New law expands role of special education paraprofessionals

No federal requirements for paraprofessional training exist
By: | Issue: January, 2016
December 10, 2015

A first-of-its-kind Connecticut law allows parents to include their child’s paraprofessional in school planning and placement team meetings that create individualized educational programs.

Districts must also inform parents of their right to involve the paraprofessional in all portions of the “PPT” meeting, according to the law passed last July. “This is an important revision, as paraprofessionals typically spend more time with the child than any other school staff,” says Diane Willcutts, director of Education Advocacy LLC and board member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.

“Because most paraprofessionals previously were not permitted by their school districts to attend PPTs, much of the information reported by the special education teacher was second-hand, and the teachers sometimes weren’t able to answer parent questions regarding the specifics of the child’s day-to-day functioning,” Willcutts says.

No federal requirements for paraprofessional training exist, resulting in a patchwork of services offered throughout states and districts. Many districts turn to online courses and materials when hiring paraprofessionals, while others do not offer any training, says Marilyn Likins, executive director of the National Resource Center for Paraeducators.

“It’s great that this law is here to spell out who is involved, but we need to offer the training for paraprofessionals to do this well,” Likins adds.

An evolving role

An estimated 634,000 paraprofessionals work in K12 schools nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

No Child Left Behind requires that such staff members be “highly qualified,” but leaves measuring their qualifications up to individual states. U.S. Department of Education guidelines for paraprofessionals whose positions are funded under Title I says they must have completed two years of higher education or obtained an associates degree, and met local state or district qualifications.

The job description has evolved greatly over the past 30 years, Likins says. “They’ve taken on a more instructional role working directly with students, versus what they were originally hired for, which was creating bulletin boards, lunch duty and making copies,” she adds.

In most states, paraprofessionals are included in PPT meetings on a district-by-district, case-by-case basis. Some states, including Washington, have pending legislation for training requirements.

Whether or not they are included in PPT meetings, training on effective instructional practices, classroom management strategies and adapting a teacher’s lesson plan would be beneficial, Likins says.

“When we have such an emphasis on student outcomes, you have to look at all of those individuals who work with our students,” she adds. “The weakest link is typically the paraprofessional who’s not trained or supervised.”

Administrators in districts allowing paraprofessionals to attend PPT meetings should advocate for training, and ask them to come prepared with data on their student’s performance and other observations for parents, Likins says.

School leaders should also build time into the school day for teachers and paraprofessionals to co-plan lessons and strategies for working with specific students.

“The more systematic administrators can be in carving out time for planning to take place, the better the outcomes will be for kids,” Likins says.