A few years ago, we interviewed New Hampshire middle and high school students regarding the barriers they perceived related to friendship and students with significant disabilities. We asked for observations and thoughts, and students recorded their impressions in journals. During our interviews and journal review, the theme was consistent. Adults often got in the way of developing friendships. Whether it was eating in the cafeteria, traveling to classes, or working as lab partners, students without disabilities were not as interested in getting to know students with disabilities when they believed they needed to also have a relationship with the supporting adult.

What are your thoughts about this? Is it possible that paraprofessionals may inadvertently interfere with meaningful social relationships, independence, and academic learning for students with disabilities? Are there times when it is essential for an adult to provide hands-on support? How do we achieve the appropriate balance between the two?

As SWIFT members travel the country observing our Knowledge Development Sites and working with State Implementation Teams, we are learning how this balance is created so that the role of the paraprofessional supports academic and social growth for all students. Consider these eight examples from a variety of KD site schools:

1) Paraprofessionals are assigned to classrooms, not students, and provide support to the teacher and all students in a class.

2) No matter how extensive a student’s needs, no one student has a paraprofessional assigned to provide support 100% of the time. Instead, for students with high needs, rotating paraprofessionals, as well as teachers and related service providers, provide support on an as-needed basis.

3) At the beginning of the school year, all paraprofessionals in a school are provided with training to learn and understand the value of supporting all students and professional development occurs throughout the year for everyone.

4) IEP’s are written to reflect the need for support – not the need for a 1:1 aide. Peer support was emphasized as an ideal model whenever possible.

5) Paraprofessional job descriptions are written to reflect the needs of the school and classroom. Teachers and paraprofessionals are involved in the paraprofessional hiring process to ensure appropriate matches for the culture of the school and vision for inclusion.

6) All students in a class recognize the various adults as resources to their learning – not only as “teachers” for a student with a disability.

7) Teachers and paraprofessionals work as a team to design classroom support roles. The role of the paraprofessional may include:
* Leading small group instruction designed by the teacher
* Gathering materials necessary for lessons throughout the day
* Facilitating interactions and social relationships among students

8) Teachers and paraprofessionals engage in ongoing reflective practice in order to critically examine how students are growing and learning in their classrooms. Paraprofessionals are encouraged to continuously ask:
* Can the student participate independently?
* Is there another student who can provide support?
* If my support is required, how can I “aide, then fade?”
* Am I supporting this student out of need, or out of habit?  In other words, does she/he truly need support at this moment, or am I just in the habit of offering  support in this kind of situation?

Bravo to those of you who prompted this blog and for those of you reading and considering how best to support ALL students in your classrooms. We hope you will share your ideas about the role of the paraprofessional and help us expand our resources and improve social and academic outcomes for ALL students.

– Mary Schuh

Image of blog post author.Dr. Mary Schuh has more than 25 years experience in inclusive schools and communities, family and consumer leadership , and educational systems change and has been with the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability since its inception in 1987. She directs The National Center on Inclusive Education (NCIE) at the Institute on Disability. The NCIE is a leader in the transformation of schools so that students of all abilities are successfully learning in their home schools within general education settings. Mary serves as a member of the National Leadership Consortium of The SWIFT Center. As a faculty member of the University of New Hampshire, Mary helps to prepare future teachers to welcome and engage families, and teach all students in typical school and general education environments.