The Who, What and How of Paraprofessionals: Using These Instructional Supports Effectively

By — Autism Society
Updated on Jul 23, 2010

The use of paraprofessionals is becoming an urgent issue in the field of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) for families and schools alike. Many questions suround the employment of paraprofessionals : 1) What exactly is the role of a paraprofessional ? 2) How can paraprofessionals best be used to support students with ASD? 3) How effective are paraprofessionals in meeting their students ’ needs ? 4) How can schools afford the rising demand and cost for paraprofessionals ?

However, the answers to these questions only spawn a new series of questions regarding the adequate training and professional development of paraprofessionals. It would be rare to find a professional or family member with ties to the field of ASD who has not encountered one or more of these questions. Therefore, it is important to consider these questions regarding paraprofessionals: What does research say about them as instructional supports; what, if any, models exist for the training and professional development of paraprofessionals; and how will all of this impact daily lives?

Concerns Regarding Effectiveness of Paraprofessionals

Over the past 20 years, there has been a 123 percent increase in the number of paraprofessionals employed in the educational system (Legislative Program Review & Investigations Committee, 2006). Surprisingly, there is little, if any, research documenting the effectiveness of paraprofessionals in improving outcomes for children with disabilities, including students with ASD (Marks, Schrader & Levine, 1999; Young, Simpson, Myles & Kamps, 1997). However, there are significant concerns, based on research, that current use of paraprofessionals can decrease a student’s access to certified teachers as well as the student’s level of engagement in the classroom. The use of a paraprofessional also can decrease the general education teacher’s level of engagement with the student when mainstreamed (Giangreco, Broer & Edelman, 2001).

In addition, there is evidence that the regulations regarding the use and supervision of paraprofessionals as set out in the No Child Left Behind (NC LB) Act are not being followed. These infractions include paraprofessionals teaching new material and creating behavior plans, and the lack of appropriate supervision, training and professional development for paraprofessionals (IDEA Partnerships, 2001). Such misuses may be explained by the lack of role clarity for paraprofessionals, which is an overarching concern within the research (Marks, et al., 1999; Pickett, Likins & Wallace, 2003). Researchers also overwhelmingly agree that teacher preparation programs for general and special educators do not adequately prepare educators to supervise paraprofessionals (Scheuermann, Webber, Boutot & Goodwin, 2003; Wallace, 2003). Practitioners, families and researchers alike express concern that the current use of paraprofessionals means that the least qualified personnel provide the majority of instruction and support to the students with the most significant needs and challenges (Brown, Farrington, Knight, Ross & Ziegler, 1999; Giangreco et al., 2001).

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