Paraprofessional training produces big benefits

You don't have to spend lavishly or disrupt schedules to train paraeducators

Before paraprofessional training, Carole Boyle flew DC-10s across the Atlantic and had to make quick decisions to keep the passengers safe. Now, working as a paraeducator in Washington, she still makes on-the-spot choices about how to keep problems from escalating.

Both then and now, paraprofessional training is key, she says. A wrong move as a para won’t crash a plane, but it could wreck the day of a special needs child.

“These are very vulnerable children that we work with,” says Boyle, who retired from flying and has worked as a public school para for five years in Gig Harbor, Washington. “We need professional development on an ongoing basis so we know how to properly react when a crisis suddenly occurs—without doing more harm than good.”

It’s difficult, for example, to track how many times a child has an outburst in class. In PD, Boyle learned to keep pennies in her pocket and to transfer the coins from one pocket to another to track behavior. It’s more subtle than taking notes on a clipboard.

She says she has also learned to smooth transitions, which can pose challenges for students who struggle with self-regulation. Some students benefit from five-minute warnings, while others need visual cues, such as a sand timer.

Boyle’s strategies prove that administrators need not break the bank or disrupt daily schedules to find the funds and time to provide paraprofessional training that’s required to ensure the success of students who need extra support.

You can’t pigeonhole a para

Cash-strapped districts may grapple with finding funds for training and compensation. Paras need PD for communicating with parents, finding their roles in the classroom and managing behavior (including how to respond to physical aggression), among other skills.

Administrators can cut costs by leveraging PD already taking place in the district, says Shawn Pennell, a faculty member and a paraprofessional coordinator for the Northern Nevada English Learning Initiative at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Sidebar: Earpiece powers real-time paraeducator PD

For example, paras, rather than doing busy work, can attend the same PD classes that teachers attend on days students aren’t in school. “A lot of times, they are making copies and doing bulletin boards when students aren’t there,” she says. “It won’t cost anything to allow them to attend the classes as well.”

Also, paras can complete online training modules—which administrators can purchase for reasonable prices—during regular working hours, when they are already being compensated.

Including paraprofessional training funds in grants allows districts to pay stipends for participating in the programs, which should boost attendance. Also, administrators must make sure paras know when their districts have PD funds. “Even $10 an hour helps,” Pennell says. “Buy them lunch; give them a stipend. Do something to elevate their status and show them appreciation.”

Pennell recommends that administrators assess their para pools for personnel who have higher levels of training. For example, one para with whom Pennell worked had a master’s degree in science from Mexico. She had been working with autistic children, but her district moved her into a biology class to assist Latino biology students.

“Districts can pair the strength they already have rather than hire new staff,” she says. “You can’t pigeonhole paras into one group. They have a variety of backgrounds, skill sets and levels of experience.”

Setting the teacher-para boundary

Districts must establish a para’s place in school—and clarify where their role ends. Teachers too often give paras full responsibility for some children, but “that’s not their job,” says Ritu Chopra, executive director of The Paraprofessional Research and Resource Center at the University of Colorado Denver.

“Way too much burden is placed on paras,” Chopra says. “Teachers should not wash their hands of a child. Paras may have a student who has autism or is deaf or blind, but paras are not the teachers of record.”

To help employees succeed, administrators must draw a clear line between the para’s and the educator’s responsibilities. For example, a teacher may ask a para to search for handouts online that a student can work on, or to find reading level-appropriate books that connect to the day’s lesson.

But only certified staff should create curriculum. “The person who is guiding the daily work of paras has to be a licensed professional,” Chopra says.

The teacher should give paras specific instructions, such as “Look for Star Wars books at an AR Level 3,” rather than “find something for the student to read while we work on math.”

Sidebar: Explore these resources for paraeducator PD

Paraprofessional training should empower these educators to speak up when teachers ask them to do too much. This communication should happen during collaboration time, outside class. Since most schools only pay paras to be at school when the students are there, administrators should consider adding funds for para collaboration time.

Outside class, paras run the risk of saying the wrong thing, which could lead to legal trouble for the school. Paras are the eyes in the room, and are often friendly with students’ parents. PD should inform paras of the rules around discussing a student’s behavior, academic progress or other topics.

For example, a para may attend a meeting among a teacher, parent and special needs student. Without the specific training given to teachers and administrators, a para may inadvertently make a statement that the parent can use against the district. “Paras need to be trained on how to respond when questioned by parents,” says Alison Cianciolo, a paraeducator initiatives coordinator for the Capitol Region Education Council in Hartford. “Paras need to be cautious about what they say.”

Paras should be polite but vague, and should reply to questions or complaints with a simple: “I hear what you are saying, but you should bring your concerns to the principal or the teacher,” Cianciolo says.

Washington state’s paraprofessional training solution

In 2014, Washington began creating uniform training requirements for paras. Funding had not been finalized at press time, but the program should be underway by the beginning of the 2019-20 school year.

“Paraeducators are a central part of the education team, but they didn’t have a lot of training and that was not benefiting the students,” says Jack Busbee, program manager of Washington’s Paraeducator Board. “It was common practice to hire paraeducators and not give them training, and then put them in the special needs classrooms.”

Web seminar: Supporting paraeducator effectiveness

The standards would require paraeducators to complete a district-administered “Fundamental Course of Study” within the first year of employment. The 28-hour course covers technology, cultural diversity and behavior management.

Paras then have three years to complete 70 hours of coursework to earn a general certificate. The curriculum can include anything the district deems appropriate for all instructors. The state also offers educator pathway and workforce development programs that can help paras earn teaching degrees.

Shawna De La Rosa is a freelance writer in Washington.

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