Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #23: Pivoting Between Paraprofessional Support in Inclusive Schools and Distance Learning


Gail Ghere, Ph.D.

Jennifer Sommerness, Ed. S.

Elizabeth Reyes, Ph.D.

A couple of different ways that you might utilize this article’s content: 

  1. I am looking for suggestions that I can apply immediately. Look at the drop-down example lists in the blue bars. Do they spark any ideas? 
  2. I want to make deeper, long-lasting changes. Scan the roles and responsibilities and the skills needed for paraprofessionals to support students in inclusive classrooms. Does this confirm what you are doing? Does it spark some additional ideas? 

Paraprofessionals are key members of instructional teams and have important roles in the education of students with significant cognitive disabilities. Currently, many districts and teams are struggling with how paraprofessionals can best support inclusive practices when the students are receiving their instruction through distance learning, hybrid models, or pivoting in between. Last spring when the shift to online instruction happened suddenly, many districts assigned paraprofessionals to duties such as meal delivery or child care for essential workers. As we plan for more cohesive instruction, we have the opportunity to think creatively about paraprofessional instructional supports. We can consider how they might complete these duties even during these less than ideal conditions. By doing this, we increase the potential that students will better engage in learning, build continuity between school and home, and continue new ways of thinking about paraprofessional support for students when they return to in-person learning.

Distance learning technology opens up new challenges, as well as new solutions, for supporting student engagement for all students, including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. One question is how students with disabilities can meaningfully participate without an adult (like a paraprofessional) being directly next to them. Technology, if used effectively with planned distance supports from paraprofessionals, can decrease the need for direct adult support for some students. Looking ahead, it is exciting to rethink paraprofessional roles and responsibilities and what their support could look like when schools return to in-person learning, as well as how to build continuity between home and school now.

Similar to teachers and related service providers, in-person paraprofessional support is directly affected by state and district COVID19 guidance and varies across the country. For some students, this means that paraprofessional roles and responsibilities can not be fully implemented. For other students, there are ways to achieve similar outcomes by modifying how paraprofessionals carry out their responsibilities. Considering key questions can help with finding new ways so paraprofessionals can fulfill their roles and support inclusive practices during distance learning. 

Key Questions and Examples

1. What is the specific purpose that a child has paraprofessional support for during an activity? Can the same purpose be achieved whether the paraprofessional is providing support in-person or virtually? Can the same support be provided by a peer?

For example: 

Student Goal

Purpose for Paraprofessional Support

In School Learning

In Distance Learning

Increasing communication with grade-level peers

To model, facilitate, and then fade support for the student to communicate with peers .

At school, the paraprofessional uses aided language modeling during a small group discussion between the student with significant communication needs and his grade-level peers (this applies to small academic groups, as well as situations that lend themselves to peer interaction such as walking in the hallways or when in the cafeteria). The paraprofessional models and coaches the peers about aided language and core boards with modeling, and fades her support as peer supports emerge.

The special or general education teacher coordinates a virtual “lunch bunch” with four students twice a week, one of whom is the student who uses aided language supports. The paraprofessional joins the online group  to support the online discussion. She teaches the other students how to use core boards on a shared screen, then she fades her support as the peer supports emerge. On the morning of the lunch bunch, the paraprofessional and parent text using a district approved texting app, such as Remind or Class Tag , to coordinate any last minute details. 

Remaining calm in class

To proactively use a check-in strategy three times a day (morning, lunch, and at the end of the school day) to support the student’s positive behavior.

The student and paraprofessional meet for ten minutes at predetermined times of the day to touch base, review her goals and schedule for the day, problem-solve any issues, and celebrate her successes. 

The team, including the family, determines the best times to schedule the check-ins. The paraprofessional and student meet virtually or by  phone. 


For both in-school and distance learning situations, the paraprofessional daily enters the data into an online spreadsheet that the instructional team monitors.

2. Is there a specific instructional need where adding paraprofessional support would enhance access and engagement during inclusive distance learning?

For example:
Student Goal

Transition from one activity to another, manage own materials, and be prepared to learn.

In-School Learning

The student is able to safely transition between classrooms that are on the same floor, enter a class, and take out the materials for that class using the visual cues on his desk or with help from a peer.

In Distance Learning

The student needs to learn new routines, schedules, and technology platforms in order to increase his independence. Also, the general education teacher’s multi-step directions and pacing assume students can do all steps independently (for example, “watch this video, press pause, answer the questions, and press play again to hear the answer”) or are given without familiar supports.

School personnel check the temperature of a child who is arriving at school
Paraprofessional Support to Enhance Access and Engagement During Distance Learning

The paraprofessional joins the online classes to support the student in using the school platform and instructional materials, and assisting with multiple transitions within the lessons. The exact support varies and depends on the content for the day, but some of the supports include: texting the student the next step that he needs to take, holding up a visual of which button to click at the moment, or calling a family member on the phone to help direct where to click next to follow teacher’s instructions. After becoming familiar with the teachers' routines, the paraprofessional creates a visual sequence for the student to place on his home workspace to assist in independently following the flow of the class. As the student learns the visual supports and gets used to the routines, the paraprofessional fades her support. 

To assist the student with the new way of engaging with instructional content and materials online with peers, the paraprofessional joins the student’s shared Google Doc that contains a graphic organizer or the same content that the class is using. Because the student and paraprofessional can be in the same document at the same time, the paraprofessional can prompt the student to take notes, highlight or expand thinking. The paraprofessional can simultaneously add notes, pose questions, add prompts (such as move the arrow to where the student needs to focus), or find and drop visuals or videos for the student to engage with the materials in the moment with their peers. This allows the paraprofessional to, in essence, be an invisible support to the student while instruction is occurring even though they are not sitting next to one another. This support can be offered within small groups with peers or when the student is independently working.

Coordinating the details of targeted paraprofessional support can happen through the 5C Process and the Learning Matrices. Both are useful for collaboratively identifying where and how student assistance is needed, what supports the school can provide to achieve the goals, and when and how much support the family is able to provide. Also important is introducing the paraprofessional(s) to the student and family, sharing the paraprofessionals’ roles and responsibilities, and letting the family know how the instructional team collaborates to direct the paraprofessional’s work. 

Roles and Responsibilities: In-person and During Distance Learning

Attention needs to be focused on how to best utilize paraprofessionals in ways that support students’ needs without over-assisting. A common goal for students with disabilities is for them to be as independent as possible in the academic, social, communication, and behavioral areas. For this reason, the use of paraprofessionals needs to be minimized and directed toward maximizing student independence. 

Regardless of whether the instruction is in-person or in distance learning, there are certain basics about paraprofessional roles that do not change. Paraprofessionals:   

  • must work under the ongoing direction from a licensed teacher or related service provider, including providing instruction and supplemental supports to students that have been designed by the licensed professional;
  • are collaborating members of the instructional team;
  • need a robust toolbox of strategies and skills to fully support student instruction. These skills are developed through ongoing professional development, job-embedded coaching, and low-risk feedback;  
  • should receive guidelines regarding when, how, and to what extent they can share specific information with families and when they should refer the family to the teacher about a specific question; and
  • should follow a schedule that includes directions about their responsibilities throughout the day.

In terms of understanding the student(s) they support, paraprofessionals must

  • have high expectations and utilize the Least Dangerous Assumption;
  • know the students’ strengths and interests and how to build on them; 
  • know the students’ needs, how they show up in different environments, and how to proactively support learning, positive behavior, and engagement with peers;
  • recognize that support provided to students needs to be age-appropriate; and
  • know how a student best communicates, as well as how to program augmentative alternative communication (AAC) devices, if necessary.

Using the Learning Components to Guide Paraprofessional Supports in Inclusive Classrooms

Figure 1: The Three Essential Learning Opportunities for Students with Disabilities Across the School Day in Inclusive Education. 

Learning Components

  • Participating in Routines and Transitions
  • Engaging in Grade Level Academics and Other Essential Skills
  • Interacting with Others

Planning a robust inclusive education program for students with significant cognitive disabilities includes focusing on the three learning components: (1) Participating in Routines and Transitions; (2) Engaging in Grade Level Academics and Other Essential Skills; and (3) Interacting with Others (Figure 1). Priorities in these learning components are student specific and do not change whether the instruction is in-person or provided as a part of distance learning. How instruction happens for each priority, and sometimes the related IEP goals, may need to be modified for the different environments (Refer to the 5C Process for more detail).

Developing the expertise to fulfill the roles and responsibilities of a paraprofessional does not happen quickly. Key is to identify a place to start building the knowledge and skills of the paraprofessionals on your team and expand from there

Supporting Participating in Routines and Transitions 

Paraprofessional Knowledge and Skills

  • Understand the importance of the multiple learning opportunities and teachable moments that exist across the day for all students so students with significant cognitive disabilities can be specifically taught within these general education routines and transitions through the use of embedded instruction.
  • Know that students with disabilities require opportunities to practice new skills during general education routines and activities to increase their generalization, maintain their skills, and increase their independence in a variety of environments.
  • Understand the impact that inclusive environments can have on learning and how students benefit from being present and being part of activities, even when they only partially participate (this allows a student to build a repertoire of experiences and understanding that they can then apply in different opportunities).
  • Know how to support students to attend to and follow ongoing routines and transitions that naturally occur in the environment by using wait time, prompting, and fading support.
  • Know the specific goals and strategies that are outlined in IEPs for the students they support.

Paraprofessional Responsibilities 

  • Teach students to observe, follow, initiate, and end general education class and school routines.
  • Provide many opportunities for students to make choices and problem-solve new situations.
  • Assist students to advocate for themselves by asking for help from other people (especially their peers) when needed.
  • Be aware of the level of prompts, waits, and fades being utilized within and across learning situations, and providing these supports in individualized ways to increase independence across the day.
  • Instructing students in such a way that they learn how to be as independent as possible across various settings and people.
  • Overemphasize, gesture, or prompt students to recognize natural cues within the environment, and teach what they mean to increase understanding and independence.
  • Supporting the student to look at the bus numbers, match his bus card, and board the correct bus at the end of the school day.
  • Using a visual schedule to go from one activity to the next.
  • Using visuals to reinforce decisions, such as placing a star on the ceiling or floor so the student knows where their body should be during movement breaks, pointing to a visual of a backpack when it is time to put their materials away, matching the visual on the wall for the boys’ bathroom to the visual on a communication system to choose which bathroom to enter.
  • Using the same transition supports, mantras or songs that are available for all students to further cue a student to align their behavior or actions (for example, a class clean-up song, the teacher’s positive behavioral support language or mantra to help quiet the class, sayings that teachers use to keep students motivated when the work is difficult, etc).
  • Asking questions about what the student should be doing, calling attention to matching actions to peers (for example, pointing to peers lining up to go to lunch and asking “What is everyone else doing?”).
  • Asking which button to push to turn on the computer or icon to touch to open the learning management platform if the student does not initiate it by herself.
  • Anticipating upcoming transitions and using a timer on a watch, verbal reminder, or countdown to show when a transition is approaching.
  • Encouraging a student to ask a peer for assistance or support before offering adult support. This may include providing the student the words to use or other means to communicate their needs.
  • Following through on the team plan to gesture by shrugging shoulders and saying nothing when the student asks a question that they know the answer to or knows how to find the answer. 
  • Creating picture schedules that are matched to a student’s independence level, as well as family’s routines, to share with the student and family.
  • Supporting the family to carry out the collaboratively developed plan for collecting and sharing the data about their child’s goals, as well as the paraprofessional collecting student data during the times of the day that are identified by the teacher.
  • Explicitly teaching students the steps to learn different software programs.
  • Building the capacity of the student or family members to use high tech platforms (such as Zoom or Google Meets); district learning management platforms (such as Schoology or Google Classroom), apps, extensions, and devices (as appropriate).
  • Prompting and modeling for students to follow a visual schedule by supporting the student to check off tasks or classes that are finished.
  • Having students share a picture of their home workspace (with parent permission) to provide feedback on ways to set up space more efficiently.
  • Reminding students to set a timer on the device used for distance learning or provide a visual timer during virtual lessons to show when a transition will occur.
  • Prompting the student to participate in morning meeting by using her AAC device.
  • Modeling the use of signing, gesturing, or comment feature on virtual platforms (for example Zoom or Google Meets) with all students during virtual lessons, with specific emphasis for the student with a disability to use them to actively participate (thumbs up, shrugging shoulders, signing applause by shaking hands in the air).

Supporting Engaging in Grade Level, Standards-based Academics and Other Essential Skills

Paraprofessional Knowledge and Skills 

  • Knowing about inclusive education and how general education can meet the needs of all students. 
  • Understanding that engagement begins with supporting a sense of community, relationships and belonging for all students, and the impact it has on learning, communicating and making choices.
  • Understanding how to teach students the skills and knowledge they need to develop agency (I think I can…) and identity (I think I am…), and the potential barrier an adult can be to developing these skills. 
  • Understanding how Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and differentiated instruction assist all students within the general education environment.
  • Understanding technology that is available to support all students as well as the specific technology chosen to meet the needs of the individual they support, so instruction can be further differentiated in the moment. 
  • Understanding the ways students acquire, maintain, and generalize skills across people, places and settings, as well as the importance of students with disabilities having the opportunity for repeated practice.
  • Understanding how modifications and adaptations can support a student, inclusive of what students learn, how skills and knowledge are taught, materials that are used to increase engagement, and how the environment in which they learn is organized.
  • Understanding that behavior is communication and the communicative function of behaviors within learning situations.
  • Understanding how behaviors affect student learning, both when they feel confident and comfortable as well as when they are communicating frustration or a need to influence people or their environment.

Paraprofessional Responsibilities 

  • Pre-teaching or reteaching lessons or parts of lessons for students who need priming or reinforcement for content.
  • Attending grade-level general education classes with students and providing instructional support through the use of cues, prompts, fades, and waits.
  • Joining small groups to facilitate participation towards the group goal, intended outcome or work product.
  • Calling out and recognizing the positive behaviors or attitudes a student is showing in the moment, as well as proactive to prevent interfering behaviors from emerging.
  • Supporting the development of organization and executive functioning skills.
  • Understanding why an adaptation or modification is being used and be able to explain to student’s peers or other adults, if needed.
  • Making sure adaptations, modifications and communicative supports are available consistently.
  • Making adaptations or modifications that are required in the moment to increase engagement. Afterward, let the teacher that directs their work know about the what, why, and how of the modification that was provided and any benefits or issues noted so the teacher can make future decisions. 

  • Working with designated small groups of students to pre-teach concepts focusing on new vocabulary by sharing visuals or related actions.
  • Working with designated small groups to re-teach or review previously taught concepts prior to the whole group introduction to new content.
  • Asking follow-up questions to extend student sentences and depth of responses with the use of wait time and prompts to add to answers.
  • Joining a small group and facilitating student participation and communication towards the group activity.
  • Meeting at the locker to do a morning check-in and support the student to get organized for the school day.
  • Explaining the supports for students with disabilities to their peers in the moment in a respectful and dignified way, as a natural teaching moment.
  • Sharing a document (for example, a Google Doc) so the paraprofessional has the same screen as the student and can support by adding notes, calling attention to specific parts of the content, and highlighting information allowing for student-specific supports without sitting directly next to them.
  • Anticipating when a student needs a break and having options that are educationally relevant and in alignment with the grade-level content for the student to choose from (for example, BrainPop videos, BitsBoard Pro games, Quizlet, age-appropriate YouTube videos, etc.)
  • Identifying one additional opportunity per day or week to support the student in building their communication and relationships by intentionally encouraging and supporting the student to use their speech, gestures, or AAC device (for example, making a point to assist with telling a joke, asking how a peer is doing, telling a teacher how much they learned that week or what was their favorite part).
  • Following through with the team plan to use various apps and technology for instructional modifications across the school day (for example, SeeSaw to create a video portfolio and modify assignments, Flipgrid to create videos of peers and groups, Pictello to create a visual book or story).
  • Using the school-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) plan to support all students’ learning. Reinforcing the plan with individual students by using modified materials to teach and support positive behavior, in alignment with their individual strengths and needs.
  • Staying calm and considering the entire situation when challenging behaviors occur and what the student might be trying to communicate.
  • Sharing observations and supporting details to the teacher and other specialists about behaviors that result from providing the student’s supports so that the teacher can make any program adjustments (may include filling out a behavioral observation checklist for the teacher while instruction is being provided).
  • Using the same document sharing practices that they use in school, but doing this across all class meetings and during predetermined study times.
  • Preparing SeeSaw activities based on teacher guidelines or adding videos related to the content pulled from approved sites that the students can access and review at any time (inclusive of check-ins with teachers or peers).
A multiplication worksheet on Seesaw with visuals of groups of objects to support students in completing the math problems.
  • Using an app, such as Clever , to pre-load all of the login and password information for a student so that access is one touch only or use a QR Code.  Then this can be repeated easily if technology fails and re-signing in is required to avoid frustration and loss of learning time.
  • Reviewing the pre-recorded lessons by the teacher for pre-teaching new vocabulary with visuals and video supplements or showing and discussing an online video to build prior knowledge.
  • Recording instructional content sessions presented by the licensed teacher and editing them to be shorter in length or chunked into parts that are easier for the student to review content.
  • Assisting students to submit a short video or audio clip showing them completing a skill for feedback from the teacher.
  • Making available and modeling core word and fringe vocabulary within inclusive virtual lessons, small groups or one on one instructional support for students.
  • Priming student response by letting them know which question they will be answering, and helping them formulate an answer within their communication device, if necessary.
  • Asking follow up questions during the whole class, synchronous sessions to ensure essential understandings were met or providing answer choices in the chat box to support the student’s response.
  • `Leading breakout session groups, facilitating groups in meeting instructional tasks.
  • Attending class with a student to assure that she follows the teacher’s instruction through use of texts, phone call or FaceTime.

prompts that students can use to quickly communicate when online during distance learning. The signs include

  • A thumbs down sign
  • A thumbs-up sign
  • A sign that says I can't hear
  • A raise your hand sign
  • A sign that says I agree
  • A sign that says please slow down
  • During asynchronous assignments, following a workout routine or yoga class virtually together to enhance healthy lifestyle habits while distance learning (could include inviting a peer to join in the session, if appropriate). During synchronous classes, facilitate peers to provide modeling and support.
  • Using technology (screencaster, document camera, Flipgrid) to record how students are working through their assignments and sharing them with the team for progress monitoring (the options for recording and posting vary and are dependent on district guidance and procedures).
  • Coaching students to use the built-in responses of virtual platforms to engage in conversation (thumbs up, raise their hand, clapping icons) or by using the systems used by the whole class, such as “communication-on-a stick.
  • Providing positive reinforcement for making good choices, and coaching students to think about how they are feeling and what their behavior is communicating.
  • Being proactive to prevent interfering behaviors from emerging.

Supporting Interacting with Others 

Knowledge and Skills 

  • Understanding how friendships and belonging meet our human needs to feel cared about and how it enhances learning.
  • Understanding that all students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities, can require specific instruction to learn successful interactions with peers and adults across their day in inclusive places with people who do and do not have disabilities.
  • Understanding how paraprofessional support can be beneficial or intrusive to student learning, social relationships, and positive behavioral supports.
  • Understanding communication as a human right, and being able to address and support a student’s complex communication needs.
  • Understanding how to encourage, expand, and enhance peer relationships and natural supports.
  • Understanding the social/emotional learning and behavioral frameworks that are in place school-wide for all students.
  • Understanding the continuum of relationships that exists among students from casual acquaintances to full friendships and how to support experiences that build friendships over time. 

Paraprofessional Responsibilities 

  • Supporting students in actively responding in class in ways compatible with their communication strengths.
  • Helping peers understand the connections between and amongst each other, and how they can be supportive to all classmates, inclusive of those with disabilities.
  • Facilitating the use of AAC throughout the school day by modeling the use of the system and helping students communicate their needs through its use.
  • Modeling respectful and enjoyable interactions with students and adults (inclusive of not talking in front of students as if they are not there).
  • Being as discreet as possible when providing support so as to maintain the student’s dignity and respect (especially those for behavioral considerations).
  • Highlighting similarities, favorites, dislikes and interests that peers (inclusive of the student with disabilities) have in common in a natural way so they can develop relationships.
  • Noticing naturally occurring interactions, no matter how small, and intentionally supporting students to build more authentic relationships (for example, if a peer says “hi” as they enter their general education class, support the student to return the greeting, know their name, ask them how they are doing).
  • Facilitating groups in such a way that enhance the back and forth of communication.
  • Sharing with the teachers naturally occurring relationships or supports that can be considered when planning or making instructional groupings.
  • Prompting students to find answers on their AAC, using core board, holding up pre-printed response cards (these could be available to the whole class), or clicking switches that have pre-programmed responses.
  • Working with the teachers to make a large color photo (and sending it home) of a peer support that will be partnered during a small group virtual session, so that a student with a cortical visual impairment can see a face with the voice online.
  • Coaching peers about and modeling the use of AAC systems, sign language or other non-verbal communication supports. 
  • Creating an IEP data collection notebook with copies of data collection sheets for different goals.
  • Making laminated and velcro materials or gathering /creating tangible items for the student to manipulate.
  • Pre-programing AAC devices with the vocabulary needed for the next unit of study.
  • Sharing which accommodations are used during different activities and which were most and least helpful for the student.
  • Knowing and keeping track of all access codes, passwords and login information across apps, platforms and devices.
  • Coaching the student to hold up a card in front of the camera  or show how to use any built in response tools specific to the learning management platform.
  • Focusing on aided language modeling to support student communication skills by putting the video on the same type of AAC as the student while giving directions or making comments.
  • Facilitating conversations by prompting students to expand their answers and comments.
  • Modeling key word communications with the students AAC while verbally expanding the language used (for example, “2” vs. “The square root of 4 is 2”).
  • Being aware of, encouraging, and supporting participation in activities that are not regularly scheduled (for example, if study groups are developed or if projects are assigned to be worked on outside of class times).
  • Coaching peers about what types of activities and levels of participation are possible by the student and what peer supports help for a student to participate most fully, then gradually fading support as the peers communicate with each other.
  • Setting up individual “check-in” and “check-out” meetings (frequency as needed by the individual student) to review positive behavioral goals and learn how the student is feeling on virtual learning days.
  • Taking classroom slides or presentation materials and modifying them so that they have enlarged print or other accessibility features.
  • Keeping a daily log of observational notes, data collection on specific goals, or accommodations used in a live document or checklist to improve communication with teachers (for example, Google Doc or Google Forms).
  • Submitting weekly progress updates that they have seen to the special education and/or general education teacher that can be included in updates to families.
  • Preparing manipulative materials that match content areas or focus of study to be shared with the family.
  • Preparing take-home materials using laminated products and velcro for students to pick up in a weekly bag at the school or dropping off in their mailbox for the upcoming week. 

Disclaimer: The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

Distance Learning Series: DL #23, October, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Ghere, G., Sommerness, J., & Reyes, E. (2020). Pivoting between Paraprofessional Support in Inclusive Schools and Distance Learning. TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. Collaborating partners are the Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

TIES Center

University of Minnesota

Institute on Community Integration

2025 East River Parkway

Minneapolis, MN 55414

Phone: 612-626-1530

This document is available in alternate formats upon request.

The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity employer and educator.