The Misuse of Paraprofessionals in Inclusive Classrooms

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The following is a guest post by Dr. Deb Leach who will be presenting a 90-minute webinar entitled “ABA & Your Inclusive Classroom: Helping Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders Using Applied Behavior Analysis on 8/31/12 @ 11:30 am or 2:00pm ET.


I may upset a few parents with this post, but just know that I what I am about to say is the best interest of your children.  Many, many, many (did I say many?) parents insist that their children with autism have “shadows” when they are included in general education classrooms.  Parents tell one another things like, “Whatever you do, make sure the shadow is assigned to your child, not the classroom.”  In my opinion, the worst thing you can do is to assign a non-certified staff person to a child.  In fact, it is not just my opinion.  Research has shown that having a shadow assigned to a student can have detrimental effects  (Downing, Ryndak, & Clark, 2000); Giangreco & Broer, 2005).  Some of the documented negative effects of having shadows assigned to students include:

  1. Interference with engagement with the teacher
  2. Interference with engagement with peers
  3. Decision making by under-qualified personnel
  4. Unnecessary dependence on the paraprofessional by the student
  5. Stigmatization
  6. Behavior problems

I can’t tell you how many times I stepped into classrooms in which a shadow is assigned to a student, and I wanted to grab a megaphone and shout out, “PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THE CHILD!”  This is not because paraprofessionals aren’t wonderful people, because they almost always are.  This is because they are doing what they have been told to do: “keep the child on task,” “reduce problem behavior,” “help the child with academic work,” “help the child with organization,” etc.  The problem is, these responsibilities need to be the teacher’s responsibilities.  While I am well aware that a general education teacher certainly needs support to be able to meet the needs of a student with autism in the classroom, the support should not be a shadow.  It could be a paraprofessional assigned to work under the guidance of the general education and special education teachers who are responsible for the student’s education.  Or…it could be a special education teacher who co-teaches with the general education teacher all or some of the day.  When paraprofessionals are in inclusive classrooms there are many ways they can be utilized to support all students including the student with autism such as:

  1. Providing small group instruction
  2. Monitoring students working independently
  3. Monitoring centers or stations
  4. Preparing materials to allow for differentiated instruction and assessment
  5. Provide 1:1 support as needed

When paraprofessionals are used in ways listed above, it allows the general education teacher to better meet the individual needs of the student with autism as well as other students in the classroom.  Of course, general education teachers need training and support from special education teachers to know how to effectively teach students with autism.  And, even more importantly, general and special education teachers need training on how to work collaboratively and how to effectively utilize paraprofessionals in the classroom.

Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA

Dr. Leach will also be a featured speaker at the Students Who Are Wired Differently National Conference in June 2013 in Atlanta.

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