5 essential skills for paraeducators
Remember the teachers’ assistants you had as a kid? They distributed tests, collected homework and did clerical tasks. Sometimes they pulled double duty as playground monitors. These days, however, their role is evolving dramatically. Now known as paraeducators, they play a more direct role in helping students learn.
Why the change? Ellie Giles, EdD, an online instructor of special education for the University of Phoenix College of Education, points to advances in paraeducation training, alongside the growing need for classroom support. As student enrollment rises, and teachers’ time and responsibilities are stretched thin, qualified paraeducators are becoming increasingly hot commodities.
After the federal No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, most states began requiring two-year degrees for paraeducators. Then the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) developed certification requirements and established recommended professional competencies. "School districts are looking for individuals who have more training," Giles says. "Some are adopting standards stricter than the CEC."
Giles, whose Creative Problem Solving business trains individuals to support special needs students, suggests ways to prepare to become a paraeducator, or to improve your skills if you already are one:
Strengthen basic academic skills and knowledge.
Reading, writing and arithmetic aren't just for elementary students. In Giles' professional experience, she's seen some college-educated paraeducators who don’t fully command these basic abilities — which makes it difficult to support students who are trying to master those skills. She notes that companies such as Educational Testing Service offer certification tests for these core subjects.
Understand children's developmental stages.
What can be expected of a 5-year-old, a 10-year-old or a 14-year-old, both academically and socially? Giles says it's important to have realistic expectations of children according to their ages and learning abilities, including their language development, attention spans and behavioral patterns.
Be an effective communicator and problem solver.
By proposing solutions to issues, rather than complaining, paraeducators can position themselves as team players, Giles says. This applies both to classrooms and to non-structured situations, like playgrounds. "Communicating with children to help resolve a conflict among themselves — rather than them being sent to the principal's office and missing instruction time — is huge," she notes.
Grasp how technology supports the learning process.
Are you comfortable using smart boards, computer spreadsheets and online assessments? According to Giles, paraeducators must stay on top of education technologies. Technology augments learning, but "it's a support tool," she emphasizes, "not a replacement for language and communication."
Know safety and health issues.
Giles says paraeducators must be familiar with basic emergency procedures and practices. Knowing how to handle common medical issues, such as a severe allergy disorder, is also invaluable.
In addition to these five key skills, Giles says other areas of expertise are appreciated. "Being bilingual is gold!" she says. "With today's multicultural classrooms, being able to speak Spanish, Mandarin, Farsi or Vietnamese, for example, is a plus.
"Paraeducators with these in-demand skills want to be utilized," Giles adds. "They're the foot soldiers of every school."