Virginia Commonwealth University
February 18, 2014
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Kira Austin, Ph.D.

As an educator you have a variety of roles and responsibilities in educating students and interacting with other adults. Every day in special education you work with paraprofessionals, whom you supervise, parents, other teachers, and related services providers. It is unlikely that you received training on how to supervise other adults, most specifically paraprofessionals. Perhaps, you wished someone had pulled you aside and informed you of some of the realities of this responsibility. Today you are in luck.

A new law in Virginia

Virginia recently passed House Bill 325 requiring all paraprofessionals “assigned to work under a teacher who has primary oversight of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)” (VDOE, 2013, p. 1) to receive training regarding behavior management. The legislation requires all aforementioned paraprofessionals to meet the requirements by September 4, 2014. Therefore, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) developed standards for this paraprofessional law. The standards cover: characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), behavior, communication, social skills, instructional programming, environmental structure, sensory, and independence. The complete training standards can be found on the VDOE’s T/TAC at VCU website.

Ten things

There are ten essential areas that supervising teachers must address to make their collaborations with paraprofessionals successful.

Many paraprofessionals across the state have already participated in this training and have reported it to be very helpful in establishing their roles and responsibilities as a paraprofessional and providing them strategies for working with students with ASD. (For more information about the Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence (ACE) paraprofessional training, visit their website).

Back in 2005, the Virginia Department of Education developed a guide to assist teachers and paraprofessionals to develop successful partnerships. However, many teachers may be unaware that this useful guide exists. The need to develop effective teacher and paraprofessional teams has been further emphasized with the passage of this new law, because this training clearly stresses the teacher’s role in supervising and training paraprofessionals. In response to feedback from the statewide paraprofessional training, the VDOE Training and Technical Assistance Centers and ACE collaborated to create training opportunities to assist teachers in developing effective supervision structures within their classrooms. The following “ten things every paraprofessional wishes you knew” emerged as a result of that training development.

1. There are laws and regulations that impact me, your paraprofessional.

There are federal and state laws in place that define the role of paraprofessionals within the classroom. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) (2001), paraprofessionals in Title 1 schools must have at least two years of higher education or have passed a state assessment. Furthermore, NCLB states that paraprofessionals may not provide instruction unless under direct supervision of a teacher. Which may lead you to ask, “What is direct supervision?”

Direct supervision means that the teacher, not the paraprofessional, designs and develops all aspects of instruction, including social skills instruction, behavior interventions, communication systems, and data collection methods. Direct supervision does not mean that you have to be able to see your paraprofessional at all times, but it does mean that you know how the paraprofessional is supporting instruction at all times.

2. I am responsible for many roles and responsibilities as a paraprofessional.

According to the VDOE (2005), a paraprofessional is a “school employee who works under the supervision of a licensed staff member to assist in providing instruction and other services to children, youth, and their families” (p. 3). Just like teachers, paraprofessionals wear many hats throughout the day, might travel back and forth between environments and classrooms, and might support a variety of students with a variety of needs. Paraprofessional roles generally fall into seven categories.

  1. Implementing teacher-planned instruction. Paraprofessionals can help gather resources for instruction, but it is ultimately the teacher’s responsibility to determine if the resources are appropriate for the scope and sequence of instruction. Paraprofessionals can provide input into the development of individualized education programs (IEPs) but should not be writing or developing IEPs or behavior interventions.
  2. Supervising students. Other responsibilities may include a variety of duties such as hall duty, lunch duty, bus duty, and other oversight activities.
  3. Providing behavioral supports. Additional responsibilities may include implementing teacher developed behavior interventions, but can also include data collection, prompting, or providing reinforcement.
  4. Providing communication and social supports. Communication and social instruction are often key goals and objectives in the IEPs of students with disabilities. With training, paraprofessionals are expected to be able to implement communication systems, use assistive technology, and provide supports and reinforcement for social interactions.
  5. Supporting individual student needs. Some students may need individual supports to help with transitions, organization, or accessing the curriculum.
  6. Providing personal care. Personal care might include assisting with hygiene such as bathrooming and learning personal care skills, but also extends to medical care such as administering medical treatments or tube feeding.
  7. Completing clerical/general duties. This role used to be a major portion of the paraprofessional’s duties, but with advances in technology and the increased demand for instructional support, this category has dramatically shrunk over the past fifty years.

3. As your paraprofessional, I need a written job description specific to your classroom.

Even teachers fear the line in their contract stating “other duties as assigned.” Contracts for paraprofessionals are often just as vague. Paraprofessionals need teachers to explicitly state what their role is within your classroom. In Ms. Smith’s classroom down the hall, the paraprofessional may spend the majority of her time prepping materials, but in your classroom she may spend the majority of her time providing small group instruction. A paraprofessional working in a self-contained classroom with more significant self-care needs is going to have vastly different responsibilities from the paraprofessional working in a general education science class. Articulating these classroom specific roles and responsibilities opens a line of communication between you and the paraprofessional. This document can also be particularly helpful for orienting new staff to your classroom environment and can be updated annually or as needed.

4. I need you to structure the environment for me to be a successful paraprofessional.

It is the teacher’s responsibility to determine the structure of the educational environment. Structuring the environment includes furniture placement, organization of materials, accessibility of materials, and classroom flow. This skill comes more naturally to some than others. If organization and room arrangement are not your strong suites, then enlist a fellow teacher or paraprofessional to help you create and maintain order within your classroom. It is also the teacher’s responsibility to determine staffing arrangements and student grouping. You may choose to engage in a whole group discussion with the paraprofessional floating around the classroom to support students as needed. You might find it beneficial to maximize instructional time by having you lead a small group and the paraprofessional lead a small group. Still, at other times it might be most beneficial for a paraprofessional to support an individual student.

5. I need you to support me in my role as a paraprofessional.

The teacher’s role in relation to paraprofessionals generally falls into two categories: supervising and supporting. Paraprofessionals not only need supervision, but also need encouragement, feedback, and structure to perform their jobs well (Giangreco, Edelman, & Broer, 2001). As mentioned previously, it is the teacher’s role to determine and design all aspects of instruction as well as staffing arrangements. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of each of your paraprofessionals and strategically place them in environments where they can be the greatest assets to your program. Also consider personality matches between staff and students, and with other staff. Interpersonal conflicts result in lost instructional time. Therefore, thoughtfully consider where staff members are placed throughout the day.

Comprehensive Autism Planning System (CAPS) – when considering all of the pieces of information that must be communicated to paraprofessionals regarding instruction, it might feel a bit overwhelming. Consider using CAPS to organize your information (Henry & Myles, 2007). CAPS is a wonderful tool that can be used to support any student as he/she moves throughout the day. You would complete one CAPS per student and identify all of the key activities the student completes on a daily or weekly schedule. Within each activity you would articulate the specific goals or skills targeted, particularly IEP goals, any needed structure or modifications, reinforcement, sensory strategies, communication/ social skills, data collection, and your generalization plan. You can find a more detailed description for how to create a CAPS and a blank template here. This method is particularly helpful if you have multiple paraprofessionals or staff members who work with the same student. It also helpful to substitutes and answers all of the ‘wh’ questions. This document can be a powerful communication tool, not just with other staff members, but also families. CAPS articulate to everyone working with the child what interventions are being used and when instructional goals are being addressed. CAPS can also be helpful in identifying gaps in your instruction, serving as a prompt to emphasize particular goals at specific times of the day, and serving as a visual cue to remember to collect data.

6. As a paraprofessional, I need direct supervision from my teacher.

Supervision, as defined by VDOE (2005), is the “sharing of knowledge and skills to build an effective partnership with shared power, clear mutual expectations, and open communication” (p. 7). This definition infers that supervision is relationship-centered and produces ongoing change. Supervision is not evaluative. Supervision doesn’t require you to hover over your paraprofessional throughout the day. Supervision is not a way to dump all those “other duties as assigned.” And finally, supervision is not befriending. Supervision is a positive, yet professional, relationship that provides descriptive and specific feedback regarding your professional knowledge and skills. Poor supervision or leadership can lead to lost instructional time, inclusion is less successful, and paraprofessionals make decisions that are not necessarily evidence-based (Guay, 2003).

7. I need orientation to my specific roles and responsibilities as a paraprofessional within your classroom.

Paraprofessionals will need orientation to the school and procedures multiple times throughout their career. With newly hired paraprofessionals or paraprofessionals new to your particular school, make sure you orient paraprofessionals to the location of supplies and technology within the school and the classroom. Each year you will want to reorient paraprofessionals to your classroom by highlighting any changes to school procedures, classroom routines, and pertinent student information. Provide access to IEPs and teach paraprofessionals how to read and interpret crucial information such as goals and accommodations. Also provide instruction to paraprofessionals regarding ethical aspects of working in special education such as confidentiality.

You will also need to orient paraprofessionals to the classroom routines and procedures such as the daily and weekly schedules (Gerlach, 2010). What are the classroom rules? What are the procedures for handling late assignments? How is attendance taken? What are the policies regarding clean-up, dismissal, or being excused to the bathroom? In order to ensure consistency among staff members, these policies and procedures must be clearly communicated. Teachers may find it helpful to write down these policies and procedures, not only for the benefit of staff, but also for students.
Also, consider how you will orient the students to the paraprofessional. Consider including the paraprofessional’s name on your door and introducing him as a part of the team during the first week of school. If the paraprofessional is going to work closely with one or a few students, have the paraprofessional write a brief statement about their interests and fun facts about themselves to share with students. This introduction may include having the paraprofessional and student interview each other, having the paraprofessional share a brief PowerPoint about themselves, or having the paraprofessional bring in pictures from home.

8. As a paraprofessional, I need on-the-job training to learn new skills.

Although you may not realize it, you are often providing on-the-job training to your paraprofessionals. On-the-job training might be teaching a paraprofessional to use a variety of prompts when working with a student or teaching a paraprofessional about how to use a new computer assisted writing program. On-the-job training can come in a variety of forms from informal to formal. No matter the form, it should address the professional development needs of the paraprofessional. There are several ways you can identify the professional development needs of your staff. First, you may simply ask them what areas in which they need additional training. Second, you might seek out the training standards and select the top three strategies you and your staff need to improve upon. Or third, strategically think about the weaknesses in your classroom and purposefully plan to provide on-the-job training in that area. All of these methods can include professional development goals for you as a teacher. You and your team may decide to all work together to improve upon encouraging students to be as independent as possible and at the end of the week provide feedback to each other regarding how well you achieved the goal.

9. As a paraprofessional, I need direct, regular communication.

Effective communication is a complex skill that involves actively listening, respecting differences, sharing common vocabulary, trusting, and clear expectations. Without effective communication, classrooms have decreased efficiency, decreased quality of work, and diminished classroom affect. Research shows (Mehrabian, 1981) that over ninety percent of communication is nonverbal. Our communication in the classroom is often based on what is not being said. It is the teacher’s role to ensure communication lines are open and at times initiating difficult conversations. You may elect to have a brief weekly meeting. Weekly meetings may be held before or after school or while students are at school. These weekly meetings could cover any important announcements and provide a structured time for brainstorming. If weekly meetings are not feasible, try to meet at least monthly. Consider creating a communication notebook or log where you can write notes back and forth when verbal communication may be difficult.

10. I need you, the teacher, to facilitate conflict resolution within our team.

It is also the teacher’s responsibility to take the lead in conflict resolution process. If and when there is a communication breakdown, consider using a problem-solving process. As with other categories, there are costs when conflict goes unresolved. There is less focus on the students, lost productivity, higher burnout/turnover, damage to your reputation, and lowered motivation (Guay, 2003). You should consider utilizing a structured problem-solving process to facilitate the discussion with other staff members. The problem-solving steps are:

  1. Define the problem and its cause
  2. Identify needs and solutions
  3. Brainstorm ideas together
  4. Select a solution that seems to address the need and meet the goal
  5. Develop a plan of action
  6. Implement the plan
  7. Evaluate the solution and the process used to get there

Although this process may seem awkward at first, with practice this can be a valuable tool. As the teacher it is your responsibility to address conflict in the classroom between you and a staff member or even amongst your paraprofessionals.

Conclusion

Paraprofessionals can be instrumental to the success of your classroom. When provided appropriate training, support, and supervision, paraprofessionals can soar in their roles. Paraprofessionals often receive little recognition for the quantity and quality of the services they provide. The best way to say “thank you” is to continue to support the professional growth of the staff in your classroom. Think of a way you can use this information to develop a CAPS or structure the environment more. Create a goal for yourself to improve your communication skills or utilize the problem solving steps within the next month. Effective supervision and leadership leads to increased communication, higher team morale, more efficiency, better team cohesion, and higher student outcomes (Giangreco, Edelman, Broer, & Doyle, 2001). Every paraprofessional wants you to know that a supported and supervised paraprofessional is a happy and a more effective team member.

References

Gerlach, K. (2010). The paraeducator and teacher team strategies for success-Communication and team building, 4th Edition, Seattle, Washington: Pacific Training Associates.

Giangreco, M. F., Edelman, S. W., & Broer, S. M. (2001). Respect, appreciation, and acknowledgment of paraprofessionals who support students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 67(4), 485-98.

Giangreco, M. F., Edelman, S. W., Broer, S. M., & Doyle, M. B. (2001). Paraprofessional support of students with disabilities: Literature from the past decade. Exceptional Children, 68(1), 45-63.

Guay, D. (2003). Paraeducators in the art classrooms: Issues of culture, leadership, and special needs. Studies in Art Education, 45(1), 20-39.

Henry, S. A., & Myles, B. S. (2007). Integrating best practices throughout the student’s daily schedule: The Comprehensive Planning System (CAPS) for individuals with Asperger Syndrome, autism, and related disabilities. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Public Law 107-334. U.S. Code. 20 2001. § 6301 et seq. (2001).

Virginia Board of Education. (2013). Final review of training standards for paraprofessionals assigned to work with a teacher who has primary oversight of students with autism spectrum disorders. Retrieved from http://www.doe.virginia.gov/administrators/superintendents_memos/2013/045-13.shtml

Virginia Department of Education (2005). The Virginia paraprofessional guide to supervision and collaboration with paraprofessionals: A partnership. Retrieved from: http://www.doe.virginia.gov/teaching/regulations/paraprofessional_guide.pdf

 

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