Each school operates like a small city.
Teams work together to reach common goals and keep the school running. The food services team ensures students are well-fed and able to focus in class. The administration team keeps the lights on and works to secure resources from the district.
However, there are some overlooked members who contribute significantly to the school.
It’s time to learn more about paraprofessionals in education. You might be surprised by what these educators do and the key role they play in supporting students, parents and their fellow teachers.
What Is a Paraprofessional?
If there is a student who has a developmental disability or recently moved from another country, they might work closely with a paraprofessional. A para works with students who need extra support in the classroom. This takes the burden off teachers who might not be able to give extra attention to students — or might not be qualified to help them.
“Paraprofessionals, also known as teacher aides, teaching assistants, ed-techs, classroom assistants, instructional aides, para-educators, paras, and my personal favorite para-pros provide instructional or related support to students under the direction and supervision of a certified teacher,” writes Zochil Eagan, who has been a paraeducator for more than 10 years.
The team at Scoot Education highlights the different types of paraeducators you might encounter in a school. Some schools might have more paras in one department than another based on the needs of the students. These categories include:
- Special education. Paras work with students with cognitive or developmental disabilities and create a bridge between the general education and special education classroom.
- Language support. Bilingual paras help students who are learning English. They explain concepts in the student’s native language and translate questions to teachers.
- Behavioral intervention. These paras help students who can be disruptive to the general classroom. They intervene if the student gets overwhelmed and work with students to improve their behavior over time.
These are just a few examples of paraprofessionals in education. Some also provide physical assistance to students with disabilities. For example, a para might help a student without functioning arms take notes or help a student who uses a wheelchair navigate the hallways.
One key misconception about paraeducators is that they are only meant to work with one student. However, educational consulting firm Stetson and Associates busts this myth.
“In rare cases, paraeducators could be assigned as 1:1 support,” they write. “Paras are able and should support all students, small groups of students, or a few students depending upon the instructional lesson plan, teacher design/request, and individual student needs.”
Based on the practices and requirements of a school or district, a paraprofessional might stay in a single classroom throughout the day to help a group of students or they might move from one room to another.
Why Are Paraprofessionals Important?
Paraprofessionals are essential to supporting students with disabilities, language barriers and other needs in the learning environment.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was created to make sure each student receives the right support and accommodations in the classroom environment. Each year, parents and administrators create an individualized education program (IEP) for that child. An IEP might cover where a student learns and accommodations like access to a paraeducator or extra time for tests and projects.
Paraeducators allow students to learn with their peers instead of staying inside a special education or English-language learners (ELL) classroom all day. This is known as creating a least restrictive environment (LRE) for students.
“If a general education classroom (with or without supports) is not an appropriate setting for a student, the next option would be an inclusion classroom,” writes Susan Cali in an article at Accessibility.com. “An inclusion classroom is a common LRE placement that has students with disabilities learning alongside their typically developing peers…the next step would be a self-contained special education placement.”
There are several benefits of LREs for students. They have the opportunity to socialize and play with their peers, allowing them to make friends and show that their disabilities don’t define them. English language learners can practice their conversation skills and apply what they learn in class. An LRE also benefits general learners because they can discover that students with disabilities aren’t that different from them — reducing bias and the likelihood of bullying.
“Some students in special day classes may not feel accepted in the overall school community, but inclusive classrooms can ease that divide,” writes the team at Soliant, a provider of specialized healthcare staffing services. “These learning groups are full of diverse learners, and the addition of special education students only makes the class more nuanced, showing kids that we all have strengths and challenges.”
Many parents advocate for paraeducators at IEP meetings. They would rather see their children in a general education classroom with a para to help out than be isolated in a special education classroom.
“When providing the Least Restrictive Environment for a student, related service providers may also take on an in-class teaching role where they support specific student needs as they align to the curriculum, subject area, and specific task,” writes Lauren Ciran, a special education teacher.
This might be a speech therapist helping a student with fine motor skills or a bilingual paraeducator translating English to Spanish in a science class.
Paraprofessional Qualifications and Certifications
Paraeducators are not certified teachers. They should not be left alone to teach or develop lesson plans for students. They have enough work to do in their supporting roles and shouldn’t be tasked with actively leading classes and developing lesson plans. However, paras do need training and certification to work in K-12 schools.
Paraeducators typically need at least a high school diploma to enter the field, though some jobs may require postsecondary education, such as an associate degree. Many also complete certification programs offered by the National Paraprofessional Technical Assistance Center (NPTA). These programs teach paraeducators how to work with students who have special needs, such as those with autism or behavioral disorders.
The team at Randstad UK recommends volunteering at schools and with community groups that help children in addition to training. These activities give paras experience working with kids, especially if they seek out volunteer opportunities with students who have disabilities.
However, paraeducators are more than just student helpers. They can also be advocates when it’s time to review the annual accommodation plans with parents and teachers.
“Often, [paras] are the ones who spend the most time with the students, getting to know them on a personal level and understanding their individual needs,” writes the team at TeachTastic. “This makes them the most qualified to speak at an IEP meeting about the student’s progress and what future goals might be the most beneficial.”
Valuable paraeducators will have clear communication skills and will feel comfortable working with teachers, administrators and parents to reach agreements on their IEP plans.
Paraprofessional Income and Benefits
Paraprofessionals frequently talk about how rewarding their jobs are. They are involved in student growth throughout the year, and see them become more confident in the classroom. However, it’s often a thankless job. Paraeducators are paid less than teachers and other administrators in most schools. Low pay is driving some paras out of the field.
While paraeducators earn around $19 an hour nationally, there are discrepancies. Some earn as little as $11.50 an hour, a completely unsustainable wage in 2023. Even $19 an hour won’t cover the cost of living in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.
Pay is the No. 1 reason why paraeducators say they are likely to leave K-12 education in the future. An Education Week survey found 71 percent of paraeducators feel low pay is the major reason to leave the field.
Nick Juravich, a professor of history and labor studies at UMass Boston, says the history of paraeducators is what has led to their current pay and benefits levels. These professionals were historically community members paid to assist teachers. They spoke the local languages and knew the students from the neighborhoods they lived in. This view of paras as community assistants devalued their work.
“For bureaucrats and administrators, constructing paraprofessional work as women’s work allowed them to justify both low pay and ‘flexible’ hours and hiring,” Juravich explains.
Unfortunately, paraprofessionals are being asked to do more to fill gaps in school staffing without the potential of a pay raise. They end up working longer hours and spreading themselves thin taking on tasks like hallway monitoring and recess duty.
While many paras agree to take on these tasks because they are passionate about the students, there is a strong risk of overwork and burnout in the field.
Demand for Paraprofessionals in Education
Paraeducators are some of the most in-demand positions that schools are trying to fill. According to a report by Frontline Education, 35 percent of school districts struggle to hire paraeducators. Frontline speculates that the COVID-19 pandemic drove many paras away from the field because the low wages weren’t worth the stress and potential risk (at least before the vaccine was developed and became widely accessible).
The shortage of paraprofessionals in education is still a major concern, says Jane Bergeron-Beaulieu, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Special Education Administrators. “It’s really a tough position with not good pay and oftentimes not good benefits, so it’s difficult to attract folks.”
And when paraprofessionals are in short supply, special education departments suffer. “Special educators are working hand-in-hand with principals to triage who are the most significant kids, looking at all the IEPs kids have,” Bergeron-Beaulieu says. “We are extremely shorthanded. But we are doing the best with what we have.”
This is why IEP meetings can be stressful for both administrators and parents. If 10 parents each want a paraeducator to help their child but the school only has two on staff, it can be hard to determine who those paras can work with. Some parents will even switch schools and districts to find places where there are paraprofessionals to help their kids.
As long as paraprofessionals in education are underpaid and overworked, schools will have a hard time finding qualified candidates. That’s a shame, because these educators mean the world to the students they work with and are an essential part of the teaching team.