The breadth of paraprofessional responsibilities described previously suggests the need for extensive, ongoing development so that paraprofessionals learn to effectively support students with disabilities. It also indicates the need for such development to be customized to address individual students. Paraprofessionals clearly articulated a desire to be competent in their work and, for the most part, they recognized and appreciated the teacher, school, and district investments in their development. Almost all of the special education teachers viewed ongoing development of paraprofessionals as a major and integral aspect in the larger role domain of directing the work of paraprofessionals.
Depending on the variety and intensity of student needs, the variety of environments in which the paraprofessional provided support, and the baseline knowledge and skills of the paraprofessional, the special education teachers estimated that it required between one and twelve months of focused development effort to bring a new paraprofessional from entry level to proficiency in working with students. During this period, teachers invested a significant amount of time observing, teaching, and coaching the paraprofessionals. As paraprofessionals developed skills and became proficient working with students, the teachers were able to reduce the amount of time they spent with each paraprofessional, although improvement and refinement efforts continued indefinitely. Changes in the students supported by individual paraprofessionals or in the general education classes would spur new periods of intentional development work.
Teacher-initiated paraprofessional development activities ranged from sharing introductory packets of pertinent information on individual students, to coaching individual paraprofessionals on how to implement instructional programs for students, to conducting mini-inservices focused on specific topics or techniques for supporting the students, to presenting team or department-wide inservices on issues directly relevant to instruction. Special education teachers located in the same building often collaborated to identify paraprofessional training needs and then either addressed these needs themselves or accessed district personnel who had expertise on the designated topic.
Three general approaches to developing the knowledge and skills of paraprofessionals were evident in the cross-case analysis of data: a) ongoing, job-embedded communication and development focused directly on specific students and instructional practice; b) building level, job-focused inservice training; and c) district sponsored paraprofessional development activities. Each of these approaches is described below. Also described are ways in which paraprofessionals were compensated for time spent on development activities that occurred outside the direct student contact hours for which they were paid.
Job-embedded paraprofessional development refers to the organized efforts of the teachers and other school personnel to teach paraprofessionals the knowledge and skills needed to fulfill their job responsibilities. Across all the sites in this study a substantial amount of paraprofessional development was job-embedded and customized to meet the needs of the individual paraprofessionals related to their work with students. Special educators articulated a proactive approach to developing paraprofessionals throughout the school day and week. For example, beyond just giving directions to their paraprofessionals about how to teach a particular skill to students, they intentionally worked on developing the knowledge base for understanding why particular strategies were used with individual students. Going to the heart of how to best prepare paraprofessionals to work with students in inclusive programs, a special education director said:
We must have the primary trainers…be seen by the paraprofessionals as [the] special education teachers. [The special education teachers] have to be trained how to supervise paraprofessionals and how to convey the information to paraprofessionals…on a day-to-day, plus on a growth basis.
Three forms of job-embedded development emerged from the data: multiple means of daily communication, coaching in the instructional context with students, and regular meetings focused on student and instructional issues.
Given the decentralized nature of inclusive programs, multiple means of communication with paraprofessionals was a necessity. In the absence of regular communication that kept the paraprofessionals updated on what was happening in the classrooms and how the students should be supported in those classes, paraprofessionals sometimes found themselves in publicly embarrassing situations, such as trying to figure out an assignment at the same time they were supposed to be instructing the student.
While “on-the-fly” sharing of information was a common feature of the programs, other available means of communication were also used regularly. Two out of three districts had e-mail accounts for their paraprofessionals and all of the paraprofessionals had school mailboxes. At Woodlawn High School, the paraprofessionals came to school and immediately checked their e-mail for updates from teachers, checked their mailboxes for assignments that needed copying, and spoke with the special education building coordinator to see if there were any last minute schedule changes. A teacher at Streamside Elementary School placed an additional set of mailboxes in her classroom area so she could easily share student work and notes with the paraprofessionals any time during the school day. Several teachers used a corner of their blackboards to jot notes to the paraprofessionals. One elementary school used the special education resource room bulletin boards for paraprofessionals to leave notes for the special education teachers. The purpose was to reduce the level of miscommunication occurring between teachers and paraprofessionals during the school day. The assistant principal commented on this strategy:
[Paraprofessionals] can’t always pull aside…[the special education] teachers in the hallway and throw a ton of stuff at them because they are usually on their way to working with another student or they are working with another student. You would never interrupt a [classroom] teacher in the middle of a lesson. So we decided that unless it was an emergency, [the paraprofessionals] would write notes and leave [them] on a bulletin board.
None of the school districts had voice mail for paraprofessionals, so this technology was unavailable as a means of ongoing communication.
Observing, modeling, and ongoing problem-solving in specific instructional contexts with students were key elements in developing and fine-tuning paraprofessional skills. One special education teacher explained how developing effective paraprofessionals requires strategic conversations in which learning and development are embedded into everyday exchanges. Learning objectives were intentionally addressed in the process of giving directions, for example. Special educators did not simply state directions, they might also identify student behaviors to watch for, share strategies for responding to these behaviors, and describe the type of observational feedback they needed from the paraprofessionals about how students engaged.
A job-embedded approach to paraprofessional development positions special educators to be coaches. Looking beyond the traditional notions of staff development (e.g., large group, off-site inservices), paraprofessionals recognized and valued the school-based development efforts and viewed individual coaching as a significant piece of their development process. Commenting on how she learned best, one paraprofessional said, “…watching the teachers. I mean, they [are] excellent.” Working with paraprofessionals in the actual instructional context provides regular opportunities to ask questions, share ideas, and offer feedback. These embedded and informal learning conversations help paraprofessionals understand what they are doing and why they are doing it as they are doing it.
While most of the interviewees spoke about the importance of the special education
teachers and the paraprofessionals meeting regularly to discuss students and
their programs, only the three special education teachers who taught students
with moderate to severe disabilities had regularly scheduled meetings with their
paraprofessionals. The primary reasons for not meeting regularly were the lack
of compensation for the paraprofessionals and the challenge of finding time
to meet. One district capped the total number of hours that each paraprofessional
can work in a given week. Even though the paraprofessionals wanted to meet and
funding for before or after-school meetings could be obtained, the meetings
could not be scheduled.
For the three teachers who met regularly with their paraprofessionals, the purpose of the meetings, the frequency of meeting, and the strategies used to compensate paraprofessionals for their time are summarized in Table 5. Two of the teachers worked in the Waterview School District where the paraprofessional contract allowed up to two hours of additional compensation for each paraprofessional every month. Use of this time was left to the discretion of the school, but the purpose was to build flexibility into the contract for school-based, paraprofessional development and participation in team and student meetings. The third teacher obtained approval for the paraprofessionals either to receive additional pay for attending the meetings or to apply the time towards their six hours of required paraprofessional development for the year.
Table 5: Regular Meetings Between Special Educators and Paraprofessionals
Purpose of Meetings
|Streamside Elementary School||
||Bi-monthly after school, 30 minutes.||District contract provides up to two hours per month per paraprofessional to attend building and team meetings or school-based development sessions. For the most part, the special education teacher or team decides how to use the monthly allocation.|
|Ocean High School||
||Daily before school, 15 minutes in small special education teams.||Contracted day for paraprofessionals begins 15 minutes before students arrive.|
||Once a month after school, 60 minutes for all special education paraprofessionals.||District contract provides up to two hours per month per paraprofessional to attend building and team meetings or school-based development sessions. For the most part, the special education teacher or team decides how to use the monthly allocation.|
|Rolling Hills Elementary School||
||Weekly before school, usually 30 minutes, occasionally 60 minutes.||District allocated extra funding. Some paraprofessionals use the meeting time to fulfill their annual requirement for paraprofessional development.|
In several schools more formal paraprofessional development opportunities were provided at the building level. In two of the three programs that served students who had mild to moderate disabilities, either the principal or the special education building coordinator organized building-based paraprofessional development sessions focused on needs directly relevant to their building and students. For example, when Woodlawn High School had a significant growth in the number of students with autism, the special education building coordinator arranged for a an external agency to provide five hours of development for the paraprofessionals in her building. She accessed district resources to compensate the paraprofessionals for their time. At Timberland Elementary School, the principal organized monthly meetings for all of the paraprofessionals in her building and provided inservices on topics such as first aid, English Language Learners, and the software in the computer lab. Focused on topics that applied directly to their work, the paraprofessionals commented on the relevance and value of these building level inservices.
The availability of district-level paraprofessional development varied across the three case studies. One district had a half-time staff development coordinator in the special education department whose responsibilities included paraprofessional development. This district offered a menu of staff development opportunities for both novice and experienced paraprofessionals across the school year. Another district offered paraprofessional development opportunities several times each year. Coordinated by a committee of three lead teachers, paraprofessional training was aligned with other district-wide staff development. Topics addressed intervention strategies, such as understanding behavior as communication, as well as general knowledge sessions, such as autism and taking data on student performance. The third district offered staff development sessions three times per year to new paraprofessional hires. They were moving in the direction of creating more development opportunities for experienced paraprofessionals. All three districts usually approved and compensated their paraprofessionals for attending inservices sponsored by the local intermediate districts or state organizations when the topics related to the paraprofessionals’ work responsibilities.
Several challenges were evident in terms of providing effective district level paraprofessional development. First, except for the orientation sessions, none of the districts could mandate paraprofessional attendance at any specific district inservice because of the contractual agreements. The teachers and administrators could encourage paraprofessionals to attend, but could not mandate attendance even when compensation was provided. The result was that some districts and schools had a high percentage of their paraprofessional workforce attending, while others had spotty attendance. Second, it was challenging, particularly in programs with high paraprofessional turnover, for districts to offer sufficient workshops to meet the needs of both new and experienced paraprofessionals. Third, effectively communicating the availability of upcoming inservices proved to be difficult. Some paraprofessionals were unaware of the available staff development sessions. In some cases, the special education teachers were uninformed about the inservices that paraprofessionals attended or the content of those sessions. Being uninformed made it difficult for teachers to facilitate transfer of learning from the inservice session to actual work with students. Some paraprofessionals spoke about their confusion when what was taught at an inservice did not align with what was implemented in the schools. Unsure of what to think, paraprofessionals sometimes questioned both what was taught and what was being implemented.
Fortunately there were also examples of district development efforts that interfaced well with building level job-embedded development efforts. In the Waterview district, the special education teachers were aware of district level initiatives and often could align their school-based development efforts with those of the district. They strongly encouraged paraprofessionals to attend specific district inservices of relevance. Following inservices, team meetings with paraprofessionals were used to talk about specific applications to the program and to individual students. On some occasions, the special education teachers would invite district level staff to present at their monthly, large group paraprofessional meetings on a specific, relevant topic.
All three school districts compensated their paraprofessionals for participating in inservices sponsored by the district or external agencies. The Waterview and Forest School Districts approved funding on an individual basis. The Prairie School District negotiated a new contract feature that compensated all of the paraprofessionals in advance for one day of staff development each year. In this situation, each paraprofessional was obligated to attend a total of one day of staff development over the course of a school year or to reimburse the district for unused time. Paraprofessionals were required to obtain prior approval for inservices offered outside the district if they were to apply towards the staff development requirement.
Perhaps the greatest challenge was how to compensate paraprofessionals for school or team-based development activities that occurred outside the school day, including regular meetings with the teachers. As mentioned, only the Waterview District had a system-wide strategy specifically designed to support building level development and communication with its paraprofessionals. The paraprofessional contract provision allowed up to two hours of extra compensation per paraprofessional per month for school and team use.
In the Prairie School District, the elementary special education teacher used two strategies to fund her ongoing paraprofessional development efforts. First, she received permission from the district office for the paraprofessionals on her team to apply their weekly team meetings and mini-inservices towards their one day staff development obligation. Second, she gained approval to have any paraprofessionals who chose not to apply the time towards their staff development commitment to be compensated hourly.
The Forest School District had a unique practice called “banking hours.” Banking hours occurred when a paraprofessional was absent and there was no substitute paraprofessional hired to fill in for the day. The paraprofessional wages that were not spent that day were “banked” and available for the school to use for other purposes related to paraprofessionals. Timberland Elementary used its banked hours to purchase additional paraprofessional time during the last quarter of the school year when special education caseloads were typically higher. Woodlawn High School used this funding to compensate the paraprofessionals for participating in their building-wide paraprofessional development sessions. One administrator stated that it might be possible to use banked hours to fund regular meetings between the paraprofessionals and teachers, but no school was using its funding this way.
Collaboration was an essential support for special education teachers in directing the work of paraprofessionals. While the nature and degree of collaboration varied among the schools, collaborative relationships created a positive environment that enhanced the special education teachers’ abilities to direct the work of the paraprofessionals and the paraprofessionals’ abilities to perform their work. Ways in which special educators collaborated with teachers and administrators are presented in this section.
All of the special educators were intentional in building positive and constructive relationships with general education teachers. The special education teachers shared that students with disabilities were more welcome in general education classrooms when the classroom teachers trusted that the students would be well supported by an effective special education teacher. The special educators nurtured these relationships by being present in the general education classrooms and maintaining an ongoing communication that bridged classroom instruction with individual student needs. When the special education and general education teachers were communicating regularly, the paraprofessionals did not receive conflicting messages about their responsibilities and how to implement student programs. They also felt more welcome and comfortable working in the general education classes.
Many paraprofessionals shared their belief that there is a strong connection between the acceptance of a student by a general education classroom teacher and that teacher’s perceptions about the value a paraprofessional brings to the classroom. When the general education classroom teachers felt ownership of the students, the paraprofessionals felt more welcome in the classrooms and were more engaged in supporting the teacher and other students. The acceptance of the students by general education teachers also affected the job satisfaction of some paraprofessionals. As one paraprofessional shared:
I think it’s more fun to work in a classroom where the teacher takes ownership. Because…then you are getting fed, your student’s getting fed…You are one in a classroom. If you are in a classroom…where the student is apart because the teacher isn’t doing their share, then you feel like you are in a classroom within the classroom and you are separate, and you’ve always got to go [to] the teacher to get this and that and then go back to your corner.
Special education teachers were the essential middle person in creating successful working relationships between general education classroom teachers and the paraprofessionals who worked in the general education classes.
In five out of the six schools, there was a high degree of collaboration among the special education teachers and the sixth school was purposefully moving in this direction. Special educators assigned to the same buildings often collaborated in several ways to manage their paraprofessional resources and to support the paraprofessionals in their work. One pair of special education teachers standardized many of their practices so that the paraprofessionals who worked with them had fewer intervention systems to learn. For example, the teachers used one data collection system and had similar guidelines for intervening on student behaviors.
Most special education teachers collaborated with their colleagues to develop a more efficient master schedule for use of all paraprofessionals, to develop agendas for meeting with paraprofessionals, and to provide mini-inservices for their collective group of paraprofessionals. Special educator teams at two schools kept informed about all of the special education students, even students they did not case manage, so that when the case manager was not available and a paraprofessional needed clarification on how to implement a student’s program, other special educator could provide immediate assistance. Most special educators reported that their special education colleagues regularly supported one another by sharing strategies and generating ideas to resolve issues and conflicts that emerge in directing the work of paraprofessionals.
The paraprofessionals were aware and appreciative of the efforts of the special education teachers to build a collaborative culture within the special education team that included them. One paraprofessional commented that the special education teacher with whom she worked “had really been working hard to get us to be as a team, because every year we work with different [general education] people.” They also recognized when they were not included in teaming efforts, as a paraprofessional said, “I think our building is successful, but a lot of times I don’t feel like I’m part of the team because I’m not at team meetings and I don’t get a lot of the information.” Conversely, when absent, the paraprofessionals felt that they were not welcomed in the classrooms or felt less effective in their jobs.
In all six schools, the principals publicly and privately supported the rights and opportunities for students with disabilities to be included in the general education classes. (Recall that four of the six schools had been originally conceived as “inclusive” which meant that administrators who were selected to lead these schools were likely to have been supportive of an inclusive approach to special education.) In the Forest and Prairie School Districts, administration of the special education programs was more decentralized to the building levels and all four principals who were interviewed in these districts were highly involved with their building level special education teams. They regularly attended the special education team meetings and were extremely knowledgeable about the special education programs, services, and individual students in their schools. Principals explained that being knowledgeable about special education allowed them to actively participate in conversations about special education service provision in their building, to understand issues and address problems before they became crises, and to effectively advocate with the district office for resources. In the Waterview School District, district level special education supervisors were more involved in managing the inclusive education programs within each building. In these schools, principals were supportive of the special education programs, but were less involved with the details of managing the programs.
The special education teachers felt supported in their work because the principals and other administrators respected their work, understood the complex nature of their responsibilities, and advocated for the students to the whole staff. Because there were no “philosophical battles” about inclusive education, teachers readily accessed administrators when issues arose, they took risks in presenting and developing new ideas to support students, and they worked to build strong, collaborative relationships with staff throughout the building. Administrative support also was crucial for supporting teachers’ efforts to find time to meet with their paraprofessionals, for allocating building staff development funds to support paraprofessional development, and for supporting the special educators when paraprofessional supervisory issues arose (e.g., excessive tardiness or absences, repeatedly not following schedules).
Another area of collaboration centered on paraprofessional evaluation. Three elementary administrators developed collaborative processes for evaluating their paraprofessionals. The principal at Rolling Hills Elementary School met twice a year with each paraprofessional for a performance review. Prior to each meeting the special education teachers shared written feedback on the paraprofessional’s qualities, strengths, and areas for improvement. This formal review process was in addition to the special education teacher talking regularly with the principal about the staff development the paraprofessionals had participated in and their level of comfort and competence in the work environment. Timberland Elementary had a similar process, except when feasible both the principal and special education teacher met together with the paraprofessional to share the feedback. At Streamside Elementary, the assistant principal not only gathered feedback from the special education teachers, but also from the general education teachers whose classrooms the paraprofessionals worked in. By looking at the special education teacher-general education teacher-paraprofessional triad, she was able to gather feedback not only on the paraprofessional’s performance, but also the level of communication within the team. Her premise was that you cannot hold a paraprofessional accountable for their responsibilities if information is not being well communicated to that individual. In the secondary schools, the principals often were not directly involved in the paraprofessional performance reviews. While they signed the performance review, usually the building special education coordinator or an individual special education teacher completed the evaluation.
Administrative support was also evident in their willingness to intervene in clarifying boundaries between the special education teacher and paraprofessional roles and responsibilities. Conscious of the dynamics in these situations, administrators sometimes met privately with the special educators to coach and empower them in directing the work of paraprofessionals. One assistant principal recollected how much she had appreciated when, as a new teacher, her principal took her aside and in a non-threatening way shared his observations and insights on the differences between the teacher’s and paraprofessional’s roles. Other times, albeit less desirable, administrators met with the special education teacher and the paraprofessional together to clarify roles and responsibilities. An elementary special education supervisor described why this latter approach was usually less desirable than the former:
A worse case scenario would be needing to sit down with the teacher and the assistant [together]. I always try to hold that until you know that that is your only thing left because it is not an empowering way to work with a young professional. Sometimes it gets so far down the road that someone needs to clarify roles and it is [not] going to happen unless there is some mediation that happens. My first choice would always be to have the building principal involved with that because they are onsite every day and that work relationship needs to be clear on an every day, every hour basis.
Hiring and retaining a full paraprofessional workforce was challenging for all three school districts because of high paraprofessional turnover and difficulty filling positions in programs that serve students with significant disabilities. Districts varied somewhat in their recruitment and employment processes. Described in this section are contractual influences on hiring paraprofessionals, differences between primarily centralized or decentralized approaches to employment practices, and specific processes and strategies used recruit, hire, and orient paraprofessionals.
The paraprofessionals in each district worked under a contract and were represented by a union or an association in their contract negotiations. The interviewees identified and described two contractual features that had the greatest effects on paraprofessional employment processes: posting of open positions internally within the district and the length of the probationary period before permanent hiring decisions.
All three school districts were required to post open positions internally within the district so that current employees could apply for the open positions. One district was required to post their positions internally for five days prior to advertising externally. The other districts were able to post internally and advertise externally simultaneously which, potentially, could shorten the time-frame for hiring a replacement paraprofessional. In one district, currently employed paraprofessionals who applied for open positions had to be given preference over outside applicants if they had the same or better qualifications, even if the principal and the special education team believed that the internal applicant would not work well with the students. In the other districts, internal candidates could apply and be interviewed for the positions, but the decision about which candidate to hire was left to the administrators.
There were also situations in which involuntary transfers occurred within the school districts. When the transfers occurred because a position in the district was eliminated, often the special educators responded positively because they had an opportunity to hire a paraprofessional with previous experience. When an involuntary transfer occurred because of poor job performance, teachers were concerned because often the paraprofessional’s performance problems just transferred to the next school. A teacher described her frustration with this practice:
With the para that got transferred to us… we have been told [she] cannot work with EBD students because she is not skilled enough to work with EBD students, but she can work with my kids?…She also can’t lift. So we can’t put her with kids with wheelchairs and we can’t put her with kids with behaviors…it’s like, then, what’s left?
The length of the probationary period was another contractual issue that affected paraprofessional employment. Specifically, the longer the period the greater the probability that the teachers would accurately predict whether an individual would be able to master the job responsibilities and effectively team with others. The probationary periods in the three school districts varied from 64 school days to 67 school days to nine months. The teachers and administrators recognized that having an employee dismissed after the probationary period ended was an energy draining process because of the contract procedures. Aware of the probationary timeframe, the teachers routinely kept the administrators and building coordinators updated on an employee’s progress in mastering the job responsibilities, and provided input into formal paraprofessional evaluations, to assure that a correct decision about continued employment was made.
In each of the three school districts, district level special education administrators approved funding for special education paraprofessional positions. They varied, however, in whether the employment process was primarily centralized with the district assuming the lead role or decentralized with the individual schools and their personnel assuming the lead role. The Waterview School District utilized a more centralized process in which the district special education supervisors led the hiring process. They screened the applications, checked the references, and coordinated the interviews. They then shared in the processes of interviewing and decision-making with building principals, district administrators, and the special education teachers. While each supervisor had preferences about how to conduct the interviews, accommodations were made given the interests and preferences of the individual teachers, teams, and schools. This more centralized process was relatively standardized across the district and the continuity served the important function of improving the applicant pool for paraprofessional positions throughout the district. The challenges of the centralized process were the tremendous amount of time invested by each supervisor to continually hire new paraprofessionals and the somewhat diminished role of the principals in hiring staff who would work in their buildings.
The Forest and Prairie School Districts decentralized much of their paraprofessional hiring processes. While the district office personnel posted and advertised the positions, the building principals were charged with screening the applications, checking references, organizing the interviews, and making hiring decisions. Both of the secondary schools in these districts had building special education coordinators to whom the principals delegated many of these responsibilities. The decentralized process involved school-based personnel in all stages of the hiring process and allowed the process to be customized to address site-specific needs. The decentralized process resulted in variability in the employment practices across schools in the same district depending on the experience, approach, and knowledge of the building principal and other site personnel involved in the process.
Despite differences among the case study school districts regarding the degree to which employment practices were centralized or decentralized, common features were evident. Described here are four stages and related strategies in the paraprofessional employment process: (1) recruitment, (2) application and screening processes, (3) interview process, and (4) orientation.
All the school districts used multiple forms of media to advertise paraprofessional openings, including local newspapers, district cable television, and district Web sites. One district level special education department pressured their human resources department to periodically advertise for paraprofessional positions in the local newspapers even if there were no positions open. Knowing that the employment situation could change suddenly because of paraprofessional turnover, a special education supervisor said, “We just need to put generic ads in even though we don’t have tons of positions open…We need to put ads in to have our applicant pool built up.” Positions also were advertised through the job posting book or board in every school, through local colleges, and by word-of-mouth. These local and personal contact methods appeared to be effective as a large percentage of the paraprofessionals had been involved with the district in some way prior to applying for a paraprofessional position (e.g., their children had attended the school, they were volunteers or had an internship in the district). In addition, some of the paraprofessionals had relatives or neighbors who worked in the schools. Building personnel also aggressively recruited paraprofessionals. Several paraprofessionals shared that they had been recruited after volunteering in the schools, substituting for other paraprofessionals or having had their positions eliminated within the district or in other school districts.
Two schools specifically used “substituting” as a recruitment strategy, especially for hard-to-fill positions. These schools invited potential applicants to substitute in a program for a few days before inviting them to apply for the position. During this time, the substitute was introduced to the teachers and students, and teachers had the opportunity to work with the potential hire. The result was that the substitute could learn first-hand about the job responsibilities prior to deciding whether to apply and the teachers could work with a potential hire prior to making a decision to hire. After several frustrating experiences with hiring poor quality paraprofessionals or individuals who quickly resigned a new approach was needed. One of the secondary special education building coordinators described the positive outcomes of “substituting” as a recruitment strategy:
We have some pretty significant students here….We have several that are tube fed, four that need diapering, more that need toileting assistance, and not everybody wants to do that type of work….One of the things we’ve found…[is that] it isn’t that [applicants] are not interested, they don’t know. They’ve never worked with the population. They don’t understand. So we have tried several different options to reduce the stress of hiring which is [why] we ask for subs first….[W]e go off the hiring list and we ask people to come in and sub…[T]hat has been an unbelievable asset. We’ve found one, two, three of our people that way and we wouldn’t trade them for the world.
Two districts required applicants to fill out the applications at the district office. This provided district staff with an initial opportunity to engage with applicants. The third district accepted applications at both the district office and the individual schools. The applications themselves were fairly generic (e.g., contact information, education, work experience), except one district specifically included several open-ended questions requiring applicants to compose short written responses, thereby providing a writing sample for use in screening.
The person or people who screened the applications varied across the school districts. In the district with the centralized employment process, a special education supervisor usually screened the applications. During the year of the case study, however, the district had a principal on special assignment screen, rate the applications, and check references prior to forwarding the applications to the special education supervisors. The special education supervisors commented that having a knowledgeable staff member doing the screening saved them an immense amount of time. In the districts with a decentralized process, often application screening was done by whomever was available – the principal, a district coordinator, a special education building coordinator, or the school business manager. The screeners reviewed the accuracy in filling out the application, the type and longevity of previous work experiences, and the quality of writing. A strong preference was evident for applicants who had worked previously with children or students, even if those students did not have disabilities.
A few administrators noted that simply having enough applications to screen was a luxury when it came to hiring paraprofessionals. One special education director commented, “There are some times of the year [when] there aren’t a lot [of applications] there. I’m just looking for anybody that checked program para and I call them all, because there’s only five. And I pray.” A supervisor in another district noted that prior to raising their paraprofessional wage scale, the screening process was minimal. Because the applicant pool was usually weak, they could only screen for basic qualifications (e.g., age, a high school diploma) and top candidates were obvious. Since the wage increase, the district has begun to attract higher quality applicants and, therefore, has been able to be more selective in the screening process.
The Waterview District had an additional step that was unique from the other districts. They required all instructional paraprofessionals (e.g., special education, Title I, and Assurance of Mastery) to pass a 90-minute standardized test in reading and math. Criteria for passing varied depending on whether the applicant would be working at the elementary, junior high or high school level. This information, along with the open-ended questions on the application, was intended to assure a basic level of academic knowledge and skills in the paraprofessional workforce. It also provided the teachers with a level of assurance that the new hires had at least a minimal academic background for supporting students’ academic work.
The interview was considered the cornerstone of the employment process. From
the perspective of the school district personnel, it was the opportunity to
identify a quality employee who would be working directly with their students
and staff. From the perspective of the paraprofessionals, it was the opportunity
to learn more about the position in order to decide whether or not this was
the type of work they wanted to do. Three key components of the interview process
a) involving the special education teacher, b) accurately describing expectations for the paraprofessional, and c) recognizing that what occurred during the interview process created a lasting impression on applicants.
The specific individuals involved in the interviews varied both across districts and within districts. In most instances, an administrator was present. One district required that at least two staff be present for every interview, with at least one being an administrator. In the secondary schools that had special education building coordinators, principals often were not directly involved and the coordinators then functioned in a quasi-administrative role during the interviews. Most of the paraprofessionals were formally interviewed. However, when a paraprofessional was well known by the principal because of previous volunteering or substituting in the building, it was not uncommon for the prospective paraprofessional to forego a formal interview.
Technically, the decision to hire an applicant was made by an administrator. In many schools, the administrator shared this decision with the special education teachers who would be working with the paraprofessionals. Almost universally, the teachers said that they would rather leave a paraprofessional position unfilled than hire someone who they perceived to be unable or unwilling to learn the job. Working with such a person created an even greater burden than an unfilled position. An assistant principal emphatically stated:
If you have any hesitation about hiring a person, don’t hire the person. The probation period is not sufficient for determining what is a learning curve and what is a performance problem…I mean, if you [have] any reservations...don’t do it.
Most administrators felt that involving the special education teacher who would be directing the work of the paraprofessional in the interview was a valuable asset to the process. All of the special education teachers preferred to be involved in the interviews so they could be better informed as participants in hiring decisions. It was interesting to discover that the interview was viewed as the initiation of paraprofessional development. It was an opportunity for special education teachers to share information about their programs, the students, and the expectations for paraprofessionals. It was also the beginning for developing working relationships with the potential co-worker. Several teachers commented that they trusted their administrators to hire a qualified person, but it was the special educator who could determine the best fit of the applicant with the special education team. Some interviews involved more than one special educator. A special education teacher made the point:
I think that’s where it’s important to have the three [teachers] there.…[The principal] could do it herself, but we get a sense of personalities…because we have seven of us working out of one classroom. We have to get along in one way or another….[I]f you get somebody who’s got a real strong, abrasive kind of personality, it’s not going to make it.
Having the special education teacher involved in the decision to hire also increases the likelihood that she or he will be invested in the new hire’s success. An elementary special education supervisor commented on this:
I think it is a feeling, a tone both on the part of the assistant and on the part of the teacher, an implied ownership…“I’ve chosen you.” [It] is a very healthy thing to have the teacher [involved]….I think that teachers are more interested in seeing the assistants successful when they selected them and I think paras are more interested, for lack of better words, [in] pleasing or succeeding for the people who selected them.
Despite general agreement that having the teachers involved in the interview had positive outcomes, this practice did not always occur. One factor that strongly influenced an administrator’s decision to not involve the teachers was the high rate of paraprofessional turnover and the need to continually be interviewing to fill positions. To participate in all the interviews, teachers would need to be pulled out of classes often or be paid to interview during the summer months. One district supervisor developed a two-staged interview process to circumvent one of these issues. He would first interview the applicants. Then, the top candidate would visit the school to meet with the special education teachers. After that, the final decision to hire was made jointly by the supervisor and the teachers. Another principal brought the special education teachers back during the summer months and paid them to participate in the interviews.
Accurately describing expectations for paraprofessionals was a key element of the interview process. None of the districts relied on the information contained in formal paraprofessional job descriptions during the interviews. One district coordinator commented that the generic special education paraprofessional job description basically used the same words as all of the other instructional or non-instructional paraprofessionals in the district. Most administrators, teachers, and paraprofessionals felt that providing an accurate and specific description of a paraprofessional roles and responsibilities was a critical factor in a successful hire. Commenting on this, an assistant principal said:
I have gotten to the point of where [I say]…we have this issue and this issue and this issue, and you will need to…How do you feel about that?…I can’t sugar coat it because [when] you sugar coat it, they come in and they are just thrown for a loop.
When the portrayal of a paraprofessional’s responsibilities was incomplete, subsequent turnover in that position was not uncommon. Even with the accurate and specific descriptions, several paraprofessionals still did not feel that they really understood what the position entailed until they were working in the program.
A final point of significance regarding the interview process was recognition that the interview was often a paraprofessional’s first formal introduction to the district and often created a lasting impression. Similar to the adage, “you only have one chance to make a first impression,” the quality of the interview made a lasting impression on the paraprofessionals and these impressions were used to make judgments about the whole school or district. One paraprofessional who was impressed with the quality of her interview years earlier said, “I felt that my kids were going to the district, so I…[had] a good feeling about the district and about how they hired me.” Months after being interviewed, another paraprofessional asked an administrator if he had actually checked her references. Finding out that he had, she felt positive about the district, their hiring process, and the people they hire. Conversely, another paraprofessional shared that she was frustrated in her interview process and stated, “I think the whole process needs to be revamped.” She had been interviewed only by a special education teacher. The teacher could provide information about the inclusive education program, the students, and the expectations for the paraprofessional, but could not respond to inquiries about wages and benefits. Even though the special educator redirected the paraprofessional to someone who could provide the desired information, the paraprofessional felt this lack of information during the interview reflected poor quality in the process.
The way in which paraprofessionals were oriented to their districts, schools, and specific jobs took several forms. First, there was the initial mandatory orientation to the district. As an elementary supervisor described this orientation as “just Basic 101, now you are an employee of the district…It has very little to do with what happens on the job.” Second, the district level special education departments provided an orientation that focused on topics relevant to their work. Third, there was an orientation to the specific building, team, and students.
At the district level, each school district provided an initial orientation session for all new employees, including paraprofessionals, which covered topics such as district policies, benefit information, state and federal safety regulations, and mandated reporting. Depending on when a paraprofessional was hired, the orientation session occurred immediately or some time during the first couple of months of employment. The human resources department in two of the districts also used an “orientation checklist” to assure that the new employees were oriented to specific procedures at the building level. The paraprofessionals brought the checklists with them to the buildings to which they had been assigned. The checklists served as a reminder for staff in each building to provide new employees with basic information, such as where to pick up paychecks and building procedures. The checklist also acted as an “ice breaker” for the paraprofessionals since they must introduce themselves to other school personnel to learn about the building procedures. When completed, the checklists were returned and filed at the district office.
All three district-level special education departments conducted an additional orientation session to provide information about specific kinds of disabilities, confidentiality, intervention strategies, and roles and responsibilities of paraprofessionals in working with students who have disabilities. In Waterview, only paraprofessionals hired in the fall received this additional orientation. In an effort to provide this orientation information to all new paraprofessionals immediately after being hired regardless of when they were hired during the school year, the district special education department was developing a CD-ROM for individual orientation use. The Forest School District provided three additional after-school inservices (2.5 hours each) for its new paraprofessionals, while the Prairie District provided an extended 20-hour orientation series organized around state department of education recommendations, including historical and legal foundations of special education, characteristics of learners, and instructional content and practice.
The responsibility of orienting paraprofessionals at the team level fell to the special education teachers and, if present, the special education building coordinators. Team level orientations varied considerably from being a well-designed process that unfolded over several weeks to being an informal process that was fit into existing schedules. Some paraprofessionals stated that they never received any type of orientation at the building level and that their first exposure to their responsibilities was students stepping off their buses. Teachers, for the most part, viewed the team orientation as the initial point of job-embedded development. (Some of the orientation strategies described here were mentioned previously in the section addressing how paraprofessionals developed the knowledge and skills to work with specific students with disabilities).
Most special education teachers developed orientation packets with information about the students, including IEP goals and objectives, background information about student-specific disabilities, specific intervention strategies, and emergency procedures. Also included was a copy of the daily or weekly schedule to be followed by the paraprofessional. Job-shadowing, modeling, explaining, and continually “checking in,” were strategies that the teachers found to be the most effective for orienting the paraprofessionals to their job and for teaching the paraprofessionals their responsibilities. Paraprofessionals remarked that the opportunities to shadow the teachers or other paraprofessionals and to ask questions were invaluable in preparing them for their job responsibilities.
Finding time to meet with new paraprofessionals was challenging and was often just worked into the daily schedule. One district had an informal policy of providing a teacher with a substitute for a day to orient a new paraprofessional, but not all teachers were aware of this option. Several teachers were able to bring their paraprofessionals in before the school year began to meet with the special education team and some of the general education teachers.
The cost of paraprofessional turnover is high both in terms of the actual number of hours invested in hiring and developing a new paraprofessional employee and in terms of the impact on the students, special education teachers, general education teachers, and the overall inclusive programs. Similar to a pebble dropped in a pond, the turnover of even one paraprofessional creates a ripple effect that spreads throughout an inclusive education program and its supporting structures and personnel. Repeated paraprofessional turnover creates continuous ripples that detract from proactive improvement work. There is a limited amount of personnel time and energy. Turnover involved a redirection of energy from continuous improvement work to initiation and re-development work.
Two of the three districts in the study experienced a high level of paraprofessional turnover in their special education paraprofessional positions. As an example of this dilemma, one district hired 101 special education paraprofessionals out of a total of 260-270 paraprofessionals (or approximately 38%) during the school year previous to this study. Sixty-nine of these new hires resulted from paraprofessional turnover, while 32 were newly-created positions. Another district employed approximately 330 special education paraprofessionals during the year of the case study. During this year, this district posted approximately 190 special education paraprofessional positions because of paraprofessional turnover and ongoing efforts to fill positions in programs for more challenging students. Some of the postings were for the same position being filled multiple times. All three of the districts experienced difficulty attracting applicants and filling positions in the programs that supported students with more significant disabilities.
In contrast to the district level, four of the special education teachers indicated that paraprofessional turnover in their inclusive programs was low. In the Waterview district, staff attributed the low turnover in these programs to a collaborative culture within the teams, to hiring and supporting paraprofessionals committed to the students, and to upgrading the interview process and wage scales. In the Forest School District, the elementary principal surmised that because a number of their current paraprofessionals were not the primary income earners for their families, their decisions about whether to remain paraprofessionals were not totally dependent on the district’s wages and benefits. The paraprofessionals at the high school joined the staff when the building opened and felt the low turnover was due to supportive staff and a high level of communication. In the Prairie School District, the elementary program hired nine paraprofessionals during the year due to transfers when a new district program opened, retirements, and relocations. They anticipated that during the next school year their paraprofessional workforce would be more stable. The secondary program was never at full paraprofessional capacity during the school year because of an extended leave of absence. Of the remaining two paraprofessionals, one was hired this school year. Described below are the reasons for paraprofessional turnover that emerged from the cross-case analysis, followed by a discussion about the impact of paraprofessional turnover.
The primary reason offered for paraprofessional turnover by almost all of the interviewees was poor wages and benefits. All three of the districts had recently raised their paraprofessional hourly wage and two had improved benefits in hopes of attracting higher quality applicants and reducing turnover. Subsequent to the pay raise, the pay range for an entry-level paraprofessional was between $9.00 and $10.73 per hour. One district had the flexibility to offer higher pay to the paraprofessionals who worked in programs that served complex students. All of the pay scales reached their maximum hourly rate in five to eight years. The effect of raising the paraprofessionals’ wages meant budget cuts in other areas. As a special education director said:
Special education is unique because we have to have those services there for those kids. So what will happen is we’ll have to cut teachers somewhere else. We’ll have to cut paras somewhere else. Somebody is going to be cut because we had to add. We have to reduce. It’s a human resource business.
Additional reasons cited for paraprofessional turnover were the demanding nature of the job and stress incurred. This was felt to be especially true for younger paraprofessionals who may not have really understood their responsibilities when they accepted the position. Some paraprofessionals left to enroll in college or because they had completed college. A principal also noted that an unhealthy special education team culture and internal conflicts increases paraprofessional turnover. Poor work conditions seem to exacerbate the demanding nature of the positions causing paraprofessionals to look elsewhere for employment.
The impact of paraprofessional turnover was significant and was felt throughout the inclusive education programs by students, teachers, and administrators at the site and district levels. Discussed first is the estimated amounted of personnel time involved in turnover and subsequent replacement efforts. Following this discussion is an articulation of the ways in which turnover affects programs, staff, and students.
As mentioned previously, each district had somewhat different processes and procedures for hiring paraprofessionals. Depending on the specific processes, the individuals involved, and the number of staff involved, the total amount of time invested in the overall process varied. Summarized in Table 6 is an estimation of the actual time district and school staff invested in each new paraprofessional hire, from the point of recruitment through job-embedded development. Based on this time analysis, the districts emphasized different stages of the employment process. For example, the Waterview District’s recruiting, screening and interviewing process took 9.0 to 13.5 hours. These administrators had focused their efforts on improving the quality of the paraprofessional applicant pool and hiring process to improve the quality of the paraprofessionals the district employed. The Prairie School District invested about 20 hours per paraprofessional in their district-level orientation process. The content of their orientation sessions were designed to align with state recommendations. In total the minimum time invested in each paraprofessional hire from recruiting to district-level special education orientation was estimated to be 13.5 hours or equal to over two school days of staff time. The maximum was estimated to be 25 hours or the equivalent of almost four school days of staff time. For each paraprofessional hire who remains with the district, this time can be viewed as the cost of investing in an effective employee. For each paraprofessional who leaves the district, this time equals the cost of opportunity lost since the investment was wasted.
Table 6: Estimated Time Investments for Each New Paraprofessional Hire
Recruiting, Screening, Interviewing
District Level Special Education Department Orientation
Building Level, Job-Embedded Paraprofessional Development
|Waterview||9.0-13.5 hours||4.0 hours||0.5-1.0 hours||0.0-3.0 hours||1-4 months|
|Forest||5.0-7.5 hours||3.5 hours||0.5-1.0 hours||7.5 hours||Up to 3 months|
|Prairie||1.5-2.0 hours||3.0 hours||NA||20.0 hours||1-12 months|
Beyond the formal orientation period, there was a substantial period of time during which each new paraprofessional needed extensive direction to develop the knowledge and skills to support students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms. As mentioned previously, the teachers estimated that it took between one to twelve months for a new paraprofessional to reach a level where they were proficient working with students. The amount of time varied depending on the complexity of the students’ needs, the number of environments that the paraprofessional worked in, the baseline skills of the paraprofessional, and her or his capacity to learn the material and work with students. In one program that supported students with significant physical and cognitive disabilities, the special education teacher estimated that the team invested a total of 2.5 to 15.0 hours of staff time in the first days alone. The wide range depended on how much time she could free herself to orient the new employee, if there was an experienced paraprofessional who could be shadowed for a day, the availability of related service personnel to do mini-orientations, preparation of the orientation packet, and juggling the schedule to assure student coverage during this period of change. Another teacher had new paraprofessionals shadow staff for three to four days prior to having them work individually with students.
As shown previously in Table 3, responsibilities of paraprofessionals in inclusive education programs were extensive. Turnover in paraprofessionals, then, subsequently required teaching new hires how to effectively perform these responsibilities. In addition, a make-shift system for covering these responsibilities was necessarily developed until a new employee was hired and trained. As a principal said “No one is sitting around twiddling their fingers.” Schedules were tight and everyone’s time was fully used. When there is turnover, a ripple effect ensues that touches the entire program, not just the students with whom the exited paraprofessional worked. To cover during personnel shortages, special education teachers must consider the needs of all students and prioritize coverage for those with the greatest needs or at greatest risk. These transitional coverage strategies are often at the expense of other students’ programs. There may be changes to the schedules of the special education teachers, paraprofessionals, and students. Aspects of the program may be put into a temporary limbo until new coverage is found. For instance, if the paraprofessional performed a key support role, such as driving the van for community work experiences, then that portion of the program might be put on hold until someone new is hired and trained.
As emphasized previously, inclusive education programs are built on a foundation of collaboration between general and special educators and within special education teams. Collaboration depends to a great degree on the relationships and trust established between the adults. Relationships change when employees leave and new people are hired. During this transition period, changing schedules can result in extra demands and miscommunications that have the potential to jeopardize working relationships. With every new paraprofessional hire, an obvious relationship that needs to be established and tended is with the special education teacher(s). Another significant relationship is between the general education teacher and paraprofessional. General education teachers become comfortable working with specific adults in their classrooms and paraprofessionals become accustomed to the spoken and unspoken rules of the different classrooms. When there is paraprofessional change, new relationships, routines, and understandings need to be formed. A significant amount of time must be invested in making new situations successful.
The special education teachers and, at the secondary level, the building coordinators invested a significant amount of time developing new paraprofessionals. Beyond the usual time investment to direct the work of paraprofessionals, there was an extra workload for the teacher when turnover occurred. Districts struggled with how to support teachers during this transition. One district “unofficially” provided a substitute teacher for one day so that the special education teacher could orient a new paraprofessional to the school, program, and students. Teachers could use this as a full day or divide the time into two half days. Not all teachers were aware of or utilized this support and the district was undecided about whether to make this informal practice a formal policy. The special education teachers that met regularly with their paraprofessional teams used this time for job-embedded training for new paraprofessionals and for building team collaboration.
The final impact of paraprofessional turnover was on the students. In addition to their educational programs being directly affected, often with certain components being altered or placed on hold until new paraprofessionals were hired and trained, students were also personally affected by turnover. Teachers and administrators reported that the students felt a significant sense of loss when they had a strong and positive relationship with a paraprofessional who left. This negative effect sometimes touched all of the students, not only those students with more significant disabilities. This was especially true when turnover occurred during the school year rather than at the end of the school year when change in personnel was more expected.
Employing, Developing, and Directing Special Education Paraprofessionals
in Inclusive Education Programs: Findings from a Multi-Site Case Study
Go to Section 5: Implications