Special Education Careers

How To Become a Special Education Paraprofessional

When I think about the incredible special education teams that I’ve worked with and have seen in action over the past decade, I get goosebumps. Rain or shine, we were in the trenches together. 

Our purpose and mission as a special education team is to:

  • Serve our students receiving special education services 
  • Provide our students everything they need for success in life 
  • Holding students to high expectations, and always loving them unconditionally 
  • Be passionate and fight for our students
  • Work together as a highly collaborative and function team for our students

If this is resonating with you, let’s get going with what you need to know to become a special education paraprofessional!

Becoming a Paraprofessional

Here are the topics I’m covering in this article:

  • What Is a Paraprofessional?
  • What Does a Paraprofessional Do?
  • What Are The Qualifications To Become a Paraprofessional
  • How Do I Get a Job?
  • The First 90 Days as a Paraprofessional
  • This Is Amazing! What’s Next?

I’ll provide as much context and as many examples as possible so you get the most in-depth understanding of what it takes to become a special education paraprofessional.

What Is a Paraprofessional?

There’s definitely some things to clarify here. Paraprofessionals go by different titles.

  • Paraprofessional
  • Paraeducator
  • Parapro
  • Para
  • Ed Tech
  • Classroom Assistant
  • Instructional Aide
  • Teacher Assistant
  • Angel… okay, I made this one up but I think Paraprofessionals are!

They all mean the same thing. I’m going to use paraprofessional for consistency, as well as it being the official title of this position that is recognized by the majority of establishments and organizations.

A paraprofessional is an employee who works under the direct supervision of a certified teacher and/or other certified personnel. A paraprofessional provides assistance and support to a wide range of students including those with health needs, limited English proficiency, a 504 plan, IEP, or those needing just a bit of extra support.

What Does a Paraprofessional Do?

Paraprofessionals are typically employed by a school district or other education agency. Working in various educational settings, the responsibilities of a paraprofessional will be different depending on the district, school, and organization they work for. Even from classroom to classroom, the job can look different depending on the needs of the students. 

Paraprofessionals provide support to students inside and outside of the classroom. They can work one-on-one with a student, with a small group of students, or even with a whole class of students. 

Here are some examples of the types of support paraprofessional provide:

Instructional Support

Paraprofessionals work with students to reinforce their learning. A certified teacher is ultimately responsible for designing, creating, and planning instruction, however the implementation of instruction is where paraprofessionals can play a huge role in the success of student learning and achievement.

For example, in the general education setting a paraprofessional might work in a classroom where they support a small group of students who have been identified by the teacher as needing extra support. So the teacher just finished teaching whole group instruction and is transitioning students into small groups for differentiated instructional support. The paraprofessional would take a small group of students, perhaps into the common pod space and work with them on their two-digit addition.

A teacher should provide the paraprofessional with instructional directions, goals for the students, and any other important details. At the end of the small group session, a paraprofessional might leave some notes for the teacher or pieces of evidence such as exit tickets communicating the progress of the students. Assessment tools such as exit tickets should be provided by the teacher.

Paraprofessionals also work with and support students who are English Language Learners, ELL. Definitely not a requirement but really cool if you happen to speak a student’s native language. Paraprofessionals can support English language learners with not only academic but functional language too! Even if you don’t speak a student’s native language, kids get a kick out of an adult that tries. 

Depending on a student’s disability and needs, a paraprofessional working in a special education setting can be quite different. Again, the certified special education teacher is responsible for designing, creating, and planning instruction. Implementation of instruction can be shared between the special education teacher and paraprofessional. However, in this case, the student’s IEP will be the main driver. I always have my paraprofessionals read student IEPs front to back. It’s important for paraprofessionals to have this information and for everyone on the team to be on the same page.

An example of instructional support in the special education classroom could be that a student qualifies for specially designed instruction in the content area of math. Their goal is:

Math progress example

With this goal in mind, a special education teacher creates plans for instruction and has the paraprofessional implement it. So the learning activity could simply be that a paraprofessional uses cubes to have the student identify the appropriate quantities and numbers they are shown. The above goal also has a data tracking sheet that a paraprofessional would be responsible for filling out and giving to the teacher at the end of the session. 

Behavior Support

Paraprofessionals will often work on the front lines when it comes to students requiring support with behaviors. This can be behaviors ranging from classroom expectations, to schoolwide rules, social and emotional needs, friendships, to even the greater community and society. Remember at the beginning when I said provide them everything they need for success in life? Well managing behaviors and helping students learn appropriate behaviors is a big one.

A student might have a behavior intervention plan, BIP, in their IEP. This means that there are behavior goals that this student is working toward and there are specific instructions regarding how to work with this student if they display this behavior. All educators that work with students that have a BIP, as well as an IEP should know the details of the plan so there is consistency.

A special education teacher should provide the paraprofessional instruction, direction, and strategies for supporting and teaching the student when the behavior need arises. Strategies can include:

  • Re-direction
  • Specific praise for desired behavior
  • Visual cues
  • Organization strategies
  • Frequent check ins
  • Support with transitions

Typically students struggling with behaviors will form a strong bond with the paraprofessional they work with each day. There were many times I had a student melt down where I was unable to support de-escalation, only for me to call the paraprofessional they worked with. Two or three smoothing and gentle words and like magic, the student is calm. Angels!

Medical and Physical Support

Paraprofessionals can work with students that need medical support. This can range from students with diabetes that require their blood sugar levels checked, severe allergies, risk of seizures, or identified as medically fragile. A student that requires medical support will have an individual healthcare plan, IHCP. This will typically come from the school/district nurse.

There will be some students who have a physical disability. The student’s need will depend on the severity of their disability but often a paraprofessional will support students with their adaptive skills that could include:

  • Communication
  • Self-Care
  • Toileting
  • Reading schedules
  • Implementing visual supports
  • Reinforcement systems
  • Transitioning 

What Are The Qualifications To Become a Paraprofessional?

Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA, was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015. Paraprofessionals provide instructional support for students. That means under ESSA, a paraprofessional must hold a high school diploma or its equivalent. A paraprofessional under ESSA must also meet ONE of the following requirements:

  • Finished two years of study at a college, university, or technical school
  • Hold at least an associate’s degree
  • Provide documentation of passing a formal state assessment that qualifies an individual to assist in reading, writing, and math instruction

Beyond the requirements outlined in ESSA, states and even school districts can have further requirements so it’s important to carefully read the job description and don’t hesitate to reach out to the human resources department for clarification. 

We need qualified and incredible people working as paraprofessionals in our schools. I went ahead and did the research. Here are some articles with descriptions and reviews to help you at whichever stage you are currently at:

Assuming you have a high school degree or a high school equivalency, the quickest way to meet the second requirement is to take the ParaPro Assessment and of course pass it. If you’re anything like me, I like to feel prepared before taking any sort of test. Plus, I think it’s been about 12 or more years since I’ve taken one!

I went ahead and looked into the best options that are out there for ParaPro practice tests (both free and paid). Take a look at this article, Best ParaPro Practice Tests.

If you’re looking for a more robust preparation program that provides training, certification, and or an associate’s degree to meet the requirements set by ESSA to become a paraprofessional, take a look at the following article I wrote, The 5 Best Paraprofessional Programs.

How Do I Get a Job?

At this point we’re making the assumption that you’re qualified and ready to go! Perfect! Here are a few things to consider and think about that can help guide you:

  • Do you know anyone personally or professionally that currently works as a paraprofessional that you could talk with?
  • How about people you know who work in schools? Teachers, special education teachers, or principals perhaps?
  • Would you enjoy working at your neighborhood school or would you like a  little separation between home and work?
  • What age group of students would you enjoy working with the most? Elementary, middle school, or high school?
  • How far and long would you want to commute to work and back home?

If you’re starting from scratch, I’d suggest searching for the local school districts in your area. Find the district website and look for employment opportunities. Sometimes it’s under human resources. From there you can navigate your way to the paraprofessional job postings.

You’ll need to do the following:

  • Fill out a job application
  • Write and submit a resume
  • Write and submit a cover letter
  • Submit references from friends, colleagues, and employers – typically three references
  • and hopefully…. Interview for a job!

If you’re a bit rusty on any of the above, take a look at these two articles I wrote:

  • Job Applications, Resumes, Cover Letters, and References
  • Special Education Paraprofessional Interview Questions

The First 90 Days as a Paraprofessional

Congratulations! I knew you could do it! Here are a few tips that I think you need to know and might be helpful in your first 90 days as a paraprofessional.

  1. Be on time for work and leave when you’re done for the day – Seems simple enough but I’ve seen every extreme of this. Showing up late for work and or leaving early is one of the quickest ways to get fired in any job.
  2. Read through the IEPs – I can’t emphasize this enough. Paraprofessionals work with students on IEPs almost every minute of their work day. You need to know what’s in the plan. Ask your teacher if you can get access to that.
  3. Take your paid break and duty free lunch – Most school districts work with paraprofessional unions to ensure you have a 15-minute paid break for every X amount of hours you work. Make sure you know your contract. Same goes for duty free lunch. That’s typically 30 minutes. Some people like to spend this time alone to rebalance themselves and that’s totally okay to do. But when you’re new, it might not be a bad idea to use this time to get to know your coworkers and for them to get to know you.
  4. Find a paraprofessional mentor – Get to know your colleagues. Watch and listen to them as they work. After some time, you’ll get a feel for who you click with. See if they’re okay if you ask them questions from time to time. Get their advice on things. Whoever you likely gravitate toward will be a paraprofessional with some experience.
  5. Ask your special education teacher questions – If something is unclear, be sure to ask them for help and clarification. The special education classroom can be hectic at times so be sure you read the situation. If it’s something quick, sure go for it. But if it’s something that might take some time, wait. Maybe even send them a quick email to see if they can meet with you before or after school. 
  6. You’re on probation – No, I’m being serious. Typically when any employee enters into their first 90 days of employment in a school district, they are on probation. You’ll receive an evaluation from your supervisor. Assuming everything is going well, you’ll receive a termination of probation letter, which means everything is good to go. The principal or assistant principal is usually your formal evaluator. But often the administrator will hand that responsibility to the special education teacher you are assigned to. Makes sense. They see you every minute of every work day.

This Is Amazing! What’s Next?

As a special education teacher, autism specialist, and special education program specialist I’ve worked with hundreds of paraprofessionals. Paraprofessionals often make the best special education teachers because:

  • They have a passion for working with students that have disabilities
  • Paraprofessionals see and do the work that special education teachers do side by side
  • Paraprofessionals know the daily grind that special teachers go through when it comes to planning, creating, and implementing anywhere between 20-30 different instructional activities to meet IEP goals

I could go on but here are some logical next steps that I think are highly valuable for a paraprofessional who might be interested in exploring the route to becoming a special education teacher. 

Attend IEP meetings – Talk to your special education teacher and principal. Tell them you’re interested in learning more about becoming a special education teacher and you’d appreciate observing more IEP meetings. Be a silent observer. Wait to ask your special education teacher and principal questions after the meeting is over

Attend special education workshops and conferences – Attending workshops and conferences are some of the best ways to learn about special education from the experts. These workshops and conferences are both educational and provide you opportunities to network with other professionals. Attend together as a special education team. If budget is an issue, see if your principal or the school PTA would be willing to cover the registration fee. Offering to come back to school and present and share learning with your school colleagues and possibly the school parent community is money well spent.

Learn more about how to become a special education teacher – If you’re serious about becoming a special education teacher, you need to read this article. I also have research that I did on the best special education degree programs available.

Conclusion

Feel free to comment below or email me if you have any questions! Good luck and thanks for everything you do and will do in service of kids, teachers, families, and school communities!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Leave a Comment