An Introduction to a Tool You Must Have! Supporting Students With Disabilities in Inclusive Schools: A Curriculum for Job-Embedded Paraprofessional Development

Lately I have been working with a number of parents and schools during this busy time of year, when IEPs are needing to be revisited and plans for next year put in place for kids with disabilities (take a minute to read my posts about IEPs for some ideas of where to begin and important things to think about during this very necessary, and hopefully meaningful, process).

During the conversations I have been having lately, it dawned on me that when people are planning for next year and thinking about what did or didn’t work well this year, the use of paraprofessionals to support kids with disabilities is a central issue that can make or break a student’s success. IEPs that include paraprofessionals must consider quality professional development and the time to do that development effectively for paraprofessionals. Now is the time to start thinking about how that can look, and planning when it will happen. I have a great resource to offer.

I have read and reviewed many other books and curricula on my blog, forgetting to pay any attention to MY curriculum that I co-authored with Gail Ghere and Jennifer York-Barr, which has been highly successful in meeting the needs of students, teachers and paraprofessionals.

I have personally had the opportunity to use this curriculum to train school personnel in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, California and Massachusetts, and have heard from my colleagues of their successful use of it in many more areas of the country. The curriculum has seven individual units, some of which have been used as the basis of research for Ph.D. dissertations, and found to be relevant and successful when used as we propose.

The seven units include:

  • What is Inclusive Education;
  • What to Teach – Learning Opportunities for Students;
  • How to Instruct – Prompt, Wait, Fade;
  • How to Instruct – Natural Cues; Consequences and Supports;
  • How to Instruct – Individualized Adaptations;
  • How to Instruct – Behavior as Communication; and
  • How to Interact – Student Relationships.

We wrote this curriculum a number of years ago now, but it has stood the test of time. There are many reasons for this, I believe. One, we paid close attention when writing the curriculum to the Standards for Staff Development that Learning Forward (previously called the National Staff Development Council) outlines as necessary components to successful job-embedded staff development. Two, we also paid close attention to what is known about how it is that adults learn best, and wrote the curriculum accordingly. And three, we used materials that were not new, but that had not been previously organized in a user-friendly fashion before we put them together in such a way that could be adapted and used by school personnel to meet their unique needs.

We were in the middle of a large federally funded grant at the time, which was looking at the roles of special educators in schools. From this work, we realized that one of the barriers to successful inclusion of kids with disabilities was that the roles and responsibilities of the paraprofessional were not defined well. Professional knowledge and skills were not easily developed for this group. This caused us to take a step back and look at how that played out in schools. We quickly realized that many times paraprofessionals are not supported through meaningful staff development to do their job well, and this was negatively impacting the relationships between the teachers and the paraprofessionals, as well as the support of learning and skill development that the paraprofessionals were hired to do for the students they served.

Paraprofessionals (also called aides, paraeducators, or assistants) are many times in situations with students that call on them to be the first responder and decision-maker to various needs that arise within classrooms and schools. They are oftentimes the people who know the students inside and out, work with them the most closely and ultimately can make or break a program and the ways services are delivered to students on a day to day basis.

When we go to school to become a teacher, unfortunately we do not get a lot of training as to how to supervise or manage other adults. Our work and understanding is about how kids learn, adaptations, even how to co-teach or collaborate with other teachers, but very often there is little to no attention given in our college training as to how to actually manage other adults such as paraprofessionals, or supervise them from day to day in their roles and their work.

Additionally, paraprofessionals come to their jobs with varying degrees of experience, at times they have a background in education, but more often than not, they have had no formal training in what we are asking them to do. Schools and districts are notoriously behind in creating meaningful staff development for paraprofessionals, or finding the time for the development to occur.

Job-embedded professional development (JEPD) refers to learning that is grounded in day-to-day teaching practice and is designed to enhance content-specific instructional practices with the intent of improving student learning. It is usually school or classroom based, and is intended for teachers to integrate into their workday, assessing needs and finding solutions for their practice as a part of cycle of continuous improvement.

Our curriculum is a job-embedded design, ideally intended for teachers to use with their own paraprofessionals, within their own schools and settings. The facilitator manual is set up in such a way that teachers can intuitively adapt the materials for their students’ and paraprofessionals’ needs. It is not a one size fits all approach, but rather the groundwork and supporting materials for teachers to use in their training, with the ability to make it completely useful for their own setting and people, with just a few modifications or extensions.

This includes being able to use different parts of the curriculum at the pace necessary, skipping or highlighting parts as they arise within a school year, or even for training on the fly when new paraprofessionals are hired during a year. It is completely individualized instruction and training for paraprofessionals, which is based on the students that are within a school. It can be used by a single teacher to train one or more paraprofessional at a time, or team taught by more than one teacher within a school.

I have also used the curriculum to conduct larger professional development at a district and school-wide level. Although this is not ideal, and it is not job-embedded when used in this way, it remains useful and practical for schools to consider at times, and is still effective for development purposes because of the topics the seven units cover in detail.

I am going to spend the next few posts telling you more about each of the seven units, and suggesting ways you could use them within your schools.

It is my hope that by writing about this important issue now, IEPs and professional development planning for the remainder of this year, and extending into next year, will be inclusive of these highly successful training components.

The curriculum is available for purchase from the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota. It is priced so that schools can afford it, and typically only one manual is needed per school.

Stay tuned as to how to use it successfully in your school, OR if you can’t wait for my next posts, leave a comment and I will suggest personal recommendations!

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