Ask the Experts: The Role of the Paraprofessional

From the September-October 2002 issue of the Autism Asperger’s Digest magazine

By David F. Freschi

Q: I am a new aide and the classroom teacher does not provide me with much direction. I’m not sure what I’m doing is best for the child with autism I work with. Help!

Q: The school has agreed to hire an aide for my son, who has autism. I get the impression they don’t have a clue as to what this person should be doing. What should the aide be doing?

Q: What exactly is the role of the paraprofessional? The aide in my classroom seems to think that her role is to replace me in my job. What do I do?

So you’ve got an aide, now what do you do? There has been steady growth in the number of paraprofessionals in our schools, especially those assigned to work with children with Autism, Asperger’s, and similar challenges.

Each of the three questions above highlights common themes and concerns that arise when employing a paraprofessional for the student with Autism/Asperger’s:
1. What is the role of the paraprofessional?
2. What knowledge and skills does this person need to be effective?
3. How do we make good use of this resource?

A paraprofessional can provide tremendous benefit but also pose significant risks. On the plus side, the paraprofessional can support the student’s learning, help to develop social skills, support other students, allow the teacher to focus on teaching strategies, and promote functional application of curriculum knowledge. On the down side, the paraprofessional can increase dependency, slow the development of communication, sabotage the school/home relationship, and interfere with integration and interaction with peers.

The Role of the Paraprofessional
There are some pretty straightforward Do’s and Don’ts for a paraprofessional working within the school system. The primary role is to assist the teacher in helping the child have a successful educational experience. Their job is to support learning and social skills and help the child expand his/her communication. They can be of great benefit with behavioral issues by coaching the child in working with other students, modeling appropriate behaviors and offering suggestions for alternative behaviors. The paraprofessional will often be the person that deals with issues as they come up in the “real” world. They are the ones who might have to deal with the meltdown in the lavatory, navigating the hallways, or interacting appropriately on the playground. They also have the opportunity to support academic skills learned in the classroom. “Count the spoons at your table, John.” “Before you go up the slide you need to use your words.” “That is a beetle. What did we learn about beetles?”

It is not the paraprofessional’s job to be the student’s personal servant, to over rule the teacher or sabotage her plans, or be a private information source for parents on what the school is doing wrong. Once this type of behavior starts, disaster is usually not far behind.

Required Skills and Knowledge
In working with various school systems, classroom teachers and paraprofessionals themselves, we have identified a cluster of skills that all paraprofessionals need to have to be successful with their students. These skill areas are:

• Basic knowledge of the disability. How does the disability impact the child’s learning? Do you know what visual learning is? What will we do when the child follows a direction literally when that is not what the teacher meant? Will we talk more or less when the child is having a tantrum? When the schedule is disrupted how will we handle it? All of these situations and more will happen on a daily basis. Without some basis for understanding the disability, the child often ends up paying for our mistakes. Every child is a unique individual, and a few mistakes here and there will happen. However, lack of a sound understanding of autism/AS and the outward manifestations of the disability will result in harm to the child through lost time and inappropriate or ineffective teaching methods. At the barest minimum, the paraprofessional should have taken an introductory course in Autism or Asperger’s that includes a discussion of effective teaching techniques in relation to behavior, communication and sensory issues. There are a number of these available.

• The use of reinforcement. The use of reinforcement and motivators is critical for learning. With students who may not respond well to social reinforcement, knowledge of reinforcers and the skillful use of reinforcement become very important. We must know when to reinforce, how often to reinforce, how to fade and how to increase expectations. Furthermore, paraprofessionals need to be keen observers of children with autism/AS to ascertain what types of reinforcers will be important and meaningful to a particular child. No two children with autism are alike; having an assortment of meaningful reinforcers is a must. Observation is another skill that needs to be learned and practiced. It does not come naturally.

• Supporting and promoting communication. The paraprofessional must know what the student’s communication system is and how to use it to promote initiation and independence. They will often be the one who has the real life opportunities to help the child communicate with peers, other people in the school and in the community.

• Knowledge of behavioral intervention techniques. Mistakes can be costly in dealing with students who have behavioral challenges. The para needs to know how to reinforce acceptable behavior and how to avoid strengthening negative behavior. They need to know how to avoid “blackmail” situations and that just because; “It worked with my kids at home.” it may not be appropriate for these students. Also, with the last revision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), paras need to be well-versed in Positive Behavior Interventions, Strategies and Supports or at a minimum, know what they are and how to best implement the plan put forth in the student’s IEP.
• Promoting independence. (Arguably the most critical of all) One of the most frustrating, difficult, and debilitating problems for children with Autism/ Asperger’s is the risk of becoming prompt dependent. Closely related to this is the phenomenon of “learned helplessness.” Both can cause constant problems in life; reduce independence, access to the community, and acceptance by others. There are specific strategies that can help to prevent this. The para needs to learn these and to practice them regularly.

• Basic Task Analysis. The paraprofessional is often the person who handles many of the routine tasks that make up a child’s day. The ability to break these routines into steps and teach/support through these steps is an ongoing challenge that will need to be met. Using basic task analysis, the paraprofessional can provide a great deal of help for the student in organizing his/her school life. Examples might include organizing the locker, navigating the hallways, setting up the homework assignments etc.

• Presentation and Correction techniques. Most parents and good teachers know that the way material, especially something new, is presented can either make or break its successful acceptance by a child. We also know that there are effective ways to correct a student’s mistakes that promote learning, rather than embarrassment. A paraprofessional that knows and uses these strategies can be a tremendous help to the student.

• Ethical/professional behavior: The paraprofessional may face some unique ethical challenges. They are often from the community in which they work, which can interfere with confidentiality issues. They may come from another program and have training in a very narrow skill area. This can be a challenge in working in a team setting. (We often see this with paraprofessionals who previously worked with the child in a so-called ABA program. They usually know a little about discrete trials, almost nothing about ABA and often don’t have a clue on how to use ABA in the real world when the child faces abstract content in a public school setting.) Sometimes we see a Para who has worked with the family before the child attends school and is hired to be the child’s aide. On the surface this looks great. It can set the stage for problems though. The child can become too dependent on one person. The involvement with family, child, and school can become over involvement and lead to difficulties in the area of confidentiality and in rare cases deliberate negative interference in the child’s learning program.

Without basic knowledge of these areas and the paraprofessional’s ability to use these skills, we have found that untrained paras run the risk of undoing progress for a student, rather than providing the encouragement and support that we expect of these individuals. Remember the skills don’t appear just because we read about them. They require practice and review.

How Do We Successfully Utilize the Paraprofessional?
The paraprofessional needs to be viewed as an integral part of the educational team. This must extend beyond lip service to actual involvement, including having the para participate in meetings with parents or a child’s IEP meetings. It is the teacher’s job to act as the educational leader. Sometimes this can be difficult, as most teachers have little or no training in how to supervise an aide or make the best use of their time. Sometimes the specific role of the para will be included in the child’s IEP; other times it will be the responsibility of the teacher to collaborate with the para to achieve success in the goals and objectives outlined in the IEP. Furthermore, it should be make crystal clear whether the para’s primary goal is to support only one child in the class, or to assist the teacher with several students. Either way, the teacher must provide ongoing coaching, frequent feedback, clear expectations, and listen to the paraprofessional’s concerns. Helping a child succeed with academics and social life is the ultimate goal of our educational system. If any member of the educational team is not carrying his/her weight, that success will be jeopardized.

As with teachers, paraprofessionals must receive training if they are to be effective. This training needs to be more than the occasional workshop on conference day. Training should be ongoing and should include other paraprofessionals and/or other members of the child’s team. If we can provide this training and support to teachers and paraprofessionals, we can generally expect to see great results where it counts – in the child’s growth.

David F. Freschi operates Simply Good Ideas, a consultation and training service based in the Albany, NY area that focuses on practical ideas and “solutions for success.” He has worked with children and adults with Autism and Asperger’s for more than thirty years as a paraprofessional, teacher, administrator, and consultant. David specializes in teacher training and development, paraprofessional development, and program improvement for children with Autism/Asperger’s or related disabilities. He has developed a number of training programs for teachers and paraprofessionals. Contact David at or 518 758 6836.

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