What the literature tells us about the use of paraprofessionals in schools Marianna Kiva
Resource-Special Needs teacher at Ecole 7 Oaks Middle School in Winnipeg B.Ed, M.Ed
In order to reach an understanding of the benefits or drawbacks that arise from the work that paraprofessionals perform in the schools, it is important to appreciate the historical viewpoints in the wake of the introduction of paraprofessionals into the school environments. According to the data from the NRCP (2006, ¶. 1) National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals, post WWII licensed teacher shortages and the pressures from the parents of children with disabilities to establish school-based supports generated awareness and the need to hire teacher-aides (paraprofessionals). Societal acknowledgment that students with special needs are entitled to a just and equitable educational service cemented the need and the services of the paraprofessionals in the schools.
“Helping or Hovering? Effects of Instructional Assistant Proximity on Students with Disabilities” (Giangreco, Edelman, Luiselli, & MacFarland, 1997), is an empirical article that addresses the issues of how an instructional assistant influences the learning progress of a student with complaints. The title of the article suggests that the purpose of the study was to explore the world of assistance that is provided in the classrooms to students with disabilities. Using the terms helping or hovering, they sought to evaluate how the role of the instructional assistant affects the everyday existence of students, teachers, parents, and special educators. Proximity of the instructional assistant to the student was identified as one of the major themes. Within this significant theme, eight distinct areas were discussed, documented and analyzed. These areas were:
• interference with ownership
• responsibility of general educators
• separation from classmates
• impact on peer interactions
• limitations on welcoming competent instruction • loss of personal control,
• loss of gender identity
• and interference with instruction of other students In conjunction with the main issues, the authors explored the role of instructional assistants: their training, the role they play and the implications this might have on the quality of the services that they provide. Upon further reflection, three broad categories were specified based on the nature of the interaction: identity, belonging and learning process. Identity is the relationship between the student and the instructional assistant. Belonging focuses on the relationships between students. The learning process represents the reciprocal relationships between teachers and students (Giangreco et al., 1997). The authors arrived at these categories by organizing their findings into similar issues then identifying the underlying theme. Finding new categories helped the authors' view how their instructional assistants in relation to others in the same environment are supporting students. This presented them with more information, rather than focusing exclusively on the role of the instructional assistant. By doing this, it helped them to evaluate whether proximity is the only issue, or if there is a different context in which to interpret the results, as these results would affect classroom practices (Kiva & Chase, 2006). In the article, Helping or Hovering? Effects of instructional assistant proximity on students with disabilities, (Giangreco et al., 1997), identified that the proximity of the instructional assistants to their students there is potential to inhibit peer relationships between students with exceptionalities and their classmates. It was noted that the instructional assistants tended to dominate work in small groups, thereby impeding interactions between special needs students and their classmates. Even though the title of the article asks a question, it seems in some ways that the authors have determined where the role of the instructional assistant fits into the larger educational picture of a student with disabilities. At first glance, it seems very clear that the authors are trying to determine whether the effects of instructional assistant proximity on students with disabilities should be viewed as helping or hovering. However, even when paraprofessionals were perceived as being detrimental to students with disabilities, some saw their professional value increase when they contributed to the welfare of the student, as part of a team approach. The author of the article, “Paraprofessionals in the Classroom: What role do they play?” McVay (1998) is a team leader for the Multnomah Education Service in Portland, Oregon. Her article reflects information and knowledge gained through her work with support teams assigned to students with disabilities. According to McVay, who is a strong supporter of a team approach, addressing issues of inclusion and education for special needs students must occur in a collaborative manner through a team approach. The article underlines the factors that are desirable to keep teams working cooperatively and among many characteristics were: commitment, opportunity for dialogue, development of problem-solving skills, and cooperation. She stresses the need to allow members of the team to take ownership for some of the tasks related to educating students with disabilities. McVay believes that approaching the issues of educating students with disabilities clarifies the responsibilities for paraprofessionals and guarantees successful outcomes, both socially and academically. She states that, “Sometimes when the role of the paraprofessional is unclear, they may actually be a barrier to student learning” (p. 4).
When paraprofessionals are no longer expected to perform clerical duties, they shift their workload more towards the academic support and supervision of students with disabilities. Their presence at team meetings is an important component of the student’s academic and social successes. Daniels & McBride (2001) examine a variety of examples that constitute successful interactions between classroom teachers and paraprofessionals. Regular meetings between the teacher and paraprofessional, with the teacher delegating and explaining the tasks to the paraprofessional, contribute to a positive classroom environment. In their article, “Paraeducators as critical team members: Redefining roles and responsibilities” Daniels and McBride stress the importance of the work that paraprofessionals perform in the classroom. The article conveys a message to school administrators that paraprofessionals must be included in team meetings as they are valuable members of the school community. In the words of Daniels and McBride, “In the final analysis, schools cannot adequately function without paraeducators, and paraeducators cannot adequately function in schools that lack an infrastructure that supports and respects them as viable and contributing members of instructional teams.” (p. 73)
The article by Giangreco and Broer (2005), “Questionable utilization of paraprofessionals in inclusive schools: Are we addressing symptoms or causes?” focuses on a similar topic by means of quantitative research methods. Information collected from 737 school personnel and parents who support the, “… education of students with a full range of disabilities in general education classes” (p. 12), addresses important issues in the use of paraprofessionals in inclusive environments. The bulk of the research focuses on questions about how paraprofessionals use their time in the school, their view of their duties, and how the school’s mishandling of paraprofessional time affects the quality of education for students with disabilities. “The findings highlight educational concerns and suggest that focusing change efforts on paraprofessional issues without corresponding attention to general and special education issues are akin to addressing the symptoms of a problem rather than its roots” (p. 16). The authors admit that the main difficulty in correcting the existing conditions for paraprofessionals in schools may be met with the obstacle of having to restructure the system that created the need for the growing number of them. The issue does not belong to one school or some of the schools, rather to the educational system as a whole. “Excessive one-to-one paraprofessional support has been associated with inadvertent detrimental effects (e.g., unnecessary dependence, stigmatization, interference with peer interactions and interference with teacher involvement, less competent instruction” (p. 25). Although the authors include cultural context and students' different characteristics as reasons for the paraprofessional’s questionable practices, the most damaging factors are educational structures and political influences. Paraprofessionals, hired to work with special needs students, lack training and education
Griffin-Shirley and Matlock, (2004), discuss similar issues in “Paraprofessionals speak out: a survey. (Teacher assistants working with disabled children)” The study uses quantitative research methods, to reflect the opinions of respondents from 21 States, and incorporates responses from educators, paraprofessionals, parents, and students. The initial survey, “covered demographics, job titles and responsibilities, and the level of training paraprofessionals had acquired, needed, or desired” (p. 127). The lowest number of responses came from paraprofessionals; the bulk of the responses came from parents and other professionals, which permitted the authors to make a conclusive analysis. The survey attempted many topics and focused on issues concerning paraprofessionals and their effects on students with disabilities. The authors concluded that if students with disabilities are to be educated in regular classrooms, support staff must be trained and educated in the areas of their specific employment, and it should focus on developmental skills of children. The level of training for the paraprofessionals is crucial to the success of students with disabilities. The authors acknowledge that in the future, schools will require more support for students with disabilities and therefore, education of paraprofessionals must be mandated by hiring organizations. “The paraprofessional will be even more important to special education in the future. Their training and educational achievements determine how beneficial they can be to children with disabilities” (Griffin-Shirley & Matlock, 2004, p 132).
Classroom teachers hand over the responsibilities for educating students with disabilities to paraprofessionals
According to the Manitoba Teachers’ Society brochure (MTS, 2000), teachers are responsible to explain to paraprofessionals, assigned to their classrooms, about their responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is to report to the classroom teacher and to take all directions from her. The teachers must be in charge of the educational process of every student in the classroom, including students with disabilities. It is the teacher’s responsibility to plan lesson activities and choose resources. Classroom and resource teachers are accountable for writing the (IEP) Individualized Educational Plans and selecting appropriate academic activities for students with disabilities. The paraprofessional’s responsibility is to work within the established school structures, including classroom management structures, classroom rules and student expectations. The role of the classroom paraprofessional is to assist the teacher in collecting and organizing materials, creating displays and other support materials. Teachers are responsible for teaching, implementing content and learning, and paraprofessionals clarify, supervise, reinforce, document, and report to the teacher (MTS, 2000).
In the article, “My child has a new shadow… And it doesn’t resemble her!” the word “shadow” carries a negative connotation (Doyle, 1998). It implies that paraprofessionals do not perform their duties well or are executing duties they should not be carrying out. The article states that many of the parents tend to develop close ties with their child’s paraprofessional, rather then the classroom teacher. Even when the child is invited to a friend’s house, parents attempt to hire the paraprofessional to attend the play session with the child. According to Doyle, many paraprofessionals are performing duties that should be the responsibilities of the licensed teachers and therapists: “One reasons for these changes is the increasing numbers of children with disabilities receiving part or all of their education in general classrooms” (p 6). The author encourages parents to observe the way paraprofessionals interact with their children and to inquire as what are the exact, responsibilities of their child’s paraprofessional. To make certain that paraprofessionals, teachers, and parents understand the role that paraprofessional will play in the life of the student, a clarification of that role must be examined at the initial IEP meeting (Doyle, 1995). For many teachers the areas of special needs and special needs requirements remain an unexplored dominion? The names of and the numbers of disabilities and syndromes discovered have increased in the past several years. They have become the metaphorical tidal wave that has threatened professionals in all areas of education. Availability of this information created conditions that demanded accountability and an appropriate response to the needs of students with exceptionalities. With the significance of accountability comes an awareness of the levels of stress on the teachers and the whole educational community. One of the major difficulties teachers face today is that their roles are changing in response to the demands of a rapidly changing society and profession. Teachers are facing expectations of greater collaboration, parent and student counseling, and demands for content knowledge and accountability for students' learning. As these changes unfold, there is a growing sense of urgency focused on the need to prepare teachers for the new expectations (Coleman, 2000, p 4).
Paraprofessionals should be included in the planning meetings and acquainted with the educational goals as stated in the student’s IEP documents
To educate special needs students requires a team approach, rather then the solitary involvement of the special needs teacher or the paraprofessional. Long gone are the days when special needs students were pulled out of their classrooms and taught in isolation, when resource teachers were the only professionals responsible for preparation of the learning materials, and paraprofessionals were in charge of teaching the students without teacher involvement. Every professional, working with a special needs student, is accountable to provide those students with opportunities for learning and personal growth. That goal requires each of the professionals to follow procedures and protocols set out by the Department of Education and their school division. Some students are funded because they have been diagnosed with medical conditions requiring supervision, and in some cases, full care and support. For some individuals, the support may be marginal, while others need constant care and guidance. Resource and special needs teachers need to collaborate in applying for funding to ensure the presence of paraprofessionals within the classroom (Coleman, 2000.) The process of applying for funding follows the guidelines set out by the Department of Education, Citizenship and Youth and the eligibility of the funding is determined by Program and Student Services Branch (Education and Citizenship And Youth (2008) Learning concerns or problems of unusual behaviors are tested and evaluated by the school’s special needs teacher. These results, together with anecdotal information from the classroom teacher and other school professionals, become the focal point of the funding application. The quality of information gathered by classroom teachers and paraprofessionals plays a crucial role in the successful outcome of funding applications. Therefore, every paraprofessional working with students is required to keep a record of students’ behaviors and needs. These records form the basis upon which schools develop requests for financial support, academic and behavioral interventions. The role of paraprofessionals in this process is crucial, because they have many opportunities to observe and record the needs and behavioral attitudes of students.
The article by French (1998) highlights opinions and expectations of teachers and paraprofessionals, and their perceptions of the roles they play in the education of the special needs students. Research into the duties of paraprofessionals in schools, supports a collaborative and cooperative team approach. Some of the teachers were reluctant or unsure to undertake a supervisory role of the paraprofessionals assigned to their classrooms. Many teachers were not clear about the fundamental role of paraprofessionals in the classroom: where they the teachers or the student’s support. In the majority of cases, teachers preferred to think about them as peers, rather than supervisees. The recommended method of working together is to have weekly meetings between the classroom teacher and the paraprofessional to discuss student’s progress, future assignments, and how to assist students in their learning process. This collaborative process must proceed with the understanding that the teacher is the primary person responsible for the student’s education and the supervision of the paraprofessional. Based on recent research and data about paraprofessionals Black (2002) describes the roles paraprofessionals play in schools, and builds an argument for career ladders that help them become teachers. The number of paraprofessionals, in public schools, has grown faster than the number of teachers. Since the 1960s the number of paraprofessionals employed in the public schools nationally has risen from approximately 10,000 to over 500,000. It is estimated that currently 290,000 paraprofessionals work in special education roles (Using Para-Professional Assistants to Promote Student Success, 2000, ¶. 2) When properly trained, supervised, and supported these paraprofessionals could successfully contribute to students achievements. The study conducted by Hemmingsson, Borell, and Gustavsson (2003), reflected the cases of seven special needs students. The authors conducted field observations, informal interviews, and attended school team planning meetings. The purpose of their research was to determine to what degree paraprofessionals hindered social interaction of students with disabilities with their classmates. The authors identified several issues that were instrumental in Paraprofessionals having negative affects on students with disabilities. A first was that these students had experienced difficulties in social interactions with their peers, in the school environment. The second issue revealed an apparent conflict between planning and coordinating effective assistant support in the classroom and for students with disabilities. The last issue identified that paraprofessionals did not have a clear job description and the classroom teachers did not offer them guidance or support. According to Chopra and French (2004), students with disabilities form diverse relationships with their paraprofessionals. Some of these relationships were, “close and personal friendship, routine limited interactions, routine extended interactions, tense relationship, and minimal relationship” (p.248). After meeting with all the stakeholders; parents, students, paraprofessionals, and educators, the study concluded that good communication must be established between paraprofessionals and parents. Paraprofessionals should know any pertinent information, which might impact on the student’s daily work and well being. However, for that relationship (parent-paraprofessional) to remain beneficial for the student, it must be contained within the parameters established by the school and the divisional protocols.
In the article, “Building bridges: Strategies to help paraprofessionals promote peer interaction” (Causton-Theoharis & Maimren, 2005), the authors address a variety of issues related to the role of paraprofessionals in the classroom. Excessive proximity, negative social effects, physical separation from the peers, and rewards promoting peer isolation are some of the negative issues addressed in this article. Causton-Theoharis and Maimren, point out that paraprofessionals have far too much influence and power over the emotional and physical well-being of students with disabilities. “ These practices, coupled with the fact that many adults view independence with adult support as a goal for students with disabilities instead of interdependence with peers, lead to even more social isolation” (p 23).
According to Wallace (2005), many teachers are not ready to supervise the work of another adult: the paraeducator. They received little or no training during their formal teacher training, or when they are hired to teach. “If teachers are not informed of what is expected of them as supervisors, many of these responsibilities could easily be overlooked or fall through the cracks” ( p 33). To manage and supervise paraprofessionals requires more than telling them what the student must accomplish and handing them the assignment; it is also important to provide paraprofessionals with a job description and to regularly clarify their understanding of their responsibilities. Evaluation and feedback related to the work that paraprofessionals carry out in the classroom is an important component of their employment. Paraprofessionals should never be expected to work autonomously, lacking supervision and support from teachers who are, ultimately, responsible for the education of students with exceptionalities. “To ensure that students with disabilities receive the best care and education possible, proper supervision and management of paraeducators is required” (p 7).
Summary or Conclusions
In conclusion, schools and school divisions must invest money and time to send teachers and paraprofessionals to in-services with the focus on inclusion and the human rights of students with disabilities. Teachers and support personnel should be in serviced on the topic of inclusion and its implications for students with disabilities. It is crucial for school administrators to allocate time for teachers and paraprofessionals to meet and discuss classroom issues connected with educating students with disabilities. Professionals working in the school environments need to be informed of rules and regulations governing the roles of paraprofessionals. Since not all educators and paraprofessionals are prepared to work with students with disabilities, it is important to hand pick teachers that are interested in the process and believe in the notion of inclusion. The academic and social-emotional successes of students depend on classroom teachers becoming comfortable with their role as supervisors, include paraprofessionals into planning sessions for students with disabilities, and recognize paraprofessionals as part of the support team that works on behalf of and for students with exceptionalities. With assistance and positive classroom supports, students always demonstrate academic improvements in most areas of the curriculum and social interactions. When paraprofessionals and classroom teachers collaborate, they enhance the student’s learning environment and contribute to their academic and personal growth (McVay, 1998).
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