Special Education Services

The Role of a Paraprofessional in Special Education

Special education has evolved tremendously over the last several decades, and that evolution has sparked the need for more professionals who can provide specific services to classroom students. 

A paraprofessional is one of those roles that is somewhat recent with roots in the 1960s. Still, these educators are pivotal to today’s general and special education classrooms, allowing students to communicate, learn, and thrive in their school environment. 

As a parent, you might be interested in understanding what paraprofessionals do and the role they play in your child’s classroom. I’ve compiled a helpful guide to introduce you to the paraprofessional role and dive into the many tasks they tackle each day.

A Guide to the Role of a Paraprofessional

  • What Is a Paraprofessional in Special Education?
  • What Does a Paraprofessional Help With?
  • Common Tasks for Paraprofessionals
  • The Vital Role of the Paraprofessional

What Is a Paraprofessional in Special Education?

Some schools swap the term paraprofessional for instructional aide, teachers assistants, or another title. Paraprofessional refers to educators who are not certified teachers but provide assistance to students in the classroom.

Paraprofessionals are not only found in special education, but schools use them frequently in this field. These professionals support a general or special education teacher with multiple classroom tasks, ensuring that each student is able to learn to the best of their ability. As such, the paraprofessional typically gets assigned to a classroom rather than one student or group of students. In unique circumstances, a paraprofessional may be assigned to one student if the need is indicated in the student’s IEP. 

In a special education classroom, the paraprofessional provides both individualized and group support to students. It’s the paraprofessional’s responsibility to follow through with the lead teacher’s lesson plans and activities, offering help to students, as needed, to complete assignments and understand instruction. The paraprofessional also helps teachers prepare for the day by organizing lesson plans and activities. 

Although paraprofessionals are not required to have teaching certification or licensure, they’re an integral part of the education system, especially the special education system. Teachers and students in special education rely on their extra set of hands, eyes, ears, and ideas to manage and support their classrooms.

What Does a Paraprofessional Help With?

The responsibilities of a paraprofessional can change from day to day based on what their specific classroom, teacher, and students need. They may provide support in each of the following areas:

Teacher Aid

One of the most important ways that paraprofessionals assist the classroom is by helping the special education teacher. The paraprofessional offers a hand in organizing and preparing materials for the day, going over IEPs and 504 plans to ensure that progress is being made toward goals, and setting up the classroom for productivity.

While the teacher instructs students through lessons, the paraprofessional may work with a small group of students who need extra help. They also walk around the classroom to assist students in assignment completion or test-taking. The paraprofessional and teacher together act as a team to offer as much support to students as possible, also allowing the teacher to focus on their primary responsibilities.

Educational Aid

A paraprofessional supports the classroom, and their support often goes to students who need extra help with assignments, tests, or understanding instruction. Paraprofessionals may oversee students during tests, offer additional instruction after the teacher completes their lesson, or help a group of students who need reading support complete their assignment.

As an educational assistant, the paraprofessional may also, under the guidance of the teacher, tweak lessons or activities for students with an IEP who need modifications or to work on a specific goal. Paraprofessionals in special education may spend some time each day working individually with students while the rest of the day is reserved for the classroom’s educational support.

Physical Aid

A special education classroom may have students with physical disabilities who need help moving from one area of the classroom to another, sitting up, eating, or writing. A paraprofessional can assist with physical tasks so that the teacher can focus on instruction. 

Safety is a priority for paraprofessionals in this area. Paraprofessionals keep an eye on students with physical disabilities to ensure that they’re safe and secure at all times, especially when using medical equipment. But they also must have a clear understanding of how to use the child’s special equipment and what the student’s physical needs are to assist them safely.

Behavioral Aid

Classrooms including students with behavioral needs can benefit from a paraprofessional’s extra set of hands, eyes, and ears. Paraprofessionals often become secondary observers in the classroom to keep students on task and prevent potential safety issues. They also might work with students with behavioral needs separately on some tasks that typically trigger specific behaviors from the student when in the usual classroom setting.

Common Tasks for Paraprofessionals

Paraprofessionals complete numerous tasks in the classroom by helping the teacher and students. Here, I detail the different kinds of tasks you might expect a paraprofessional to do in the classroom.

Observance

Paraprofessionals start most days by observing the classroom and students. Observance includes meeting with the teacher, reviewing the plan for the day, and learning what the teacher expects help with. The paraprofessional may also walk around to gauge the classroom climate and determine what students may need assistance with specific tasks.

Here are a few examples of paraprofessional observance tasks:

  • The paraprofessional sees a group of students reading together and sits nearby with a notepad to jot down some questions to ask when they’re finished.
  • During a classroom assignment, the paraprofessional sees a student having difficulty writing the letters “b” and “d” facing the right direction and reports the observation to the teacher.
  • The paraprofessional circles the room during a period of test-taking to ensure that students stay on task. 
  • After working one-on-one with a student on an IEP math goal, the paraprofessional reports on the child’s progress to the teacher.

Support

Supportive tasks consume most of a paraprofessional’s day. These are the tasks where the paraprofessional physically assists the teacher and students with classwork, projects, and other tasks. Supportive tasks also include those that support the classroom as a whole, such as organizing activity bins for the following day or adding labels to classroom items and furniture.

These tasks can vary greatly with each classroom, teacher, and student. Here are some examples:

  • After showing a shoe-tying video to a student, they tie their laces with little help. Then, the paraprofessional offers reinforcement.
  • The paraprofessional assists students with a classroom project while the teacher finishes a child’s evaluation.
  • Before class begins each day, the paraprofessional reminds students of the classroom expectations.
  • A student arrives at school with a note from a parent saying that they struggled with their homework the previous night. The paraprofessional reads a book to the class while the teacher spends one-on-one time with the student reviewing the lesson from yesterday.

Communication

Paraprofessionals also assist in bridging communication gaps between teachers, students, schools, and parents or guardians. As an extra person in a classroom, the paraprofessional can ensure that each person is on the same page. Here’s how that might look in the classroom:

  • The paraprofessional may attend a child’s IEP meeting with the special education teacher to provide extra insight.
  • During instructional time, the paraprofessional walks around the room to ask if students have any additional questions or explain anything they don’t understand. 
  • A paraprofessional with knowledge of a specific language, like Spanish or American Sign Language, interprets for English language learners or students hard-of-hearing.
  • After a student completes their classroom assignment within the allotted time frame, the paraprofessional responds with reinforcement.

Virtual vs. Traditional Classrooms

Today’s modern classrooms look different than they did in the past. With some special education classrooms going virtual, the paraprofessional’s tasks remain the same, but the way the aide executes them can vary.

For instance, supportive tasks can be pretty challenging in a virtual classroom setting. Paraprofessionals can adapt by assisting learners one-on-one or in groups in breakout sessions. They also might provide help to students and families by gathering and offering digital resources or assist teachers with preparing digital resources and assignments for learners.

For some paraprofessionals, attending special education conferences and webinars could provide helpful skills for assisting in virtual classrooms.

The Vital Role of the Paraprofessional

Paraprofessionals are arguably some of the most integral people in the special education system. Not only do they provide an incredible amount of support to learners, but they also assist teachers, schools, parents and guardians, and the special education classroom as a whole.

Have you thought about becoming a paraprofessional (people experienced with kids in the special education system often make the best ones!). Perhaps you would like to learn more about the pathway taken to enter this role? If so, explore my guide to becoming a paraprofessional in special education. 

If you have any questions or would like to talk about a fantastic paraprofessional who you know, please leave a comment below or send me an email!

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.

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