Avoiding Over-Use of Paraeducator Support for Individual Students

Two teachers meeting outside of school

Author: Frances Stetson, Ph.D.

The benefits of paraeducators in the school setting are many including flexible support for students in a variety of instructional settings, increased opportunities for close observation of students, increased flexibility in responding to personal needs such as toileting and feeding, and the addition of a valuable team member in problem solving and decision-making.

The quality and consistency of paraeducator support must also be assured through an active partnership with the supervising teacher so that roles are specific and targeted to benefit each student. We will visit an emerging caution in the use of paraeducator supports: the potential of over-support by paraeducators (or any adult) that can limit independence, social opportunities, and academic progress.

Let’s begin this important discussion with some guiding principles. 

First, decisions about the need for personal support and the amount, timing, and duration of personal support a student with disabilities may require are fundamental to the development of an appropriate individualized education program (IEP).  We make individualized decisions for each student.  We cannot rely on labels, preconceptions, or biases but must focus exclusively on the strengths and needs of the individual student.  When we focus on individualized decisions, the student benefits!

This first principle is particularly important when discussing paraeducator supports and services.  In our recent experience in schools, a few educators and parents have come to believe that a paraeducator assigned to spend the majority or all of the school day with a single student is a necessary condition for inclusion ‘to work’.  For many students, this may be taking the easy route to decision-making rather than requiring a careful examination of the varied instructional and behavioral supports, from least intensive and intrusive to most, that will lead to student success.  If an individual student truly requires the services of a paraeducator for most or all of an instructional day, he or she should have that service but if this level and kind of support is not needed, there are likely unintended but harmful effects.  This will be discussed in detail later in this article.

Second, less is more!  When we look at the hierarchy of supports that are often described for individual students with disabilities, the list looks like this:

Hierarchy of support graphic

It is important to stress to parents, to the student, and to educators that being able to fade supports over time signifies a greater degree of success.  It is understood that the level of support needed is entirely dependent on the needs of the student at any point in time.  It is always hoped in the name of independence every student who requires some level of personal support will be able to be successful with less or no support within a reasonable timeframe. 

The third guiding principle relates to the fears of adults. It is not unusual to find that as a student prepares to move from elementary to middle school, there is also a significant increase in the level of personal support prescribed in the student’s IEP.  For example, in conversations with middle school principals regarding a fairly obvious level of ‘over support’ provided to students as they transition to their school, they frequently show me that these decisions to increase support came from the sending elementary teachers – not the receiving middle school teachers. This same phenomenon can also be observed as a student moves on from middle school to high school.  If these additional personal services are, in fact, needed to enable the student to achieve his or her IEP objectives, they must certainly be provided.  But there is often a pattern of anticipating a need that does not emerge.  It is possible that low expectations regarding the students or exaggerated concerns about the next school level impacting the situation?

This issue is equally relevant when we consider parental concerns and the perception that an adult assigned to provide support for some or all of the school day will protect the child against such negatives as teasing, bullying, or physical harm.  It should be the position of the school that personal supports will be provided when they are needed but it is also our responsibility to develop and implement proactive and aggressive systems to avoid these concerns entirely.

When a Paraeducator is Assigned to a Single Student for All or Most of the Day

Dr. Michael F. Giagreco, Professor, University of Vermont along with colleagues Yuan, McKenzie,  Cameron, and Fialka wrote an article for the May/June 2005 issue of Teaching Exceptional Children that is widely referenced when discussing the topic of the inadvertent (unintended) negative effects when paraeducators are assigned to serve a single student all or most of the day.

Giangreco, et al, cited five reasons that “professionals and parents alike should be concerned about the assignment of individual paraprofessionals.” They are:

  • Reason 1: The least qualified staff members are teaching students with the most complex learning characteristics.
  • Reason 2: Paraprofessional supports are linked with inadvertent detrimental effects. (see below)
  • Reason 3: Individual paraprofessional supports are linked with lower levels of teacher involvement.
  • Reason 4: Teachers, parents, and students may not be getting what they deserve or expect.
  • Reason 5: Providing paraprofesional supports may delay attention to needed changes in schools.

Just a few of the ‘inadvertent detrimental effects’ (Reason 2) include: unnecessary dependence, interference with peer interactions, feeling stigmatized, limited access to competent instruction, and loss of personal control for the student (Giangreco, M., 2005).

The good news is this: It important for teachers and para-educators to be aware of the potential for these problems to arise for the students we serve.  When we are aware, we can work to eliminate these concerns before they become a problem. Teachers, parents, and paraeducators should discuss these possible effects and ways to reduce or eliminate them as a part of their discussions in preparation for the annual IEP meeting. 

Here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Ask teachers to reconsider other options before recommending a full-time assignment to one student or excessive proximity to a paraeducator.
  • When providing support, paraeducators should offer support to other students in the general education classroom as appropriate and in consultation with the general education teacher.
  • Paraeducators should avoid placing a chair next to the student unless absolutely necessary to provide the level of support needed.
  • Try to make your support appear to be seamless.  In other words, create an understanding, when appropriate, that you are in the classroom for any student that may need a little extra assistance.
  • Recognize that one of the most important adult roles is to facilitate the creation of positive relationships between the student with disabilities and his or her peers.  Redirect conversation from the peers away from you and toward the special needs student.
  • Encourage small group work in which the student or students with disabilities can be a member along with his typical peers.
  • Find simple ways to connect the students by common interests, hobbies, and school social events.
  • Remember to fade the support you provide whenever possible.  The goal is to support students with disabilities and their independence and interdependence in the school and in the community.

One of the most positive aspects of the role of a paraeducator is the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the students they serve.  With a clear understanding of the roles and boundaries for paraeducators, with consistent and careful direction, training and supervision from a certified teacher, and with a sensitivity to the potential harm to students from over-support from paraeducators and other adults, the impact of paraeducator services will be significantly increased.


Giangreco, M.F., Yuan, S., McKenzie, B., Cameron, P. and Dialka, J. (2005). “Be careful what you wish for..”: Five reasons to be concerns about the assignment of individual paraprofessionals. Teaching Exceptional Children, 37 (5), 28-34.

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