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Teaming with Paraprofessionals for Student Success

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   As Special Education teachers, we are charged with ensuring that students with disabilities receive an appropriate education in our schools.  This is not an easy task, nor is it a job that can be done alone.  Successful implementation of our jobs necessitates the ability to work collaboratively with other school personnel, especially with paraprofessionals and classroom assistants.  Paraprofessionals, also known as paraeducators, are a valuable resource for ensuring that students with disabilities can access the grade-level content, particularly in the inclusive classroom (Liston, Nevin, & Malian, 2009).  The research literature has provided us with several evidence-based practices for effective collaboration with paraprofessionals in the Special Education classroom (Table 1).
Table 1: Evidence-Based Practices for Successful Collaboration with Paraprofessionals
Demonstrate respect
Be specific when assigning tasks to paraprofessionals
Clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each person in the classroom
Provide ongoing training to paraprofessionals
Have regularly scheduled meetings
Thanking paraprofessionals for their work
            As in any collaborative relationship, it is critical that interactions with paraprofessionals are based on respect.  While paraprofessionals may have less education and training than do SPED teachers, they are still Education professionals and should be treated as such.  Paraprofessionals view respect from teachers as essential for their own job success; this respect can be identified by teachers who are willing to work as a team with their paraprofessionals and are open to the teaching and learning ideas that others bring (Biggs, Gilson, & Carter, 2016).
            A second strategy is to be specific when asking paraprofessionals to complete a task and have necessary materials organized for them (Biggs et al., 2016).  A 3-ring binder or an expandable folder may be a good resource for storing all materials the paraprofessional will need both in the Special Education classroom and in the inclusion setting (Hogan, Lohmann, & Champion, 2013).
            Paraprofessionals often express frustration because they are unclear of their exact job responsibilities and the responsibilities of the teachers in the classroom; in addition, they feel that those responsibilities may change on a regular basis with little communication (Patterson, 2006).  While it can be time-consuming on the front end, it is important to outline the roles and responsibilities of each adult in the classroom.  In particular, responsibilities in the following areas need to be clearly outlined: (a) lesson planning, (b) instruction, (c) behavior management, and (d) ongoing communication, and (e) student evaluation (Doyle, 2002).  Over 85% of paraprofessionals report having the responsibility for small or large-group instruction on a regular basis, but the majority of paraprofessionals believe that behavior management for all students in the classroom, not just the Special Education students, is their primary responsibility (Patterson, 2006).  If your expectations for the paraprofessionals in your classroom differ from this, you will need to clearly outline what you expect.
            Another critical aspect of teacher-paraprofessional collaboration is ensuring ongoing professional development for paraprofessionals.  The majority of paraprofessionals believe that continued professional development is critical for their job success (Biggs et al., 2016; Patterson, 2006) and need specific training in the areas of (a) behavior management, (b) collaboration, and (c) instructional strategies (Downing, Ryndak, & Clark, 2000).  This can be a challenge as many districts do not have a budget for these trainings and paraprofessionals often do not personally have the funds to attend trainings.  One potential solution is for SPED teachers to provide a mini-training and notes to their paraprofessionals after they attend a professional development experience, thus ensuring that all adults in the classroom have knowledge on the concept (Hogan et al., 2013).  In general, paraprofessionals appreciate trainings and continued professional development opportunities from teachers and other educators in their school buildings (Patterson, 2006).
            Another suggestion is to schedule regular meetings with each paraprofessional in the classroom to discuss current issues and collaboratively plan solutions to problems, as well as share ideas about future lessons (Hogan et al., 2013; Liston et al., 2009).  These meetings are also a good opportunity to provide feedback to paraprofessionals on their job performance.  Many paraprofessionals report only receiving feedback once per year in their annual evaluation from the school principal, but they seek more specific and timely feedback from the teachers in the classrooms where they work (Wasburn-Moses, Chun, & Kaldenberg, 2013).  It is important, though, the both positive and negative feedback be provided.  Paraprofessionals need to hear the good things they are doing in addition to areas for improvement.
            Finally, it is important to ensure that paraprofessionals are thanked for their hard work and effort in the classroom.  A simple “thank you” leads paraprofessionals to feel valued and appreciated for their work, which in turn leads to more job satisfaction for them (Biggs et al., 2016).  Teachers can say “thank you” verbally or through written thank you notes and small gifts, such as a candy bar or soda (Hogan et al., 2013).
            While sharing your classroom with other adults can be challenging, successful collaboration with the paraprofessionals in your classroom will improve student outcomes and make your job more manageable.  It is worth your time and effort to form partnerships with the paraprofessionals in your classroom and your school.

References
Biggs, E.E., Gilson, C.B., & Carter, E.W. (2016). Accomplishing more together: Influences to the quality of professional relationships between special educators and paraprofessionals. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 41(4), 256-272.

Downing, J.E., Ryndak, D.L., & Clark, D. (2000). Paraeducators in inclusive classrooms: Their own perceptions. Remedial and Special Education, 21, 171-181.

Doyle, M. B. (2002). The paraprofessionals guide to inclusive education: Working as a team (2nd Ed.). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Hogan, K.A., Lohmann, M.J., & Champion, C.R. (Spring/Summer, 2013). Effective inclusion strategies for professionals working with students with disabilities. Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals, 27-41.

Liston, A. G., Nevin, A., & Malian, I. (2009). What do paraeducators in inclusive classrooms say about their work? Analysis of national survey data and follow-up interviews in California. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 5(5), Article 1. Retrieved July 1, 2017 from http://escholarship.bc.edu/education/tecplus/vol5/iss5/art1.

Patterson, K.B. (2006). Roles and responsibilities of paraprofessionals: In their own words. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 2(5) Article 1. Retrieved July 4, 2017 from http://escholarship.bc.edu/education/tecplus/vol2/iss5/art1.

Wasburn-Moses, L., Chun, E., & Kaldenberg, E. (2013). Paraprofessional roles in an adolescent reading program: Lessons learned. American Secondary Education, 41(3), 34-49.

Dr. Marla J. Lohmann is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Colorado Christian University.  She can be contacted at MLohmann@ccu.edu.