As back-to-school commences this fall, in addition to the students and teachers returning to school buildings, somewhere between 160,000 and 250,000–or more–folks will be joining those students and teachers. Known by a variety of titles, from paraeducator and paraprofessional, to aid, to assistant teacher, these educational support personnel have the least training of people working in schools. Add the fact that most paraprofessionals are assigned to work with students with the most significant needs, and one can see why these positions are difficult to fill and have generally high turnover rates.
There are a couple of things that can be done to better assist paraprofessionals in their roles within schools. The first is to ensure more effective communication between teachers and the paraprofessionals who work with the same students and support them in the classrooms.
Building administrators should make sure that teachers provide clear and direct guidance for paraprofessionals at the beginning of each term. Often, paraprofessionals might be new to education and might not have much time to prepare for their assignment. One effective method is to have teachers who will work with paraprofessionals complete a short checklist explaining the items they want the paraprofessional to focus on and what they would prefer is left to the teacher. Building administrators then need to facilitate conversations between the teacher and paraprofessionals so expectations are clear. Such a practice can help eliminate problems before they arise by ensuing clear expectations are set for each paraprofessional.
Once expectations are set, paraprofessionals will often need coaching to improve their practice as any other educator does. Often, this coaching of adults it not included within the scope of pre-service training for teachers. Teacher-prep institutions need to do a better job of viewing the classroom as a more fluid environment than it previously was and therefore include the need to address working with paraprofessionals and co-teachers within teacher prep programs. One good resource for teachers new to working with paraprofessionals in their classroom is Teachers Coaching Paraprofessionals by the Ohio Partnership for Excellence in Paraprofessional Preparation.
Once expectations and good communications have been established between the paraprofessional and the teacher, there is the need to ensure that paraprofessionals have the training necessary to be successful. Due to the often-last-minute nature of paraprofessional hiring, they often do not get all the necessary training when onboarded. Their training often focuses on compliance issues and does not ensure they have a complete toolbox to work with the students to whom they are assigned.
A recent study at Winona State University found that among paraprofessionals who worked with students identified as on the autism spectrum, only 43 percent felt they were properly trained to work with those students. Thirty-six percent of surveyed paraprofessionals responded that they were not prepared with the rest, responding that they were unsure. Those same paraprofessionals identified that they are in need of more training to support working with students in need of conflict resolution, anger management, and appropriate communication skills. Paraprofessionals seem to need the most support in working with students on anger management and helping understand the perceptions of others. Experienced paraprofessionals identified that they spend a lot of time working with students on understanding and reacting appropriately to social cues. Therefore, new paraprofessionals should be given training on helping students utilize social cues.
Paraprofessionals are an essential element within today’s schools. They cannot be successful without strong communication with both building administrators and their classroom teachers. Teachers and administrators need to ensure that expectations are clear, and paraprofessionals know where to go when they need help. Consider formalizing an expectations form for each teacher to complete, so paraprofessionals will have a clear understanding of expectations within each classroom.
Though the recent study showed the need for paraprofessionals who work with students on the autism spectrum see the need for more training in conflict resolution and anger management, each building and district need to develop training to meet the specific needs of their paraprofessionals. Paraprofessional training should be formalized and ongoing throughout the year. With the current teacher shortage, effective paraprofessionals are excellent way to expand the reach of effective teachers. Following the recommendations above will improve the effectiveness of the paraprofessionals and the teachers they work with.
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