Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities

How Paraeducators Can Improve Systems


Teri Wallace is Project Director with the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and Co-Director of the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals.

Have you ever heard paraeducators say in response to the challenges they face in their profession, “But what can I do?” It is true that sometimes the issues they face can feel “too big to tackle” and yet there are many paraeducators who are having a huge impact on their own situations and the systems that affect their work. This article provides some examples of what paraeducators can do when they feel like they would like to have an impact or improve something specific. The experiences of paraeducators are important to consider in decision-making by educational systems at the state, district and school levels. If you are a paraeducator, we hope you will consider getting involved. If you supervise paraeducators, we hope you will encourage them to get involved and support their participation.

Serving on Committees

There are many committees, task forces, ad hoc groups and consortia that exist for a variety of purposes, and it is important that paraeducators are involved to ensure their voices are heard and their opinions considered.In many states, paraeducators provide leadership on state level committees, providing guidance to the individuals who are creating state policy, helping to develop infrastructures for training and preparation, and sharing information about activities related to paraeducators statewide. Learning about these opportunities can usually occur by contacting the state education agency.In addition to state level groups, there are also district and school level groups. Paraeducators might consider joining staff development committees, site councils, and other committees and groups to ensure their ideas and opinions are brought to the table and shared.

Identifying Training Needs and Opportunities

Many paraeducators work with administrators to secure training opportunities. A good way to show a need for training is to conduct a needs assessment. This can be a simple five or six question survey asking paraeducators in an area if they feel prepared for their daily responsibilities, if they feel they could use more training, what topics would be most useful in their work with students, and if they are facing any challenges for which they think training might help. Summarizing the results of the needs assessment and sharing it with decision-makers can help to support a specific request. Securing input from teachers is a good way to get additional support for training goals and plans. Using data and stories to illustrate and support requests is a useful strategy. Sometimes decision-makers reject requests because they simply do not understand enough about the situation. Information representing a group of people can often have more influence on changing the system than the individual experience of one person.

Sharing Information

Often times paraeducators do not believe they have information to share with others when, in fact, they do. Presenting at local and state conferences is a great way to share knowledge and experience with others, and to network with paraeducators working in other schools, districts or states. In addition, sharing information with coworkers or being a mentor to a new paraeducator can benefit both parties.Some paraeducators have the gift of storytelling or writing. Finding an outlet for this type of expression can also be beneficial. Telling stories can make a difference to a child, an administrator, or a legislator. Expressing views and sharing experiences is an important way to add information to a situation.Active participation in professional associations, unions, and other groups organized around a topic or issue can be a very rewarding way of making a difference. These groups often have particular strategies for influencing change and ensuring an impact. They typically have conferences, newsletters, Web sites, and other avenues for getting and sharing information.

Creating New Initiatives

Some paraeducators have started new programs and initiatives. For example, starting a mentor program for new paraeducators in their district and receiving the support and funding for it from district administrators. Or, beginning a fund for children whose families do not have enough money to buy school supplies or go on a field trip. Or, establishing a training program for paraeducators by working with a team of paraeducators and teachers to design and implement a plan to do so. These are all real situations and the unique quality in the paraeducators involved was the passion they felt. Not everyone can or should or wants to start a new program, but it’s good to know that the option exists.


Paraeducators are increasingly becoming more and more active in helping to create and improve the systems in which they work, whether in big or small ways. There are many roles they can take, important messages they need to share, and huge impact they can have.