraeducators], how to collaborate, how to engage paraeducators effectively," Likins says. "The administrators' role is to understand all that and know how to support teacher-para teams, how to provide planning time and how to build better communication."

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act was the first step in recognizing paraeducators as more than just backup personnel in working one-on-one with autistic and special needs students, Likins says. And NCLB mandated that paraeducators either pursue an associate's degree or establish themselves as "highly qualified," Schulze says.

While there is no one typical day-in-the-life of a paraeducator, they likely need training on working with students who have special needs ranging from autism to deafness and blindness. But Likins says most of the PD in special education targets administrators and teachers.

A sophisticated coaching model needs to be in place to adequately support all stakeholders, Likins says. An administrator should review with the paraeducator their caseload of special needs students; observe a teaching session; collect performance data tied to that session; and provide constructive feedback.

A teacher can simultaneously "work with [the paraeducator] so you're both sharing small group instruction, and then have them do it and give feedback," Likins adds. "But that's time-consuming, and people's schedules often don't allow it."

While NCLB created a "teach to the test" environment, Common Core has begun to shift the roles of paraeducators--and teachers--in a different direction, says Doreen McGuire-Grigg, a special education paraeducator for Lakeport USD in California. …

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