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By Marilyn Likins
With the reauthorization of IDEA 97, appropriate training, skill development and supervision of paraprofessionals and teaching assistants* has become a necessity, not an option, for states and school districts. Provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 applied further pressure on states by establishing employment criteria for all paraprofessionals working in positions or school-wide programs funded by Title 1. NCLB tied present and future employment of paraprofessionals to a university/community college degree, two years of higher education, or a rigorous assessment of knowledge and skills in the areas of reading, writing, math, and readiness skills. Clearly, this most recent round of federal legislation has left states and districts scrambling to assess what personnel development systems they currently have in place, and in most cases, what remains to be developed to ensure their paraprofessional workforce is well-trained, qualified, and effectively supervised. The purpose of this article is to highlight successful training models or options that districts and states might consider as they endeavor to build comprehensive, competency-based systems of personnel development for paraprofessionals and their supervisors.
When considering training, the first question that must be asked is, What should be taught? To be most effective, paraprofessionals should learn knowledge and skills directly related to their job(s). Today, paraprofessionals work with individuals of all ages and in a variety of roles. Their responsibilities may range from instructing learners in individual and small group sessions to assisting with functional assessment activities in the home, classroom, or community. Although paraprofessional responsibilities are role dependent, researchers agree that there exists a common core of knowledge and skill competencies required by all paraprofessionals (Pickett, 1999).
Thanks to federal and state dollars, a number of comprehensive, validated training programs designed specifically for paraprofessionals are now available for districts to purchase and use in individual classrooms, small group sessions, or large inservice workshops. While instructional formats vary, the content in the programs is generally based on a core curriculum that focuses on the specific skills paraeducators must have to work with children and youth of different ages, who have different levels of disabilities, and with different learning needs. Content areas may include:
Training packages come in many shapes and sizes but may consist of video/CD-based instruction and vignettes, supported with print materials and student manuals. Other validated, less expensive programs contain instructor and student manuals and supplementary presentation materials such as overheads, handouts, etc. Each of these training options is dependent upon district personnel for implementation and follow-through, although in some cases pro- gram developers may be hired as consultants to conduct the training. The following are a few of the resources for further information on validated training programs:
Paraprofessional training falls into three categories: on-the-job, inservice, and preservice training. Adequate preservice, inservice, and on-the-job training protects students and maximizes the effectiveness of paraeducators if it is systematically planned and ongoing. Effective training can take many forms such as credit-based courses offered through universities or community colleges, a series of inservice workshops, Web-based training courses, peer mentoring or coaching sessions as well as systematic on-the-job training by a supervisor. However, a word of caution. If paraeducators are to gain knowledge and skills to improve their performance, meaningful training must be much more than a one-shot, three-hour workshop by a paid consultant. Such a workshop might be extremely relevant but should be viewed as the first step in a number of coordinated, training efforts that build upon each other in content and follow-up activities.
Several states have created personnel development systems to support training and career development for paraprofessionals. While there are a variety of effective models, Rhode Islands will be highlighted here. Rhode Islands teacher assistant training offers a varied, flexible and innovative approach to building personnel development systems for their paraprofessionals or teaching assistants. To become an approved training site for teaching assistants (TAs), a program must meet state standards and be approved by Rhode Islands State Department of Education (RIDE). To date, RIDE has approved 30 TA training programs operated by districts, community colleges, educational collaboratives, career and technology schools, private agencies, and individuals. A typical TA training program is 27 hours across multiple weeks, most include classes and practica, and a number address portfolio development. The average cost is $171 although some programs are offered at a reduced cost to employees of the agency or district operating the program. An annual networking session with all approved TA programs helps to keep the content and training consistent and current. The TA programs are surveyed and evaluated yearly to assess consumer satisfaction and assure that training is aligned with the RIDE teaching assistant standards.
Project Impact, an innovative Webcast network at Utah State University, delivers live, video and audio-based courses nationwide to paraeducators and teachers using Internet technology in a distance education format. Two courses are designed for paraeducators, and a third course is designed to strengthen teams of teachers and paraeducators. Participants can enroll for university credits. The courses are three hours in length, one night a week, for nine weeks of instruction.
Other training options that have emerged for paraprofessional development include independent learning courses that are taught online. One such program is Project PARA developed at the University of Nebraska. Project PARA offers a basic, self-study program for paraprofessionals that can be completed at home, on their own time. Training content is divided into eight units and contains a pre- and post-test, instructional content, and activities that integrate the self-study lessons with application to actual or simulated situations.
As states and districts explore viable training options for their paraprofessionals, there are a number of questions to be considered, particularly in light of recent federal legislation. For instance, what will the paraprofessional have to show for the training experience? Will there be university or community college credit offered? If so, can the paraprofessional afford it or are there other funding options available? If training comes in the form of an inservice workshop, is there an agenda, certificate or instructional materials that can become part of a portfolio? Is attendance being documented? In addition, will the training help the paraprofessional to do a better job or is it geared primarily toward teachers? Are there follow-up training sessions or homework assignments linked to the work site? Is the training offered at a time that is practical for the paraprofessional?
In summary, state and local administrators, teachers, and paraeducators must take an active role in determining what works best to meet their unique needs. A one-size fits all mentality may not be the answer when designing training programs for paraprofessionals, particularly when faced with their varied backgrounds, experiences and needs. Todays federal requirements for hiring, training and supervising of paraeducators must also be taken into account when selecting appropriate curriculum and building comprehensive systems of personnel development for paraeducators and their supervisors. Laying the foundation for high quality personnel development requires time and commitment. The end result better services for students.
* Note: Throughout this article, the terms paraprofessional, paraeducator, and teaching assistant are used interchangeably, and in some cases reflect state preference.
Pickett, A. (1999). Strengthening teacher/provider-paraeducator teams: Guidelines for paraeducator roles, preparation and supervision. New York: National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals in Education and Related Services, Center for Advanced Study in Education, Graduate School, City University of New York.
Marilyn Likins is Co-Director of the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals, Center for Persons with Disabilities, Utah State University, Salt Lake City. She may be reached at 801/599-8708 or at email@example.com.
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Resources: Resources Related to Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk
Citation: Gaylord, V., Wallace, T., Pickett, A. L., and Likins, M. (Eds.). (2002). Impact: Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk, 15(2) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from http://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/152.
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