2012. Vol.3, No.3, 322-327
Published Online June 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2012.33051
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
Team Players and Team Managers: Special Educators
Working with Paraeducators to Support
Betty Y. Ashbaker1, Jill Morgan2
1Counseling Psycholog y & Special Educati o n, Brigham Young U n i ve rsity, Provo, U S A
2School of Education, Swansea Metropolitan University, Swansea, UK
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Received April 27th, 2012; revised May 28th, 2012; accepted June 11th, 2012
This paper summarizes recommendations from a selection of international research literature urging
teachers to take the initiative in their own classrooms to invite paraeducators to participate fully as team
players in collaborative work. In US classrooms paraeducators (teacher aides/teacher assistants) have long
been making valuable contributions in providing education services to students with a variety of needs.
The literature documents change in their roles. Legislation has influenced their required qualifica-
tions—although legislation still refers to them as paraprofessionals. While some researchers have cast
doubt on whether paraeducators are truly effective in their assigned roles, others have warned that the
education system is over-reliant on them. In response to this changing perspective, teacher educators must
revise programs to better prepare teacher candidates to effectively team with paraeducators. Personnel
developers and school administrators must provide inservice training for a generation of teachers who
have received little if any training in this area.
Keywords: Paraeducators; Paraprofessionals; Inclusion; Team Players; Managers
Paraeducators have become increasingly important in the U.S.
public education system. In the 2003-2004 school year, 91 per-
cent of public schools reported employing at least one paraedu-
cator (NCES, 2007). A national change began when the No
Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act specifically defined the title
paraprofessional (paraeducator) and specified the responsibili-
ties and the limitations for instructional paraprofessionals em-
ployed by each Local Educational Agency (LEA) in a program
supported with funds under the Act. A portion of IDEIA (2004)
federal money is also spent each year to provide the services of
paraprofessionals to assist children with disabilities, and today
most US public schools have paraeducators employed as sup-
port staff responsible for assisting in the delivery of instruction
(Hoffman & Sable, 2006).
In this article, we draw on the international literature relating
to paraeducators and offer a précis of the recommendations
which have been made regarding their employment, profess-
sional development and supervision, emphasizing the necessity
of each teacher taking the initiative in his or her own classroom
to develop an effective instructional team. We draw on litera-
ture from a variety of different countries, where titles assigned
to paraeducators vary: Teaching Assistants (TAs) in the United
Kingdom, Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) in the Republic of
Ireland, teacher aides in Australia, and classroom assistants in
Finland. For convenience, in this article we refer to them all as
paraeducators. First, we discuss the literature on roles of pa-
raeducators; then we cluster the literature into several themes:
clarifying roles/expectations, monitoring the support that pa-
raeducators provide, and providing on-the-job training for para-
educators—commenting briefly on each.
Roles and Challenges of Paraeducators
When paraeducators were first introduced into classrooms,
their main role was to support the teacher in clerical work, but
over time this role has changed significantly. Formerly, their
duties typically consisted of taking attendance, checking papers,
preparing materials/bulletin boards, and other clerical or house-
keeping duties (Blalock, 1991; French, 1999); now this work-
force is engaged in many other important tasks more directly
linked with teaching and learning.
Paraeducators are often found in self-contained classes, re-
source rooms, and general education classrooms (where they
bridge inclusion activities). The specifics of their roles are de-
termined by the needs of the students they serve. Rueda and
Monzo (2002) identified five major roles of the paraeducator:
instructional, school support, liaison, personal support, and one-
to-one class support—this latter role being the most common.
Broer et al. (2005) found that students with intellectual disabili-
ties viewed paraeducators as having various roles such as
“mother”, friend, protector, and primary teacher. Chopra et al.
(2004) suggest that paraeducators could also assume the role of
connector: connecting parents to teachers; parents to commu-
nity services; students to teachers, parents, peers, and—not
least—to the curriculum. Hauge and Babkie (2006) likewise
identify the special relationships that often develop between
paraeducators and the children they support, as well as their
B. Y. ASHBAKER, J. MORGAN
Among the multiple roles of paraeducators, Kerry and Kerry
(2003) report that among ethnic groups in the Czech Republic
paraeducators help in overcoming the language and cultural
barriers that young traveller children can face when they first
enter school. Similarly, US findings show that Latino paraedu-
cators hired from among the ethnic community use a number of
strategies to help ELL and bilingual students create new lin-
guistic, cultural, and academic context in schools, while pro-
viding a role model from within the minority culture (Center for
Research on Education, 2000; Rueda & Monzó, 2000).
Allen and Ashbaker (2004) have recommended that paraedu-
cators serve on school-based crisis prevention and intervention
teams. They are of course already extensively involved in sup-
porting the development of students’ literacy skills (Causton-
Theoharis, 2007; Cobb, 2007); and they have developed sig-
nificant roles in the relatively recent RTI initiative (Hauerwas
& Goessling, 2008). Blair (2002) reports that many programs
recruit future special educators from dedicated, experienced pa-
raeducators, considering them promising future teachers repre-
senting minority cultures and backgrounds (Gursky, 2002).
As part of both the inclusive practice movement and the de-
velopment of new service delivery models in recent decades,
paraeducators and those who hire them are becoming more
aware of the pivotal role they play. Federal legislation now
requires higher levels of qualifications for paraeducators work-
ing in Title I programs (NCLB (2001) specifies two years of
college or state-determined tests of competence), and IDEA
(2004) requires that they be “appropriately trained and super-
vised” in order to work with students with disabilities (Cortese,
2005). Paraeducators are now considered by many as key to the
delivery of special education and related services (Giangreco &
Doyle, 2002; Hughes & Valle-Riestra, 2008). Blacher and Rod-
riguez (2007) list multiple advantages of hiring paraeducators
to support the delivery of special education services in both
academic skills development and social/behavioral intervene-
With the increasingly wide variety in the roles undertaken by
paraeducators, Giangreco and Broer (2007) and Giangreco et al.
(2011) warn against the education system becoming over-reli-
ant on their support. Giangreco (2003) notes that “sometimes
relying on paraeducators may feel effective because it relieves,
distributes or shifts responsibility for educating a student with
specialized needs, but educators should not confuse this out-
come with effectiveness for students” (p. 50).
Giangreco and colleagues are not alone in expressing con-
cerns over whether the support provided by paraeducators can
be considered universally effective with student progress and
achievement. Research in the United Kingdom (Roberts, 2010)
suggests that although the presence of a paraeducator in the
classroom may reduce teacher workload and stress, there is
evidence to suggest that students who receive support from a
paraeducator may make less progress than similar peers who
receive no support. In fact, Roberts (2010) documents instances
revealing a negative correlation between support and student
McGrath et al. (2010) offer one explanation for such a corre-
“The problem becomes evident when the student with special
needs begins to spend most of his or her social time (lunch,
recess) with the paraeducator and not with peers or when the
paraeducator begins to make most curricular and instructional
decisions for the student” (p. 2).
This highlights both social and educational disadvantages
students may experience as the paraeducator who is provided to
enable students to function in an inclusive classroom isolates
them both from their peers and from the professional who is
specifically trained to make the decisions about their special-
Additionally, Patterson (2006) and others have documented
the high levels of freedom and independence many paraeduca-
tors experience in their work—terms which may be considered
synonymous with unsupervised in this context. Ashbaker and
Morgan (2004) and more recently Darden (2009) have warned
of potential legal issues when students with disabilities are
assigned to paraeducators for large portions of the day, docu-
menting legal cases and appeals under both special education
and civil rights legislation.
Walsh and Jones (2004) recommend that paraeducators par-
ticipate in co-teaching situations with general education teach-
ers if the number of special educators in a school is insufficient
to allow for co-teaching between professionals. While this may
appear to be a logical and practical solution, particularly in
small schools and districts, these researchers also warn of se-
veral “significant challenges” inherent in this approach:
“Schools and districts must provide ongoing staff develop-
ment and supervision for paraeducators... and parents may
question the ability of a paraeducator to provide direct support
to students with disabilities in the absence of direct supervision
by the special education teacher. Special education teachers
involved with this model must understand their responsibility to
supervise and monitor... all students on their caseload, includ-
ing students served by the paraeducator” (Walsh & Jones, 2004:
All of these challenges relate to the paraeducator working
independently of the teacher rather than—as legislation re-
quires—working “under the direct supervision of a profess-
sional” (NCLB, 2001) or being “adequately supervised” (IDEA,
Training for Teachers
Many have pointed out the need for special educators to re-
ceive training in how to work advantageously with paraeduca-
tors (Allen et al., 1996; French, 2001; Morgan & Ashbaker,
2001; Pickett, 20 02). Kerry and Kerry (2003) report from the Uni-
ted Kingdom that paraeducators themselves have recommended
that their supervising teachers receive training in how to work
more effectively with them. But little progress has been noted
in this area to date (DeFries, 2010; Lewis & McKenzie, 2009).
Causton-Theoharis et al. (2007) and Mastropieri (2001) re-
port that collaborating with other adults is one of the major
challenges faced by first-year teachers. Calder and Grieve
(2004) suggest some reasons why teachers lack skills in this
area. In addition to the absence of training in their teacher
preparation programs concerning this aspect of their role (see
Carnahan et al., 2009), research suggests that the main influ-
ence on teachers’ approach to their work is the way they them-
selves were taught in school. Although paraeducators have been
part of the education system for decades, it is likely that there
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 323
B. Y. ASHBAKER, J. MORGAN
were few paraeducators in the classrooms where many of our
current teachers were educated. Even recent graduates of teacher
training programs are unlikely to have had significant contact
with paraeducators, as most of them were in the portion of their
mainstream class not requiring support. In addition, the group
of professionals least likely to have worked or studied in class-
rooms with paraeducators are teacher educators (Carnahan et al.,
2009). As Calder and Grieve (2004) speculate, “[T]heir mental
picture of teaching is unlikely to include a supporting adult” (p.
115). In essence the effective involvement of paraeducators is
not necessarily seen by this generation of teachers and their
professors as an integral part of “teacher” as a role.
Training for Paraeducators
We would suggest that the situation is not helped by the spo-
radic nature of training available to paraeducators. While NCLB
requires college-level training, this does not have to be in the
field of education (although that is recommended). In addition,
this requirement applies only to paraeducators hired under Title
I funds (or working in schools designated as Title I schoolwide
programs). The IDEA requirement for “appropriate” training
has no definition and therefore no teeth. Thus although these
items of legislation have been regarded as a step in the right
direction, many paraeducators still receive only minimal train-
ing—and possibly none—in how to work under the direction of
Recommendations for Teacher-Paraeducator
Over the past two decades, a large number of researchers and
teacher educators have made recommendations for ways teach-
ers can work more effectively with paraeducators. Several com-
mon themes have emerged, including some points that might be
viewed as general consensus on effective practice. Recommen-
dations from the literature cluster into several themes: clarify-
ing roles/expectations, monitoring the support that paraeduca-
tors provide, and providing on-the-job training for paraeduca-
tors. We comment briefly on each.
Clarifyi ng Roles/ Expectations
Typical lists of recommendations for working effe ctively with
a paraeducator begin with the statement that paraeducators need
to understand clearly what is expected of them. McGrath et al.
(2010) emphasize the importance of this clarification in relation
to managing student behavior. Teachers need to express clearly
which roles they intend to delegate to their paraeducator, and
how they expect those roles to be carried out.
Calder and Grieve (2008) suggest that assigning certain ad-
ministrative tasks to paraeducators is at the root of much confu-
sion about what a paraeducator should and should not do. Some
tasks clearly fall to the teacher (e.g., selection of curriculum
content, interpretation of test data); some clearly belong under
the definition of “support”. But tasks that can be done by either
teacher or paraeducator are grey areas which require clarifica-
tion. Morgan and Ashbaker (2009) have emphasized the critical
need for paraeducators to understand not only the extent of their
roles, but also the limits—knowing what they should not do
being almost as important as knowing what they should.
McGrath et al. (2010) also warn against the dangers of a teacher
delegating too much responsibility to a paraeducator: for exam-
ple, a paraeducator who knows much more about a particular
student than the teacher may feel she is the student’s real
teacher, possibly taking on curriculum planning and other deci-
sions that should be made by the teacher.
A balance is critical as the teacher assigns responsibilities to
the paraeducator but retains the decision-making appropriate to
her training, legal obligations, and professional status. The
teacher must give guidance and instructions for the paraeduca-
tor’s daily tasks and carefully explain the rationale for those
tasks and for her decisions relevant to them. Calder and Grieve
(2008) note that all team members should clearly understand
their own and others’ roles, and they should agree on outcomes.
For instance, a paraeducator who is assigned to support a par-
ticular student should understand clearly what that support is
intended to achieve. Without such understanding, neither pa-
raeducator nor teacher can clearly monitor and assess the effec-
tiveness of that support and determine whether it could be ap-
plied more effectively elsewhere.
Monitoring and Providing Feedback
Another recommendation common in the literature is that
teachers must monitor the support that paraeducators provide.
In the early phases of the international discussion of collabora-
tive work between teachers and paraeducators, Pickett (1999)
identified “monitoring of paraeducators’ work” as an essential
element. In parallel with effective practice when teaching stu-
dents, and for the same reasons, teachers must provide feedback
Both students and paraeducators need to know whether they
have “got it right” so that they become confident in their own
effectiveness—reusing strategies the teacher has confirmed,
and rejecting those the teacher has identified as unhelpful or
counterproductive. French (2003) lists “performance monitor-
ing and feedback” as one of the seven executive functions of
teachers working with paraeducators. Likewise, Cobb (2007)
asserts that training for paraeducators for instructional purposes
must include “providing follow-up sessions and consultation”
(p. 686). Deardorff et al. (2007), describing a training program
for paraeducators working in early childhood special education
programs serving rural and urban communities, also cite feed-
back to the paraeducator as a critical element for positive out-
comes, regardless of the experience or education levels of the
In an Australian study, Howard and Ford (2007) found that
“lack of feedback” was identified by paraeducators supporting
students with disabilities in secondary level mainstream class-
rooms as one of the challenges of working in collaboration with
teachers. This group of paraeducators had expressed general
satisfaction with their jobs and pride in their contributions and
achievements, but they did desire more support in this area.
Providing On-the-Job Training for Paraeducators
Wallace et al. (2001) list on-the-job training as one of the
seven competency areas required of teachers directing the work
of paraeducators. Under this heading they include providing
opportunities for paraeducators to develop their skills; clarify-
ing legal rights and responsibilities; and advocating for school/
district in-service training relevant to the paraeducator’s daily
work, particularly basic training in issues and strategies relating
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
B. Y. ASHBAKER, J. MORGAN
to students with disabilities. Hughes and Valle-Riestra (2008)
report that the majority of the paraeducators involved in their
research stated that on-the-job training was as important as
attendance at workshops in adding to their knowledge and skills.
The majori ty of their supervising teachers agreed with this.
In addition to these practical strategies for supervising and
collaborating with paraeducators, the literature on teacher-
paraeducator collaboration includes development of various
interpersonal skills. These include maintaining positive inter-
personal relationships, developing a team ethos and approach,
and valuing the paraeducator.
Maintaining Positive Relationships
Many authors (see for example Carnahan et al., 2009; Ghere
&York-Barr, 2007; Logan, 2006) have identified the impor-
tance of paraeducators receiving support from the teacher. This
need for a supportive approach may supersede—or at least
should precede—all other considerations; otherwise the sin-
cerity of the teacher’s efforts may be questioned, and the admi-
ttedly tricky negotiations involved in teachers directing para-
educators’ work may be seriously undermined.
Appl (2006) expresses the importance of support for first-
year early childhood special educators in the phrase “teaching
along with her” (p. 34). Riley (2010) goes so far as to suggest
that “teachers should be open and willing to accept paraeduca-
tors as fellow education professionals and positive contributors
to the classroom” (p. 11). Giangreco (2003) expresses this con-
cept with a metaphor: teachers need to “change their role from
gracious host to engaged teaching partner” (p. 50). Such partner
status can avoid the potential awkwardness when veteran para-
educators may know more about classrooms (in terms of stu-
dents, their families, and the school management system) than
their newly-qualified “supervising” teachers—a situation which
is all too common given the typical profile of paraeducators.
Building an Instructional Team
Gallagher et al. (2008) as well as Ghere and York-Barr (2007)
identified a classroom team approach as a major factor in re-
taining paraeducators. Giangreco and Doyle (2007) attribute
this to paraeducators feeling valued and respected if they are
included in decision-making processes as members of the in-
structional team. Carnahan et al. (2009) recommend a syste-
matic approach to team development that includes a shared phi-
losophy, effective communication, regularly scheduled mee-
tings, assessment of staff knowledge and experience, and a
variety of in-service strategies—with ongoing performance
assessments. Describing paraeducators in the Republic of Ire-
land, Logan (2006) observed how effective teams may be es-
tablished through the same or very similar factors: effective
communication and planning, shared understanding of the role
and responsibilities of paraeducators and ongoing monitoring of
the way in which support is provided”. Hauwerwas and Goess-
ling (2008) and Takala (2007) also emphasize the importance
of joint planning.
Liston et al. (2009) highlight the need to seek the paraeduca-
tor’s viewpoint. Brant and Burgess (2009) explain how this is
done at London University’s Institute of Education (UK), where
teacher candidates complete a one-week internship as para-
educators in order to better appreciate the paraeducator’s role.
Brant and Burgess report that the teacher candidates came to
better appreciate the challenges that face paraeducators, as well
as the students and teachers in classrooms that cater for a wide
variety of students needs. Perhaps more important to this dis-
cussion, they came to see the benefits of planning and col-
laborating with the classroom teacher and the critical need for
open communication. These are all elements of teamwork that
teachers practice to a greater or lesser extent with professional
colleagues which are also conducive to effective teacher-
paraeducator collaborations in inclusive classrooms. DeVecchi
and Rouse (2010) go so far as to suggest that truly inclusive
schools and communities work to support the inclusion of not
only students, but also of the adults who work in them.
Enhancing Paraeducator s’ Expe r i e nce s
McGrath et al. (2010) chart ten particular challenges that face
teachers when working with paraeducators, and provide re-
commendations for meeting these challenges and at the same
time meeting the needs of the students. They offer a mnemonic
for their recommendations, which are bulleted below:
P Prepare the paraprofessional from the beginning on his or
A Assert your expectations in a helpful manner;
R Review frequently how things are going;
A Agree to work out any problems and support each other;
P Plan carefully the activities you wish the paraprofessional
R Reinforce the paraprofessional for his or her many con-
tributions and successes;
O Observe the paraprofessional frequently to ensure all is
going well (McGrath et al., 2010: p. 6).
If a classroom teacher does not take the initiative in provi-
ding supervision, Ashbaker & Morgan (2006) recommend that
paraeducators should be proactive in seeking supervision in
order that there may be a collaborative team approach to wor-
king in the classroom. Carnahan et al. (2009) are more specific
in their recommendation that paraeducators be encouraged to
provide feedback to teachers on shared philosophies and ways
of working with students. We strongly acknowledge the con-
tribution that paraeducators can make to the success of the
Among researchers and professional educators, there is con-
sensus over the practical strategies and approaches that facili-
tate collaborative working relationships between teachers and
paraeducators; there is likewise recognition that this is not al-
ways an easy task. Wilson and Bedford (2008) refer to the
“tensions between leadership and partnership” which teachers
may experience. Veck (2009) argues that before paraeducators
can contribute meaningfully to an inclusive classroom envi-
ronment, teachers and administrators must examine the extent
to which school practices tend to marginalize paraeducators and
the students they support. Warnings have been issued:
“[T] here is a real danger that the rise of support staff will be
equated in the minds of the community, and perhaps of educa-
tors, with—at best—the pathological development of a mino-
rity force to deal with an aberrant group of pupils, or at worst
with the development of a second class teaching force to deal
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 325
B. Y. ASHBAKER, J. MORGAN
with second class pupils. That would turn an educational op-
portunity into a democratic disaster” (Kerry & Kerry, 2003: p.
What is abundantly clear is that training in how to work ef-
fectively with other adults (in particular paraeducators) cannot
be an elective in a teacher education program—either general
or special education. Kamman and Long (2010) describe—and
recommend—an intensive induction training for special educa-
tors, ensuring teacher quality and retention and including
knowledge and skills relating to collaborative work. Unfortu-
nately, such training is not commonly available, and we still
have a generation of teachers in classrooms around the world
who have received little if any training in how to work effect-
tively with paraeducators. This being the case, we should be
seeking early answers to the following questions:
1) What models exist of effective paraeducator employment
and supervision (meeting the needs of students and adults
2) How can these models be adopted/adapted to meet the
needs of a range of educational systems and provision without
lessening their effectivenes s?
3) How can teacher education best be involved with these
models, to ensure cohesion and thorough preparation and pro-
fessional development for both teachers and paraeducators?
Paraeducators can be of inestimable value to inclusive class-
rooms, but this value can only be truly realized when special
educators take the initiative to be the manager of their own
classrooms—when they take upon themselves the responsibility
to work with paraeducators as fellow team members—in accor-
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