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Training needs of special education paraprofessionals.

Training Needs of Special Education Paraprofessionals

Although paraprofessionals are common in special education classrooms, there has been a lack of clarity regarding proper roles and responsibilities and effective use of paraprofessionals (Escudero & Sears, 1982; Hennike & Taylor, 1973; Lindsey, 1983). Delineating the roles and responsibilities of paraprofessionals has implications for teacher and paraprofessional training (Escudero & Sears, 1982; Frith, 1981; May & Marozas, 1981; Reid & Reid, 1974) and for hiring practices (Hennike & Taylor, 1973).

The identification of paraprofessional job responsibilities and the assessment of their performance constituted the major themes of the current investigation. We evaluated special education teacher and paraprofessional ratings of (a) the importance of selected classroom tasks and (b) the degree of skill that paraprofessionals displayed in performing these tasks. We also examined the effects on these ratings of instructional program model (resource teacher program, RTP, special class with integration, SCI, and self-contained special class SSC), as well as the age of students served (preschool, elementary, and secondary). Specifically, the study was designed to address the following questions:

1. What tasks do special education teachers rate as important for their paraprofessionals to be able to complete?

2. Do special education teachers rate their paraprofessionals as skillful in those tasks judged to be important?

3. What is the relation between the ratings of special education teachers and their paraprofessionals concerning the importance of tasks to be completed and the paraprofessionals' skill in completing tasks?



A questionnaire was designed to obtain the following information from special education teachers: (a) demographic data, (b) ratings of 18 statements (see Figure 1) concerning tasks that might be completed by paraprofessionals, (c) additional statements supplied by teachers concerning tasks viewed as important, and (d) comments regarding the use of paraprofessionals in special education programs. The term paraprofessional in this investigation included paraprofessionals, teacher associates, and aides. The 18 task statements in Figure 1 were based on paraprofessional responsibilities identified in published studies (Escudero & Sears, 1982; Hennike & Taylor, 1973; R. McKenzie, personal communication, February 15, 1985), and input from an SCI and an SSC special education teacher who had worked with paraprofessionals for several years. Teachers were asked to rate each task statement on the dimensions of importance (How important is it for your paraprofessionals to be able to complete this task?) and skill (How skillful is your paraprofessional in completing this task?). A 4-point scale was used by teachers to rate the importance of each statement: "Very important" (value = 3), "Important" (value = 2), "Not very important" (value = 1), and "Not at all important/Not applicable" (value = 0). The same 4-point scale was used for rating the skill of paraprofessionals on each task.

A similar questionnaire was prepared for paraprofessionals. The paraprofessionals, however, were addressed directly in the questions on the rating scale (e.g., How important is it for you . . .).

To facilitate interpretation of the questionnaire results, a principal factors analysis (communalities estimated by squared multiple correlations followed by varimax rotation) was conducted on the teacher and paraprofessional importance ratings for the 18 questionnaire items. The results of these analyses, which were generally consistent across groups, were used to group the items into five clusters when interpreting teh data: (a) clerical assistance (items 1, 4, 12, and 16), (b) health-related duties (3, 9, 14, and 17), (c) supervision of students (2, 6, 8, 15, and 18), (d) assisting mainstreamed students (7 and 10), and (e) direct instruction (5, 11, and 13).

Subjects and Procedure

The 1983-84 Department of Public Instruction Secretary's Annual Report was used to identify all special education teachers in the state of Iowa who had paraprofessionals for that school year. Approximately one-third (N = 385) of these teachers were randomly selected for participation in this investigation. A questionnaire and letter describing the nature of the study were mailed to each teacher. Their respective paraprofessionals were sent, under separate cover, a questionnaire and letter with instructions to complete and return the questionnaire independently A follow-up letter and second questionnaire were mailed 1 month later to nonrespondents. A total of 254 (66.0%) teacher/paraprofessional pairs returned usable questionnaires.

The mean number of years of teaching experience for resource teachers (RTP, n = 36) was 6.36 (SD = 3.17); the number of years spent supervising paraprofessionals was 2.42 (SD = 1.54). Teachers in special classes with integration (SCI, n = 73) taught an average of 7.92 years (SD = 4.16) and supervised paraprofessionals for an average of 4.40 years (SD = 3.03). Special education teacher in self-contained classes (SSC. n = 145) taught an average of 7.31 years (SD = 4.52) and had supervised paraprofessionals an average of 5.17 years (SD = 3.52). The majority of the respondents (87.1%) had paraprofessionals who worked at least half-time, where 12.9% had quarter-time paraprofessionals.

Data Analyses

To answer Research Question 1 (What tasks do special education teachers rate as important . . .), task statements with mean ratings of 2.00 or greater (i.e., mean ratings ranging from "important" to "very important") were identified. Ratings in this range were considered to reflect clearly teacher judgment of a task as important. We chose this logical analysis rather than a statistical analysis of the data to answer Research Question 1 because the labels ("very imporant," "important," etc.) on the questionnaire rating scale allowed us to use a numerical cut-off point ([is greater than or equal to] 2.00) to identify those items viewed as important.

To answer Research Question 2 (How skillful are paraprofessionals . . .). a t test was conducted, which compared the importance and corresponding skill ratings for each task statement with a mean importance rating of 2.00 or greater. The purpose of these analyses was to identify those specific tasks where teacher ratings of task importance were significantly higher than teacher ratings of paraprofessional skill in completing the task.

To answer Research Question 3 (What is the relation between teacher and paraprofessional ratings . . .), t tests were conducted comparing teacher and paraprofessional ratings of importance, and comparing the two groups' ratings of skill. In addition, Pearson product-moment correlation coefficients were computed to examine the relation between the ratings of teachers and their respective paraprofessionals. The purpose of these analyses was to determine the extent to which teachers and their paraprofessionals agreed on what tasks were important and how skillful paraprofessionals were in completing these tasks.

An experimentwise probability level of ([alpha] = .05) was used to evaluate the t tests described in Research Questions 2 and 3. To control for the use of multiple planned t tests, the [alpha] of .05 was divided by the number of comparisons made within each group of comparisons (i.e., preschool, elementary, secondary) (Dunn's Test; See Kirk, 1968, Chapter 3).

Additional task statements and comments provided by teachers and paraprofessionals on the last page of the questionnaires were compiled. Frequencies of similar task statements and comments were tallied.


Tasks of Importance

Task statements rated by RTP, SCI, and SSC teachers as important to very important are presented in Table 1 (see column labeled Importance). Only Task Statements 1 (. . prepare materials. .) and 8 (. . help practice skills . . ) received mean ratings of 2.0 or greater by all groups of teachers, suggesting that instructional model and age of students differentially affected teacher ratings of the importance of the task statements.

Task statements receiving mean ratings of 2.00 or higher also were examined by task cluster. Table 2 shows that, in general, teachers viewed clerical and supervision skills as more important than main-streaming, direct instruction, or health-related skills.

Skill of Paraprofessionals

Only positive t statistics reported in Table 2 were of concern because they indicated that mean importance ratings were greater than mean skill ratings. Therefore, one-tailed t tests were conducted.

A significant difference was obtained between the preschool teacher ratings of importance and skill concerning Task Statement 2 ("Assist teacher with behavior management program for individual or group"). There were no significant differences between elementary RTP teacher ratings of task importance and paraprofessional skill for the four tasks having mean ratings of 2.00 or greater. For elementary SCI and SSC teachers, significant differences were found between teacher ratings of task importance and paraprofessional skill for Task Statement 2 ("Assist teacher with behavior management program for individual or group"). A significant difference was obtained between secondary SCI teacher ratings of importance and skill concerning Task Statement 8 ("Help students practice skills previously presented by teacher").

These results suggest that, in general, special education teachers were satisfied with the performance of their paraprofessionals. In most comparisons between teacher ratings of task importance and paraprofessional skill, there were no significant differences. There were only four instances where teachers rated task importance significantly higher than paraprofessional skill. In two of these, (pre-school teachers, Task Statement 2; and Secondary SSC teachers, Task Statement 8), skill ratings were equal to or greater than 2.50, suggesting that paraprofessionals were viewed as approaching a very skillful level concerning these tasks. In other words, although statistically significant differences were obtained, from a practical standpoint, these findings did not indicate that paraprofessionals needed additional training. In the remaining two instances (elementary SCI and SSC teachers, Task Statement 2), paraprofessionals were viewed as skillful, but not very skillful. In these instances a case could be made for determining more precisely what behavior management skills teachers want paraprofessionals to have, then identifying the areas in which paraprofessionals could improve to the point where they are seen as very skillful.

Agreement Between Teachers and


The two-tailed t tests comparing teacher ratings to those of their paraprofessionals on task importance revealed four significant differences [p [is less than] .003 (.05 divided by 18 comparisons)], all in the direction of higher paraprofessional mean scores (Task Statements 1, 5, 11, and 13). There were no significant t statistics for mean teacher/paraprofessional ratings concerning paraprofessional skill in completing the 18 tasks.

All Pearson correlation coefficients were significant beyond the .005 level of probability. Of the 18 coefficients related to importance, 6 were in the range of .30 - .50, and 11 were above .50. Seven skill coefficients were in the .30-.50 range, and 9 were above .50. These findings suggest considerable agreement between teachers and paraprofessionals.

These results are of considerable interest because of their implications concerning the quality of the relationship between teachers and their paraprofessionals. It would seem that when two professionals, one the superordinate and the other the subordinate, agree on the functions of the subordinate, the working climate will be enhanced.

Additional Task Statements/Comments

Although a number of additional task statements and comments were written on the questionnaires, only those that addressed topics clearly not similar to the 18 task statements printed on the questionnaires and that were mentioned by three or more respondents are reported here.

The most common statements or comments concerned inservice training for paraprofessionals. Twenty-five teachers and seven paraprofessionals indicated that more training was needed, with behavior management being cited most frequently. Closely related to these recommendations were comments about the need for formal college training for paraprofessionals (three teachers and seven paraprofessionals).

Seven teachers and nine paraprofessionals made recommendations about the role of paraprofessionals in classroom when teachers are absent. These recommendations ranged from having paraprofessionals assist substitute teachers in understanding how the classroom functions to having paraprofessionls take over the classroom without a substitute teacher being present.

Three teachers reported that paraprofessionals should be informed about the importance of maintaining confidentiality concerning students in special education classrooms. In addition, four teachers suggested that paraprofessionals be allowed to drive students to various (unspecified) locations.


A primary purpose of this investigation was to identify those tasks which special education teachers rate as important for their paraprofessionals to be able to complete. In addition, teachers were asked to rate their paraprofessionals' skill in completing tasks rated as important. The effects of program instructional model and age of students served on ratings also were examined.

Only two tasks were rated as important by every group of special education teachers. For the remaining tasks, different patterns of importance ratings were found, depending on the type of instructional model in which teachers taught and age of students served. These findings suggest that paraprofessionals need to have different competencies, depending on the type of educational setting in which they are employed.

The vast majority of special education teachers in Iowa appear to be satisfied with the performance of their paraprofessionals. This conclusion seems to apply to teachers regardless of the instructional model in which they teach or the age of students served.

This study has important implications for faculties of preservice paraprofessional training programs. The expectations reported here about skills needed by paraprofessionals have been obtained from a variety of special education teachers. By comparing the skill expectations of these teachers with the actual training received by preservice paraprofessionals, trainers can determine whether their programs are sufficiently comprehensive to meet the needs of prospective employers. Further, faculties of college and university special education teacher training programs can use the information from this study to assist preservice teachers in learning about the supervision of paraprofessionals, an area in which teachers typically have had no instruction (Frith & Lindsey, 1982).

Special education teacher ratings of task importance may also be useful to persons responsible for hiring paraprofessionals. During interviews, prospective paraprofessionals could be asked what skills they possess that will be of value to teachers. A comparison of these responses with the wishes of teachers can be examined to determine if a reasonable "match" exists between teacher needs and paraprofessional skills. A model for determining if a "match" exists has been described elsewhere (McKenzie & Houk, 1986).


Escudero, G. R., & Sears, J. (1982). Teachers' and teacher aides' perceptions of their responsibilities when teaching severely and profoundly handicapped students. Education and Training of the Mentally Retarded, 17, 190-195.

Frith, G. (1981). Paraprofessionals: A focus on interpersonal skills. Education and Training of the Mentally Retarded, 16, 306-309.

Frith, G. H., & Lindsey, J. D. (1982). Certification, training, and other programming variables affecting special education and the paraprofessional concept. The Journal of Special Education, 16, 229-236.

Hennike, J. M., & Taylor, D. E. (1973). Teachers' perceptions of teacher aide roles and responsibilities. Education and Training of the Mentally Retarded, 8, 15-19.

Kirk, R. E. (1968). Experimental design: Procedures for the behavioral sciences. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Lindsey, J. D. (1983). Paraprofessionals in learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 16, 467-472.

May, D. C., & Marozas, D. S. (1981). The role of the paraprofessionals in educational programs for the severely handicapped. Education and Training of the Mentally Retarded, 16, 228-231.

McKenzie, R. G., & Houk, C. S. (1986). The paraprofessional in special education. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 18, 246-252.

Reid, B. A., & Reid, W. R. (1974). Role excpectations of paraprofessional staff in special education. Focus on Exceptional Children, 6(7), 1-14.

ALAN R. FRANK is Professor and Chair of Special Education, Division of Special Education, University of Iowa, Iow City. TIMOTHY Z. KEITH is Associate Professor of Education and Psychology, College of Education, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. DENNIS A. STEIL is Psychologist and Coordinator of Learning Services, Student Development and Counseling Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Author:Frank, Alan R.; Keith, Timothy Z.; Steil, Dennis A.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Nov 1, 1988
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