Ask the Experts – September 2002 issue
The role of the Paraprofessional
By David F. Freschi

Q: I am a new aide and the classroom teacher does not provide me with much direction. I’m not sure what I’m doing is best for the child with autism I work with. Help!

Q: The school has agreed to hire an aide for my son, who has autism. I get the impression they don’t have a clue as to what this person should be doing. What should the aide be doing?

Q: What exactly is the role of the paraprofessional? The aide in my classroom seems to think that her role is to replace me in my job. What do I do?

So you’ve got an aide, now what do you do? There has been steady growth in the number of paraprofessionals in our schools, especially those assigned to work with children with Autism, Asperger’s, and similar challenges.

Each of the three questions above highlights common themes and concerns that arise when employing a paraprofessional for the student with Autism/Asperger’s:
" What is the role of the paraprofessional?
" What knowledge and skills does this person need to be effective?
" How do we make good use of this resource?

A paraprofessional can provide tremendous benefit but also pose significant risks. On the plus side, the paraprofessional can support the student’s learning, help to develop social skills, support other students, allow the teacher to focus on teaching strategies, and promote functional application of curriculum knowledge. On the down side, the paraprofessional can increase dependency, slow the development of communication, sabotage the school/home relationship, and interfere with integration and interaction with peers.

The Role of the Paraprofessional
There are some pretty straightforward Do’s and Don’ts for a paraprofessional working within the school system. The primary role is to assist the teacher in helping the child have a successful educational experience. Their job is to support learning and social skills and help the child expand his/her communication. They can be of great benefit with behavioral issues by coaching the child in working with other students, modeling appropriate behaviors and offering suggestions for alternative behaviors. The paraprofessional will often be the person that deals with issues as they come up in the "real" world. They are the ones who might have to deal with the meltdown in the lavatory, navigating the hallways, or interacting appropriately on the playground. They also have the opportunity to support academic skills learned in the classroom. "Count the spoons at your table, John." "Before you go up the slide you need to use your words." "That is a beetle. What did we learn about beetles?"

It is not the paraprofessional’s job to be the student’s personal servant, to over rule the teacher or sabotage her plans, or be a private information source for parents on what the school is doing wrong. Once this type of behavior starts, disaster is usually not far behind.

Required Skills and Knowledge
In working with various school systems, classroom teachers and paraprofessionals themselves, we have identified a cluster of skills that all paraprofessionals need to have to be successful with their students. These include….