Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities

Paraeducator Certification: Iowa’s System


Susan Simon is Professor and Coordinator with the Disabilities Services Careers Program, Kirkwood Community College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Paraeducators in Iowa can now receive specific, focused training in their local communities, and be acknowledged for their education by the state. During the 1990s stakeholders across the state – paraeducators, teachers, administrators, parents, and staff of the Department of Education and the Board of Educational Examiners – were concerned about the status of paraeducators, and the lack of training they received. They worked cooperatively for over a decade to bring about a law creating a voluntary certification system. It outlines the competencies needed by all paraeducators, and also establishes an infrastructure for recognizing mastery of the general competencies as well as higher levels of competencies in specific areas. This article describes the activities that led to certification, the specific components of the law, the process for approving programs, and outcomes of the certification movement.


In the early 1990s, awareness of paraeducator issues in Iowa was limited. Some individuals expressed concerns about the changing role of paraeducators. There were pockets of uncoordinated activity. Several area education agencies, local school districts, and community colleges provided training. As the numbers of paraeducators grew and their assignments changed from working primarily in special education settings to working increasingly in general education classes, more administrators and parents became aware of the critical importance of paraeducators.Deborah Hansen, a consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, provided special leadership and advocacy within the department and throughout the state for paraeducator training and recognition. She provided technical assistance to local and area education agencies and community colleges, held forums for discussions, created pilot projects, and supported sharing of materials and training techniques in statewide and regional conferences. She also spoke to policymakers.

Needs Assessment

In 1995, the Iowa Department of Education conducted focus group meetings surveying paraeducators, general and special education teachers, administrators, support and related services personnel, and parents. The groups represented individuals from rural and urban areas in a variety of educational settings across Iowa. According to theParaprofessional Needs Assessment Project Focus Group Assessment Results, the respondents felt that paraeducators performed a variety of roles that were becoming increasingly complex. Some paraeducators stated that their responsibilities were defined in written job descriptions, but others reported that they had only vague, generic or no job descriptions. Paraeducators were often trained on-the-job by teachers or occasionally attended training designed for teachers; they did not feel training was adequate.The needs assessment not only documented concerns, it raised awareness of the critical role of paraeducators in education. In 1996, representatives from local and area education agencies and community colleges began meeting, under the direction of the Department of Education and the Board of Educational Examiners, to discuss improving the services to paraeducators statewide. This group of stakeholders constituted a consortium seeking to enhance the skill and training of paraeducators.

The Guide

The stakeholders contributed to the Guide for Effective Paraeducator Practice in Iowa (1998), which was distributed widely across Iowa. Beginning with a statement of beliefs and vision, this publication outlines state and federal rules and regulations, and is a resource for developing guidelines for paraeducator practice and staff development. Recommendations for improving paraeducator services and specific suggestions for paraeducators in special education settings are included.The guide lists core competencies for all paraeducators, and specific competencies for working in early intervention/childhood or home instruction; inclusive classrooms and programs for children and youth with special needs; and vocational training programs. Helpful tools include a “Suggested Checklist for Principals” and “A Family Guide to Paraeducator Services.”The guide became a valuable resource for educators and a framework for effective practice. This led to the development of pilot projects and models for training paraeducators and teachers that were shared at local, regional, and state conferences and meetings.


Stakeholder efforts, highlighting the need for state recognition, culminated in June 2000, when the governor signed legislation creating the Iowa Paraeducator Certification. The law specifies competencies for Level I Generalist Certification and Level II Areas of Concentration. Paraeducators may also obtain Advanced Certification.The Level I Generalist Certification requires successful completion of at least 90 clock hours of training in behavior management, exceptional child and at-risk child behavior, collaboration and interpersonal relations skills, child and youth development, technology, and ethical responsibilities and behavior. Under the direction and supervision of a qualified classroom teacher, the paraeducator will be able to complete 32 specific tasks under the categories of:

  • Support a safe, positive, teaching and learning environment.
  • Assist in the development of physical and intellectual development.
  • Support social, emotional, and behavioral development.
  • Establish positive and productive relations.
  • Integrate effectively the technology to support student learning.
  • Continually practice ethical and professional standards of conduct.

Level II Areas of Concentration Certification may only be obtained by those who hold Generalist Certification. Para-educators must complete at least 45 clock hours in each desired area of concentration: early childhood, special education, limited English proficiency, and career and transition. For Level II Advanced Certification, paraeducators must have an associate degree or have earned 62 hours at an institution of higher education. In addition they must complete a minimum of two semester hours of coursework involving at least 100 clock hours of supervised practicum with children or youth in an educational setting. The practicum may be part of an associate degree.

Approved Programs

The Iowa Board of Educational Examiners and the Iowa Department of Education work together to recognize and approve paraeducator training programs. Through rules, the Board of Educational Examiners establishes levels, standards, and competencies. Local school districts, area education agencies, community colleges, or other institutions of higher education submit documentation of their programs for approval to the Department of Education. Once a program is approved, each institution designates a certifying official who verifies that paraeducators meet all the program requirements. When paraeducators finish Iowa-approved paraeducator training programs, they apply for certification from the Board of Educational Examiners. The Department of Education has recognized and approved paraeducator preparation programs in 11 area education agencies and five community colleges. Several area education agencies developed cooperative training plans. Statewide, paraeducators receive instruction through a variety of methods including distance education.

In 1999, Kirkwood Community College received a Personnel Preparation Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education. The goal of the Making a Difference grant is to increase the quality and quantity of related services personnel. The project promotes the training and certification of paraeducators who are currently working in schools. In order to increase the scope of the project, the grant also provides support to six community colleges that are replicating the project in their communities. These efforts coordinate with training offered by area education agencies.

The Future

Although Iowa is in the very early stages, over 150 certificates have been issued and the interest in paraeducator certification is increasing. School districts are supportive of the training and, despite tight budgets, many are providing additional salary for paraeducators who complete their certification.Paraeducators take pride in their work, are interested in learning, and in enhancing their professionalism. Children and their families are the ultimate beneficiaries of trained, skilled, and certified paraeducators.


  • Hansen, D. (1996). Paraprofessional needs assessment project focus group assessment results. Des Moines, IA: Iowa Department of Education.

  • Iowa Department of Education. (1992). Guide for effective paraeducator practice in Iowa. Des Moines, IA: Author.