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).
What Federal Law Says
The concerns raised in research are not, however, necessarily reflected or addressed in current law. As already discussed, the No Child Left Behind Act has some basic requirements regarding the use and supervision of paraprofessionals. This adds some depth to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), which only requires that paraprofessionals be “appropriately trained and supervised, in accordance with state law, regulation or written policy.” NCLB also institutes higher qualifications of instructional paraprofessionals in Title I schools, requiring that paraprofessionals complete at least two years of higher education, obtain an associate’s degree, or meet state or local “rigorous” standards (NCLB, 2002).
However, to adhere to these new requirements, while still meeting the ever-increasing needs for paraprofessionals in the classroom, many states have opted to create a state test or to use an existing one, such as the Educational Testing Services (ETS) ParaPro Assessment™ (ETS, n.d.). While these tests assure that paraprofessionals can perform basic skills in math, reading and writing, unfortunately, they do not assess basic behavior management techniques; basic concepts underlying special education, such as the universal capacity to learn; or disabilityspecific knowledge. This is important because paraprofessionals identified their most important training need as knowledge of specific disabilities (Riggs, 2001).
While IDEA and NCLB have attempted to guide the employment and use of paraprofessionals, they have led to little real impact on the effective training and use of paraprofessionals. This leaves states and school districts to carry the burden of tackling issues surrounding paraprofessionals, which, in turn, means that requirements differ from state to state. The end result is that the quality of support that paraprofessionals are able to provide students depends on the initiative and financial resources of individual states.
Minnesota has met this challenge to states in an exemplary manner. In 1998, Minnesota created core competencies for all paraprofessionals. It then went on to create specialized disability-specific competencies for paraprofessionals, one of which is in ASD, addressing the need for paraprofessionals to have disability-specific knowledge. These competencies provide consistent statewide standards by which paraprofessional training and professional development can be created and evaluated at the state, district and school levels. The competencies thus establish clear roles and responsibilities for paraprofessionals. In addition, the state has created a wealth of resources based on these competencies to train paraprofessionals as well as the teachers who supervise them. These resources, created and disseminated through the Minnesota Paraprofessional Consortium, include a series of training manuals, one specifically addressing ASD, and a robust website (http://ici2.umn.edu/para/). The website includes Para eLink, an online training tool that can be accessed at no cost. A corresponding portion of the website provides competencies for teachers who guide and supervise the work of paraprofessionals, as well as training tools for higher education personnel to use in teacher-preparation programs.
West Virginia also has played a leadership role in professional development, establishing in 1992 the autism mentor credential for qualified paraprofessionals. The intent of the autism mentor credential is to increase paraprofessional knowledge and skills related to ASD as well as to decrease paraprofessional attrition. The result of a parent-supported grassroots effort, this credential requires at least 30 hours in autism-related staff development credit and two years of work with students with ASD, in addition to meeting higher level paraprofessional requirements (Aide III). An autism mentor thus has basic knowledge of ASD and key strategies for supporting these students. The credential also raises a paraprofessional to a higher salary level, which may decrease the shifting of paraprofessional assignments for administrative reasons that have little regard for the disability- or student-specific training a paraprofessional has received.
Another state that provides paraprofessional support is Connecticut. In 1991, its State Education Resource Center (SERC) created the Paraprofessionals as Partners Initiative (www.ctserc.org/conferences/paras.shtml). For more than 15 years, SERC has offered a variety of professional development opportunities for paraprofessionals, seeking to meet their unique needs. Currently, the Paraprofessionals as Partners Initiative provides a framework for paraprofessional study groups, hosts an annual conference for and concerning paraprofessionals and recently published the first issue of its new online newsletter. The initiative’s work is based on training competencies for paraprofessionals outlined in the Connecticut Guidelines for Training and Support of Paraprofessionals Working with Students, Birth to 21 (2004). However, for Connecticut, as with other states, these procedures have limited power, as they are guidelines not mandates.
Several other states also have designated a state center, akin to Connecticut’s SERC, for information and resources for paraprofessionals. A number of other states have followed Minnesota’s lead in establishing knowledge and skill competencies for paraprofessionals, including Idaho, Rhode Island, Washington, Montana, Wisconsin and Utah. Finally, Nebraska (Project Para) and Vermont (Para Educator Learning Network) have established online learning modules similar to those developed by Minnesota.
Efforts of Organizations
Nationally, multiple organizations have begun exploring the effective use of paraprofessionals. The National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals (NRCP) serves as a national clearinghouse of information and resources for all educational paraprofessionals. NRCP convenes an annual national conference on the training and employment of paraprofessionals. It also maintains a website, which includes NRCP-created training materials and resources for paraprofessionals across the nation, as well as national and state message boards for paraprofessionals. In 2003, the Council for Exceptional Children developed and adopted a set of knowledge and skill standards for beginning special education paraprofessionals. To a lesser degree, but with a greater focus on ASD, several other organizations are making efforts to highlight the issues surrounding paraprofessionals, such as the Association for Behavior Analysis and the upcoming 2007 Network of Autism Training and Technical Assistance Programs (NATTAP) Conference.
Role of Parents and Educators
The current lack of research and minimal models for professional development, paired with the exponential rise in the number of paraprofessionals supporting students with ASD, indicates that this is still an emerging practice. However, parents and educators alike can testify to the benefits a child can experience from good paraprofessional support. Therefore, further research is needed on how paraprofessionals can best support students with ASD, as well as how paraprofessional’s should be trained and supported. In addition, parents and educators should carefully consider and be creative in how their students with ASD can best be supported. When paraprofessionals are included on a student’s IEP, the IEP should explicitly state the paraprofessionals’ roles and responsibilities. Finally, parents and educators should advocate for the appropriate use, training and professional development of paraprofessionals to enable them to best serve and support students with ASD.
About the Authors
Katie Bassity, M.Ed., is an autism consultant for the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI).
Donna Owens, M.A., is family services administrator at OCALI.
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Marks, S., Schrader, C., & Levine, M. (1999). Paraeducator experiences in inclusive settings: Helping, hovering, or holding their own? Exceptional Children, 65 (3), 315-328.
No Child Left Behind Act. (2002). Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Pub.L. 107-110 §2102(4).
Pickett, A.L., Likins, M, & Wallace, T. (2003). The employment and preparation of paraeducators: The state of the art. Logan, Utah: National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals in Education and Related Services.
Riggs, C.G. (2001). Ask the paraprofessionals: What are your training needs? Teaching Exceptional Children, 33 (3), 78-83.
Scheuermann, B., Webber, J., Boutot, A., & Goodwin, M. (2003). Problems with personnel preparation in autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18 (3), 197-206.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.