TIES Peer Engagement Practice Guides
A Guide to Implementing Paraprofessional Facilitation
Paraprofessionals—also known as paraeducators or teacher assistants—can play a critical role in supporting elementary and middle school students with significant cognitive disabilities. Under the supervision of special or general educators, paraprofessionals provide support, deliver instruction, and collect data on academic, social, communication, behavioral, and daily living outcomes across school environments. Paraprofessionals often provide support in inclusive settings which offer numerous opportunities for students to learn alongside and interact with their peers without disabilities. This places paraprofessionals in a unique and impactful position to facilitate inclusion, advance learning, foster relationships, and promote a sense of belonging for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
Paraprofessional facilitation involves arranging environments and activities or delivering strategies and prompts in ways that improve outcomes for students with disabilities (Brock & Anderson, 2021). For example, paraprofessionals may use a gestural prompt to remind a student to respond to a question, verbally encourage a peer to ask a question, or supervise a collaborative learning group that includes students and peers in a general education classroom. A list of paraprofessional facilitation strategies is shown in Figure 1. Research has shown that paraprofessional support that involves unnecessary proximity and excessive assistance can actually interfere with the peer interaction and class participation of students with disabilities (Giangreco, 2021). In contrast, high-quality paraprofessional facilitation intentionally finds a balance of appropriate support that increases students’ engagement with peers by reducing too much reliance on adults.
Figure 1. Paraprofessional Facilitation Strategies
Ensure proximity of space and materials
Ensure the student sits next to peers
“Why don’t you sit next to Emily so you can work together.”
Ensure the student has access to their device
“Please let Jenny know if you can’t hear her talking using the iPad.”
Ensure the student uses the same or similar materials and tools
“Ask Matt to see if he may have an extra pen that you can borrow.”
Encourage the student and peers to share materials and work together
“If you need to check your answers, you can ask Katie to help you.”
Reduce paraprofessional proximity
“You can ask Yuke if she wants to help you pass out the handouts”
Encourage academic-and social-related interactions
Encourage peers to interact with the student
“You can ask Sara about what she likes to do for fun.”
Encourage the student to interact with peers
“Ask Jamie what comes next.”
Provide information and support
“Darius had a lot of fun in PE this morning. You can ask him what he did.”
Highlight similarities between the student and peers
“Sofia loves Camila Cabello too. I wonder what her favorite song is.”
Redirect interactions to the student
“Why don’t you ask Jamel what he thinks about the picture?”
Monitor and Praise the student and peers
Praise the student and peers for interacting with each other
“It was cool how you worked together to find pictures for the group presentation.”
Praise the student and peers for working together
“I like how you wait patiently for Azad to use his device to talk.”
Provide feedback or suggestions for future interactions
“Next time when Tyler says hello, you can teach him the new handshake.”
Provide explanations when needed
“When Breanna is happy, she likes to flap her hands.”
When used correctly, paraprofessional facilitation has been shown to improve student outcomes across school environments related to behavior, peer interaction, social communication, and academic engagement. For example, paraprofessionals can help students with significant cognitive disabilities learn new skills or create opportunities for developing friendships. Although paraprofessional facilitation can happen anywhere in the school, this guide focuses on promoting peer engagement through increasing academic and social participation within inclusive classrooms. When a student increases their academic and social participation, they will have more opportunities to develop shared knowledge, skills, and experiences with their peers. This can serve a strong foundation for cultivating peer relationships and a sense of belonging in and outside the classroom.
The student’s educational team members should be involved in planning paraprofessional facilitation. The special educator can lead collaborations between the paraprofessional and other team members. For example, a general educator can share lesson objectives and materials in advance so the special educator can modify materials and prepare the paraprofessional to support the teaching of key concepts and vocabulary. The speech-language pathologist can provide the paraprofessional with training on the student’s communication systems and ways to support communication with peers. Physical and occupational therapists can work with the paraprofessional to enhance the student’s participation in class activities (e.g., optimizing seating or standing support, using assistive technology tools for writing or typing). Families can share their priorities for peer engagement and determine what information about their child would be appropriate for the paraprofessional to share with the classmates. The family may also provide ideas for conversational topics the student would enjoy (e.g., jokes, hobbies, or family’s upcoming trips). Depending on the desired outcomes and student’s needs, additional school staff, such as school counselors and district behavior or assistive technology specialists, may be consulted for resources and support.
When planning paraprofessional facilitation, the team should consider the classes students attend, their learning goals in each class, the peers they are learning alongside, and the skills of the paraprofessional. Below are specific steps with questions for considerations. An example planning sheet is shown in Figure 2.
Identify Settings and Student Goals
The team should first review all of the classes the student is taking to determine the settings in which paraprofessional facilitation might be most beneficial. Paraprofessional facilitation can be most useful for increasing engagement with peers within inclusive classes that: (a) incorporate numerous hands-on activities, (b) use cooperative learning groups, (c) have abundant opportunities for social engagement, (d) rely less on whole-class instruction, and (e) are of high interest to the student with significant cognitive disabilities. However, paraprofessional facilitation can still be beneficial for students in almost every school setting, even when some of these features are not present.
Next, the team should identify prioritized learning goals aligned with the student’s individualized education program (IEP), the general education curriculum, and the family’s priorities. For example, it might be important for students to increase their initiations or responses with classmates, expand their social networks, increase their class participation, or experience a greater sense of belonging. Likewise, students might have goals focused on learning key course content, developing new skills, or increasing their academic engagement. It is important to keep each student’s individualized social and academic goals in mind when planning paraprofessional facilitation. Doing this can make sure that your approach is always student-centered.
Consider the Setting
An ecological assessment can be a helpful approach for identifying times during each class when paraprofessional facilitation may be especially needed (Kurth et al., 2020). This involves working with general educators and the paraprofessional to examine the typical routines that make up each inclusive class. This might involve focusing on what happens at the beginning and the end of the class, during large-group work (such as lectures or whole-class discussions), during small-group work, during individual work, and during transitions or free time. For each routine, consider the following questions (Chung & Carter, 2013):
- How do classmates without disabilities interact and participate?
- How does the student with significant cognitive disabilities currently interact and participate?
- How can the student with significant cognitive disabilities interact and participate in similar ways as the classmates do?
- What can the paraprofessional do to facilitate the student’s interaction and participation?
The answers to these questions can help identify opportunities for greater social and academic participation, as well as ways in which paraprofessional facilitation might be provided to promote greater engagement with peers.
Consider the Student and Peers
Gathering information about the student with significant cognitive disabilities will provide background knowledge that helps the paraprofessional connect the student with peers. It also helps with determining the type of support each student may need for peer engagement. While collaborating with the paraprofessional and general educator, special educators should consider the following questions: Which of the student’s strengths and interests can be highlighted? What are the student’s existing peer relationships and social network? Does the student have access to appropriate modes of communication to meaningfully participate? Does the student need additional prompts or training on social interaction? For a student who uses augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), does the communication device have the vocabulary needed to interact with peers during different activities?
Likewise, knowing about the student can help special and general educators recruit peers who will work and interact effectively with the student. It can also help the team determine what assistance peers may need from the paraprofessional to engage well with the student with a disability. Questions to consider include: What will the peers be expected to do when interacting or working with the student (e.g., participating in a cooperative learning group alongside the student, providing assistance within a peer support arrangement, providing communication support to a student who uses AAC)? What are the characteristics of peers that would make them suitable for these roles and responsibilities? What training, prompting, and other support will peers need to fulfill these roles and responsibilities?
Consider the Paraprofessional
In a collaborative spirit, special educators should also assess the current skills, mindsets, and support needs of the paraprofessional. These considerations will inform the paraprofessional training and coaching and determine the extent of support that the paraprofessional will need to effectively deliver facilitative strategies. Questions to consider include: How does the paraprofessional currently support the student in the inclusive class? What are the paraprofessional’s views, motivation, and concerns on promoting inclusion and engaging peers? What training or support will the paraprofessional need to effectively facilitate and promote peer engagement? How will the paraprofessional evaluate and monitor their progress with implementing the strategies? What feedback will the paraprofessional receive and benefit from?
The main steps for implementing paraprofessional facilitation to promote greater peer engagement include preparing the environment, preparing the paraprofessional, and having the paraprofessional use facilitative strategies with students.
Preparing the Environment
Based on the plan, special educators should work with general educators and paraprofessionals to create an optimal environment for engagement among students with and without disabilities. This includes considering instructional grouping, seating arrangement, and accessibility. Although facilitative strategies can be used during almost any instructional grouping, times of small-group work and individual work usually have more peer engagement opportunities than large-group lectures. Special educators can work with general educators to incorporate more group-based activities. The seating arrangements should allow the student and peers to easily work and interact together. The paraprofessional could sit behind the student rather than in between the student and peers. Likewise, the paraprofessional can float around the room or sit at a distance away from the student, approaching the student only when assistance or prompts are needed. If there is more than one student with significant cognitive disabilities who attends the same inclusive class, they should be seated separately to avoid potential stigmatization and to promote more opportunities for peer engagement. When considering the accessibility of content, activities, and materials, special educators can follow the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles (see also Posey & Hartmann, 2020). This involves optimizing the participation and learning of all students (with and without disabilities) by incorporating multiple means of representation (e.g., pictures or videos), engagement (e.g., hands-on activities), and action and expression (e.g., options for how students respond to materials and their learning). In addition, assignments can be modified to reduce task demands. It is easier for the paraprofessional to engage the student and peers in shared activities and conversations when the student has accessible materials with appropriate task demands, and when both closely align with what fellow classmates are doing and learning.
Preparing the Paraprofessional
Most paraprofessionals will need guidance and support from a special educator on using facilitative strategies effectively. The best way to prepare paraprofessionals to successfully implement evidence-based strategies is by combining initial training with coaching (Brock & Carter, 2016). Before the training, the special educator should observe the paraprofessional and the student with a disability in the inclusive classroom. This will provide information about class routines and social opportunities, paraprofessional’s style and strengths, and potential issues or recommendations to be shared at the training. If feasible, the observation can be videotaped to allow the paraprofessional to watch their performance and self-reflect. Doing this might also facilitate collaboration and problem-solving among the special educator, general educator, and paraprofessional. After this observation, the initial training for the paraprofessional typically takes 60 to 90 minutes. An example of an initial training handout is shown in Figure 3. At the training, the special educator should:
- Explain the purpose of paraprofessional facilitation by addressing the student’s goals (e.g., promoting academic learning, social connections, and/or skill development)
- Provide an overview of the facilitative strategies with specific examples
- Model and role-play the strategies
- Finalize a plan to implement the facilitative strategies
Because paraprofessionals often feel underappreciated as members of the educational team, special educators should praise them for their past work, highlight the facilitative strategies they already use, and seek their input when developing a plan. Based on the student’s support needs, some paraprofessionals may benefit from a reminder of their roles as a facilitator (not as a primary communication partner for the student). Others may need additional training on support strategies (e.g., learning about using a communication device and using different prompts). At the end of the training, special educators should also address any questions or concerns the paraprofessional may have.
Training for paraprofessionals does not have to happen all at once. Depending on the paraprofessional’s current skills and roles, special educators might choose to focus on certain facilitative strategies initially. After the initial training, the special educator can follow up with coaching sessions, during which the special educator can praise the paraprofessional’s use of the strategies, explain and model additional facilitative strategies, and discuss the paraprofessional’s performance.
Paraprofessional Delivering Facilitation
After the training, the paraprofessional is ready to use the facilitative strategies to promote peer engagement through greater social and academic participation. The paraprofessional should ensure the student arrives at the class on time and stays for the entire period when possible. The paraprofessional and general educator may decide to change the seating arrangement so that the student can sit by particular peers. If this is the case, the paraprofessional can briefly introduce the peers and the student when they sit together for the first time (e.g., highlighting strengths and shared interests). Throughout the class, the paraprofessional begins using facilitative strategies based on the plan to encourage full participation and engagement with peers (Brock & Carter, 2016; Chung & Douglas, 2015). Facilitative strategies can include:
- ensuring proximity to peers and appropriate access to materials;
- ensuring the student sits next to peers;
- ensuring the student has access to their communication device (and peers can hear/see the messages, even learning how to model use of the communication device when interacting);
- ensuring the student uses the same or similar materials and tools as peers;
- encouraging the student and peers to share materials and work together;
- encouraging the student to move around the classroom with peers when applicable (e.g., getting materials or distributing materials for the teacher);
- reducing paraprofessional proximity to allow the student and peers to interact and work on their own;
- encouraging academic- and social-related peer interactions;
- encouraging peers to interact with the student
- encourage the student to interact with peers
- providing information and support when needed
- highlighting similarities between the student and peers
- redirecting interactions to the student
- monitoring and praising the student and peers;
- praising the student and peers for interacting and working with each other
- providing feedback or suggestions for future interactions
- providing information to peers when needed
The paraprofessional can use a range of prompts, including verbal prompts (e.g., saying “You can ask...” “Why don’t you…” “How about…” “Would you like to…”) and nonverbal prompts (e.g., pointing to a peer, the student, or the device, or giving the student a thumbs up with a smile). When a peer initiates toward the student, the paraprofessional should allow time for the student to respond on their own, then provide prompts or models as needed.
Good paraprofessional facilitation can help students with significant cognitive disabilities meet their learning goals and experience fuller social participation within inclusive classrooms. It can also have a positive impact on participating peers and paraprofessionals. Special educators should consider how to evaluate these and other impacts, both formatively and summatively.
For Students with Disabilities
Depending on the goals of the student with a disability, direct observation may be one of the best ways that special educators can collect data. For example, special educators may want to work with paraprofessionals to document a student’s initiations and responses toward peers (either on their own or prompted by paraprofessionals), on-task behaviors, work completion, communication with peers for different purposes (e.g., commenting, requesting, joking), number of conversational turns with peers, different words produced using speech or AAC, and/or numbers of peers who interacted with the student. Initially, such data should be collected more frequently to ensure paraprofessional facilitation has resulted in intended changes. This might also help teachers determine if additional training or coaching is needed. Beyond using direct observation, special educators or paraprofessionals can also ask the students to share their experiences in interviews or through questionnaires. Visual communication support can be provided for students with complex communication needs so that they can answer questions about their experiences. Parents of the students can also share if they notice any changes at home or in the community, as peer interactions and class participation may lead to relationship and skill development outside the classroom.
Peers who have the opportunity to work with their classmates with disabilities may also benefit from the ongoing interactions and shared work. Special educators can collect data on how peers interact or communicate with the student with a disability (either spontaneously or prompted by paraprofessionals), their on-task behaviors, and potential spillover interactions outside of class. The paraprofessional can monitor peers’ engagement with the student with a disability more formatively through periodic check-ins, and can also ask peers to share about their experiences more summatively at the end of the semester.
The ways in which paraprofessionals support students with disabilities in the classroom are likely to change as a result of using these facilitative strategies. Special educators should document the different facilitative strategies used by paraprofessionals during observations. Paraprofessionals can also record their own use of facilitative strategies using a self-monitoring sheet. Special educators can work with paraprofessionals to prioritize facilitative behaviors that are the most critical to the students’ social and learning goals, as well as those that are feasible for paraprofessionals to self-monitor. Special educators should also seek out the perspectives and experiences of paraprofessionals and general educators using interviews or brief questionnaires. Hopefully, paraprofessionals will begin using the same effective facilitative strategies with other students they support or in different classrooms with the same student. Likewise, the ways in which general educators interact with students with disabilities may increase as a result of observing paraprofessional facilitation, promoting even greater peer engagement and academic and social participation.
Sustaining and Expanding
Paraprofessionals should begin using these facilitation strategies with one student in a single class. As the student and their peers become more comfortable and independent in their interactions and collaboration, the paraprofessional can fade their proximity, prompts, and praise. Peers can be an ongoing source of natural support and encouragement, which can also encourage other classmates to get to know the student with a disability. As the student with significant cognitive disabilities becomes less reliant on adult support, the paraprofessional can reduce their support, supervise groups of students, or assist the general educator by supporting all students (Giangreco, 2021).
After seeing some initial success, special educators can arrange paraprofessional facilitation for the same student in additional classes, or for other students and other paraprofessionals. In addition, paraprofessionals who have received training and are confident in their ability to facilitate peer engagement and student participation can begin using those strategies with other students, and even modeling their use for other paraprofessionals. As more paraprofessionals learn this approach, a larger number of students with disabilities can benefit from their application. To create a professional learning community, special educators, general educators, and paraprofessionals can share their accomplishments during team meetings and professional development workshops.
Across Ages and Grades
The nature of paraprofessional facilitation and the ways in which students interact with each other in the classroom will be influenced by many factors, including the ages of the students, the classroom context, and peer culture. Peers of different ages will need different types and levels of prompts and feedback from the paraprofessional. Early elementary peers may prefer to work as a group with the student with disabilities and will readily seek direction and approval from the paraprofessional. Middle school peers may seek more independence and want to keep some distance from a paraprofessional. Different grade-level content and activities have varied task and social demands for the student and their peers, which also means there are different opportunities for paraprofessional facilitation within these activities. For example, early elementary school classrooms often have rotating centers embedded with play activities, whereas upper elementary classrooms have increased demands for following directions and task completion. When developing the implementation plan, special educators and paraprofessionals should discuss ways for the students to interact in ways that are appropriate to the classroom, as well as typical of norms and expectations of peer culture (e.g., saying hello vs. giving a fist bump).
Students with significant cognitive disabilities often have a range of extensive support needs, including social, communication, behavior, physical, and medical support. When planning and implementing paraprofessional facilitation, special educators need to ensure paraprofessionals are familiar with the students’ supports and accommodations, know how to facilitate peer engagement, and can provide other supports and accommodations. All support should be provided in the least intrusive and most age-appropriate manner that dignifies the student. For example, if a student uses a wheelchair, the paraprofessional can work with the general educator to create safe and spacious seating while maintaining proximity with peers. If a student uses a visual schedule of class activities, paraprofessionals may encourage the student to show peers how to use the visual supports. For students who use AAC, paraprofessionals may need to remind peers to allow additional time for the student to communicate, and may want to help the student and peers know how to work together to program new messages. For students with specialized health care needs, paraprofessionals may need to recognize signs to indicate that the student is fatigued and needs a break from working with peers. For students with behavioral support plans, paraprofessionals should monitor students’ peer interactions and intervene if the student is demonstrating challenging behavior.
Depending on the ages of peers, they may have different questions about a student’s different supports and accommodations. Special educators and paraprofessionals can work with the family and the student to determine what information that they feel is appropriate to be shared with peers. Paraprofessionals may work with the student to explain their own support needs when appropriate. At a class-wide level, special educators and paraprofessionals might work with general educators to consider having an opportunity for each class member to share their strengths and support needs.
Considerations of culture should be embedded in all instruction, including planning and implementing paraprofessional facilitation. It is important for special educators and paraprofessionals to get to know the student and involve their family throughout the process of planning and implementing paraprofessional facilitation—from identifying goals to evaluating outcomes. When the cultures of families and students are different from the cultures of paraprofessionals and educators, the team should brainstorm ways to value and integrate the cultural differences in supporting students’ peer interaction and class participation. For example, special educators can work with general educators to include culturally responsive materials that honor the students’ experience and interests. When identifying peers, special and general educators should take into account the student’s preferences, needs, and cultures. Some students may want to work with peer partners of a different gender, while others may prefer same-gender peer partners or those with similar cultural backgrounds. Also, paraprofessionals should incorporate and value the students’ primary language whenever possible—including spoken language or the use of AAC.
Shawn is a tall fifth-grader with autism who loves to wear bright-colored t-shirts with funny phrases. He is a hard-working student who always wants to please his teachers and other adults on his educational team. Shawn communicates using mostly single words and gestures. One of his IEP goals is to respond to Wh-questions and share information. His speech-language pathologist has been working with him to use an aided AAC device, specifically Proloquo2Go on an iPod touch. Shawn carries the iPod touch on his wrist and has started to use it to initiate and respond when prompted. His parents value inclusion and want him to have more opportunities to interact with his classmates in fifth grade. One of Shawn’s favorite activities is library class twice a week, when all students have free time to choose and read books in the library.
Prior to learning about how paraprofessional facilitation could promote peer engagement, Mr. Thomas, a paraprofessional who provides support to fifth graders, would help Shawn choose a book and direct him to sit by a long table with another student who also had a disability. As Shawn would read the book, Mr. Thomas would sometimes ask Shawn to identify objects using his AAC device. Sometimes Mrs. Brown, the classroom teacher, stopped to say hello. However, Ms. Lewis, the special educator on Shawn’s team, recently attended a professional learning session and gained some new ideas on how to better promote inclusion outcomes for students. One of the strategies presented was paraprofessional facilitation, and she thought it could be an effective, feasible way to increase peer interactions for Shawn.
Ms. Lewis decides to talk to Mr. Thomas and Mrs. Brown, who are both on board. She also calls Shawn’s parents, who are excited about supporting increased interaction with Shawn’s classmates. Ms. Lewis works with the team to identify a goal for the library class, “initiate and respond to Wh-questions with peers” which is aligned with Shawn’s existing IEP goals and the family’s priorities. The team also develops a plan to recruit two male classmates, a request from Shawn’s parents, given that he has two big sisters and they want him to have more male models. Mrs. Brown also provides a list of grade-level books that she thinks Shawn and his peers may enjoy. The team decides that the speech-language pathologist will provide Mr. Thomas with training on Shawn’s AAC device and the use of aided language modeling. This will also be a strategy that can eventually be taught to Shawn’s peers as well. Finally, Ms. Lewis meets with Mr. Thomas to brainstorm specific opportunities and strategies to prompt peer interactions for Shawn.
After obtaining parent permission, Ms. Lewis and Mr. Thomas meet with the peers to provide a brief orientation. Mr. Thomas takes photos of the peers and programs their names in Shawn’s AAC device. On the first day of implementing paraprofessional facilitation, Mr. Thomas makes sure Shawn and the two classmates are at the same table. He prompts Shawn to use his AAC device to say hello using the names of peers. He encourages Shawn and his peers to look for books together. As Shawn and the peers read together, Mr. Thomas models ways they could ask each other questions about the book, and how Shawn can use his AAC device to respond. When a book is finished, the peers walk with Shawn to return the book. There are a few minutes left for Shawn to tell knock-knock jokes.
Mr. Thomas continues to use different strategies to facilitate interaction and engagement during library time, as well as during other activities in fifth grade, following the plan he developed collaboratively with Ms. Lewis and Mrs. Brown. After three weeks of this more intentional paraprofessional facilitation, Shawn has developed a new routine, and he and his peers need few reminders from Mr. Thomas. Shawn is even more eager to go to the library class, read different books with his peers, and share the newest knock-knock jokes that his sisters update weekly. Their laughs draw attention from other peers (and occasionally a side-eye from Mrs. Brown). When Ms. Lewis hears about this from Mr. Thomas, she is happy that Shawn has become more a part of the fifth-grade class community.
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Paraprofessional Facilitative Strategies: https://www.kypeersupport.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Facilitation-Strategies-2018.pdf
Paraprofessional Support: https://www.uvm.edu/cess/cdci/giangreco-resources-paraprofessional-support-students-disabilities
Universal Design for Learning: https://udlguidelines.cast.org/
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Chung, Y.-C. (2022). A guide to implementing paraprofessional facilitation. In E. E. Biggs & E. Carter (Eds.), The Power of Peers. TIES Center. https://publications.ici.umn.edu/ties/peer-engagement/practice-guides/paraprofessional-facilitation
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