Wondering if a paraprofessional is the right support for your exceptional child?
Florida special education attorney Mark Kamleiter has some thoughts. Here, he offers advice on how to determine if this is the right path for your child. If it is, consider his suggestions for moving forward with your child’s IEP team.
Obtaining paraprofessional support for children with disabilities is one of the most difficult and trying issues advocates have to deal with. The costs of such services, as well as possibly genuine concern about the child’s independence, may cause schools to have a natural resistance to approving additional paraprofessional help for children. Some districts require that paraprofessional services be approved by some district committee or administrator outside of the IEP process (see last paragraph).
This article has been drafted to help parents understand the appropriate role of an educational paraprofessional and to better comprehend the process of obtaining paraprofessional support where it is needed.
It is educational support you want – not a paraprofessional: In the past, during easier financial times for school districts, it was not too difficult to request and obtain one-on-one paraprofessional support for a student who needs it. Schools routinely wrote one-on-one services onto to IEPs. Then as money became much tighter many districts began to refuse to place paraprofessional support on the IEP. Even where they agree in general terms to put a paraprofessional in the classroom, districts tend to refer to “support to the teacher” rather than to the student. This has caused parents to panic, fearing that their children would not receive their necessary support.
In order to receive direct paraprofessional support today, parents and advocates must approach the issue from a more indirect, but fundamentally educational perspective. The law requires schools to provide appropriate “supplementary aids and services,” which are necessary for the child to be successful in the “least restrictive environment.” 20 U.S.C. §1412 A (5); 34 C.F.R. § 300.550 to § 300.556. This means that today the focus of the parent’s request needs to be more on the actual precise educational “supplementary aids and services” or supports that the child requires for successful education, rather than upon the individual who will provide the supports. Unless the parent or advocate clearly establishes within the IEP the exact nature and extent of the educational supports needed by the child, it is unlikely that they will be successful in obtaining the paraprofessional support sought.
Below I have listed some of the possible educational “supplementary aids and services” that a child might require. You may think of other supports your child needs. Some of those listed here may not be appropriate for your child, but they are representative of the needs of many children requiring paraprofessional support. When I write to the school district or sit in an IEP meeting, I focus entirely on the child’s specific support needs. This is usually an effective way of signaling that additional educational resources (paraprofessional) must be provided to the child. Notice the emphasis in the following list upon identifying the frequency, proximity, duration that the support is needed. (Before trying to use this list, it is important to review each of the suggestions for appropriateness for the specific student).
Educational Supports: Educationally, the student will require close proximity support and attention. Some of his/her educational support needs include, but are not limited to:
- Frequent, positive reinforcement throughout all activities.This reinforcement needs to be implemented on a very frequent reinforcement schedule (every ___ minutes/secs.) for successful transitions, initiation of tasks, attention and focus on tasks, and completion of tasks. This will need to be coordinated with his behavior intervention plan (if appropriate). (I would insist upon having an actually reinforcement schedule and requiring data collection).
- Visual prompts and aids.The student requires the creation of and the constant and continual use of visual aids to learning and understanding. These are an essential part of his learning and functioning processes. This includes not only a daily visual schedule, but also visual guides for his various tasks throughout the school day and across all settings. Such guides and aids need to be kept up to date and should be created for each day’s tasks and functions.
- Prompts: The student requires continual and constant prompts and cues. He is very easily distracted and if ever left to his own, he may immediately “zone out” or busy himself with self-stimulation or other non-productive behaviors. Excessive down-time is educationally harmful for this child. (I would require data collection on the use of prompts, indicating what type of prompts (visual, verbal, physical) and the frequency of the prompts).
- Checking for comprehension: As the student begins each task someone will check for comprehension and provide redirection as needed. This checking should be repeated several times during the course of the task completion.
- Toileting(only if appropriate): The student requires individual attention to help him developing his personal daily help skills and toileting. This requires use of visual guides, schedules, verbal and physical prompts and reinforcement. I would require data collection on the prompting and success.
- Communication:Although the student is verbal he/she requires constant and continual facilitation and prompting relative to his communication. This is needed to help him channel his communication toward more productive and socially acceptable ways of expressing himself. He needs active, planned and unplanned facilitation to help him communicate with and interact appropriately with his peers. He needs help with pragmatic language (checking for understanding, explanation of meaning). This needs to be across all settings. Again, data collection is key. We need to know how often he is being facilitated in his communications with peers and some information on the prompting being used.
- Social/Behavioral:The student requires direct planned and unplanned facilitation in interacting effectively with other students. Again this facilitation needs to take place frequently and continually across all settings. He needs the daily and regular presentation of social stories to help him understand social situations and interactions. These stories will help him understand classroom expectations and to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. We need data collection as to the daily interactions, prompts, etc.
- Intense Instruction:Despite his intelligence, the student learns best with high intensity, sequential, behaviorally reinforced instruction, through discrete trials, based on the principles of ABA. Nathan needs to receive at least ___ hours of this intensive instruction each day. Data collection needed.
You will note that I do not presume to dictate who shall provide the services, but instead stress what must be done to support the child, how often (frequency) the supports must be given, and whether the support must be in proximity. These services may be provided by the teacher, a classroom paraprofessional, or a one-on-one paraprofessional. The key is that they be provided every regularly, consistently and at every point of need.
Sometimes IEP teams will say that they can provide these supports, without adding a paraprofessional to the class. The reality is that no teacher, even with the help of a general classroom paraprofessional could adequately accomplish the list supports provided above. Insisting upon data collection and review of the data is a good way to verify the actual provision of services. If there are real questions as to whether these supports are necessary or as to whether the supports are actually being provided, I find it wise to send in an educational consultant to do classroom observations. Although parents worry that the school will put on “a dog and pony show” for the consultant (which they will), the truth is that it will usually be pretty obvious to a trained observer if the staff are doing things they do not usually do.
The Question of Independence: Invariably the educators on the IEP team will argue that they do not want to provide one-on-one support for a student because it is important that the child become independent. This position can be infuriating for parents, who want more than anything for their child to be independent and who resent the school’s self-righteous posturing. I have listed below some ways to deal with the “independence” argument.
- First make a clear statement that you want your child to become independent and to eventually not require the educational supports which are presently essential. This helps position you as the advocate or parent on the side of working toward independence for the child.
- Present an evaluation (from the recommended private evaluation) of the child’s present level of “dependence” upon educational supports. This evaluation may need to be acquired through an independent or private educational evaluation. It needs to be precise relative to the exact supports needed by the child, including information about the frequency, intensity, and the proximity of the supports. Make every attempt to be accurate in this assessment. Remember that the school is correct in their position that to over support a child is to handicap and reduce the independence of the child. The key is to provide just enough support to allow the child to be successful, but not so much as to further handicap the child. This is where I often use the “learning to ride a bike or swim” analogy. Training wheels for a learner bike or a kick board for learning swimming are appropriate supports and when they are no longer needed we fade them away. On the other hand we do not throw children who cannot swim into the deep end of the pool in order to make them independent swimmers.
- Consider placement issues. It is ironic that sometimes the only way to obtain the supports the child needs is to move the child from self-contained, supported classrooms. Most school districts consider self-contained, supported (having a paraprofessional assigned to the teacher) classrooms to be adequately supported and thus in many cases they absolutely refuse to increase the levels of support in the classroom. Too often, the reality is that such V.E., Autistic, or other specialized classrooms do not provide sufficient individual supports for students. These classrooms often manage the students through the presentation of low expectations, low demands, and allowing excessive “down-time.” One can argue very well that, in fact, these classrooms make the students dependent on the educational delivery model and make them ill-equipped to function in general society. Sometimes the only way to obtain the proximity, high-level support some children require is when those children are mainstreamed out of the school’s self-contained units.
- Insist upon appropriate and trained support. Children with disabilities do not need a paraprofessional to continually hover over them, excessively prompting them. They need well trained individuals who have learned appropriate prompting techniques and who are careful to bring their support to the child only at the child’s carefully determined point of need. Knowledgeable experts should design the prompting techniques and should continually monitor the delivery of support services. All prompting and educational supports need to be designed to be scientifically and carefully faded over time.
From the above, you can see that just getting some paraprofessional time with your child is not sufficient. A poorly trained paraprofessional could actually harm you child’s progress toward independence. This is why the common school practice of “covering” the child with various individuals, who happen to be in the classroom at different times, cannot work. Responsible and professional support of a child with disabilities requires child-specific training in appropriate prompting, data collection, social facilitation, language facilitation and academic coaching. The issue is not so much how many different individuals are used to support the child, but the level of training, knowledge of the child’s support needs, and coordination of the effort.
Getting the support into the IEP: When IEP teams agree to reference to a paraprofessional on an IEP, they will almost always place the reference in the “supports to the teacher” portion of the IEP. Their logic is that the teacher is the person directly responsible for delivering education to the child. The teacher may use the paraprofessional in the educational delivery, but the paraprofessional is for assisting the teacher – not the child.
This are just word games as far as I am concerned. I have no problem with how the school describes the paraprofessional support it is going to provide, as long as the child is guaranteed very clear and specific support on his/her IEP. The fact is that just checking a box or writing in paraprofessional support on an IEP does not guarantee the sophisticated kind of support many children need. For this reason I feel that it is important to insist that somewhere on the IEP the IEP team agrees that the child needs a defined list of supports (similar to the list I have provided above), which list clearly specifies the supports in terms of frequency, intensity and proximity.
When I say this defined list of supports needs to be on the IEP, this can be done in a number of different ways. Most IEP forms do not provide a place for precise and detailed information about the “supplemental aids and services” a child may need in order to succeed in the least restrictive environment. The accommodations checklists generally provided do not present either the detail or the full substance of what is needed. In addition, many schools suffer from “formitis:” a bureaucratic malady, which paralyzes all ability to do anything that is not on “THE FORM.”
Actually, the IEP may include by reference an agreed to, detailed, listing of the specific supports that the child will receive, including prompting, social and language facilitation, reinforcement, behavioral supports, etc. Alternatively, this information may be put on an IEP conference form. While I have heard uninformed school administrators claim that if something is not on the IEP Form, it is not on the IEP, this is simply not true. Conference notes or an agreed list of services should be referenced on the IEP form and made part of the IEP. I recently won a due process case where the judge (ALJ) was very upset because the school had failed to implement items which it had agreed to on a conference form.
Finally, it is improper for IEP teams to defer to any other committee or administrator on the question of paraprofessional support. If an IEP team refuses to make the “need” determination, claiming they are required to defer to another committee or administrator, I would ask them to put that policy in writing. If the IEP team persists in refusing to make the determination, then I would ask for an “Informed Notice of Refusal.”
Mark Kamleiter is the founder and Senior Attorney of Special Education Law and Advocacy, a firm supporting families in special education law across the state of Florida.
His office in St. Petersburg can be reached at 727-323-2555. Mark is a member of COPAA.
This content is reprinted with his permission from his blog, “Conversations in Special Education Law and Advocacy.”