Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities

Paraeducators: The Evolution in Their Roles, Responsibilities, Training, and Supervision


Anna Lou Pickett is a Consultant to the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals, and its Founder and former Director. She is based in New York City.

Nationwide there is a growing recognition of the roles of paraeducators as integral members of the instructional process, and the need to develop standards and systems for improving the employment, performance, and preparation of the paraeducator workforce. There are several inter-related reasons for the growing interest in paraeducator issues. In this article, we are focusing on two of the most important issues. The first is the new dimensions that have been added over the last two decades to the traditionally recognized roles and functions of teachers. The second is the provisions contained in two federal legislative actions. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, which amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), includes several sections that impact on paraeducator employment, training, and supervision in Title I. In addition, amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 (IDEA) require states to develop policies and standards to ensure that paraeducators are appropriately trained and supervised. Both of these factors have shaped the evolution in the roles, supervision, and preparation of paraeducators who work in early childhood education; elementary, middle, and secondary inclusive general and special education classrooms; Title 1; multi-lingual; and other compensatory programs provided by local education agencies (LEAs) nationwide.


Paraeducator, paraprofessional, teacher aide/assistant, education technician, transition trainer/job coach, home visitor. These are just a few of the titles assigned to school and other education provider agency employees who have the following characteristics:

  • They are supervised by teachers or licensed related services professionals who are responsible for identifying learner needs, designing and implementing programs to meet learner needs, assessing learner performance, and evaluating program effectiveness.
  • They assist teachers or related services practitioners with the delivery of instructional or other direct services to children and youth, and/or their families.

It has been almost 50 years since “teacher aides” were introduced into our nation’s schools to enable teachers to spend more time in planning and implementing instructional activities. Initially the duties assigned to teacher aides were primarily routine and included clerical tasks, monitoring learners in non-academic learning environments, maintaining learning centers, duplicating instructional materials, and to a limited extent reinforcing lessons introduced by teachers. Over the last two decades, the work of increasing numbers of researchers has revealed that in contemporary schools the vast majority of paraeducators spend all or part of their time assisting teachers and other licensed practitioners in different phases of the instructional process or the delivery of other direct services to learners and their parents (Downing, Ryndak, & Clark, 2000; Killoran, Templeman, Peters, & Udell, 2001; Moshoyannis, Pickett, & Granick, 1999; Riggs & Mueller, 2001; Rogan & Held, 1999; Rueda & Monzo, 2000). As a result of these changes in the roles and responsibilities of teacher aides, they have become technicians who are more accurately described as “paraeducators” just as their counterparts in law and medicine are designated as “paralegals” and “paramedics.”

In addition to amendments to NCLB 2001 and IDEA 1997, there are other issues and trends that have caused policy-makers and administrators to increasingly turn to paraeducators to support the program and administrative functions of teachers. They include:

  • Continuing efforts to restructure education systems and practices to more effectively serve children and youth with developmental, learning, physical, sensory, and emotional disabilities in general education programs and classrooms (Downing, et al. 2000; Giangreco et al., 1997; Riggs & Mueller, 2001).
  • Growing numbers of learners enrolled in LEAs across the country who come from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritages (NCES, 2000; OSEPRS, 2000; Rueda & Monzo, 2000).
  • Continuing shortages of licensed/credentialed teachers in virtually all program and subject areas (NCES 1995 & 2000; OSEPRS, 2000).
  • Continuing education reform initiatives to empower teachers and redefine their roles to enable them to determine how best to meet the needs of all learners including a) involvement in shared decision making and other school governance activities; b) participation in the alignment of curriculum content with instructional activities to meet higher learning standards for all learners; and c) leadership of multidisciplinary teams with responsibility for planning and implementing education and therapeutic programs for individual learners with disabilities and other special needs (Pickett, in press).

These new program practices and the increasing team leadership roles for teachers are particularly apparent in the responsibilities of teachers who work in inclusive general and special education classrooms and Title I, multi-lingual, and transition from school to work programs. As a result there has been movement toward differentiated staffing arrangements in various education programs, thus expanding the supervisory functions of teacher (French, 2001; Wallace, et al. 2001).

Teacher and Paraeducator Teams: The Evolving Roles of Paraeducators

The increased reliance on paraeducators and the assignment of more complex responsibilities is inextricably tied to the changes in the program and administrative functions of teachers. Although paraeducators still perform clerical, monitoring, and other routine tasks, in today’s schools they participate in all aspects of the instructional process and the delivery of related services to children, youth, and families. Research conducted by the various investigators cited throughout this article indicates that the vast majority of paraeducators, working under the supervision of teachers and in some cases related services professionals, do the following:

  • Engage individual and small groups of learners in instructional activities in classrooms and community-based settings.
  • Carry out behavior management and disciplinary plans developed by teachers.
  • Assist teachers with functional and other assessment activities.
  • Document and provide objective information about learner performance that enables teachers to plan lessons and modify curriculum content and instructional activities to meet needs of individual learners.
  • Assist teachers with organizing and maintaining supportive, safe learning environments.
  • Assist teachers with involving parents or other caregivers in their child’s education.
  • Assist nurses, physical and occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists with providing services required by learners with physical, speech, language, and sensory disabilities and chronic health care needs.
  • Participate as required in meetings to develop Individual Education Plans, Individual Family Service Plans, and Individual Transition Plans.

The Need for Standards and Infrastructures

Despite the evolution in teacher and paraeducator roles and responsibilities in the delivery of education and other direct services, little attention has been paid to the need for state and local education agencies (SEAs, LEAs) to develop written policies, regulatory procedures, and systems that will strengthen and improve the performance of education teams. Indeed, until recently opportunities for standardized, continuing training and well-planned supervision linked to on-the-job training for paraeducators have for the most part been after- thoughts in the public policy arena. As a result distinctions in teacher and paraeducator roles are not always clearly defined; paraeducator training, when it is available, is usually unstructured and not competency based, and opportunities for career advancement rarely exist (Pickett, Likins, & Wallace, 2002). Provisions contained in IDEA 1997 and amendments to the NCLB/ESEA 2001 have caused SEA and LEA policymakers and administrators to begin to develop policies and infrastructures to improve the performance of teacher and paraeducator teams. The next reauthorization of IDEA scheduled for 2003 will in all probability contain similar language to that of the NCLB of 2001, and thus interest in the development of standards for paraeducator roles, preparation, and supervision will continue.


On the surface these new development efforts would appear to be good signs. There are some indications, however, that the approaches being used in many states may not achieve the desired outcomes. In far too many cases, SEAs, feeling under pressure to meet deadlines contained in the NCLB Act of 2001, are rushing to develop standards and systems for paraeducator preparation that may not meet either the letter of the law or its intent, and, perhaps of even greater significance, will not withstand the test of time. Moreover, very few states have started to adequately address the requirements in IDEA of 1997; this is particularly true with regard to the need to develop and implement standards to prepare teachers for their emerging roles as supervisors of paraeducators. Further compounding the problems confronting administrators and program implementers in SEAs, LEAs, and two- and four-year institutions of higher education is the lack of information about the current practices across agency lines and areas of responsibility connected with paraeducator employment, roles, supervision, and preparation at the state and local levels.These issues cannot be addressed in a vacuum. There is a powerful need for SEAs to provide leadership to develop and nurture partnerships among LEAs, two- and four-year institutions of higher education, unions, parents, and other stakeholders to gather and analyze information that will enable them to establish standards for paraeducator roles, preparation, and supervision, and to build infrastructures for paraeducator career development. Paraeducator and teachers partnerships will work in concert to:

  • Clearly delineate distinctions in teacher and paraeducator roles.
  • Identify similarities and differences in the roles of paraeducators who are assigned to all programs administered by schools and other education agencies.
  • Identify core knowledge and skill competencies required by all paraeducators and those required by paraeducators who work in programs that require more advanced skills and knowledge.
  • Establish standards for comprehensive, seamless systems of paraeducator preparation that include: preservice and inservice training , structured on-the-job training, and access to postsecondary education that will support and facilitate career advancement for paraeducators who want to enter the ranks of teachers.
  • Develop credentialing systems or other mechanisms that will ensure that paraeducators have mastered the skills required to carry out assigned tasks.
  • Set standards for paraeducator supervision and indicators for evaluating their performance.
  • Develop standards for preparing teachers and related services personnel who supervise paraeducators.

Finding viable responses to these issues cannot be accomplished overnight. It will require the commitment of all of the stakeholders described above, and the willingness to work cooperatively to ensure the availability of a well-trained and effectively supervised paraeducator workforce.


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