Paraprofessionals, or “teacher’s aides” as they often are called, work alongside licensed teachers to give students additional attention and instruction. These team members are relied upon to play a more important role in a child’s special education experience than many people think.
For the families of children with special needs, these aides are vital and many families develop strong and lasting relationships with their child’s paraprofessionals.
Resources vary across school districts, so a statewide development effort is underway to support districts in the use of paraprofessionals to better meet the instructional needs of all children, especially those with disabilities and learning challenges.
Support for Students
While many districts provide special needs support, not all offerings are created equally.
That’s what Nicole Born-Crow discovered when her 8-year-old son Finn, now a third-grader, entered the CHAMPS program at Horace Mann Elementary School in Lakewood. The mother of three says her family has experienced enough different school settings that they are now able to appreciate the differences between the aides and how much they do.
“We needed someone who understood Finn to figure out how to diffuse a situation and keep him on task,” she says. “One of his paraprofessionals, Theresa Kruckenberg, has gotten to know him at a level where I feel like she is part of the family.”
This is Finn’s third year with Kruckenberg in a special education classroom where he is one of six students. Kruckenberg helps Finn with social and emotional regulation and watches vigilantly for subtle signs of seizure activity. She also helps to oversee Finn’s autism and epilepsy service dog. The value of Kruckenberg goes beyond a list of duties.
“It’s beautiful to see Theresa’s passion,” Born-Crow says. “She brings a love for what she does into the role.”
Passion can be one of those ephemeral concepts that can be hard to pinpoint, but in Kruckenberg’s case, it’s quite easy to see. That’s because Kruckenberg demonstrated her dedication and strong connection with Finn in a unique way: she got a tattoo on her arm of one of Finn’s animal drawings.
The tattoo was a surprise for Finn at his safari-themed going away party before he left to have brain surgery for his seizure disorder; the drawing it was based on marked a recent milestone achievement for Finn.
“Seeing the growth is so amazing,” Kruckenberg says.
The prefix “para-” is a Greek word that has several meanings, including “alongside of,” “near” or “side by side.” It’s not surprising, then, that paraprofessionals work alongside licensed teachers to give students additional attention and instruction. Some are assigned to an individual student with special needs, while others work in settings where they assist multiple students. Paraprofessional job titles and requirements vary by district.
The Ohio Department of Education issues Educational Aide and Student Monitor permits to applicants who meet the qualifications and have been hired by school systems to serve in their districts. Educational Aides assist with instructional tasks under a teacher’s guidance, while Student Monitors perform non-instructional assistant duties, such as supervising children on the bus, playground or cafeteria.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018 numbers, there are about 1.3 million paraprofessionals or teacher assistants, of which about one-third are special education paraprofessionals serving students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional and physical disabilities.
The instructional paraprofessionals typically work in one of two settings: a regular education classroom or a resource classroom.
A regular education classroom is an inclusive setting where paraprofessionals provide classroom accommodations for students with mild/moderate disabilities. In the self-contained setting of a resource classroom, paraprofessionals assist with instruction as delegated by an intervention specialist teacher to support a small group of students with moderate/intense disabilities that may require a modified curriculum.
Paraprofessionals emerged in public schools in the 1960s when teacher shortages and limited resources required additional personnel to meet student needs. Since then, there has been a growing reliance on them nationwide to support the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms, in addition to self-contained special education settings.
Daniel Murdock Sr., Ph.D., director of pupil services/special education for Avon Lake City Schools, says paraprofessionals are “highly valued unsung heroes.”
Districts typically seek individuals who are passionate about and have experience working with children with disabilities, as well as patience and strong communication and behavior management skills. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) experience may be recommended, and crisis prevention-intervention training often is required. Lifting a student and assisting with personal needs also may be necessary. Other factors are determined by the grade of the student. Preschool, for example, has specifically mandated ratios and hours, as well as unique responsibilities.
Ultimately, it’s the needs of individual students that drive an aide’s role, says Valerie Parker, pupil services coordinator for Beachwood City Schools, which employs 35 paraprofessionals.
“Paraprofessionals are extraordinarily valuable team members, often forming very close relationships with students and families,” says Parker. “All special education assistants in the district are hired and cross-trained to provide support services to children with disabilities. Roles and responsibilities differ based on individual students’ needs and the services are outlined according to the services in the student’s individual education plan (IEP).
“Paraprofessionals collaborate with the teachers, therapists and a variety of other team members,” she says. “They provide support through data collection and plan implementation. Paraprofessionals are providers of information when they are working directly with one student or a small group of students. They provide repeated practice and support for students to generalize skills across settings.”
Schools assign one-on-one paraprofessionals based on individual student needs and an IEP team decision. Factors considered include, but are not limited to, safety, behavioral supports, close monitoring, prompting and medical needs. Students and their aides often develop close partnerships, Parker says.
“Paraprofessionals share in the students’ successes and support the students through their challenges,” she says. “Once those relationships are formed, it’s not unusual for parents to call our office to request the same para the following year.”
Finding a Balance
Joellen Podoll’s daughter Maryn is in her second year of kindergarten in Cuyahoga Heights. She had a one-on-one aide last year for her first year of kindergarten, and this year she is able to bounce back and forth mostly by herself between her kindergarten room and the intervention room, thanks in great part to paraprofessionals.
“They have been a perfect bridge to foster independence for Maryn,” Podoll says.
Podoll admits she was unsure about one-on-one paraprofessionals at first.
“When Maryn turned 5, we had an open discussion about her strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “The decision to do two years of kindergarten was intentional. She was going from half-day inclusive pre-K to full-day kindergarten. Originally, I wanted Maryn to do it on her own; I didn’t want her to have a one-on-one aide. I thought, if one of our goals is truly to help her social skills and independence, I was concerned she’d be reliant on this person.”
(Schools and parents alike do caution against an overreliance on aides promoting prompt dependence or learned helplessness.)
Podoll says they went back and forth, but ultimately agreed to use an aide to support Maryn’s complex medical needs and cognitive and social delays related to 22q11.2 deletion syndrome (also called DiGeorge syndrome), a chromosomal disorder that caused heart defects requiring multiple open-heart surgeries, a cleft palate and feeding issues requiring a g-tube.
Maryn’s first paraprofessional was “motherly and loving,” says Podoll, “a perfect fit for what she needed at the time” to gain comfort in the general education classroom, playground and lunchroom, but she needed to leave the position.
Podoll found that Maryn’s second paraprofessional helped her build on what the first had started.
“I was ready to push independence more to overcome her severe anxiety and selective mutism, and the second paraprofessional did that,” Podoll says. “I told them, ‘Maryn is incredibly smart. She will request help, but she needs to know how to make her own decisions.’ I also coordinated with the school nurse to train the entire intervention room and paras, empowering and trusting them to attend to her g-tube.”
Podoll has seen the benefit of her daughter working with a stable team.
“Maryn has the same teacher and classroom, so she knows the routine,” Podoll says. “The paras have also been the same during her time there, so the consistency has been helpful.”
Her paraprofessional followed Maryn for the first two weeks of school to make sure she could transition from classroom to classroom. Now, she is now more independent, though an aide observes at recess and accompanies her on field trips.
“Maryn knows they are there if she needs them,” she says.
Podoll stresses the importance of communication in working with paraprofessionals.
“I told (Maryn’s support) team, ‘You can get her to do anything if she knows she can dance after,’” she says. “I informed the teacher of Maryn’s friendship with a neighbor, so the team can encourage peer interaction.”
Statewide Development Effort
A study of special education paraprofessionals was done by the Ohio Partnership for Excellence in Paraprofessional Preparation (OPEPP) to identify areas the role can be improved to help better serve students.
OPEPP decided to conduct the 2015 study — “School District Practice and Needs in Deploying and Developing Special Education Paraprofessionals” — “because, though paraprofessionals deal with the most challenging students in schools, qualifications for the role are minimal. Special education paraprofessionals need only a high school diploma and, optionally… a passing grade on a test to ensure employers they possess minimal academic skills…”
According to the study’s authors, Deborah M. Telfer, Aimee Howley and Craig B. Howley, in a 2017 article, “How the Other Half Teaches” in “School Administrator” magazine, paraprofessionals “typically don’t get full time work, are often paid minimum wage, receive little to no professional development and are not included as members of instructional teams.”
The same study suggested ways to upgrade the special education paraprofessional role and functionality to better provide academic assistance to students with disabilities. Recommendations include increased access to high quality training and professional development, and greater engagement in instructional teams.
According to OPEPP, paraprofessionals serve an essential function on instructional teams and the group is building capacity to use them more effectively and improve their learning opportunities and outcomes.
A partnership between the University of Cincinnati’s Systems Development & Improvement (SDI) Center and the ODE, OPEPP began about eight years ago as a federally funded four-year cooperative agreement awarded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs.
With support from the Ohio Department of Education Office for Exceptional Children, the work evolved into a statewide professional development effort to support districts in the use of paraprofessionals to better meet the instructional needs of all children, especially those with disabilities and learning challenges.
To be accepted into the partnership, districts must “agree to conduct an audit using OPEPP’s tool, develop an action plan with support from an OPEPP consultant, participate in a fall and spring academy, and report progress. Funds are used to provide professional development and consultant services, develop products, and provide honoraria to districts,” says Deborah Telfer, Ph.D., director and research associate, University of Cincinnati Systems Development & Improvement Center.
Avon Lake City School District is one of 15 partner districts in the state participating this year and one of only two in Northeast Ohio to be included. (Akron Public Schools participated in the past.) The district employs 46 instructional and non-instructional paraprofessionals, 24 of whom have associate/bachelor degrees — and several of whom are licensed/certified teachers.
Daniel Murdock, Avon Lake City Schools director of pupil services/special education, expects the established OPEPP district partnership to provide clear benefits.
“We intend to take our paraprofessionals, who are already outstanding and regional award winners, to the next level by building the capacity of our district to use paraprofessional educators more effectively, far exceeding the typically-afforded support and training provided by other districts in Ohio,” he says.
Murdock says he and the district’s core team participate in trainings in Columbus, hold monthly building meetings and have a process to identify needs and set goals for training supports and resources. Plans include creating a network for paraprofessional communication, and additional ongoing professional development and mentoring/shadowing opportunities to augment the onboarding process.
How to Build a Better Relationship With Your Child’s Paraprofessional
As moms who have navigated working with paraprofessionals, Joellen Podoll and Nicole Born-Crow share tips for building a relationship with your child’s aide:
Recognize their contributions. Thank-you notes and other tokens of appreciation can go a long way.
Include them without pressure. Rather than sending the request yourself, invite them to friend you on social media so the ball is in their court. If you participate in events or causes (e.g., autism walk) during the school year, ask them to join your team without obligation.
Share information openly and honestly. Understood.com suggests sharing your child’s strengths, interests, what makes them happy, social history, family news, health issues, and hopes and dreams. Keep in mind, many districts prefer teachers handle all communication, so contact your child’s teacher/intervention specialist before the school year starts and throughout the school year, especially after IEP meetings and conferences, to request that information be shared with paraprofessionals for consistency.
Establish a rapport. Volunteer in the classroom, if possible, to observe interactions and greet paraprofessionals at school. Show photos or videos of your child outside of school to offer extra insight into your child’s personality, capabilities and daily life.