While many of us associate paraeducators with special education, or perhaps think of a 1:1 aide as the only kind of paraeducator our child might benefit from, there are many different types of paraprofessionals working in schools. Paraprofessionals, also known as paraeducators, play an important role in schools—especially for kids with disabilities—providing all kinds of support from instructional to behavioral to 1:1 support.
So what is a paraeducator and how can they support our kiddos in school? To learn more about paraeducators and their evolving roles, we spoke to Renay Marquez, co-founder of ParaEducate, as well as Lake Forest, Illinois, school district’s Dr. Kate Cavanaugh, Cherokee Elementary School Principal, and JoAnn Ford-Halvorsen, Director of Student Services.
- The role of paraeducators/paraprofessionals will vary depending on student need within the classroom—some may work with students in a special education classroom while others may offer support in general education or a specific grade level.
- Paraeducators may provide one-on-one tutoring, assist with classroom management, provide instructional assistance, act as a translator, help with accommodations for learning, and assist with adaptive devices or health needs.
- After an assessment, if the IEP team determines that the student needs a paraeducator or 1:1 aide, they can write that into the IEP and further define what kind of paraeducator the student needs, the tasks or responsibilities that the paraeducator/aide will support, and a plan for working toward independence (if appropriate).
- An aide can help a student access a less restrictive environment by creating inclusive classrooms and supporting their needs as they interact with their peers.
- Many districts have rules against paraeducators communicating with parents because they are not trained to do so. Communicating through a case manager is best.
Paraprofessional? Paraeducator? What's the difference?
A paraprofessional is an umbrella term that refers to a trained aide, specializing in a particular subject, who assists a professional like a doctor or teacher, but doesn’t have a license to practice in that profession themselves. These include paraeducators, paralegals, paramedics, and so on. In a school setting, you may hear the role referenced as paraprofessional, paraeducator, special education paraprofessional, teaching assistant, teacher’s aide, classroom assistant, inclusive aide, inclusive instructor, instructional assistant, ed tech, and more. They may also be called a parapro or para. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) uses the term paraprofessional.
Renay Marquez, co-founder of ParaEducate, tells us that names and roles may vary from district to district, so it’s best to check with your own. In some districts, paraeducators only work with students with specific disabilities. In others, paraprofessionals might only work with students with behavioral needs while paraeducators only work with students who have educational needs due to a disability.
The California Department of Education defines a paraeducator as an individual “who is employed in a preschool, elementary school, or secondary school under the supervision of a certified or licensed teacher, including individuals employed in language instruction educational programs, special education, and migrant education.”
Paraeducators juggle many roles in schools and are often the backbone of a classroom, supporting teachers during instruction and supporting the learning and well-being of students. Studies show that the number of paraprofessionals in schools has more than doubled nationally over the past three decades, partly due to teacher and staff shortages. (In 2018, there were about 825,000 paraeducators, compared to 3.2 million teachers.)
What can paraeducators do (and not do)?
The term paraeducator encompasses several roles in education, which may vary by local education agencies, schools, districts, and programs for students with disabilities. The roles might also change depending on teacher perception or understanding of the role as well as the unique needs of the students they support. ESSA lists some common ways a paraeducator may interact with your child, including:
- providing one-on-one tutoring (outside of classroom instruction from a teacher)
- assisting with classroom management, such as organizing learning materials
- providing instructional assistance in a computer lab, library, or media center
- conducting parental involvement activities
- acting as a translator
- providing instructional support services under the direct supervision of an appropriately certified teacher
- This can include monitoring student progress and checking for understanding of teacher instruction, reviewing lessons with them in the classroom, helping with accommodations for learning, and assisting with adaptive devices or health needs.
Paraeducators are also “a second set of eyes,” as Marquez tells us, and usually know the ins and outs of the classroom. For example, she tells us that a paraeducator would never leave students they’re working with alone in a woodshop class not because they don’t trust the teacher but because there are so many things that could go wrong!
It’s also important to note what paraeducators may not do if funded under Title I or IDEA. While this may vary from state to state, under ESSA, paraeducators who are funded through Title I or IDEA may not:
- make decisions about curriculum or instruction
- introduce new concepts, skills, or content to students
- serve as a substitute teacher when a teacher is absent
- provide clerical support services in the school office.
For more information on what your state requirements are for paraprofessionals, check out this resource from the PAR²A Center.
What are the different types of paraeducators?
Paraeducators support students in many different ways. Their role will vary depending on student need within the classroom—some may work with students in a special education classroom while others may offer support in general education, or a specific grade level. If a paraeducator is written into the IEP, they should be qualified to perform the particular supports needed to implement the IEP.
Any required qualifications (for example, “trained in behavior modification,” “knowledgeable in algebra,” “fluent in American sign language”) should be written into the IEP, as well as the frequency, location, duration, and type of services the paraprofessional will provide.
Here are some of the different types of paraeducators you may find at your child’s school:
The purpose of an instructional aide is to support a student’s ability to attend and follow along with academic instruction. This can be a more general role, as a teaching assistant, and can take various forms to reinforce learning, including supporting in a general resource or inclusive classroom, or supporting classroom learning such as leading breakout groups with students who aren’t quite ready to move on to learning the next concept.
An instructional aide does not have a teaching credential but can work to supplement and support the teacher’s instruction.
A 1:1 aide provides a student with 1:1 support (not supporting any other student) during times that are designated on the IEP. If the aide is assigned for the full school day, they are entitled to breaks; a separate individual is required to step in at that time, and they, too, should be an aide (it cannot be the teacher, since they are supporting the entire class). For more information on 1:1 support, check out our article The 411 on 1:1 aides.
Behavioral aides specialize in supporting behavior; they also have additional training in the area of special education. A behavioral aide may provide coping strategies such as breathing techniques, emotional regulation, and positive behavioral supports. If a student has a behavioral intervention plan (BIP), a behavioral aide may help implement the plan (working under a BCBA or psychologist) by monitoring student behavior, taking notes, and providing insight into how the child can be better supported. The aide should be trained in the BIP, as should all adults in the classroom. Some (not all) districts provide actual RBTs (Registered Behavior Technicians), but behavior aides are not legally required to be RBTs.
This is a 1:1 aide that the district hires through a non-public agency to support your child. You can request an NPA aide if:
- The district is unable to hire/provide staff in ample time
- The district’s aide has proven unable to adequately support your child, which must be demonstrated through data
- Your child requires extensive behavior supports that the district-provided staff is unable to provide.
1:2 aide support
This is an aide who supports your child and one additional student throughout the day (or whenever the IEP designates the additional support).
A bilingual aide can provide language support to English language learners. These paraeducators help ELL students keep up with lessons in the classroom by filling in the gaps due to language barriers. They may assist by reading test questions aloud in the students’ native language or by making sure homework or classwork is written correctly. They may also interpret for parents during functions or parent-teacher meetings.
(Note: While a paraeducator can assist students who are Deaf or hard of hearing (D/HH) access instruction and group discussions, these students will need a trained interpreter who is certified in using American sign language, which would not be considered a language support aide because they are licensed professionals.) )
Another benefit of a language support aide is that they may more closely reflect the diversity in student populations that isn’t mirrored in the teaching staff.
Physical and/or medical support
Some paraeducators work to support kids with physical disabilities or health needs. They can help with self-care, communication, and assisting with adaptive devices. If a student has an individualized health plan (IHP), a paraeducator may be included as a type of intervention or classroom support and work with the school nurse to support any health or medical needs.
This is support that isn’t instructional. A non-instructional paraeducator may translate non-academic activities, such as translating a report card to a parent or translating lunch line etiquette; perform duties that are solely parental involvement activities; provide tech support for computers; provide personal care duties; or perform clerical duties.
Does a paraeducator aid the student or the teacher?
Paraeducators are technically employees of the school district and work under the teacher, but teacher and aide often work as a team to provide support to students in their classroom. A paraeducator can support a general or special education teacher with different classroom tasks. With the exception of 1:1 aides, paraeducators are typically assigned to one classroom and support all students.
As Marquez explains, a paraeducator is there to primarily support students with extensive support needs and help students who have mild and moderate disabilities navigate executive functioning tasks. But beyond that, a paraeducator can be a balancing act between supporting the student, supporting the teacher, and knowing when to step back and give the teacher the chance to connect with the student.
Does my child need an assessment to qualify for a paraeducator?
Generally, an assessment is needed for a student to be assigned a paraeducator, especially a 1:1 aide. Every district uses their own terminology, but you may hear an aide referred to as an RSIA (Related Services Independent Assistant), SCIA (Special Circumstances Independent Assistant), or SCES (Special Circumstances Educational Support). Assessments are usually conducted by the school psychologist, are observational (not standardized), and follow a rubric that assesses four areas: health, behavior, instruction, and inclusion.
Marquez tells us that while assessments vary from district to district, they are typically done as part of the IEP process. Dr. Kate Cavanaugh and JoAnn Ford-Halvorsen recommend that other supports be explored before a 1:1 aide is considered, and that any questions that come up should be addressed before the IEP meeting so that the team can collect necessary data:
After the assessment, if the IEP team determines that the student needs a paraeducator or 1:1 aide, they can write that into the IEP and further define what kind of paraeducator the student needs, the tasks or responsibilities that the paraeducator/aide will support, and a plan for working toward independence (if appropriate).
For a more detailed description of how to prepare to discuss paraeducators and 1:1 aides at your IEP meeting, check out our article on 1:1 aides.
Paraeducator qualifications, training, and education
Paraeducators don’t have to meet the same educational or training requirements your children’s teachers do in order to support them in school. While qualifications may vary from state to state, under ESSA, paraeducators must have a high school diploma (or its equivalent), and also meet one of these requirements:
Finished two years of study at a college or technical school; or Hold an associate (or higher) degree; or Be able to show, by passing a local academic assessment, that they know about and can assist in instructing reading, writing, and math.
Most schools will also require training in CPR as well as mandatory reporting for incidents of child abuse, harassment, intimidation, bullying, boundary invasions, fights, substance abuse, etc. Local educational agencies (LEAs) may also have their own specific requirements.
Ideally, paraeducators should enjoy working with children and have the knowledge and skills to correctly support students. They should be able to provide positive support and encouragement while knowing when to step in and when to back off. They should also know a thing or two about inclusion, as they help make classrooms more inclusive.
Ongoing training for paraeducators sounds like an important (and obvious) investment, but beyond the ESSA requirements, there is very little dedicated training for paraeducators. Realistically, most paraeducators won’t be professionally trained in special education, learning disabilities, or the specific curriculum students are learning.
Marquez explains it as a “trial by fire,” telling us that some paraeducators “rise to the top and figure it out, and it doesn't matter what type of disability is presented to them. They work through it, and they learn about that individual and help that student do the best they can in the classroom.”
Research shows that many paraeducators are placed in roles that they aren’t adequately trained or prepared for, and receive fewer mentoring and leadership opportunities compared to teachers. This study by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) found that paraeducators often learn on the job by interacting with students or receiving instruction from a teacher or another paraeducator.
But funding opportunities are available for ongoing training. Under ESSA, school districts can access funding for paraeducator professional development in a few different ways, including general professional development, English language literacy, child abuse, and technology. States may also use funding to establish routes to alternative teacher certification. Some states and districts are already doing this and have teacher pathways for paraeducators, also known as Grow Your Own (GYO) educator programs, which can be a step toward diversifying the teaching profession. While this is a great opportunity for some, the reality is that many paraeducators don’t want to be teachers; they just want more professional development, support, and respect.
And things are slowly shifting. Many SELPAs now offer training for paraeducators. Online courses also exist, such as this one on paraeducator classroom practice by the San Diego County Office of Education, and this free course on high-leverage practices from Council for Exceptional Children. Districts can also invest in programs like Parabytes, a professional development program designed specifically for PreK-12 paraprofessionals to learn how to provide inclusive support to all students. More recently, Washington became the first state in the country to create a paraeducator board that establishes requirements and policies for paraeducator professional development and advancement.
Federal policy changes are also slowly pushing state and local education agencies (SEAs, LEAs) to develop their own policies, regulatory procedures, and systems around education support teams, which may create more opportunities for structured and competency-based paraeducator training and professional development. This is important, because while informal training does exist, workshops, one‐time events, and on-the-job training are informal, and individualized approaches to learning often have a limited effect on the development of skills paraeducators need to support children with disabilities in the classroom (and they don’t include on‐the‐job coaching, which is critical for the application of learned skills to real-life situations).
Can parents ask for a specific type of paraeducator in their IEP and/or advocate for special training?
Parents can request a paraeducator with certain training, but they cannot request particular individuals, just services or specific skill sets (the IEP team does not make personnel decisions; these are for the principal or district HR department). However, the district must provide a paraeducator if your child needs an aide to benefit from their education. If there are special circumstances, make sure they’re outlined in the IEP (for example, if your child can only work with a female aide due to past trauma, or if your child with autism requires an aide specifically trained in ABA).
But — as we describe in the above section — with so many training opportunities at the local and federal level, there may be opportunities to take your requests to the district or school and push for more funding for paraeducator training. Just make sure you have the correct information and can state your case!
Depending on the situation, assigning a paraeducator, specifically a 1:1 aide, to your child has its pros and cons. Under FAPE, students are entitled to be educated in the “least restrictive environment” possible for them. It’s important to understand that a person is not an environment — it's a service or support provided within an environment. An aide can be a great way for a student to access a less restrictive environment by creating inclusive classrooms and supporting their needs as they interact safely with their peers.
While an aide is certainly no more restrictive than a segregated special education classroom, it may sometimes be unnecessarily restrictive if it results in “unhealthy dependency, stigmatization, interference with teacher engagement, and interference with peer interactions,” according to research by Michael F. Giangreco, Ph.D., especially in situations where there is no planned effort to reduce that support.
Socialization and independence are two major factors when considering a 1:1 aide. A 2010 study published in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities suggests that overusing 1:1 paraeducators can have negative effects on students, including interfering with a child’s ability to form peer relationships, as the presence of an adult aide can create physical or symbolic barriers between the student and their peers and make students feel infantilized or embarrassed about always having an adult with them.
However, for students with more significant support needs, an aide can be crucial for inclusion. Marquez explains how independence can (and should!) be an IEP goal, and how that can help students in the long run:
How can parents ensure that their child works toward independence and doesn’t become reliant on an aide?
Ensuring that your child’s support is being implemented appropriately can be challenging, but having a plan is always best practice. Marquez advises that parents should lean toward “assuming best intent,” that the support team is always looking out for the student and the student’s growth.
The authors of the 2010 Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities study recommend a plan to fade out aide support when appropriate and to include alternative supports. They also recommend that before considering a 1:1 aide, IEP teams should consider what other supports might allow a student with a disability to make meaningful progress in the general education classroom. These include:
- assistive technology
- teacher training (for example, teaching mixed-ability groups and facilitating social interactions)
- activity-based instruction
- use of existing school-wide supports (such as learning labs)
- use of a paraeducator assigned to a class rather than an individual student
- discouraging a paraeducator from placing a chair next to the student unless absolutely necessary
- co-teaching in the classroom
- positive behavior supports
- peer supports
If a 1:1 aide is necessary, efforts should be made to minimize potential negative consequences. Yearly IEP reviews can be used to check in. Ford-Halvorsen tells us that when drafting IEPs for students who have 1:1 aides, “we want to be really explicit about where they continue to need that support and the areas that they don't, so we're having conversations of where we can start to fade some of that support. A lot of that happens within the IEP team and the conversations that the team is having, in conjunction with the teaching assistant as well.”
Marquez also offers some tips for parents to stay informed about what’s happening with the paraeducator, especially if the paraeducator doesn’t attend IEP meetings:
What tools can aides use to increase independence?
The paraeducator should ultimately be keeping in mind all the ways they can empower the student to be more independent. Dr. Cavanaugh recommends looking for those next steps to help with independence-building. “We definitely use Dr. Paula Kluth’s term ‘burn the chair,’” she says, referring to paraeducators who sit next to students for the entire day. Another example is that a paraeducator who is doing all the work for the student isn’t empowering the student to find or input their own answers, or demonstrating how to learn on their own. This kind of relationship may make the student overly reliant on the paraeducator, hindering their ability to gain the skills they need to be independent and self-sufficient.
Marquez explains that there’s always a balance between supporting a student and setting them up for independence, and it depends on specific situations and what they need at any given moment, especially during high-anxiety situations like the first day of school, or during classroom icebreakers. “You’re not going to set them up for independence right away, necessarily. But you’re going to spend a lot of time testing how far away that independence looks to be.”
Marquez emphasizes the importance of flexibility. Regardless of an IEP goal, a paraeducator needs to know what a student’s level of independence is as soon as possible — because sometimes life happens! “You might need to run out and go to the restroom, or you might need to escort another student out to the office. And knowing that you can do that without having to worry about your student in that moment makes a huge difference.” Whether or not the paraeducator is only there for your child, things happen that may be out of their control. “Being flexible is something that we're trying to provide to our students,” she adds.
Assigning more than one aide to a student is also a great way to approach fostering independence, something Dr. Cavanaugh and Ford-Halvorsen tell us is a key factor in Lake Forest, Illinois, school district's new, inclusive model for paraeducators.
For an in-depth look at Lake Forest School District’s new, inclusive model for paraeducators, check out our article, A Case for Inclusion: One Illinois School District’s New Model for Paraeducators!
Why do some districts say that the aide can’t talk to parents?
Remember that the aide works for the school district, not the parent. Many districts have rules against paraeducators communicating with parents because they are not trained to do so. Marquez tells us communicating through a case manager is best, and that communication between paraeducators and parents may sometimes end up destroying lines of communication. This can be especially tricky if there are things about your child or your family that the case manager and teacher know but the paraeducator doesn’t, as a way to protect the confidentiality of the student.
One study published by the Hammill Institute on Disabilities explored the relationship between parents and paraeducators and found that communication between paraeducators and parents is directly influenced by the supervising teacher, and that it’s important for the teacher to guide and direct the nature of communications.
Dr. Cavanaugh tells us that paraeducators can be put in a difficult situation if they have more conversations with the parents than the teachers. She recommends that parents defer instructions around behavior and instruction to the teacher.
Finally, it’s important to have an official communication plan. (Likewise, if the aide gives you their cell number, keep it on the down-low, and don’t overuse it.)
How can parents work well with the aide and know what’s going on?
Your child comes home, and all you want to do is ask them questions about their day. If your child is still developing their communication skills or tends to keep things to themselves, and you can’t speak directly with your child’s paraeducator, there are many other ways to stay informed. Marquez recommends speaking to the case manager or teacher if you have any questions or concerns. She also emphasizes the importance of student privacy. They might not want you to know certain things, and the same courtesy applied to a student in gen ed has to be provided to a student with a disability. She says it’s not part of a paraeducator’s job to share those specific details.
However, hope is not lost. You can find ways to work with the paraeducator that honors your child's privacy and helps you stay informed. Marquez gives us an example of an activity that centers a student’s emotions by allowing them to identify how they are feeling. Every hour, the student chooses between a smiley face, a normal face, and a sad face (or a feelings scale between 1-5), which is then shared with the parent. This activity allows the student to identify how they are feeling at any given moment and simultaneously helps parents understand the highs and lows of the day without needing to have a conversation with the paraeducator. You can also use it to ask your child any follow up questions at home.
Ford-Halvorsen tells us that a parent’s go-to should always be the case manager:
Can the school make changes to aide support without parent consent?
If an aide is listed in a child’s IEP as a support, accommodation, or service, the aide cannot be discontinued without an IEP meeting or Prior Written Notice. But certain wording in the IEP, such as "additional classroom support as needed," may allow for change without parent consent, so keep an eye on how aides are written in. (Any special education advocate will tell you NEVER to allow the words “as needed” in an IEP! Specificity is key.)
In other situations, for example, if your child isn’t getting along with their aide or the aide is struggling, Marquez says there may need to be an IEP meeting to discuss the situation and swap aides. But if the situation isn’t severe or harmful, the team may decide not to swap the aide and use it as an opportunity for the student to learn to work with different people.
Should a paraeducator be included in the IEP meeting?
Whether or not paraeducators are included in IEP meetings depends on the district, Marquez tells us. There can be many challenges involved, such as scheduling, union contracts, and pay. But because paraeducators spend the most time with students, they are some of the most informed members of your IEP team, and they can offer a ton of insights into what’s working or not working for your child.
Paraeducators can attend IEP meetings, more so if they are 1:1 aides, but it’s important to be mindful of holding the meeting after hours as the aide may only be contracted during school hours.
If the paraeducator can’t attend the IEP meeting, they can prepare a report for the IEP team with their insights, observations, recommendations, and general feedback about the student. They can also attend other support staff meetings if the school has them. Dr. Cavanaugh explains how her school implements ongoing team meetings, sometimes even weekly, that paraeducators can attend instead of the IEP meetings:
How can parents carry over a paraeducator’s work at home?
Dr. Cavanaugh tells us to always seek support from the IEP team and take advantage of any trainings that are offered: “The role of the team is also parent education, and so sometimes it's coming from case managers, mental health staff, or social workers and psychologists.” She also mentions attending any parent trainings that the school or district offers parents.
Something else to consider bringing into the home is the fostering of independence that paraeducators practice in the classroom, especially for older kids as they prepare to transition into adulthood. Marquez tells us that most parents want a paraeducator who is comfortable with their child and vice versa, sometimes even wanting the same paraeducator to stay working with their child for the duration of their schooling. While that can be great for a short time, she reminds parents to think about preparing kids for life after school, which can start with the student demonstrating that they can work with different individuals.
“We don't know what their life is going to be like after 22,” she explains. “Are they going to have a series of support staff that comes in and out? Are they going to be living in a group home? We can't always predict that. You have a kid who's about to graduate from high school, so what does that mean for that student? What does that student really want? And hopefully, we've done that by having conversations to help navigate those things.”
For more tips and advice, we've assembled a list of virtual accommodations (and some you can ask your school to send home) you can use to help optimize at-home learning, as well as ways to embed instruction at home to help with learning.
For more on how to utilize aides and related services, go here!