The following podcasts represent a series of interviews with Dr. Michael Giangreco, Professor in the Department of Education and Coordinator of the graduate program in Special Education at the University of Vermont. In these podcasts, Dr. Giangreco explains how districts’ intentional uses of paraprofessionals as part of an overall service delivery model, can benefit all students and the educators who support them.
About Michael F. Giangreco
Michael F. Giangreco, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Education at the University of Vermont and serves as Coordinator of the Graduate program in Special Education. He is also affiliated with the Center on Disability & Community Inclusion. Prior to joining the faculty at UVM in 1988 he served as a community residence counselor with adults with developmental disabilities, special education teacher, and special education administrator. His work focuses on various aspects of education for students with developmental disabilities within general education classrooms such as curriculum planning and adaptation, related services decision-making and coordination, alternatives to overreliance on paraprofessionals and inclusive special education service delivery. Dr. Giangreco is the author of numerous professional publications on a variety of special education topics and has published a series of cartoons depicting educational issues and research findings.
In this podcast, Dr. Giangreco explains that requests for paraprofessional support often come from a reactive stance. He suggests instead that districts and schools use a set of guiding principles and take aligned action steps that are proactive in nature and appropriate for local contexts.
Interview with Michael Giangreco: PODCAST 1
INTERVIEWER: Welcome to the OPEPP Podcast Series: Learning about Paras from Michael Giangreco. This is Aimee Howley. I am one of the consultants who works with the University of Cincinnati Systems Development and Improvement Center. In this podcast Dr. Giangreco talks about guiding principles for providing support to students with disabilities. The ideas he talks about come from a 2012 article, “Constructively Responding to Requests for Paraprofessionals: We Keep Asking the Wrong Questions.”
MICHAEL: I’m Michael Giangreco, I’m a professor at the University of Vermont. I coordinate the graduate program in special education.
MICHAEL: So, to start off with I want to just say that the list that’s in the article is a non-exhaustive list. It’s a list of examples. But it’s so important to have a set of guiding principles that are consistent with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and also promising practices in the field, so that we make sure that the support services that we’re providing are actually educationally relevant.
INTERVIEWER: I agree completely about guiding principles. OPEPP is working right now with seven districts, and a set of guiding principles would be extremely useful to educators in those districts—and in other districts as well. So what’s the first guiding principle?
MICHAEL: So one of the first items that was listed in that article was just a very basic principle, but one that surprisingly isn’t always followed. And that’s simply that all students with disabilities deserve access to—and their primary instruction from—highly-qualified teachers and special educators. Too often, some of our students with the most intensive needs are getting a substantial amount of their instruction from paraprofessionals, who are well-meaning and maybe doing a great job, but, by definition, they’re not teachers or special educators. So we want to make sure that all kids have access to high-quality instruction from licensed professionals.
INTERVIEWER: Wow! That’s certainly a significant guiding principle—deserving primary instruction from highly qualified teachers and special educators. My hunch is that districts probably want the same thing too—and they’re just not conscious of how often students with disabilities are receiving instruction from people with limited background in teaching and learning. I wonder if it has to do with the fact that districts are trying hard to provide as much service as possible to students with disabilities.
MICHAEL: Secondly, One of the things that’s so important is that we want to make sure that support services are both educationally relevant and necessary. And there’s an old cowboy saying: never ask a barber if he thinks you need a haircut. Because the answer’s always gonna be yes. And similarly, if you ask people in the helping professions if they can help, the answer is always going to be yes. But that’s really the wrong question to be asking. They’re related services. A provision of the IDEA asks us to consider what’s educationally necessary—meaning that without that service, the student won’t be able to receive a free, appropriate public education. So these are two really different bars. And we want to narrow the scope from what could help to what is necessary and is designed to help students and make sure that they get the supports that they need. So it’s important to remember that students with disabilities don’t go to school to get therapy; they go to school to get an education, and they receive related services if those support services are necessary for the students to access and participate in their education.
INTERVIEWER: So I guess this principle might apply to the assignment of a one-on-one parapro as well as services like physical therapy and occupational therapy. Could you share another guiding principle?
MICHAEL: Another guiding principle that we used in our own work is the idea of providing services that are “only as special” or “only as specialized as necessary.” And that this is kind of the least restrictive support option. The opposite…there’s kind of two opposites of this. One is the more-is-better approach: the idea that, well, if one session of therapy or related services is good, two is better, and three would be better yet. And the problem with that is that it’s a benevolent intention, but can be misguided in terms of, if we’re giving students support services that they don’t need, that aren’t necessary for them to access their education, sometimes this actually interferes with them getting an appropriate education. Another opposite is what some people have termed a return-on-investment model, and this is very slippery slope of making decisions about students based on what we think that they will contribute based on what we’re providing them in terms of support. So the alternative to both of those kind of unhelpful approaches is only-as-special-as-necessary. So we’re trying to give kids what they need, but not more than they need. And I want to point out that only-as-special-as-necessary doesn’t necessarily mean a little bit. For some students, only-as-special-as-necessary could be quite expensive support, and in other cases it’s less so.
INTERVIEWER: And, I’m assuming that this “only-as-special-as necessary” also relates to what a student needs in order to benefit from his or her education. So an example might be a student who is having a difficult time communicating in the classroom and whose learning would improve if she received speech and language therapy, perhaps once a week. Are there additional guiding principles that address the kind of support that would be helpful and, at the same time, less intrusive?
MICHAEL: Another guiding principle that is mentioned in the article is the idea of the teams providing “natural support.” So, one of the things that we’ve kind of gotten into the habit of in special education—maybe not surprisingly—is making everything special. And sometimes, special things can be stigmatizing, or they can get in the way of more natural support. So by “natural supports,” I’m talking about the kinds of support that would be available to students if they didn’t have a disability, like the regular classroom teacher, like their peers. Um, could be some very commonly available assistive technology, like using an iPad, something like that. And it’s not that we don’t sometimes need specialized supports, because obviously sometimes we do, but that we shouldn’t start immediately with most specialized or highly specialized supports, that we should start with more natural supports first. And this is true also when we’re thinking about, um, personnel supports like, for example, assigning a one-to-one paraprofessional as the first option is probably overly specialized and potentially overly restrictive before considering if there are ways to support that student in other ways.
INTERVIEWER: I really like how you are viewing typically developing peers and common technologies as the first types of supports to consider. In classrooms these days handhelds and tablets are very common, and I know there are a lot of apps that improve accessibility to learning materials and provide support. I’m wondering how this idea leads to the next guiding principle. Where does that lead?
MICHAEL: Which really leads right into one of the next, um, points in terms of guiding principles, which is making sure that students with disabilities have a voice in determining their own supports—so, basically, self-determination. Lots of times we can ask students directly what they need, what’s helpful, what’s not helpful, what feels good to them in terms of support, what feels intrusive in terms of support, and this is something that we can start in an age-appropriate way when kids are really young and keep increasing as they age. Just a couple more of these before of these before we go on to the next question, but, uh, in some situations where paraprofessionals are utilized, um, you know, they need to be adequately trained for their roles and supervised. And, um, one of the things that happens is that we want to determine roles of paraprofessionals and this is a very common thing that schools do. It’s like, they want to do a job description, consider the roles of the paraprofessionals. And one of the things we’ve learned over time is that you really are not in a position to determine the appropriate role for paraprofessionals until you have appropriately determined the role for the teachers and the special educators. Once you’ve done that, then you’re in a position to start asking questions about how we can utilize paraprofessionals in ways that support the work of the teacher and the special educator, as opposed to the paraprofessionals potentially supplanting the work of those folks.
INTERVIEWER: And how does this relate to double standards?
MICHAEL: And this also leads to trying to avoid unhelpful double standards, whereby students with disabilities receive supports in ways that would be unacceptable for other students. So, paraprofessionals are a great example of this. For example, we have data that suggests that there are some students—particularly, students who receive one-to-one paraprofessional supports—who might be receiving 75, 80, in some cases, 100% of their instruction from paraprofessionals. And there’s a very general question that we encourage people to ask that can be applied to this issue and many other issues. And it’s very simply this: would it be ok if the student didn’t have a disability? Would the practice be ok? So, for example, if somebody said, you know, “We’ve got a new reading program that we’re going to roll out for our first graders, and, um, it’s not gonna be carried out by any of the teachers or literacy specialists; it’s gonna all be done by paraprofessionals who don’t have, necessarily, training do the program, and they’re not really supervised as much as we really should, um, but that’s what we’re gonna do.” Or, you know, “Some student needs help in math, and we’re gonna assign a person who maybe is not really comfortable with teaching math and doesn’t have any background in teaching math.” Is that what we would do for students that didn’t have a disability? So this question of would it be ok if the student didn’t have a disability is a really important one to consider.
INTERVIEWER: I think the principle about avoiding a double-standard is very important. It seems like, for a very long time, we’ve had double-standards of one sort or another for students with disabilities in contrast to their typically developing peers. Of course, we can all think of situations in which a students’ immediate needs seem to call for a one-on-one parapro. Is there any way to maximize the benefit of such a support while minimizing the potential damage?
MICHAEL: And the last point is that If a one-to-one paraprofessional is assigned, a guiding principle is that it needs to start by thinking of it as a temporary measure and start to put plans in place to evaluate the impact of the service, and, if at all possible, to fade that support as much and as soon as possible to encourage student independence and natural supports and appropriate interdependence. So those are some of the examples of the kinds of guiding principles that a team might consider and try to get everybody on the same wavelength on the team so that when someone suggests something, you can then judge it against your own guiding principles that you’ve agreed to as a school or a team.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you so much, Michael, for sharing these guiding principles for assigning parapros to provide support to students with disabilities. And thanks to listeners for joining us for this podcast. We would like to give credit to Terry Grimm at State Support Team 5 for creating his podcast and to Steven Arntson for music, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
This podcast provides insights from a study conducted by Dr. Giangreco and colleagues to learn how special education teachers and paraprofessionals spend their time. The podcast also shares the perspectives of paraprofessionals, professionals, and parents about school-wide practices associated with inclusive special education. As the podcast suggests, these practices may contribute to ineffective uses of paraprofessionals. Dr. Giangreco offers suggestions for addressing the root causes of problems associated with the inappropriate work assignments of some special education paraprofessionals.
Interview with Michael Giangreco: PODCAST 1
Interview with Michael Giangreco: PODCAST 2
INTERVIEWER: Welcome to the second OPEPP Podcast in the Series: Learning about Paras from Michael Giangreco. I’m Aimee Howley, one of the consultants who works with the University of Cincinnati’s Systems Development & Improvement Center. This podcast shares insights from Michael Giangreco’s article, “Paraprofessionals in Inclusive Schools: Are We Addressing Symptoms or Causes?” Michael, in this article you reported statistics about the way paraprofessionals use their time. As I understand it, time use of school personnel can tell us a lot about their roles and functions. Did anything you discovered about the use of parapros and special education teachers’ time surprise or worry you?
MICHAEL: Yes, absolutely. One of the first things that we saw from our data was that special ed paraprofessionals were spending a greater percentage of their time in instruction than were the special education teachers with whom they worked. So right off the bat, you’re talking about greater percentage of instruction from those folks.
INTERVIEWER: Let me just stop for a minute and process that finding. You’re saying that parapros were actually doing more teaching than the teachers. That would mean that the students in those special education programs were receiving more of their instruction from parapros than from their special education teachers. That’s astounding, and very worrying.
MICHAEL: The other thing that was very interesting—and this has come up in the study and a number of other studies, actually—is that paraprofessionals spend substantially less time doing clerical tasks than the special educators with whom they work. And, as I mentioned, we found this in other studies, where we observed, for example, during the middle of the school day, the special ed teacher with a master’s degree was at the copy machine making copies of materials for class while the paraprofessional was engaged in small-group instruction. And what’s kind of interesting about this is when you dive deeper into some of the qualitative research on this, it happens for, in essence, a very positive reason. People in schools were trying to demonstrate their respect for paraprofessionals by not asking them to do what they considered to be “menial tasks.” So, what’s interesting is what people think of as menial tasks has to be done by someone, and who makes sense to do them? The other thing is, characterizing these tasks as menial, I think, is a problem in and of itself. If something is important enough that must be done by someone and someone’s going to get paid to do it, it’s not menial. And so one of the things we really want to encourage teachers and special educators to communicate when they’re asking paraprofessionals to engage in things like clerical tasks or supervision of students on the playground or cafeteria duty—or whatever it is—is to help them understand that they are providing an important support to the teacher and/or special educator, allowing them time to collaborate with one another and, in some cases, to work directly with students who have disabilities.
INTERVIEWER: Yes—it certainly seems important for the instructional team to plan their work so that teachers can lead the instructional effort and provide most of the instruction, while parapros contribute clerical and other types of support. Both types of work are critical. So can you talk some more about what you found through this study?
MICHAEL: The other thing that we found—that was in some ways counterintuitive—was that one-to-one paraprofessionals actually spent less of their time in instruction than the classroom- or program-based paraprofessionals. So, presumably, when a paraprofessional is assigned one-to-one to a student in a very dedicated fashion, I think some people might think that they’re getting more instructional time. But it’s not exactly what’s happening. So, just because the student has a one-to-one paraprofessional, people shouldn’t assume that they’re getting more intensive instruction or a greater percentage of instruction. Um, and it’s something we need to dive more deeply into.
INTERVIEWER: That’s kind of odd. I hope you’ll be doing some more research to find out why this might be the case. Can you talk a bit about what you observed about behavior management?
MICHAEL: The special ed paraprofessionals were spending a higher percentage of their time—quite substantially so—dealing with behavior issues and providing behavior support than the special educators. If my memory serves me, they were spending about three times as much time, the paraprofessionals were, than the special educators.
INTERVIEWER: Why is that important?
MICHAEL: This is important for a couple of reasons—one is that it may point to areas of professional development where we might want to focus efforts to help our paraprofessionals be more prepared to deal with these things. But also it suggests, um, some kind of root problems. The whole idea of this article or, kind of, the framing of the title of the article is that we’re dealing with symptoms and not causes. And so often when people see challenges related to paraprofessionals, they want to go right to: how do we train them better, what should we be training them on? And, certainly, training paraprofessionals is an important thing to do, but oftentimes it doesn’t really solve the root problem.
INTERVIEWER: So the root problem here might be that the special educators lack the skills necessary to manage behavior effectively. Right? Or the root problem might be that students don’t have the right kind of instructional supports—simple assistive technology, for instance—so they’re acting out.
MICHAEL: And assigning a paraprofessional may, in fact, just delay attention to the root problems. It might not be the paraprofessionals we need to be looking at. It may be the teachers and special educators and how the systems are set up.
INTERVIEWER: Did you find anything else about how parapros were using their time?
MICHAEL: We found that paraprofessionals spent a substantial amount of their time self-directed, not operating from the plans that were prepared by professionals. And so…again, this has been replicated in a variety of other studies, where we hear a lot of stories from paraprofessionals—as well as teachers and special educators—who tell us that so often paraprofessionals are given really minimal direction about what to do. They’re kind of expected to watch what happens and figure it out and adapt for students, and they’re doing a lot without operating from professionally prepared plans. And so I think that that’s a concern area that we should be looking at.
INTERVIEWER: Does that have anything to do with practices for supervising parapros and, if so, does the type of school in which the para is working play into this at all?
MICHAEL: Let me remind you that these data were collected in what we would characterize as “inclusion-oriented” schools. Typically, these were schools that had regular class placement rates that exceeded the national average, and many were in the 70% to 90% of the students with disabilities being included in regular class at least 80% of the time or more. But one of the things we found in these schools—and this has been replicated over several studies that we’ve done on this topic—here in Vermont and across some other states as well—is that in these inclusion-oriented schools, on average, only about two percent of a special educator’s time is available for supervision per paraprofessional. Which means that basically the paraprofessionals are on their own. So, you know, unlike kind of old-style special class models of special education, where the special ed teacher is there all day with the special ed paraprofessionals to supervise them and direct them and so on, that’s not the case at more inclusion-oriented schools. The special educators typically distributed across other classrooms, and, also, they often have multiple paraprofessionals that they are supporting in different locations. And, again, it’s been consistent over a series of studies that on average they’re only getting about two percent of special educators’ time for hiring. So, again, they’re on their own, and they’re not getting the level of supervision. So if we’re gonna hire people, we need to make sure that we’re able to supervise them. In combination, these findings and data from this study, as well as other studies, suggest that the substantial investment made in hiring paraprofessionals is not always being used wisely.
INTERVIEWER: So would it help to provide better training of parapros or is something else needed?
MICHAEL: I want to be clear that this is not the fault of the paraprofessionals, and that these issues won’t be solved merely by better training of paraprofessionals. As I said before, this seems to be a go-to response—like, you’ve got a problem, go to training the paraprofessionals, clarifying their role, supervising them better. All good things to do, but probably are really not getting at the root causes.
INTERVIEWER: So root causes might have more to do with overall staffing and support—like the number of special educators or the class sizes of general educators—than with parapros per se. And, if I’m hearing you correctly, training of parapros is not a bad thing, but it’s not the solution to many of these issues. In fact, providing additional training to general and special education teachers might be a better way to address root causes especially if it helps them differentiate instruction, teach diverse learners, and co-teach with parapros. There’s a lot to think about here in terms of building the overall capacity of the staff in school systems. Thank you so much for sharing these insights from your research.
INTERVIEWER: This is Maya Rowe at WordFarmers Associates. I provided technical support to the OPEPP team in the creation of this podcast. We would like to give credit to Kevin McCleod for the music, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. And we would like to thank you for being an OPEPP listener.
In this podcast, Dr. Giangreco explains how assigning paraprofessionals to students with disabilities using a one-to-one model is not necessarily an optimal practice. Instead, he explains how building and using integrated models of service delivery in schools can provide improved opportunities to learn and supports for students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms.
Interview with Michael Giangreco: PODCAST 3
Interview with MICHAEL Giangreco: PODCAST 3
INTERVIEWER: Welcome to the third OPEPP Podcast in the series: Learning about Paras from MICHAEL Giangreco. I’m Maya Rowe, one of the consultants who works with the University of Cincinnati’s Systems Development & Improvement Center. This podcast shares ideas from MICHAEL Giangreco’s 2013 article, “Teacher Assistant Supports in Inclusive Schools.” In the article, you talked about some of the unintended consequences of assigning paras one-on-one to students with disabilities. Can you share your thoughts about this?
MICHAEL: I want to start by making the point that I understand that when schools offer one-on-one paraprofessional supports, that they’re doing this with the best of intentions. But the research data suggest that excessive proximity of paraprofessionals is fraught with a host of inadvertent detrimental effects. Things like students becoming unnecessarily dependent…that the presence of the one-to-one paraprofessional interferes with teacher ownership and engagement, that it can interfere with peers, uh, interacting with their classmates who have disabilities, that it can decrease students’ access to highly qualified instructors, that it can result in loss of personal control by students, that in some cases students—especially as they get older—can find the assignment of a one-to-one paraprofessional stigmatizing. In some cases, where paraprofessionals have been assigned to “protect the student from bullying,” we’ve got data suggesting that sometimes it can actually increase the risk of being bullied, because kids are picked on because they have a paraprofessional assigned to them, especially as they get older, in the upper elementary grades and middle school and high school. And I’d ask, you know, everybody who’s listening to imagine what their own middle school and high school life might have been like if every moment of every day there was an adult—the same adult, typically—within arm’s reach of you, watching everything that you’re doing and, you know, being involved in every aspect of your daily life, and how you would like that, and how that might have affected your peer relationships, and how that might impact your burgeoning autonomy as a teenager?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, I can imagine that. It would not have been pleasant. It probably would have been embarrassing and also a bit annoying. So what’s the more typical experience?
MICHAEL: Incrementally experiencing more autonomy as they develop, and that’s happening for most kids—they get more and more choice and control as they get older. We give them bigger decisions to make. And for these kids who have one-to-one paraprofessionals, we’ve kind of got them cocooned and not involving them in the decisions about their own supports, and so on.
INTERVIEWER: Would it help for school districts simply to cut back on the number of parapros they employ?
MICHAEL: One of the things I want to be really clear about is the research that we’ve done on our projects has never, ever advocated for simply reducing paraprofessionals or eliminating a paraprofessional. But it’s all about exploring combinations of alternatives to over-reliance on paraprofessionals that try to get at some of the root issues that we’ve been talking about here.
INTERVIEWER: Is it the parents primarily who are pushing for more support for their children?
MICHAEL: I think there’s a myth that families are the ones that are driving the advocacy for one-to-one paraprofessionals. And while it’s true that some families do advocate for this, our research shows that special ed teachers and regular ed teachers advocate one-to-one paraprofessional supports at virtually an identical rate and sometimes at a slightly higher rate than parents do. So the idea that this is all about parents and parent requests and parent advocacy is really not, I don’t think, a completely accurate view of the situation. One of the articles that is not part of the set that we’re talking about right now is an article that was published back in 2005 in the journal Teaching Exceptional Children, and it was called something like “Be Careful What You Wish For: Five Reasons To Be Concerned About the Assignment of an Individual Paraprofessional.” The reason I bring this up is because I co-authored that article with five parents—five parents who had children with quite significant disabilities. These were parents, let me just say, from different states—one was from Massachusetts, one was from Ohio, one was from Michigan, one was from Vermont. And these are your hardcore advocacy parents, who are always right there on the frontlines fighting for their kids as they should be fighting for their kids, like we all fight for our kids. But what was really interesting was these parents, over time, they came to realize that they had been advocating for the wrong thing. That while early on they might have been advocating for a one-to-one paraprofessional, they came to understand that what they really wanted was more natural supports. What they really wanted was access to the regular ed classroom. What they really wanted was access to a supported education in the regular classroom with access to the general education curriculum, as is required under the IDEA. And so it was just so interesting. And in this article, three of the parents offer short, kind of, sidebar stories about their experiences. So, again, one-to-one paraprofessionals often offered and advocated for with benevolent intention, but doesn’t really play out the way that it is intended and oftentimes has inadvertent detrimental effects.
INTERVIEWER: So if there are unintended, detrimental consequences to assigning one-on-one parapros, what are the alternatives? What else might school districts do?
MICHAEL: Here’s just some examples of things that you can do in combination, instead of assigning a one-to-one paraprofessional. And, again, none of these in and of themselves…there’s no single, kind of, magic wand, magic bullet, it’s more individually looking in schools. But a lot of these are more at a systems level, and then they trickle down having an impact on the individual student level and the team level.
INTERVIEWER: I’m assuming that when you say these alternatives are at the systems level, you’re saying these are things that districts need to do.
MICHAEL: One of the first ones is resource reallocation, where schools who have a heavy emphasis on hiring paraprofessionals trade some of those paraprofessionals in to hire more special ed teachers or literacy specialists or other highly qualified professionals. So, in some states, and in some school districts, you can take basically three paraprofessional positions and for those three paraprofessional positions hire one special educator. In some school districts that pay their paraprofessionals better, it’s having to trade in two paraprofessional positions to hire one early-career special educator. So resource reallocation is one thing.
INTERVIEWER: And the resources you’re talking about here are human resources. You’re suggesting that school districts might make different decisions about what kind of personnel to employ in their efforts to serve students with disabilities. Rather than relying on paras, they might want to shift the balance so there are more teachers and fewer paras. Right? Are there other approaches?
MICHAEL: Co-teaching is another approach, where special educators push in to regular classes to co-teach with their regular ed colleagues. The extent to which they can do this, in a practical sense, depends a great deal on how many different classes and grade levels they are trying to support. And so we’re looking at models to narrow the scope of and the range of grades and classes and subject areas. Doing things to build the capacity of regular ed teachers through professional development around things like student engagement, differentiated instruction, universal design, positive behavior supports, assistive technology. There’s a number of different areas where we can build capacity of teachers to reduce over-reliance on teacher assistance.
INTERVIEWER: But we do know that parapros serve many different functions. Do you believe there are particular job responsibilities that are well-suited for parapros?
MICHAEL: Another approach that schools have used, is to create paraprofessional paperwork assistance, where they take the kind of paperwork that doesn’t require the skills of a special educator, but they’ve taken little bits from lots of different people and combined it into—whether it’s a halftime job or a fulltime job. And again it’s the idea of, what can we take off the plate of, for example, a special ed teacher or a teacher that we can put onto the plate of a paraprofessional that would free up those more highly qualified professionals to work more directly with students with disabilities and collaborate with regular educators?
INTERVIEWER: What might be other strategies districts and schools can use to support good working conditions for special educators?
MICHAEL: Looking at things like caseload size. Looking at coordinated meeting schedules. There’s a variety of things we can do to try to improve working conditions for special ed teachers. One of the more disheartening parts of our experience in our field is that we have a lot of people who are excited about becoming special educators, only to take jobs as special educators and then leave the field within, say, five years, never to return. And when the studies have been done to look at why do people leave, a lot of times it’s around working conditions—things like caseload size, perceived administrative support, excessive paperwork. These are the kinds of things that drive people out of the field. And people who want to be special educators, they’re teachers, just like regular classroom teachers. They want to work with students. They get their reinforcement by having kids learn. And so we want to put them in the best position we can to help kids learn and for them to have that wonderful experience of experiencing seeing success among their students. I mean, nobody says, “I want to be a special educator so I can spend a day and a half a week doing paperwork.” Now, granted, we’re in a very legalistic system that has a lot of paperwork requirements, and so there’s only so much of that that can be passed along to somebody else. Some of it has to be done by special educators because it’s conceptual in nature, like IEP development with a team or those kinds of issues. But sending out notices, making appointments, making photocopies—there are other things that we can take off their plate.
INTERVIEWER: These sound like useful ways to help districts support students with disabilities without relying too heavily on parapros. Are there are other things they can do?
MICHAEL: Peer supports are another important potential strategy to reduce overreliance on paraprofessionals. I referred also earlier to self-determination. One of the stories in the article I mentioned recounts the story of a high school student with Down syndrome who had a paraprofessional who hovered too closely to this young woman and she really pushed back against it. And at first she pushed back in very atypical and kind of socially undesirable ways—by that I mean she did things that were very uncharacteristic for her. Like she literally walked out of the classroom, walked out of the school. And when they asked her about it, she said something along the lines of, “I don’t want that person to be the boss of me.” She was concerned that, you know…she was basically telling us, “This person is being too intrusive.” And finally people listened to her, and they tried fading back on the paraprofessional support. Not only did the student do really well, but it really opened the eyes of the regular education teacher. It created opportunities for that regular ed teacher to get involved with this student who had Down syndrome, and once the teachers did, they were pleasantly surprised at what this student was capable of. And they got that reinforcement of, “Wow, this kid’s really getting some stuff here! What else can we teach her?” And they started getting excited about this. So, again, the paraprofessional was assigned with benevolent intention, but sometimes it got in the way.
INTERVIEWER: In your story, it sounds like fading the parapro support actually convinced the teacher to hold higher expectations for the student. Without the para standing between the student and the teacher, the teacher was actually able to see what the student was able to do. Do you have any other suggestions for school districts?
MICHAEL: One is the idea of having a teacher assistant pool. And you could really only do this at a fairly large school—probably wouldn’t be practical at a very small school. But you know the old idea of a secretarial pool, where then people get assigned out from that pool to be assigned to different tasks on different days. By having a teacher assistant pool—and the places where I’ve seen this done, there’s only been maybe, say, two people in the pool, maybe three at the most if it’s a really large school. But these are folks that fill in when people are absent; they might fill in temporarily when there’s a new student coming to the school, where it’s been determined that they need at least initial support, and then it’s faded out. And so these are kind of floating positions that deal with short-term needs.
INTERVIEWER: You mention fading out support—is that a strategy too?
MICHAEL: What some people call a “fade plan,” other people call an “independence plan,” and it’s just the idea of, you know, if you’re going to assign a one-to-one paraprofessional, you can’t just assign them and then it’s like, well, now they’ve got a one-to-one paraprofessional the rest of their life. In fact, there’s been some litigation on this at the district court level and due process proceedings around the country where when schools have assigned paraprofessionals and have made no effort to fade that support, it has actually in some cases been identified as a violation of FAPE, of free appropriate public education. So it’s not enough just to say, “Ok, we’ve assigned a one-to-one, now that’s covered.” It’s like, “Ok, we’ve assigned a one-to-one temporarily to kind of stabilize things, now let’s get at the root issues here of our system that need to be addressed, and let’s see what else we can do to enhance the natural interdependence for the student or whatever independence level they’re able to pursue.”
INTERVIEWER: I wonder if you would mind following up for a brief minute by describing more about what you mean by a “fade plan” or an “independence plan”?
Respondent: Sure. Let’s say that you’ve got a student who’s moved into the school from another school district, it’s the middle of the year, uh, maybe the student has some behavioral issues and they’re getting used to the school. And maybe it’s been recommended in their IEP that they have a one-to-one paraprofessional. A fade plan is just the idea of saying…it’s a recognition of the things I mentioned earlier, that this is one of the most intensive, most intrusive things that you can do for a student and that it is fraught with problems. It’s not a panacea. And a lot of these kids, when they leave school, don’t have this level of support, and so we really don’t want to, kind of, create unnecessary dependencies. So, it is a very purposeful plan that the team makes to say, “Ok, we started with this to try to just stabilize things. Now let’s start looking at where are the places that make sense where we might start fading?” And some of that fading might start with in-class fading—so instead of the paraprofessional being within arm’s length, which the research shows that most paraprofessionals who are assigned one-to-one are literally within three feet, within arm’s length, of the student that they’re assigned to something like 80% of the time. So it may start with fading in-class support, where the teacher might assign the paraprofessional to supervise some other students, and maybe that space is filled with peer supports. Again, it’s never just eliminating a support. It’s what are you going to put in place that’s better? So it might free up opportunities for the teacher to get involved, to have the teacher work with that student in a small group with other students in a heterogeneous group with regular education students. And it might be peer supports, the students are grouped with classmates. So the fading plan could start inside the classroom.
INTERVIEWER: Does fading of parapro support influence teachers’ behavior?
MICHAEL: So one of the things that we found in other research is that there seems to be a difference in the extent and nature of teacher engagement when a paraprofessional is assigned to a student versus assigned to the classroom. So in general—and, of course, all of these things are just generalizations, but in general when you assign a paraprofessional, when you assign an adult to a child, that is more likely to interfere in a negative way with the teacher getting involved constructively with the student. It’s very understandable. You know, you’re a busy regular education teacher, you’ve got 25, 26 students in your classroom, and one of them has their own dedicated human being that is assigned exclusively to them. Very understandable that that regular ed teacher might feel like, “Hey, I’ve got that covered, no problem. I’ll deal with the rest of the kids, you deal with that student.” But that’s really…that’s not inclusive education. That’s just being a host, and, kind, of the classic “island in the mainstream” type of situation. The other thing is, again, involving self-determination, if the student is capable of communicating at this level—and some students are and others don’t have communication skills at this level—but if they do, is asking them, you know, “Are there times that you feel like you could work without having this person right there?” And again, putting alternatives in place.
So it’s just really a recognition that the assignment of one-to-one is very restrictive for the student, even though it’s done with good intentions. And that it’s just fraught with all kinds of problems, and if it’s at all possible we should move away from it as soon as possible.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think the use of one-on-one parapros has to do with the kinds of students schools are working with or with something else?
MICHAEL: It’s all relative. And it’s often based on historical practices in schools. You know, you have a school where they can’t imagine that a student who has a certain constellation of characteristics could possible function without a one-to-one paraprofessional, yet you go to another school and find a student with virtually identical characteristics who’s functioning quite effectively with a classroom paraprofessional or no paraprofessional in the classroom. So in one sense it’s not about characteristics of the student, it’s about our attitudes and characteristics.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds like there are many alternatives that school districts can consider when they decide to cut back their use of (and sometimes over-use of) parapros. And it sounds like these alternatives actually lead to better outcomes. Thank you so much, Michael, for sharing these ideas. This is Maya Rowe. In addition to being your host today, I provided technical support to the OPEPP team in the creation of this podcast. We would like to give credit to Kevin McCleod for the music, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. And we would like to thank you for being an OPEPP listener.