Paraprofessionals are typically expected to record and share data about students. State and national standards explicitly mention this work. Team members will tell you exactly what to do to help with this task; it’s not something you decide to do on your own. In fact, your supervising teacher or team might want to give you very detailed instructions about what data to record and how to record it.

Teachers, schools, and districts gather and record data in a wide variety of ways. But you will be involved in only some types of data gathering and recording. You might, for instance, be asked to record information during a one-on-one session with a student—perhaps the number of errors on a reading or math exercise. Or you might track the frequency of a particular behavior during a set time period (for instance, recording how many times a student leaves her desk to walk around the classroom during each half-hour of the school day).

But before moving on, let’s first specify the sorts of “data” we’re talking about in this unit. The data we’re talking about is information gathered specifically to help plan for, estimate the progress of, and modify instruction. Information pertinent to these instructional tasks is what you will most often help gather and record and then share with the team.

Students with disabilities, of course, often receive more individual attention than other students. After all, they’ve been identified as experiencing challenges that require a more individual approach. For example, to determine their eligibility for special education services, school personnel gathered and recorded relevant data about them. The IEP team met and used the data to develop special educational plans for them (their Individualized Education Programs). IEPs exist for one purpose only: to help students learn better. Additional data collection may become part of your job as a paraprofessional so that your instructional team can help one or more students learn better.

In fact, you, your supervising teacher, and others on the instructional team are employed by school districts to make sure that students learn better. As educators, it’s our responsibility to see that this happens. And instructional plan itself (e.g., an IEP) does not help students learn better, however. It’s just the first step in an ongoing process. And each step in the process depends on accurate data about how well students are learning important content as a result of what and how they are taught. Do you see what’s at stake with gathering and recording data? Right: it’s one way to find out if we are helping.

So because we expect students to learn better—and because we expect our instructional decisions to enable them to learn better—the need to gather data is ongoing. Indeed, IEPs need at least annual revisions for just this reason, even if things are going well. But if things are not going well, immediate revisions are necessary. Educators may collect data for this purpose every day or once a week. To address IEP goals, instruction must be tailored to the needs of the individual student. And tailoring instruction requires information about how well particular instructional strategies are working. So gathering, recording, and sharing data with the instructional team are critical steps in the effort to work with students with learning challenges—and, it turns out, most students have learning challenges from time to time.

Many educators see data gathering and recording as particularly interesting. Why? Data often suggest insights and patterns that are not easy to see,and sometimes are impossible to see, otherwise. Data can help the team (including you) see important things that might otherwise be overlooked.

Such information can be critical to a team (or an individual teacher) trying to determine if progress toward an instructional goal is occurring. Educators want to know if what they are doing is working! Sometimes, we think we already know: it feels like things are working. But the processes of gathering data systematically and looking at it together with others on the instructional team provide a wider, and often more reliable, perspective.

That word “systematically” is very important. Mere information becomes “data” only because it is treated systematically! Information without system is far less useful.

What to gather, how to gather it, when to gather it, and how to use it are decisions that all should be specified in advance. Plans for data gathering, recording, and use help make the effort systematic. You need to rely on the team to find, adapt, or invent an appropriate system for whatever data you are asked to gather.

But keep your eyes open too—there are a lot of interesting things to learn. For example, your close observation of a student may point to a possible problem that no one else has considered, such as a sensory processing difficulty or an emotional response to certain learning tasks. Observations such as these may guide the team’s decisions about what data to collect and how to collect it.

Careful recording habits are also critical. Why? Data are gathered for the purpose of preserving them to share with the team, so it’s essential to record information carefully. When you are the one gathering data, you have the important role of recording it clearly and accurately. In a sense, when you gather data, you are the recording instrument. If data get recorded inaccurately, they become useless to the team! So you too are part of any system used to gather data.

Of course, you will be gathering and recording data only under the direction of the instructional team (even if that team includes just you and a teacher). And these data are for the team’s or the teacher’s eyes only. The next unit (Unit 9, on “confidentiality”) discusses how information—such as the data you might gather to help improve instruction—must be safeguarded.