5 pillars help paraprofessionals take action on equity

'As we consider equity, the paraprofessional role is critical'
By: | April 14, 2021

Equity means every student should have access and opportunity at the right moment in their education to a physically, societally, socially, and emotionally safe environment, said Nikole Hollins-Sims, educational consultant and special advisor on equity to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

“Our Pennsylvania definition is centered around the key term of ‘access,'” she said. “Meeting students at the right moment based on what they present as needing.”

This definition moves away from equality, where everyone gets the same supports. “Equality is not always fair,” Hollins-Sims said. “With equity, students can get what they need based on how they present and their unique experiences.”

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The paraprofessional role is extremely valuable to the classroom setting, especially in emotional support or learning support classrooms, Hollins-Sims said.

“The paraprofessional role is so important to overall delivery of services,” she said. “It’s important for them to have some awareness of how to best support students that may have differences, whether based on learning disability or race [or] ethnicity, language, [or] gender identity. Paraprofessionals need to know how to navigate the space to create safety for the students.”

The practices that the Pennsylvania Department of Education promotes in regard to educational equity are relevant for paraprofessionals and focused on five pillars of practice: 1) self-awareness; 2) data practices; 3) family and community engagement; 4) academic equity; and 5) disciplinary equity.

Paraprofessionals have a very critical role in all of the pillars of practice, Hollins-Sims said. “As we consider equity, the paraprofessional role is critical to the effort of ensuring equitable practices for all students,” she said. “Their impact will be long-lasting if these practices transcend beyond the classroom.”

5 pillars of practice

Below are the five pillars and actionable practices paraprofessionals can adopt that are in line with each one.

1. Self-awareness. “Think about paraprofessionals coming into spaces and what equity means to them,” Hollins-Sims said. “Self-awareness is that entry point.”

Encourage paraprofessionals to take a self-inventory of their bias, privilege, power, and what they bring to table when encouraged; then, to know how those can manifest or how they show up to people. “Self-awareness is critical,” she said.

2. Data practices. Paraprofessionals can support teachers in data analysis, Hollins-Sims said. They can share who is responding to the content, who is having difficulty with interventions, and who is not. “Paraprofessionals have an important role there,” she said.

3. Family and community engagement. Paraprofessionals often have a closer relationship with families and with the community at large than some staff members do, Hollins-Sims said. They can be a liaison and mediator for families to feel welcome in school settings.

4. Academic. Paraprofessionals can help to ensure that students in the classroom, whether virtual or brick-and-mortar, are able to access the content they need, Hollins-Sims said. They can support students in receiving appropriate technology and assistive technology when needed.

In virtual spaces, paraprofessionals can work alongside a student in a breakout room to ensure minimal distractions. In a physical classroom, the paraprofessional might ensure that the student has the ability to engage in a space where she is able to better focus on the content.

5. Disciplinary. This speaks to creating a space where paraprofessionals are helping to reduce the number of suspensions, expulsions, and restraints that certain groups of students have traditionally received in disproportionate amounts, Hollins-Sims said.

“If behavior plan strategies typically work for certain groups of students, paraprofessionals can be consistent in the delivery of intervention support to mitigate the need to go to more exclusionary discipline,” she said.

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for LRP Publications.