Paraprofessional - Classroom library with students
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What is a paraprofessional? The para basics

A special education paraprofessional, sometimes called a teacher’s aide, assistant or para, can be a real right-hand man (or woman) to the classroom teacher.

Generally speaking, the para provides support to the teacher and especially to students with disabilities in the classroom who need modified instruction or assistance, as keeping with their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Many a student and teacher rely on the skills and presence of paraprofessionals at their side.

What is a paraprofessional?

A paraprofessional is an employee of an LEA (Local Education Agency, such as a school district) who provides instructional support.

Paraprofessionals must be able to demonstrate knowledge of, and the ability to assist in instructing, reading, writing, and mathematics, or reading readiness, writing readiness, and mathematics readiness.

For this reason, a paraprofessional who chooses to meet the qualification requirements by completing two years of study in an institution of higher education and has coursework to complete in order to do so, is encouraged to take courses that will enable the paraprofessional to demonstrate knowledge of these subject areas.

Paraprofessionals who provide instructional support includes those who:

  1. provide one-on-one tutoring if such tutoring is scheduled at a time when a student would not otherwise receive instruction from a teacher,
  2. assist with classroom management, such as by organizing instructional materials,
  3. provide instructional assistance in a computer laboratory,
  4. conduct parental involvement activities,
  5. provide instructional support in a library or media center,
  6. act as a translator, or
  7. provide instructional support services under the direct supervision of a highly-qualified teacher.

Because paraprofessionals provide instructional support, they should not be providing planned direct instruction, or introducing to students new skills, concepts, or academic content.

Typical duties of a paraprofessional

While duties of paraprofessionals vary from state to state, typical tasks for paras include:

  • modifying or adapting instruction for students with disabilities;
  • working with individual students or small groups of students to reinforce learning of material or skills introduced by the teacher;
  • providing one-on-one assistance to students with disabilities;
  • guiding independent study, enrichment work, and remedial work with students as set up and assigned by the teacher;
  • assisting students with self-care tasks (as necessary); and
  • record-keeping.

“My kids continued to grow and develop as learners in a happy and caring classroom community. I cannot however, take credit for all their success. I had a para educator who was in my classroom most of the day, specifically for three of my special needs kiddos.” – From A First Year Teacher Finds a Hero in Her Paraeducator

Defining “paraprofessional”

The former No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) provided the federal definition of the term “paraprofessional”? According to NCLB, all paraprofessionals shall have:

  • completed at least 2 years of study at an institution of higher education;
  • obtained an associate’s (or higher) degree;
  • met a rigorous standard of quality and can demonstrate (through a formal State or local academic assessment)  knowledge of, and the ability to assist in instructing, reading, writing, and mathematics, or (as appropriate) knowledge of, and the ability to assist in instructing, reading readiness, writing readiness, and mathematics readiness.

Also part of NCLB’s requirements for paraprofessionals are these restrictions:

  • A paraprofessional “may not provide any instruction to a student unless the paraprofessional is working under the direct supervision of a teacher… “
  • A paraprofessional may not provide one-on-one tutoring when the teacher is available.
A para is not an aide

The fact that NCLB defines the term paraprofessional has several interesting implications, Suzanne Whitney of Wrightslaw notes in her article Doing Your Homework: Why You Should Request a Paraprofessional, Not an “Aide.” Specifically, she suggests, it’s time to stop using the term “aide”– and to stop writing the word “aides” into IEPs.

She goes on to say that the NCLB provides the federal definition of “paraprofessional,” while there is no federal legal definition for an “aide.” When you use the term “paraprofessional” in the IEP, you refer to a federal legal definition and a quality standard. This is not the case when you use the term “aide.”

You may also consider writing the paraprofessional into the IEP as a support for the teacher, not your child. Why? Because of the restrictions NCLB puts on paras, as mentioned above, and because you want educational responsibility assigned to the teacher, not the paraprofessional. The paraprofessional is a tool used by the teacher to accomplish her responsibility to deliver an education to her students.

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