The Inclusive Environment: Paraeducators and Teachers Working Together

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The Inclusive Environment:

Paraeducators and Teachers Working Together

Kristin L.A. Ruedel

Christina M. Diamond

Aashti Zaidi

Allison Aboud

Table of Contents

Research Highlights

Roles and Responsibilities of Paraeducators

Providing Direct and Small Group Instruction

Adapting and Modifying Curriculum

Monitoring Student Behavior

Communicating with Parents and Families

Personal Care

Performing Clerical Duties

Training Programs for Paraeducators

The Law

Training Materials

Challenge to Developing Training Materials

Supervision and Evaluation of Paraeducators

Role of the Educator


Best Practices

Welcoming and Creating Space

Forming a Team

Defining Roles and Responsibilities
Setting Expectations
Communication and Problem Solving

Working Together as a Team

Regular Meetings

Paraeducator Proximity to the Student

Encouraging Positive Behavior

Supporting Positive Behaviors

Ongoing Training

Case Study

State and District Status

Roles and Responsibilities of Paraprofessionals

Paraeducator Training and Certification

Supervision of Paraeducators

State Paraeducator and Certification Regulations


Research Highlights

Paraeducator employment in the United States has been common since the 1950’s when paraeducators were hired to assist teachers in clerical and administrative tasks in a post-war teacher shortage (Drecktrah, 2000; French & Pickett, 1997; Pickett & Gerlach, 1997). Over the years, the hiring of paraeducators has flourished as a cost-effective means to provide teachers with valuable support and assistance, to extend educational programs such as Title I, bilingual and multi-cultural programs, and to support individualized educational programs (IEPs) for children with disabilities.

As inclusive education becomes increasingly prevalent, school districts are relying more heavily on the assistance of paraeducators in the field of special education. There are approximately 250,000 to 280,000 paraeducators working in special education and nearly 50 percent of all paraeducators employed by school districts are providing instruction and related services to children and youth with disabilities (French and Pickett, 1999). Paraeducators (also commonly referred to as paraprofessionals, instructional aides, and classroom aides) are local, hardworking people who regularly go “the extra mile” in their efforts to support student education. Yet, their status in the school hierarchy is typically low and their opportunities to improve job-related knowledge and skills can be limited. Still, paraeducators labor to perform many difficult tasks required to provide support for children whose educational, emotional, and physical needs demand high levels of skills and knowledge. The prevalence of paraeducators working in inclusive settings has become so great that some consider paraeducators to be “vital to the inclusion process” (French & Pickett, 1997) and “the key support mechanism to operationalize inclusive education efforts” (Giangreco, 2001). However, despite a growing reliance on paraeducators, there remains a lack of clarity and consistency in their job description, few training opportunities, and minimal supervision.

The purpose of this section of the product is to provide an overview of the research literature on paraeducators. The section is divided into three main topics: 1) Roles & Responsibilities of Paraeducators, 2) Training Programs for Paraeducators, and 3) Supervision and Evaluation of Paraeducators. Key points related to each topic will be discussed.

Roles And Responsibilities Of Paraeducators

Over the years, the roles and responsibilities of paraeducators have become more complex and have expanded to include numerous aspects of the educational process for students with disabilities (Drecktrah, 2000; French & Pickett, 1997; Pickett, 1999). In practice, the duties of a paraeducator may include, but are not limited to:

  • providing direct and small group instruction

  • adapting and modifying curriculum

  • monitoring student behavior

  • communicating with parents and families (many believe this should not reflect the role of paraeducators)

  • performing clerical duties, and

  • providing personal care (Drecktrah, 2000; French, 1998; French, 2001; Gerlach, 2001; Hilton and Gerlach, 1997; Jones and Bender, 1993).

Ideally, these duties will be conducted by the paraeducator under the guidance of the classroom teacher. The classroom teacher is responsible for providing both assistance and support to the paraeducator in all tasks completed. These responsibilities require knowledge about effective practice and instructional skills. Due to local autonomy, there remain many definitions of paraeducator roles and responsibilities; however, there is some consistency amongst states, as well as within the literature, regarding what duties are considered inappropriate for paraeducators to perform. For instance, it has been argued that modification of curriculum and communicating with parents and families is the responsibility of the classroom teacher. Yet, despite these changes in the duties and responsibilities of paraeducators, few states and school districts have redefined the formal job descriptions for paraeducators within the past twenty years (Pickett, 1995). Many school districts continue to hire paraeducators based on inadequate and irrelevant job descriptions that do not reflect the current responsibilities, skills, and content knowledge needed by paraeducators to perform effectively. As a result, paraeducators enter the classroom unaware of the specific, expected skills and tasks associated with their job, which leads to confusion and inconsistency in distinguishing between the roles of the teacher and the paraeducators, and ineffective support for classroom teachers and students. According to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, newly hired paraeducators are required to “have knowledge of, and the ability to assist in instructing, reading, writing, and mathematics…[Sec. 1119.c.1.C.(i)]” and existing paraeducators have up to four years to reach this proficiency. Additionally, paraeducators should refrain from providing instruction to students when the teacher cannot supervise. Similarly, IDEA ’97 requires paraeducators to be “appropriately trained and supervised” [34 CFR Section 300.136(f)].

To address the need for developing a formal definition, IDEA Partnerships organized a work group. This group developed the following definition:

Paraprofessionals and assistants are appropriately utilized to deliver early intervention and special education and related services under IDEA, which fosters the provision of high quality services and maximization of child/learner outcomes. Minimal gaps exist between administrative policies and actual practices, and decisions to assign paraprofessionals and assistants are primarily based on child/learner need and not exclusively on costs (ASPIIRE Paraprofessional Work Group, 2001).

The paraprofessional is an employee who, following appropriate training, performs tasks as prescribed and supervised by the licensed/certified professional/practitioner. Paraprofessionals perform specific duties as directed by the licensed/certified professional/practitioner. The licensed/certified professional/practitioner maintains responsibility for assessing the learner and family needs, and for planning, evaluating, and modifying programs (ASPIIRE Paraprofessional Work Group, 2001).
Today, there is no universally accepted definition for the term paraeducator. Rather, it varies from state to state, school district to school district, and even teacher to teacher (Pickett, 1995; Pickett, Vasa, Steckelber, 1993). A description of each of these duties and the appropriateness of the task follows.

Providing Direct and Small Group Instruction.

Education researchers agree that paraeducators have assumed part of the role and responsibility for the academic instruction of students with disabilities. In fact, providing academic instruction is, most often, the primary responsibility of the paraeducator. Over half of the paraeducators working in special education programs are providing daily academic instruction as their primary area of support (Downing, Ryndak, & Clark, 2000; Giangreco, Broer, & Edelman, 2000; Marks, Schrader, & Levine, 1999; Riggs & Mueller, 2001). Paraeducators today are not only providing direct one-on-one instruction for the student with a disability but also, are conducting small group instruction with both non-disabled and disabled students. Paraeducators have often reported providing small group instruction to both students with and without disabilities (Downing, Ryndak, & Clark, 2000; Freschi, 1999; Wadsworth & Knight, 1996). Whether the paraeducator is providing direct instruction or conducting small group instruction, it is essential that all academic instruction provided by the paraeducator is conducted under the direction and supervision of the classroom teacher. Both educators and paraeducators in the study by Minondo, Meyer, and Xin (2001) indicated that the most appropriate role for the paraeducator was to provide one-on-one instructional support to the student with a disability.

Adapting and Modifying Curriculum.

Modifying and adapting the curricula has also become a part of the academic instructional role of the paraeducator. Paraeducators, classroom teachers and parents interviewed in the studies by Marks et al. (1999), Downing et al. (2000), French and Chopra (1999), and Giangreco et al. (1997) indicated paraeducators are often making modifications and adaptations to curricular materials and classroom activities. The data collected by Giangreco et al. consistently indicated that paraeducators were responsible for modifying and adapting the curriculum in addition to implementing the day-to-day instructional decisions. Not only are paraeducators required to modify and adapt curriculum and activities, those interviewed in the studies by Marks et al. (1999), Giangreco et al. (1997), and French and Chopra (1999) indicated that the majority of their modifications and adaptations occurs “on-the-spot”. Very few paraeducators have the opportunity to preview materials before they are presented to the class and collaborate with the classroom teacher to modify and adapt the activities. However, paraeducators, teachers and parents all agree that the teacher and the paraeducator should be working together on modifying and adapting curricula.

Monitoring Student Behavior.

Often, paraeducators monitor student behavior and provide behavioral support within the classroom. The task of monitoring student behavior includes both students with and without disabilities. Paraeducators in the Downing et al. (2000) study described this duty as ensuring that all students in the classroom were on task by walking throughout the room to assist students when necessary. Freschi (1999) is supportive of the paraeducator working with all students in the classroom to encourage positive class-wide behavior, stating that it is important for the paraeducator to spend time with all students in the classroom in order to foster the development of natural supports for the student with a disability. Monitoring students’ behavior is a continual task of both the classroom teacher and the paraeducator and is primarily accomplished through assuring that students are on task. Paraeducators have reported using the following strategies to keep students on task:

  1. switching between preferred and non-preferred activities,

  2. providing prompts, encouraging students without disabilities to work with the student with a disability (peer teaming), and

  3. using positive behavioral support strategies such as using positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior, demonstrating appropriate behaviors, and/or redirecting inappropriate behavior.

Communicating with Parents and Families.

The majority of paraeducators hired by local school districts is from the students’ community and often act as a liaison between the family, community, and school. The duties associated with the role of liaison include paraeducator interaction and communication with the parent, family, community, special education teacher, and related service providers. As part of this role the paraeducator participates on the team of individuals that provides services to the student with a disability. According to Wadsworth and Knight (1996), paraeducator participation in team meetings is an essential component to the success of inclusive education. The authors suggest weekly meetings for paraeducators, related service providers, and educators to share expertise and to communicate about academic and behavioral planning for students with disabilities. However, it is important to acknowledge that it is inappropriate for paraeducators to be the only person communicating with parents. This role is primarily the responsibility of the classroom teacher.

Personal care.

The literature reviewed only briefly mention the personal care role of the paraeducator however, the majority of the paraeducators studies did report that they provide some support in personal care throughout the school day (Downing et al. 2000). According to Palladino et al. (1999), Downing et al. (2000) and Giangreco et al. (1997), personal care duties include accompanying and assisting students who do not have the ability to move independently around the classroom and to activities outside the classroom, assisting in the use of the restroom, and assisting in eating.

Performing Clerical Duties.

Although paraeducators were initially hired by school systems to conduct clerical and administrative tasks for teachers (Drecktrah, 2000; French & Pickett, 1997; Pickett & Gerlach, 1997), this is the least discussed role in the literature reviewed. These duties primarily consist of copying materials for teachers but, on occasion, paraeducators are also asked to assist in filing, grading, cleaning, checking homework folders or mentoring new paraeducators.

The increasing diversity of classrooms has lead to a more demanding role for paraeducators. These roles require paraeducators to possess appropriate skills and training to be effective. While it is clear that paraeducators are to be supervised in their classroom endeavors, their role and responsibilities are not clearly and consistently defined across states and school districts. However, groups such as the ASPIIRE Paraprofessional Work Group, are making effort to standardize the definition of roles and responsibilities, which will improve the education and training of paraeducators and ultimately, the services provided to all students.

Training Programs for Paraeducators

There is a scarcity of appropriate pre-service and in-service training programs for paraeducators. The role of the paraeducator is complex and potentially has a direct impact on student learning. However staff development has often not been required, nor provided, for paraeducators when they begin employment. According to a survey of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), 70 to 90 percent of newly hired paraeducators nationwide have not received any training that relates to providing instruction and direct services to diverse students (Pickett, 1995). Not only are most paraeducators being hired without pre-service training, but studies also indicate that the majority of paraeducators receive little or no formal, in-service training when they begin working in their school district (Downing, Ryndak, & Clark, 2000; French & Chopra, 1999; Riggs & Mueller, 2001). The scarcity of appropriate training opportunities is a concern among key stakeholders in education. Ultimately, the school district should be responsible for continuous training to ensure the paraeducator is familiar with each student’s individual needs to support inclusive education (French & Chopra, 1999). Organizations supporting the use of paraeducators, educators, administrators, and parents agree that both pre- and in-service training programs for paraeducators must be provided in order for paraeducators to effectively support teachers in meeting the needs of diverse students in the classroom.

The Law.

In the 1997 Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the requirements set forth by IDEA assert the importance of properly trained paraprofessionals. Again, these standards were addressed in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. According to IDEA 1997, “a state may allow paraprofessionals and assistants who are appropriately trained and supervised, in accordance with state law, regulations, or written policy, in meeting the requirements of this part to be used to assist in the provision of special education and related services to children with disabilities under Part B of the Act.” (IDEA, § 612(a)(15)(B)(iii), 1997). States have begun to respond to this statute by developing specific certification guidelines and training modules for paraeducators. Thirty-one states have established minimal standards for paraeducators’ education and experience and thirteen states have established certification or credentialing systems (“Roles for Education the Paraprofessional in Effective Schools”, n.d.). The National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals in Education and Related Services has also identified core competencies to be addressed in pre- and in-service training programs. These core competencies were developed through expert consultation and analysis and observation of paraeducators who work in inclusive classrooms, early childhood home- and center-based programs, and vocational and transition services (Safarik, 1997). Recently, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, sought to further increase the standards for paraprofessionals. This act requires paraprofessionals to have:

(A) completed a minimum of two years at an institution of higher education; (B)obtained an associate’s (or higher) degree; or (C)met a rigorous standard of quality and can demonstrate, through a formal State or local academic assessment—

(i) knowledge of, and the ability to assist in instructing, reading, writing, and mathematics; or (ii) knowledge or, and the ability to assist in instructing, reading readiness, writing readiness, and mathematics readiness, as appropriate.

It explicitly defined the standards expected in the field, including job descriptions. According to this law, paraprofessionals may engage in activities such as one-on-one tutoring, classroom management, and assistance in the school computer lab and media center. Additionally, the law also incorporates goals to improve training opportunities for all school-related personnel.

Training Materials.

Training materials have been developed by paraeducator professional organizations, states, researchers, and educational developers and range from pre-service programs and in-service workshops to lists of “best practice” strategies and worksheets to be completed either by the paraeducator or the classroom teacher (e.g. Salzberg, Morgan, Gassman, Merril, and Pickett, n.d.; Kaff and Dyck, n.d.; Lasater, Johnson, Fitzgerald, 2000). However, training programs and materials still tend to provide only basic skills and rarely recognize the distinctions in the training needs of paraeducators working in different settings (Pickett, 1995). For example, the duties and expectations of paraeducators in urban schools versus rural schools or those working with a self-contained special education class versus an inclusive classroom can greatly differ; therefore, training needs vary. While there is a growing recognition among all key stakeholders that paraeducators require more staff development and there are more training opportunities available to paraeducators today than ever before, most current training programs remain locally originated and implemented. This can result in wide variation among training programs in content and skills taught from school district to school district and state to state, resulting in uneven training programs and outcomes.

There is a growing consensus in the field that appropriate training opportunities must be developed and provided to paraeducators. A call has been made for comprehensive training programs that address the wide range of skills and content knowledge needed by paraeducators today. Topics to include in training programs could include;

  • roles, responsibilities and ethical issues,

  • knowledge of legislative mandates,

  • an overview of an inclusive school environment and its goals,
  • strategies to increase communication and teamwork,

  • behavioral management skills,

  • instructional strategies,

  • positioning and medical management, and

  • knowledge of the individual needs of students they will be serving.

In addition to a formal, initial training, the authors recommend follow-up training through both in-service workshops and on-the-job training.

Challenge to Developing Training Programs.

A key challenge to developing appropriate training programs for paraeducators is defining the specific skills that must be included considering the problems of poorly defined roles and responsibilities and antiquated job descriptions (CEC, 1998; French, 2001; French and Pickett, 1997; Safarik, 1997). States and school districts need to continue working on updating and clarifying the job descriptions of paraeducators. This will then facilitate improved development of training programs. Paraeducators indicated that the two primary areas in which most training is needed is in managing challenging behaviors of students and adapting and modifying curricular materials (Riggs & Mueller, 2001). Participants in the Downing et al. (2000) study echoed these needs, while expressing an additional interest in learning more about disability categories, the individual needs of their students, and strategies for effective teaching.

Supervision and Evaluation of Paraeducators

Introducing a paraeducator into the classroom leads to a shift in the role of the educator from instructor to supervisor (French, 1999). Practitioners and the research community have expressed concern that educators have not been trained to supervise and therefore are not providing the appropriate direction and supervision for the paraeducator. The educator’s role while working with a paraeducator could include evaluating the effectiveness of the paraeducator’s teaching methods and planning, scheduling, and directing the role of the paraeducator (Pickett, 1995). The role of supervising the paraeducator often is assumed by 1) the classroom teacher, 2) a special education teacher and/or 3) an administrator, such as the principal or special education director. Thus, there is a growing awareness of the need to provide training to teachers who are responsible for supervising paraeducators (Salzberg & Morgan, 1995). Because there is no consistency in who is responsible for providing supervision and evaluations, paraeducators are often confused and unclear about the chain of command.

Role of the Educator.

“What should the classroom teacher’s role be?” was a question raised by one of the participants in the Giangreco et al. (1997) study, a feeling shared by many educators who are currently educating a student with a disability in their classroom. Both general education and special education teachers working in inclusive settings today have expressed concern over their changing role (French, 1999; French and Pickett, 1997) and are struggling to delineate the responsibilities of the paraeducator, the special education teacher, the general education teacher, and related service providers.

One role that educators are fulfilling is supervisor and on-the-job trainer of paraeducators in their classrooms. Due to the limited formal pre-service training opportunities provided to paraeducators and the complexity of their role, general and special educators must often provide continual on-the-job training. Educators train paraeducators in various teaching strategies and techniques, classroom and student behavioral management strategies, and using assistive technology (Wadsworth and Knight, 1996). According to Freschi (1999), educators and paraeducators should work in tandem to support the student with a disability. Educators need to be trained in how to work with the student with a disability and the paraeducator should be viewed only as temporary support. The teacher should maintain primary responsibility for working with the student with a disability and should develop the skills to address behavior in addition to instruction (Freschi, 1999).

Wadsworth and Knight (1996) highlight the unique role of the special education teacher who has the primary role and responsibility for the implementation of all IEPs for the students in their school. Here, it is essential for the special education teacher to build a relationship with the paraeducator and to provide supervision to ensure the student is progressing and meeting IEP goals and objectives (Giangreco et al., 1999). However, due to large caseloads, special education teachers have limited time to provide on-the-job training (Giangreco et al., 2001) and on-going supervision.

Another key role of educators working with paraeducators in inclusive classrooms is the role of developing and maintaining a collaborative relationship among stakeholders. Collaboration is a key component to successfully meeting the needs of the students with disabilities in an inclusive setting (Downing et al, 2000; Giangreco et al., 1999; Marks et al, 1999). Wadsworth (1996) indicates that in order for inclusion to succeed, all team members must support the concept of team communication and planning. During meetings, paraeducators, special education and general education teachers have an opportunity to discuss the various roles and responsibilities of each team member and to explicitly clarify expectations. The authors stress the importance of paraeducator input and the role of the educator in continuously encouraging and fostering their participation. Paraeducators today often serve as the primary person providing instruction and modifying and adapting the curriculum for the student with a disability and, therefore, are likely have the most information about a specific student and how to meet his or her individual needs (Giangreco et al., 1999). Simultaneously, educators have expertise in curricular and educational design, modifications and adaptations, and should communicate with the paraeducator about how to be most effective in working with the students in the classroom.

Paraeducators interviewed in the Downing et al. study reported positive and effective collaboration among themselves, the general education and special education teacher. They reported working together to make decisions about modifications and adaptations to materials, behavioral issues and teaching strategies that would address the needs of the student with a disability.


The importance of clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of paraeducators working with students with disabilities in inclusive settings is an important issue that still needs to be addressed. Most of the articles that discussed and analyzed the roles and responsibilities of paraeducators focused primarily on the instructional role, which apparently consumes the majority of paraeducators’ time during the school day. This role includes teaching in one-on-one and small group settings and adapting and modifying curriculum to meet the needs of the students. Within the discussion on instruction, there is a discrepancy between actual responsibilities and what paraeducators and educators perceive as an appropriate role for the paraeducator. Although participants across the studies believed that adaptations and modifications of curriculum should be the responsibility of the teacher, the majority of the paraeducators, interviewed and observed, assumed this role.

Although in many cases the roles and responsibilities of paraeducators remain unclear and undefined, training programs, both pre-service certification programs and in-service workshops, are being developed across the country. Until the job descriptions and responsibilities for paraeducators are explicitly defined, however, we cannot expect to develop training programs that appropriately target the specific skill areas and enhance the effectiveness of paraeducators. Further, in service workshops for educators to learn about their new roles of supervision are needed.

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