Whether you call them paraprofessionals, paraeducators, teaching assistants, teacher’s aides, or something else, they have become indispensable in the classroom. While we know we need them, what exactly is the role of paraprofessionals in special education? What goals and outcomes should they work toward?
Setting the right goals is the key to getting the most value from your paras and teachers. Let’s take a look at what should be the goal for paraprofessionals in the classroom, how paraprofessionals can achieve those goals, and how educators need to shift their perspective to improve student achievement.
What is the role of paraprofessionals in special education?
Paraprofessionals are there to support overwhelmed teachers and help keep the classroom running smoothly, right? That’s true, to a point. But the primary purpose is fostering student independence.
The goal of paraprofessionals should be to work themselves out of a job.
This may sound alarming at first, but hear me out. Our most important job as educators is preparing students to succeed in life. They must become capable of succeeding without our help. That’s why the most important role of paraprofessionals in special education is helping students become independent learners.
IMPORTANT: Be sure to reassure your paras that this goal will not jeopardize their jobs! As their students become more independent, there will always be more students who need their help and skills.
Shift your perspective to focus on independent learning
Administrators need to promote a school-wide shift in perspective about the role of a paraprofessional.
Most paras, teachers, and parents think of paraprofessionals as the people who do what it takes to get their assigned student to complete tasks. Of course, we do want them to complete tasks. But when we provide so much help that students never learn to do things on their own, we fail those students in the long run.
Here’s how paraprofessionals (in special education and general education classrooms) can adjust their mindset and their actions to help students become more independent and ultimately more successful.
Paraprofessionals in the classroom: tips to build student independence & achievement
Establish a growth mindset
In every classroom, paras and teachers can work together to establish a growth mindset, using an individualized approach that builds on students’ strengths.
When paraprofessionals take time to identify what each student does well, they can focus on that to build confidence. Then they can leverage these strengths to build skills in areas for growth while reinforcing teacher instruction. The idea is to create a safe, supportive space where students feel comfortable taking academic risks and stretching their skills just outside their comfort zone. For example:
- A talented artist who struggles with math can draw math concepts or illustrate concepts with labels to create study guides.
- For a student who likes to talk and avoids writing, start by having them respond verbally to demonstrate knowledge while building their writing skills. Over time, reduce the verbal responses and increase writing demands.
Provide the right level of support for students
Prompts are hints paras provide to students to get them to complete a task correctly. Types of prompts range from physical modeling to gestures and shades in between.
With too few prompts, our students won’t be able to complete tasks or benefit from instruction. But too many prompts (or the wrong ones) causes “learned helplessness” or “prompt dependency.” It’s the opposite of the independent learning goal we’re after. The trick is to provide just the right amount and type of prompts to help a student succeed, not only at completing the task, but at becoming more independent.
As students build skills and demonstrate progress, paras should change and fade their prompts. Here’s what that might look like:
- Model the task for the student
- Talk the student through the task
- Give simple verbal reminders
- Give visual cues
Another best practice (which also helps reduce stigma toward students receiving classroom help) is to avoid hovering over the assigned student. Instead, give a prompt, watch and assist, then walk away and circulate around the classroom. Give the student time to work independently, then check on their progress.
Document student progress
It’s a universal truth in education: if it’s not documented, it didn’t happen. Documenting a student’s progress serves two purposes:
- It reminds us to pause and celebrate student accomplishments.
- The data serves as justification to reduce the level of support in educational plans.
Paraprofessionals should take objective notes that teachers can incorporate into student progress reports.
Reduce para support as students build independence
If our goal is to support student independence, we need to step down paraprofessional support as students gain skills and abilities. But sometimes, you may be unsure if the student is completely ready to succeed on their own.
In that case, try reducing the para’s presence for a non-academic time (like lunch or recess) or for a single class or subject. Start small and document how the process goes, but be patient. One stumble doesn’t mean the plan isn’t working. Failure is part of the path to success.
Training for paraprofessionals is the first step
Many paraprofessionals in special education classrooms receive little, if any, training before being placed in a challenging situation with high expectations.
Get your new & experienced paraprofessionals started on the right foot this year with Thrive’s affordable online training course. In one hour, your paraprofessional staff will learn valuable best practices for building student independence and success.