An Information and Communication Guide for Teachers and One-to-One Paraprofessionals

By Wendy Wallitt
Special Education Teacher
Ithaca City School District (ICSD)
July 2006


This guide is written for you if you are a one-to-one aide or teaching assistant working with a special education student in a mainstream elementary classroom; or, if you are an elementary classroom teacher or special education teacher, working on a team with a one-to-one paraprofessional.

Portions of the guide will be useful, as well, to other paraprofessionals and to staff working at the pre-kindergarten through secondary levels.

One-to-one teaching assistants and aides play a key role in supporting students whose behaviors, academic needs, and/or physical disabilities make it impossible for them to function successfully without individual assistance. One-to-one paraprofessionals work with some of the most challenging students in our schools. Yet, they are often thrust into the classroom without the benefit of adequate orientation or training.

The ICSD Office of Staff Development offers a range of paraprofessional training opportunities, mostly on Superintendent’s Conference days. However, much of the responsibility for orienting and informing one-to-one paraprofessionals necessarily falls on classroom and resource room teachers.

This guide helps teachers by streamlining the process of orienting and informing one-to-one paraprofessionals who are new to the job, the school, a classroom or a particular student. It provides basic information and teaching tips for paraprofessionals on working with special education as well as regular education students. It also suggests ways for paras, classroom teachers, and special education teachers to maintain good communication throughout the school year.

The first two sections of this guide (Promoting Teamwork and Orientation Checklist) are written for teachers and paraprofessionals to use together.

Sections three (Introduction to Disabilities) and four (ABCs of Working in a Regular Classroom) are intended primarily for paraprofessionals. Section three provides a quick course in understanding students with disabilities and special education. Section four explains some of the basics of what regular elementary classroom teachers do, why they do it, and how paraprofessionals can help.

I want to thank the many Ithaca City School District paraprofessionals, teachers and administrators who contributed the ideas, insights and comments that make up the bulk of this guide.

I am also indebted to Kim Fontana, Elaine Little, Sue Mittler, Lydia Rosaro and Tricia Flaccus for their valuable feedback.

Many thanks, also, to Rupert Spies, Laurie Rubin, and Roberta Wallitt for their generous and loving help and support.

Wendy Wallitt



Classroom teachers, one-to-one special education teaching assistants or aides, and special education teachers make up a three-part teaching team responsible for the day-to-day progress of some of the school’s most challenging students. Members of a broader support team, including parents, psychologists, social workers, support teachers, speech therapists, and others, also play key roles in these students’ programs.

When members of a team—particularly those who have daily contact with a student—work well together, the student has the support needed to succeed. On the other hand, if communication among staff is poor, roles are unclear, or methods and messages are inconsistent, the student’s progress is seriously compromised.


Working relationships are as varied as the people who are in them. No single way of doing things works well for everyone. There are, however, some common ingredients that are present in most relationships between teachers and one-to-one paraprofessionals who describe their collaborations as successful.

Teacher-paraprofessional teams who report excellent working relationships usually have:

• A clear understanding of their roles
• A regularly scheduled time to meet
• A comfortable and efficient way to communicate “on the fly” during the course of the school day
• Strong support from the special education teacher and from other members of the student’s IEP team
• Mutual respect and appreciation

-Getting Off to a Good Start

A warm welcome to the classroom makes an excellent beginning when a one-to-one paraprofessional is assigned to work in a new classroom.

• Teachers set the tone for how paraprofessionals will be received by students.
• The paraprofessional should be introduced as someone who will be working in the classroom to help everybody learn. Do not say the paraprofessional is there “to help Jimmy”.
Let the one-to-one student know that if he needs help, he can turn to the paraprofessional as well as the teacher.
Think of ways to help the paraprofessional get to know the students--their names, faces and personalities. Some helpful aids include photos, class lists, name cards on tables or desks, names on the wall, “get acquainted” games, and watching while children sign in.
It’s important to communicate to the students that they need to listen to and respect this new adult in the classroom just as they do other adults in the school.
• Take advantage of opportunities for the teacher and paraprofessional to get acquainted on a personal level, sharing information about families, interests, and out-of-school activities.
• Does the paraprofessional have special talents, interests or cultural knowledge that s/he would be willing to share in the classroom?
• Are there particular things the paraprofessional would like to learn more about or take more responsibility for?
• Are there aspects of the job that the paraprofessional is uncomfortable with that require further discussion or training?

A solid orientation to the school, classroom and the one-to-one student is also crucial to a good start. A detailed Teachers’ Checklist for Orienting One-to-one Paraprofessionals is found in Section II of this guide.

But first, it is important to be clear on the roles and responsibilities of each member of the one-to-one student’s daily support team, and on ways to keep communication flowing among members of that team.


A good place to begin in providing clarification of each team member’s role is with job descriptions.

In the Ithaca City School District, the contract between the Education Support Professionals Association (formerly the Ithaca Paraprofessional Association) and the ICSD Board of Education contains official job descriptions for both teacher aides and teaching assistants. These are general job descriptions, not specific to one-to-one special education aides and TAs, but they shed light on those roles as well.

Teacher Aide

Teacher aide
1. Duties. Teacher aides may be assigned by the Board
to assist teachers in such non-teaching duties as:
(a) managing records, materials and equipment;
(b) attending to the physical needs of the children; and
(c) supervising students and performing such other services as support teaching duties when such services are determined and supervised by teachers.

Teaching Assistant

1. A teaching assistant so designated provides direct instructional service under the general supervision of a licensed or certified teacher.
2. Duties. Teaching assistants assist teachers by performing direct instruction services such as:
(a) working with individual pupils or groups of pupils on special instruction projects;
(b) providing the teacher with information about pupils which will assist the teacher in the development of appropriate learning experiences;
(c) assisting pupils in the use of available instructional resources and assisting in the development of instructional materials;
(d) utilizing their own special skills and activities by assisting instructional programs in such areas as arts, crafts, foreign languages, music, and similar subjects; and
(e) assisting in related instructional work as required.
--From contract between the Ithaca City School District Board of Education and the Education Support Professionals, July 2001-June 2005.

Classroom Teacher

Classroom teachers have no formal job description, but they do have a wide range of responsibilities. They are accountable for the education and well-being of every student in their classes. Below is a partial description of what teachers are expected to do:

• Establish a classroom atmosphere conducive to learning and to physical and emotional safety for all students.
• Plan lessons for all students consistent with curriculum and standards set by local, state and federal education agencies.
• Teach all students, including one-to-one students, in large group, small groups and individually.
• Assess students’ learning.
• Report on students’ progress at least 3 times per school year.
• Communicate with parents and guardians regarding the classroom program, school matters, and students’ needs and progress.
• Attend staff meetings; communicate with the principal and colleagues about school matters.
• Participate in professional development opportunities.
• With input from special education teacher, one-to-one paraprofessionals, and others, plan lesson modifications for students with disabilities, as needed.
• Communicate with paraprofessionals regarding upcoming lessons and lesson modifications for one-to-one students.
• Supervise paraprofessionals in their work with students (note: the paraprofessionals’ official supervisor is the building principal).

Special Education (Resource Room) Teacher

• Observe, assess and test students with disabilities.
• Participate in Committee on Special Education meetings.
• Plan and teach resource room and special education programs.
• Consult with classroom teachers regarding classroom programs and modifications for students with disabilities in mainstream settings.
• Provide guidance to special education paraprofessionals regarding methods and strategies to help one-to-one students.
• Report on special education students’ progress at least 3 times per year.
• Communicate with parents and guardians regarding special education students’ program, needs, and progress.
• Attend staff meetings and other meetings; communicate with principal and colleagues about school matters.
• Participate in professional development opportunities.

In short, classroom teachers plan and teach lessons for all students and
develop lesson modifications for students with disabilities. The job of one-to-one paraprofessionals is to assist teachers in supporting one-to-one students with disabilities.

One-to-one aides can assist, under the supervision of a teacher, by helping students with their physical needs and special equipment; helping with record-keeping and preparation of teaching materials; and supervising students during academic and non-academic activities.

Special education teachers provide extra help to students with disabilities or supplant parts of the classroom instruction with lessons that meet the students’ particular needs. They also consult with classroom teachers and special education paraprofessionals regarding the students’ program.

One-to-one teaching assistants perform the same tasks as aides, and can also provide instruction to students, under the supervision of a teacher.

All paraprofessionals can contribute information, ideas and insights regarding students to help teachers with the planning process.


Everybody’s time is tight during the school day, yet regular communication
between classroom teachers and one-to-one paraprofessionals is critical to the success of this collaborative relationship, which in turn benefits the child(ren) being served.

Including the special education teacher in a regular communication process makes scheduling even more difficult, but eases the way toward informed solutions and concerted team efforts.

“But how,” you ask, “Can I possibly find time for more meetings???”

Meetings are one very important way to share information, but they aren’t the only way. In this section, you’ll find a variety of ideas for fitting meetings into your schedules, and tips on how to make the most of the time you have. You’ll also find suggestions for ways to communicate between meetings.

-MEETINGS: The Who? When? Why? And How?

There is just no substitute for regularly scheduled, face-to-face meetings to allow the key players in a one-to-one student’s education program an opportunity to share information, problem-solve, and/or discuss upcoming lessons. While it’s not easy to establish a regular meeting schedule, you’ll be glad you did!

Meeting Frequency
How often should you try to meet? Here’s a meeting frequency guide that works for many teams:

• A few minutes once or twice a day enables the classroom teacher to explain what the para needs to know about an upcoming lesson, or for
both parties to consult briefly about a change of plans or new developments with the child.
• Michael Giangreco, in his book Quick Guides to Inclusion (Recommended!), observes, “It has been our experience that 10 minutes a day (for teacher and para to talk) can do wonders!” [Giangreco,1997, p.79]

• Classroom teacher and para meet for 20-30 minutes once a week. If at all possible, the special education teacher should attend as well. Use this time to:
o Discuss the child’s progress and any changes that need to be addressed.
o Go over lesson plans for the coming week and talk about how to adapt them to the child’s needs (Take notes, as needed!)
o Check in with each other about how things are going for each of you; give and ask for information, feedback, or changes that would enhance your working relationship. Be sure to include appreciations of one another!
o Make note of help or resources you may need from other sources and who will request them; also note any pressing topics which you need more time to discuss and decide when you will continue that discussion.

• When several different service providers work with the same student, the students’ Individual Education Plan may call for monthly team meetings.
• This meeting is a time for all the people working with a child to problem-solve together, share information and ideas, and try to ensure consistency in the child’s program.
• The paraprofessional is an important member of this team. S/he needs to be present in order to contribute and receive information so the whole team can work in concert.

Finding Time To Meet

Finding a time for meetings to take place requires creativity, persistence and flexibility—but isn’t that what teaching is all about? Solutions will be different for every team. Below are some ideas for finding meeting time within your very packed schedules. You may want to ask for help from your principal in creating a plan that will work.

Meet during specials (art, music, gym)
• Is there a special during which the child with disabilities can function independently?
• Can another staff member (examples: an occupational therapist working with the child during art, or another paraprofessional who can cover for the period) be with the child during a special once per week?

Free up the teacher when the paraprofessional is available
• Can the principal arrange for someone to cover the classroom once a week when the paraprofessional is available? This might be when a therapist is working with the student, or during an activity when the student can function independently.

Meet before or after school
• If the paraprofessional is available for 1/2 hour, once a week, before or after school, ask the Director of Special Education or your principal if funds can be made available to pay her/him to meet with you at that time.

Rotate meeting participants
• To allow one-to-one paras to attend some monthly team meetings, one school has a different team member each month miss the team meeting and supervise the one-to-one student.

Make the most of the paraprofessional’s time when the one-to-one child is absent
• Can the classroom and/or special ed teacher free up time during a special or in some other way for a spontaneous 20-30 minute meeting?
• This is also an excellent time for the paraprofessional to use available resources (Books, articles, videos teachers’ guides) to learn more about how to help the child.
• Paraprofessionals may be assigned to other duties when a one-to-one student is absent. Ask the principal to consider the above needs when making reassignment decisions.

If the situation changes that allowed you time to meet (example: child begins needing help during a previously independent time) be sure to find a new way to fit in your meeting.

Making The Most Of Meeting Time

1. Come prepared: jot down ahead of time what you want to bring up. Think ahead about ideas and solutions. Be open to ideas and solutions from other team members.
2. Start on time. Politely turn away interruptions unless they’re emergencies.
3. Set an agenda together. Consider setting time limits on agenda items.
4. Keep to the topic. Keep comments short and to the point.
5. Move promptly to the next agenda item.
6. Focus on the solutions, not the problems.
7. Don’t forget appreciations of other team members and celebrations of the child’s progress.
8. Bring closure to each agenda item, either by arriving at a course of action or agreeing to discuss it further at a designated time.
9. Write down who will be responsible for each step of action plan.
10. Follow through.

-Communicating Between Meetings

While regular meetings are important, there are a great many ways to keep communication flowing among team members between meetings. Below are some of the communication options that paraprofessionals, classroom teachers and special education teachers have reported success in using:

• One of the most effective ways paraprofessionals can learn new skills or methods is to carefully observe experienced teachers and paraprofessionals.

Signals and gestures
• Experienced teacher-paraprofessional teams know that a lot of effective communication takes place without a single word being spoken. Eye signals, nods, and gestures are exchanged across the room, creating discreet conversations throughout the day. (Don’t send “messages” that you don’t want students to see.)

Shared references
• Some teachers post schedules, rules, and other information on the wall or bulletin board for quick reference (Privacy of student information needs to be protected, however.)
• Some teachers make their plan books available to paraprofessionals so paras can check and see what is planned for the day.
• Paraprofessionals can read the pages in teachers’ manuals that describe upcoming lessons. Teachers can share or copy the relevant pages.

Written communications
• Write notes back and forth as needed. Agree on a place to leave them for the other team member(s). For instant double copies, use “Speed Message” sheets with built-in duplicates.
• Designate a notebook, kept in a convenient place, so that each team member can enter information, observations, and questions about a one-to-one student and can read what others have written.
• Use “Post-It” notes on students’ books and materials to give directions to paraprofessionals:
Example: A teacher selects a new trade book for a student to begin reading. She can attach a Post-It note with information for a one-to-one teaching assistant on how to introduce the new book to the student and which words or concepts to focus on.
• Special education teachers can keep paraprofessionals and classroom teachers informed about their work with particular students by photocopying their own lesson notes or summarizing their notes and observations.

-Working Out Problems: Are You An Effective Communicator?

Any close working relationship has the potential for misunderstandings and conflicts. Here are some tips on how to communicate effectively if you have a conflict with a teacher, paraprofessional, co-worker, or supervisor:

1. Go directly to the person you have a conflict with, rather than complaining to co-workers about it.
2. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes to gain some insight into his or her behavior. This doesn’t mean you have to accept that behavior, but it will help you enter into a conversation about it with more understanding.
3. Choose an appropriate time. (“I have something on my mind I’d like to discuss with you. Can we set up a time to talk?”)
4. Plan ahead—think about how you want to present the problem and some possible solutions that you’ll suggest. Write down your thoughts to help you remember them when you meet.
5. Use “I-statements” (“When I don’t know there’s been a change in the schedule, I can’t prepare Andy to be ready for it.”)
6. Be assertive—not aggressive.
7. Make sure your body language communicates a willingness to work things out.
8. Be a good listener. Keep an open mind to the other person’s ideas. Tactfully remind the other person to do the same for you.
9. Work on a solution so the problem doesn’t occur again. Don’t get caught up in rehashing what happened or who’s to blame.
10. Compromise.
11. Make sure a solution is reached.
12. Stick to your part of the agreement.
13. Evaluate together to see if the solution is working.


This checklist is intended as a means for classroom teachers, one-to-one paras and special education teachers to keep track of the myriad matters, large and small, that a new one-to-one teaching assistant or aide needs to know in order to become quickly integrated into the classroom community and play an effective part. Sections of it may also be useful for orienting special education program aides or other paraprofessionals.

While the list of items is long, you’ll find that it’s worth the time it takes to establish a common understanding of how you will operate as a team—classroom teacher, paraprofessional, and special ed teacher—to provide the best educational experience you can for the one-to-one child with a disability.

Many of the topics on this checklist are covered in more detail in the pages of the guide that follow. Page numbers are given for your convenience.

The orientation will necessarily take place over a number of days and will require help from other staff. Please make your own photocopy of the checklist so you can write on it and provide a copy for the one-to-one paraprofessional. Use the boxes to check off completed items.

This is a great deal of information for a new person to absorb. People differ in how much they can “digest” at one time. Be prepared to return to some topics for review after things settle down. Because each school, classroom, and child is unique, you may want to add or omit items so that the checklist reflects your needs.


The school principal will most likely cover the items in this section. They are included here in case this orientation task is delegated to a teacher or another staff member. Important legal issues such as confidentiality, procedures for reporting suspected abuse or neglect, and policies regarding touching and use of physical force are routinely covered by the building principal.

Front office
Introduce the paraprofessional to the front office staff and arrange for a front office staff member to provide the following information:
• Location of mailboxes
• Make sure paraprofessional has own mailbox
• When and how does paraprofessional receive paycheck?
• Procedures for calling in sick (note: these aren’t the same as for teachers)
• Use of copy machine and other equipment
• How can paraprofessional get office or classroom supplies when needed?

Staff amenities
• Note the location of restrooms.
• Note the location of staff room.
• Is there anything the paraprofessional should know about using microwave, coffee machine or refrigerator?
• Note the location of telephones; explain how to dial out; explain policies regarding making or receiving phone calls and making long distance calls.
• When will paraprofessional’s lunchtime be? How long?
• Note location of staff parking.

• Introduce paraprofessional to kitchen staff.
• Explain (or arrange for kitchen staff to explain) how children go through the breakfast and lunch lines, including policies on choices, seconds, etc.
• Can staff buy lunch? How, when, and how much does it cost?

• Explain layout of grade levels
• Stop into some of the other classrooms, as time allows, to introduce the paraprofessional to other teachers and look around

• Introduce paraprofessional to library staff
• Arrange for library staff to explain library operations including:
o How books and other library materials are organized
o Book sign-out procedures for students and staff
o Policies regarding student and staff use of computers
o Reservation and operation of audiovisual equipment
o How to get an (optional) email account
o How to enroll in (optional) technology workshops

Art room, Music room, Gym
• Introduce paraprofessional to specialist teachers
• If paraprofessional will be attending specials with child, arrange for specialist to:
o Provide relevant information about routines, materials and expectations.
o Discuss how paraprofessional can support child during the special.
o Discuss ways that paraprofessional and specialist can communicate about the child, as needed.

• Is paraprofessional responsible for the child with disabilities at recess or for general playground supervision? (This may need to be clarified by the principal and/or the CSE team, based on the child’s IEP and needs.)
• Arrange for an experienced playground supervisor to explain:
o Playground rules, procedures, and safety issues
o What to do if a child gets hurt
o Handling of conflicts, teasing, bullying, racial slurs, etc.


This part of the orientation is an important place for the special education teacher to be involved in the paraprofessional’s orientation. S/he brings important knowledge and insight about students and will likely be a key person who works intensively with the one-to-one student, in addition to the classroom teacher and paraprofessional.
Observation and introduction
• If at all possible, the paraprofessional should be given an opportunity to observe the student and the classroom for a period of time without having responsibilities.
• Introduce the paraprofessional to the students (please see Getting off to a Good Start, page 2.) Here are some questions for the paraprofessional to consider as s/he observes the one-to-one student, and to then discuss with classroom and special education teachers:
o What are the one-to-one student’s interests?
o How does the student make friends and relate to classmates?
o What are the student’s strengths and talents?
o How is the student similar to her/his classmates? How is s/he different?
o What seems to trigger frustration or anger?
o What seems to calm him/her?
o How does the student get help when needed?
o During what activities can the student perform independently?
o What tasks are difficult for him/her?
o Look at samples of the student’s work (drawings, writing, reading responses, math); note which parts were done independently and which were done with help.

Learning about the student’s disability (For information about specific disabilities, see Appendices I and II)
• Reminder: this child is, first and foremost, a child like any other child!
• Give a brief explanation of the disability
o What is the student’s disability called? Are there other terms for it?
o What is the student’s classification for educational purposes?
o What areas of development, functioning and behavior are typically affected by this disability?
o How are this student’s development, functioning and behavior affected by the disability?
o What are the probable causes of the disability, if known.
• Review recent reports from teachers and specialists regarding student’s special needs and ways to address those needs.
• Talk about ways for paraprofessional to learn more about the specific disability. How are your expectations of this student the same as for other children? How are they different?
• What have been each of your personal experiences with disabilities and how have they influenced your attitudes and assumptions?

Encouraging the student’s independence (See Fostering Independence.)
• Discuss the importance of fostering independence.
• When should adults step in and help?
• Who should step in and help? Make clear that teachers will share the task of providing help.
• How much help should be given? What kind of help? Talk about the difference between helping and doing a task for a student.
• Talk about ways to encourage independence.

Brief Overview of the Special Education System
(See also The Right to an Education.)
• Explain the composition and role of the Committee on Special Education (CSE)
• What does it mean to be “classified”?
• How are services delivered?
The Individual Education Plan (IEP)
(See Planning a Classified Student’s Education Program.)
Make sure the paraprofessional has free access to the IEP or has a copy of his/her own and a secure place to keep it.
• Together, glance quickly over the whole IEP document, noticing the headings
• Note the date the IEP begins and ends.
• If there is anything written under “special alerts”, discuss the nature of the potential problem, action that must be taken, and who is responsible for each step.
o It is of critical importance that the paraprofessional understands what the special alert is for.
o If the student is prone to destructive or violent behavior, review her behavior plan, which spells out under what conditions the behavior is likely to occur and strategies for addressing it.
o If a medical need is involved, arrange time with the school nurse or appropriate specialist for the paraprofessional to be trained to recognize the problem and take appropriate action.
o Make sure emergency phone numbers are in a prominent location and that any special equipment is accessible.
• Go to IEP section entitled “Recommended Programs and Services”
o Note which special ed and related services the student receives.
o Is it specified which activities and times of day the student requires one-to-one assistance?
o Determine, with each service provider, if the paraprofessional should attend related services sessions regularly, periodically, or not at all to assist the student or learn techniques.
• Look over the rest of the IEP together, up to the “Goals” section.
o Under “Educational Achievement and Learning Characteristics”, briefly review what the child was able to do at the time the IEP was written.
o Note and discuss what the child’s learning style is and what strategies have been found to be successful in teaching him/her.
o Review information on the child’s social and physical development and management needs. Note what program supports are recommended.

IEP Goals
• It’s important for paraprofessionals, as well as teachers, to understand and remember the child’s IEP goals. They should be the foundation on which planning and decision-making about the child’s program are based.
• If possible, arrange a time for service providers (speech therapist, OT, etc) to explain their goals for the child and how the para can reinforce those goals during the course of the school day.
• Remember that IEP goals run from the date of the IEP meeting to the next IEP meeting, a year later.
• Describe briefly how the child’s progress is assessed and reported during the school year.


Please refer to THE ABCs OF WORKING IN A REGULAR CLASSROOM, for information on regular classroom practices.

“A place of one’s own”
• Designate a shelf, bin, drawer or other space where paraprofessional can keep belongings, papers, and teaching materials; also a place to hang coat and put boots.

Classroom routines (Activities and what they’re called will vary by classroom and
grade level. The following are examples, to be customized to fit your classroom.)
• Go over the daily routine and weekly schedule.
• What happens when children arrive in the morning? Talk about greeting children, sign-in, morning work, breakfast, choices, expectations, etc.
• Explain attendance procedures.
• Go over fire drill and other emergency procedures.
• Discuss routines for each part of the day--expectations for children; what role will the paraprofessional play?
o Morning meeting (or equivalent), calendar, etc.
o Reading workshop routine
o Writing workshop
o Math routine
o Share time (“show and tell”)
o Lunch and recess
o Science routine
o Social studies routine
o Gym, art, music, library
o Dismissal and buses

Activity areas and materials
• What takes place in each area of the room?
• How are supplies and materials organized? What materials do students have free access to?
• How can paraprofessional help maintain the order of the classroom?
• If you have any “sacred” area(s) that you want for your exclusive use (desktop, certain shelves or bins), be tactful and clear in asking the paraprofessional to respect your wishes.

Classroom management
• Go over your classroom management goals and philosophy.
• Review confidentiality issues.
• Discuss the need for discretion in talking about students in their presence.
• Review issues regarding appropriate and inappropriate use of touch and force (this, along with confidentiality, are routinely covered by principal but merit review).
• Discuss respect for differences in ethnicity, race, gender, class and abilities.
• How do you get your class to stop and listen? (“freeze”? lights out? bell?)
• Motivating children to cooperate
• Pro-active intervention
• What consequences do you impose when students fail to cooperate?
• How do you handle conflicts among students?
• What role do you want the paraprofessional to play in classroom management?
• A frequent cause of tension between teachers and paraprofessionals stems from differences in personal philosophy regarding behavior management. Discuss any differences you may have, the reasons for them, and how to reconcile those differences! The ultimate decisions are up to the teacher but it is wise to talk about this sometimes-divisive issue.


We all know someone with a disability, either in our family, our workplace, or our community. Some disabilities are easy to see, as when someone uses a wheelchair, a hearing aid, or a white cane. Others aren’t visible, but still interfere with the person’s ability to perform certain tasks.

Children with disabilities are just like other children in most ways. They have feelings, interests, and needs that are very much like those of their non-disabled classmates. They like to play, they want to have friends, and they love to succeed.

As educators, we can help children with disabilities by giving them our acceptance and support, while encouraging them to do their best work and become increasingly independent. We do not help them by feeling sorry for them or allowing them to become too dependent on us.

What is a disability?
A disability is a physical, mental or emotional condition that prevents a person from performing the tasks of daily living without special help or accommodation. (Please see Appendices I and II for resources and definitions of specific disabilities.)

When it comes to education, the law states that a disability must interfere with the student’s educational performance in order for the student to be identified as having an educational disability and be eligible for special services and programs.

Terms, such as “exceptional”, “handicapped”, or “special needs” have also been used to describe people with disabilities. The term “person with a disability” is currently favored because it emphasizes the person first, and the disability second.

What causes disabilities?
Disabilities may result from a variety of causes including inherited disorders, illnesses, prenatal drug or alcohol exposure, lack of oxygen at birth, or injuries received in an accident, to name just a few. The causes of many disabilities, however, aren’t known or well understood.

What happens when children with disabilities grow up?
With the support and encouragement of those around them, children with disabilities can grow up to be confident and productive adults. Many successful adults, including famous people such as Tom Cruise and Stevie Wonder, have learned to use their strengths and compensate for their limitations, and now have satisfying lives, careers and families of their own.

Special equipment such as computers and motorized wheelchairs make it possible for more and more adults with disabilities to live and work independently. A law called the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers make “reasonable accommodations” in the workplace to allow disabled workers to be able to do their jobs.

Sometimes, adults with disabilities benefit from work environments that are supervised and tailored to their special needs, such as those provided through Challenge Industries or Goodwill.


There are many effective ways of helping students with disabilities reach their potential, academically and socially. Methods vary from school to school and from classroom to classroom. There are no formulas guaranteed to work for all students. Each child is different.

Finding what works for a particular child requires getting to know him or her as an individual, and using sound educational principles, combined with experience, trial-and-error and instinct, to find what works best for that child.

It is important to recognize that we cannot expect to “fix” a disability. Our goal as educators is to help children develop positive self-images and achieve to the best of their abilities.

On the following pages, you will find tips for using some of the best teaching practices in special education, compiled from advice solicited from special education teachers. While this section focuses on special education practice, you’ll find that many of the methods will also benefit the non-disabled students in the classroom.

Because special education and classroom teachers are responsible for lesson planning, many of the practices recommended below will already be incorporated into the lessons that you are assigned to teach (teaching assistants) or supervise (aides).

Tips for Teaching Students With Disabilities

• Reduce distractions.
• Start with what the child knows and feels successful at.
• Build new skills and confidence by going from what the child knows, to slightly new material that builds on that knowledge.
• Break new tasks into small steps.
• Teach one step at a time—don’t present too much new information at one time.
• Establish a routine of practicing recently learned skills before going on to new material. Keep coming back to previously learned skills to keep them active.
• Use short, clear directions.
• Don’t assume the child has background knowledge or understanding unless you’ve seen her demonstrate it.
• Children learn by doing. Use concrete materials. Allow free exploration as well as directed use of materials.
• Show what you mean with examples and models.
• Help the child experience new learning through different senses—hearing, seeing, feeling, moving, even smelling or tasting. (This is called a multi-sensory approach.)
• Use meaningful rhymes, songs, pictures, and gestures to help the child learn and remember new material.
• Take advantage of the child’s interests and strongest learning modes, whenever possible.
• Encourage risk-taking when it comes to trying new tasks.
• Praise the child’s thinking, effort, and progress.
• Give the child lots of feedback: tell him what you notice about his effort, understanding of the material, and growth.
• Focus on the positive.
• Use the child’s mistakes to help you understand what he knows and what he needs to work on.
• Allow “think time”, even when you’re working with a group.

Fostering Independence

One of the overall goals of education is to help children learn the skills they need to become happy, self-sufficient adults. While they need help and support as they develop, we want to encourage them to be as independent as possible.

The same should be true for students with disabilities. We don’t want to give them (or their classmates) the message that we see them as helpless and dependent.

Below are some suggestions for paraprofessionals to help foster the one-to-one student’s independence. Specific strategies need to be worked out together with the classroom and special education teachers.

• Assign tasks that offer challenge but that are within the student’s reach.
• Give simple, clear directions.
• Provide student with tools such as checklists to keep track of the steps he has completed.
• Step back and let student do as much as possible independently, even if it’s not done perfectly.
• Step in to provide only the help and guidance that seems necessary.
• Keep an eye on the student from a short distance—be alert to his needs but avoid hovering!
• Avoid giving the student (or his classmates) the impression that you are “attached” to him, or available to serve his every wish.
• Allow the student to take reasonable risks and to learn from mistakes.
• Be sure to interact with other students; make room for other adults to interact with the one-to-one student.
• Allow the student to speak for himself; don’t speak for him.

Helping Students Stay Focused

Distractibility is a common obstacle to learning for many students. Here are some ways to help students stay “tuned in” and on task:
• Establish a predictable routine.
• Vary activities to include movement, hands-on learning, and breaks.
• Increase work time gradually, based on previous success
• Use materials that are interesting and matched to the child’s level.
• Teach the child to respond to cues that you can use as reminders to refocus. Examples: a tap on the shoulder or the desk; an eye signal; a word.
• Try using a timer to encourage sustained attention to tasks.
• Reward the child with praise or privileges for staying focused and completing tasks.
• Reduce the distractions caused by too much noise, too much to look at or touch, and too many people to relate to. Ways to reduce noise distractions include:
• Seeking out a quiet corner of the classroom.
• Establishing an expectation of soft voices or a quiet work environment in the classroom.
• Taking the child to a quiet space away from the classroom occasionally for individual or small group instruction.
• Taking small group(s) of other children out of the classroom for some instructional periods.

• Keep work space free of visual distractions by keeping it:
• Neat and organized
• Free of unnecessary materials
• Facing away from busy areas
• Near uncluttered walls

• Ways to reduce social distractions:
• Work with the student in a small group.
• Try to group the student with classmates who are good role models.
• Make clear your expectation that all students listen and follow directions.

• Ways to reduce the impulse to touch things:
o Pass out books and materials only when it’s time to use the materials--after you have given directions or introduced a book.
o Some children benefit from having something to keep their fingers or mouths busy while they listen.
Examples: a safe necklace to chew on, or a piece of play dough to manipulate.
o If necessary, avoid materials that are too stimulating.

Handling Negative Behaviors

Behavior is a form of communication. There are reasons for the ways children act. With negative behaviors, students are often trying, consciously or unconsciously, to tell us something. They may be frustrated, lonely, or jealous; they may not have the words to express what they feel; someone may have “wronged” them and they lack the skills or self-control to respond appropriately.

Just because there may be an understandable reason for a student’s behavior, however, doesn’t mean the behavior should be allowed to continue. Trying to understand what is behind a student’s negative behaviors helps in finding ways to reduce or eliminate the behaviors.

Part of our job as educators is to help students learn to recognize their feelings, control impulses, and develop appropriate ways to express their feelings and solve problems.

Feelings are a very individual matter. There’s nothing wrong with anger, sadness, or frustration. Everybody feels them at times. The problems arise when people express their feelings in inappropriate ways.

Here are some tips to help you deal with inappropriate behavior:

• Stay calm.
• Don’t take any outburst, even if it’s against you, as a personal affront.
• Show the child that you are in control of yourself even if she is not. This is also reassuring to other children in the class.
• Learn how the classroom teacher handles such situations and try to be consistent. If your personal style is very different from that of the classroom teacher, discuss it with her/him to find a solution that is comfortable for both of you.
• Speak in a firm voice.
• Communicate in a short, clear and direct way; don’t lecture or yell.
• Separate the child from the situation or remove other children or materials from where the child is.
• If another child is injured, find help to attend to that child’s needs.
• Give the child a chance to calm down. Having her count to ten or take deep breaths may help. Use a “time-out” chair or area.
• Remind the child that you won’t let anyone hurt her and you won’t let her hurt anybody else.
• Show that you still care about her but you don’t like the behavior.
• Try to get the child to tell you what the problem is. Listen carefully.
• If other children are directly involved in the situation, listen to each of them separately.
• Help child problem-solve to find a more appropriate way to deal with the problem.
• When she’s ready, have her express the feelings that caused the outburst in an appropriate way.
• Give her the words to use if she can’t find them herself.
• Don’t use any form of physical force unless you are trained and authorized to do so.

Sometimes it seems as though students are being willfully uncooperative or not trying hard enough. Before you make such an assumption, consider whether the student may be truly unable to do what is asked because of her disability.
Example: Lucy is a 4th grader with learning disabilities. She has difficulty focusing and processing verbal information. Her writing skills are below grade level. As the teacher gives directions for a writing assignment, Lucy plays with her shoelace. Other students begin work right away but Lucy starts drawing in her notebook instead. Is Lucy being uncooperative? Has she failed to understand the instructions? Is this task simply too hard for her?


If you were a child with a moderate disability before the 1970’s, you might have found yourself educated in a church basement, or segregated from other children in a special school. Or, you might have been excluded from school altogether, or expected to live in a State institution, away from your family and “the outside world”.

If you had a mild disability, you would probably have been expected to perform at school without extra help or services. You may have been considered a troublemaker because your teachers thought you just weren’t trying. You might have become so frustrated when you weren’t successful in school that you acted out in inappropriate ways.

Over the years, parents of children with disabilities, outraged by the absence of educational opportunities for their children, joined forces to insist on fair treatment. Because of their determined efforts, a series of laws were passed by Congress, beginning in the mid- 1970s, that gave children with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive environment that meets their needs.

According to law, students with suspected disabilities must be observed and evaluated, and then classified, if appropriate, by a Committee on Special Education (CSE). This committee then writes an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which describes the child’s needs, the services they recommend, and goals for the next 12 months. The terms presented here are explained below.

This guide tries to avoid using initials and professional lingo. The exceptions are IEP (Individual Education Plan) and CSE (Committee on Special Education), both of which are explained in the following pages. Because service providers usually use initials to refer to them, paraprofessionals should learn to recognize what they mean.

The following pages explain the terms and the process that schools use to decide if a child has an educational disability and to get services for him or her.

-Determining classroom placement

What does “least restrictive environment” mean?
Students with disabilities must, to the greatest extent possible, be in the same schools and the same classes as other children their age. The school must provide services and supports to help children with disabilities succeed in regular classrooms.

Educational services that take students away from this mainstream setting are considered “restrictive”, and are only approved when less restrictive choices fail to meet their needs.

Here are some of the possible placements for students with disabilities, along a line from the least restrictive to the most restrictive:
Least restrictive
Regular class
Regular class with “related services”
Regular class with supplementary aids and services (includes one-to-one paraprofessionals)
Regular class with consultant teacher
Regular class with resource room program
Special class
Special day school
Residential school
Most restrictive

What is “mainstreaming”?
Mainstreaming means placing students with disabilities in regular classes alongside non-disabled students of approximately the same age.

For the most part, the goals for mainstreamed children are the same as for their classmates, but they may receive extra help and have tasks and assignments modified to help them reach those goals.
Example: Travis is a first grader with autism. He has difficulty with language and abstract concepts. His class will be doing a math unit on identifying and sorting objects by different “attributes” (color, shape, hard/soft, smooth/bumpy, light/heavy). In anticipation of this unit, his special ed teacher pre-teaches the concepts and vocabulary he will need to know in order to be successful when the unit is taught in his classroom, and gives him some advance practice in sorting by attribute.

What is “inclusion”?
When a child can’t realistically be expected to achieve the same goals as the non-disabled children in the class, but can still benefit from placement in a regular classroom, the CSE might decide to include the child in a regular classroom but have her work on different goals while doing activities similar to other students.
Example: Lauren is a first grader with developmental delays who is learning her colors. Her classmates’ math activity is to sort objects by different “attributes”. Lauren participates in the same activity, but sorts the objects by color only and practices naming the colors.

Wouldn’t children with disabilities be better off in special classes where the teacher can slow things down and teach easier material?
Educating students with disabilities in regular classrooms has many advantages.
When they are around non-disabled classmates, children with disabilities are often motivated to work hard and try to do what they see others doing. With extra help and some modifications, they can be successful and see themselves as competent learners.

Children learn a great deal from one another. A child with language delays, for example, learns far more language conversing with typical children than from other language-delayed children.

Non-disabled students can be good models for social skills, work habits, and problem solving skills as well.

Children with disabilities who are educated alongside their non-disabled peers are more likely to be prepared to live in the world outside of school than those who have been sheltered from it.

Regular classrooms are not the best placement for all children. Special education classes provide the appropriate level of service for some children. The pace, content and expectations of instruction can be tailored specifically to the needs of the students with disabilities. Students may be spared the frustration that can sometimes come from constantly comparing themselves to typical peers.

Students in special education classrooms may be mainstreamed or included in regular classrooms for certain activities such as music, lunch or gym.

What about the effects on the non-disabled students in the class?
There are many benefits for non-disabled students, as well. While students with disabilities have limitations in some areas, they also have strengths and talents that enrich the class community.

With good modeling from their teachers, non-disabled peers will learn to accept differences, appreciate people’s strengths and be supportive friends and helpers.

Thanks to Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, educators now recognize that there are many ways that people can be intelligent. Not all ways are measured on standard IQ tests. People who have great difficulties in some areas may be average or strong in others.

Gardner describes eight different kinds of intelligences:
o Linguistic
o Mathematical
o Musical
o Spatial
o Bodily-kinesthetic (athletes, dancers)
o Interpersonal (understanding others)
o Intrapersonal (understanding self)
o Naturalist

A word of caution: Sometimes, in an effort to be helpful, classmates do too much for students with disabilities. They may even “baby” them. This kind of treatment discourages independence and portrays the students as younger and less capable. Classmates should instead be encouraged to treat disabled students as equals, while making reasonable allowances.

-Deciding if an educational disability is present

Who decides if a student has a disability?
A team called the Committee on Special Education (CSE) is responsible for deciding if a student has a disability for educational purposes. School-based CSE subcommittees make decisions for many students with disabilities. However, students who require one-to-one paraprofessional support are usually referred to the District Committee on Special Education, or DCSE, which meets at the District Board of Education building.

At the preschool level, the team is called the Committee on Preschool Special Education, or CPSE.

The CSE is made up of a regular and a special education teacher, usually those who actually work with the student in question; specialists such as speech or occupational therapists; a school psychologist; and the child’s parents or guardians. A parent advocate, social worker, physician and/or other outside specialist may also be asked to attend.

It is also appropriate for one-to-one paraprofessionals to attend CSE meetings. The para’s presence at the meeting allows her/him to benefit from the reports, information and discussions that take place regarding the one-to-one student, and to add information as appropriate. Funds to cover a substitute for the paraprofessional during this meeting time can be requested through the Office of Special Education.

Professionals who work with the student give oral reports and submit written reports at the meeting. Paraprofessionals can provide valuable information and insights about the child but no formal report is required. The meetings run on a tight schedule so it is important for all participants to keep comments short and concise.

The CSE reviews information from reports, work samples, observations and evaluations. If the committee agrees that there is a disability that interferes with the child’s educational performance, they classify the student and decide what services to recommend.

What does it mean to “classify” a student?
To classify is to determine that a child has a disability for educational purposes. If the child is a preschooler, he or she is simply called “a preschool child with a disability”.

If the child is in grades K-12, the CSE must decide what category of disability, or classification, fits the child. Here are the possible disability classifications, as stated in the education laws.

o Deaf
o Hearing Impaired
o Visually Impaired (includes Blind)
o Deaf-Blind
o Autistic
o Learning Disabled
o Mentally Retarded
o Emotionally Disturbed
o Multiply Disabled
o Other Health Impaired
o Traumatic Brain Injury

-Planning a classified student’s education program

What is an IEP?
Once a child is classified as having a disability, the next step is for the Committee on Special Education to set educational goals for the coming year and plan an education program that will help the child achieve those goals.

To accomplish this task, the law requires the CSE to write a document called an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for the child. The IEP includes the following information (See sample IEP forms, Appendix III.)
• General information—includes date of birth, dominant language, and special alerts that staff must be aware of (All staff should know how to respond to special alert matters!)
• Classification, placement and services recommended for the child by the CSE for next 12 months.
• Information on the child’s current academic and social abilities, needs and learning styles; and on physical development and medical needs.
• Reasons why the placement options on the “least restrictive environment” continuum were chosen or rejected.
• Testing modifications (changes to the way the child can be given tests to enable the child to show what s/he knows).
• Goals for the child’s education over the next 12 months.

What kinds of placements and services are possible?
The CSE can recommend placements and services from among a variety of possibilities if they determine they are needed for a student.

Special education services
• Consultant teacher—a special education teacher consults with the classroom teacher and others regarding ways to support the student in the classroom. S/he may also work directly with one or more students in the classroom, co-teaching with the regular education teacher. This service is for a minimum of 2 hours per week.
• Resource room—a special education teacher works directly with the student, usually in a small group, for at least three hours per week, either in the regular classroom or in a separate space. (Resource room is a service, not necessarily a place).
• Special class—students are taught by a special education teacher in a separate classroom with other special education students. This may be for a single subject or many. Reading can be taught by a reading teacher. The students are usually mainstreamed or included in a regular classroom for at least part of the day.
• Special school or residential school.

“Related services” include the following:
• One-to-one teaching assistant, one-to-one aide or program aide
• Speech therapy
• Occupational therapy (OT) or Physical therapy (PT)
• Counseling
• Teacher of the Blind, Visually Impaired, Deaf, or Hearing Impaired
• Adaptive Physical Education (APE)
• Adaptive Technology

Special Equipment
• Access to a computer, spellchecker or adaptive technology.
• Use of equipment such as communication boards, magnifiers, or modified chairs and tables.

Testing modifications
• Includes changes for the student during testing such as extra time, small group, separate location and others.
• Allows the student to demonstrate knowledge in ways that aren’t impeded by the disability.
Example: a student with limited muscle control may be permitted to use a computer keyboard or to dictate answers, rather than write the answers out long hand as other students must do.
• Must be provided if they appear on the IEP
• Can be supervised by a TA or aide under the supervision of a teacher.

Annual Goals
This part of the IEP describes the educational goals for the student over the next 12 months. It tells who will assess progress toward each goal and how it will be determined whether the goal has been achieved.


What Teachers Do, Why They Do It and How Paraprofessionals Can Help

If you are a paraprofessional working in a regular elementary classroom for the first time, you are probably wondering where to begin learning all the things you need to know. A lot has changed since you were an elementary student!

If you have worked in classrooms before, you have a good start. One of your challenges will be to adjust to the style and methods of a teacher you haven’t worked with before.

Either way, this section of the guide will help you learn the basics of working in a regular elementary classroom. Your role will include helping the one-to-one child participate as fully as possible in the regular classroom, as well as working with and supervising other students (See Roles and Responsibilities).

By understanding what teachers do and why they do it, you will be better prepared to reinforce classroom routines and expectations.

Because a wide variety of philosophies and styles guide teachers in determining how to run their classrooms, only a broad overview of teaching practices is possible here. You will have to be a keen observer of the teacher’s style and, for the sake of consistency, follow the teacher’s model. Make sure to ask questions when you aren’t sure about something.

The following pages describe four basic building blocks that teachers use to create vibrant, thriving learning environments in their classrooms:

Building a classroom community
Classroom management
Motivating students to learn
Teaching academic skills

-Building a Community of Learners

One of the first things classroom teachers do at the start of a new school year is to begin building a sense of community in the classroom. This group of students and teachers will spend close to a thousand hours together over the next ten months! It is essential that they learn to “live” together peacefully and productively.

Teachers set the tone for community building in the classroom. Through a variety of activities, they help students learn:
• Empathy and caring
• The importance of honesty and trust
• Respect for individual differences, and
• Principles of fairness and justice.

Some educators call this work “character development”. It continues throughout the school year.

A classroom community where children feel safe and respected not only allows students to thrive emotionally and academically. It also teaches them skills that will benefit them as adults in their families, communities and workplaces. Many community-building activities also teach math, reading, writing, social studies and science.

Appreciating Differences
Children can be wonderfully accepting of one another in classrooms where everyone feels like a valued member and tolerance is taught.
Teachers foster these values by creating opportunities for children to:
• Learn one another’s names, interests, commonalities and differences.
• Learn about and appreciate different family structures (children raised by single parents, two parents, adoptive parents, grandparents or other relatives, gay or lesbian parents, or foster parents).
• Understand and celebrate differences in cultures, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and national origins, among others.
• Understand that different people have different strengths.

Some activities that promote understanding and appreciation of students’ own identities and those of others include:
• Self-portraits, body outlines, puppets
• Graphs showing data such as students’ heights, birthdates, favorite foods, etc. (also teaches math)
• Literature about families and cultures, both similar and different from students’ own (also teaches listening, reading comprehension, and critical thinking).
• Personal family stories, pictures, interviews, recipes (also teaches research and writing skills)
• Study units on countries of origin and immigration (also teaches social studies)

-Helping students develop empathy

Students learn to understand and care about the feelings of others by:
• Watching those around them;
• Feeling that they are cared about;
• Exposure to the vast choice of children’s literature that explores empathy and feelings;
• Participating in any of the wide range of educational programs designed to teach empathy and social skills (Examples: Second Step or Responsive Classroom). If one of these programs is in use in a classroom, the paraprofessional can ask to see the teacher’s guide and materials to learn more about it.

-Helping students settle conflicts

The causes of conflict among children aren’t always as obvious as they seem. Only by listening to both sides does a picture begin to emerge; sometimes, it is impossible (and unnecessary) to determine who did what to whom and why.

Teachers differ in the ways they handle conflicts among students, so paraprofessionals will need to observe and ask questions. Some situations require an adult to step in and act decisively. For example, incidents of violence, threats, bullying, racism/bias, or unacceptable language should be handled in a manner agreed upon in advance by the adults in charge. (See Appendix V for information on bullying.)

When possible, however, adults can help children learn to solve their own conflicts rather than having solutions imposed on them. This helps the children learn, over time, how to settle their conflicts independently.

Here are some general rules of thumb to follow when dealing with conflicts among children:
• Don’t make any assumptions about who started it.
• Listen impartially to both sides, one at a time.
• Allow “cool down” time, if needed.
• Don’t get bogged down in the question of who’s to blame.
• Encourage both sides to suggest solutions to the problem.
• Help them find a solution they can both agree to.

Some schools have conflict management programs where students are taught to be conflict managers for their peers. Ithaca teacher Marilyn Ewing wrote a useful training guide for one such program called Build Me a House. Selected materials from the guide appear, with the author’s permission, in Appendix V.

-Classroom Management


Most children thrive on structure and predictable routines. They find it comforting to know what will happen next and what’s expected of them.

Structure doesn’t necessarily mean students sit in neat rows of desks, working quietly. Hands-on activities, cooperative projects and student choice can all be part of a lively structured learning environment.

Below are some of the things teachers do to create structure in their classrooms. Paraprofessionals can help by learning the classroom routines and expectations and supporting the teacher to keep them running smoothly.

• Set, communicate, and post clear expectations for student behavior.
• Students may be involved in deciding rules of behavior.
• Establish and post a regular schedule of activities for each day.
• Prepare students ahead of time for changes in routines.
• Establish routines and expectations for each regular activity
Example: For writing workshop, children might sit quietly while writing folders are passed out, then go to assigned seat, open folder, reread previous day’s entry and spend remainder of time adding to it.
• Allow students to make choices within a set framework
Example: Students can choose which animal to research, and can show what they’ve learned about the animal by writing a report, a “newspaper article”, or a letter to a friend about the animal`.
• Unstructured choice and play times are “structured” into the school day. They give children opportunities to relax, have fun, learn through play, gain experience in relating to others, and learn to solve conflicts with increasing independence.
• Keep materials neat and orderly when not in use so everyone can find them when needed. Paraprofessionals can help by reminding children to put things away and by helping restore the classroom to order periodically during the school day.


As educators, we are delighted when children become deeply engaged in learning activities. We wish they could continue as long as they want to. But the realities of teaching large numbers of students and fitting in all we need to teach them usually means interrupting their work or play and moving on to the next scheduled activity.

Transitions (the process of stopping one task and moving on to the next one) can be difficult for some children. Many of the unwanted behaviors that occur in classrooms arise during transitions.

Below are some elements of classroom management that teachers use to make transitions easier for students. To ensure consistency, paraprofessionals should follow the teacher’s model in helping the class make smooth transitions.

• Follow the routine so children know what to expect next.
• Establish routines and expectations for each transition.
• Establish a signal that means stop and listen. Important note: when students are told to stop and listen, all adults in the classroom should do so as well!
Example: Turn off the lights, ring a bell, or ask children to “freeze”.
• Give a five-minute warning that period is almost over.
• For children who have a particularly hard time with transitions, give them a personal warning that time is almost up, or give them a special job to do that leads into the next activity.
Example: Give the student the job of passing out the reading folders, turning off the lights for an announcement, or getting the book that the teacher will read aloud.
• Try to understand why particular children resist transitions.
Examples: Fear of failure in next activity; fear of being excluded from a group; difficulty making choices when they’re offered.
• Make sure everyone puts away the materials they were using.
• If necessary to maintain order, have children go one at a time or in small groups to next activity.

-Pro-Active Intervention

The best way to deal with problem behaviors is to be pro-active and prevent them from happening in the first place.
Example: Teaching assistant Ms. Greene knows that her one-to-one kindergarten student, Jessica, has a pattern of hitting or biting a classmate when she is frustrated with her own artwork. The classroom teacher planned an art activity that he and Mrs. Greene felt Jessica could do, but Ms. Greene noticed Jessica showing signs of frustration. To prevent the problem from escalating, she walked over and complimented Jessica’s use of colors, then sat next to her to encourage her further.

-Fostering Cooperation

One goal in helping young people become independent is to help them develop internal controls, or self control that they exercise because they choose to. Teaching good self-control is a major objective of community building. It benefits the whole classroom community and carries over to the world outside the classroom.

Children are more likely to choose to cooperate when they:
• Feel respect for and feel respected by adults in authority.
• Have a role in deciding the rules.
• Are taught to understand and care about how others feel.
• Understand that everyone benefits from an environment that is safe, fair, caring and tolerant.

If adults are overpowering and forceful, children obey out of fear of punishment. They may resent the adult’s controls, but follow them to avoid getting into trouble. When they are taught to obey solely out of fear, children are responding to the external control placed on them by the adults. Unfortunately, these children may then seize opportunities to break the rules when no one is looking. Also, external control becomes more difficult to maintain as children grow bigger and more independent.

Helping students gradually develop self-control gives them an important life-long skill.

-When All Else Fails

There will be times when, despite all your efforts and those of the classroom teacher, children will lose control of themselves and engage in behavior that is totally unacceptable. They may direct hurtful behavior against themselves, other students, against you, or school materials.

For children to be ready to learn, their minds must first be clear of worries, fears and distractions to the greatest extent possible. If the behavior of some students is “out of control” and students are getting hurt physically or emotionally, the classroom is not a safe environment. Classroom teachers must take steps to bring the classroom back into balance, sometimes in consultation with a school support team. Paraprofessionals can help by offering ideas and by helping to carry out solutions.

For tips on dealing with difficult behaviors, please see Handling Negative Behaviors.


“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”

Educators are only too familiar with the truth of this old-as-the-hills saying. Lessons, textbooks, and activities are useless if students aren’t motivated to learn.

Most teachers devote enormous effort to instilling a love of learning in their students. Part of their job is to create lessons and provide materials that are interesting and motivating for all students. Producers of books and educational materials help make this task easier, but it is up to the teacher to tailor lessons to the needs and interests of their students.

-Success is a Powerful Motivator!

Everybody feels good when they succeed at a challenge. One of the greatest motivations for students to learn is the feeling that they can tackle something new and succeed at it.

Good educators introduce new skills in small enough “bites” and with strong enough support so that students can learn them without becoming frustrated and discouraged.

Paraprofessionals can help by offering children praise and encouragement, and by following best practices in helping children learn. (See Tips for Teaching Students with Disabilities, for ideas on helping students become successful learners).

-Planning High-Interest Lessons

Below are some factors teachers consider as they plan lessons that motivate students:
• What are the interests of the students?
• How can students’ curiosity be channeled?
• What curriculum areas need to be covered?
• What are the special needs of students in the group?
• Can students relate new material to something in their own lives?
• Are the materials appealing?
• How can lessons be designed to accommodate different learning styles?
Example: Mr. Yale gives his fourth grade students a choice of how they will demonstrate what they have learned from their research projects. They can write a report, do a skit, write a song, or make a poster, video or board game.

Paraprofessionals can help by:
• Projecting an attitude of excitement about the subject matter
• Noticing the interests of one-to-one students and what motivates them.
• Contributing ideas to help in planning.

Sometimes, various interests and curricular areas can be incorporated into one unit of study.
For example, some of Ms. Rubin’s second graders had an interest in learning about the rainforest; others wanted to learn about a foreign country. Ms. McCarty, a paraprofessional who worked in Ms Rubin’s classroom that year, is a native of Thailand. Several students were also from Southeast Asia. When Ms. Rubin suggested that they study Thailand, her students enthusiastically embraced the idea. Among the many things they learned about in this unit were geography, animals and plants of the Thai rainforest, and Thai food, language and culture.

-Other Positive Ways to Motivate Students

In addition to creating fun and interesting lessons, teachers draw from a bag of incentives that help keep students focused and productive.

Paraprofessionals can help by following the teacher’s lead and being consistent in following through; or, by devising their own ways of motivating students, provided the teacher is comfortable with them.

A few commonly used incentives are listed below:
• Praise and encouragement
• Positive feedback
• Teaching students to “pat themselves on the back” for work well done.
• Allowing students to work for special privileges
• Charts showing finished work
• Stickers, stars, and other token rewards

While it’s always best to use positive means to motivate students, there are times when negative consequences are necessary. These often take the form of lost privileges.

-Teaching Academic Skills

One of the main “jobs” of students is to learn reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, social studies and science. The three areas discussed above—establishing a sense of community in the classroom; effective classroom management; and motivating students to learn—are crucial elements that help ready students for this job. Effective teaching strategies help turn that readiness into accomplishment.

As with other areas of teaching, there are a wide variety of approaches to teaching academic skills. Most classrooms focus on each academic area at a regular time each day, and also incorporate them into activities throughout the day.

Classroom reading programs are designed to impart a love of literature as well as the skills needed to read, understand and discuss a variety of fiction and non-fiction texts.
• A balanced reading program includes
o Listening to and discussing stories
o Shared reading (reading aloud together), especially in primary classrooms
o Guided reading (small groups)
o Learning and practicing a variety of strategies to figure out new words (sight words, sounding out, prediction, using pictures and context).
• Some teachers use textbooks and workbooks to teach basic skills.
• Others find or create materials that incorporate academic skills into unified themes, such as the rainforest example given above.
• Some teachers use basal readers or programmed instruction to teach reading.
• Others prefer to use multiple-copy trade books, leveled according to the increasing difficulty of the text.
• “Guided reading” groups permit teachers to group students by reading level for efficient instruction.
• Many teachers use a combination of different methods.

• The goal of teaching students to write is to enable them to communicate thoughts and ideas on paper for a variety of purposes such as writing personal stories, reports, letters, persuasive essays, fiction and poetry.
• Students are also taught the “mechanics” of writing, such as learning letter formation, punctuation, and paragraphing.
• The writing process includes selecting topics, organizing ideas, composing a message, and, often, revising and editing.
• A balanced writing program uses a variety of ways to teach the writing process:
o Writing modeled by the teacher
o Shared writing (children decide together what to write, teacher does the writing)
o Interactive writing in primary classrooms (children decide together what to write and take turns writing different parts)
o Guided writing (students do their own writing with teacher guidance)
o Independent writing (students are encouraged to write on their own for a variety of purposes).

Spelling is taught by:
• Teaching sight words, often reinforced by a “word wall” of frequently used words that students are expected to learn;
• Invented Spelling--teaching children to say a word slowly and write down each sound they hear (“stretching” the word or “sounding it out”);
• Having children memorize lists of words--lists of spelling words appropriate for each grade level (examples: Dolch or Sitton lists) are commonly used.
• Teaching “how words work”.
Example: how words change when one letter is changed (hat, bat, cat); using familiar word parts to figure out the whole word (to and day=today).

“Invented spelling” is a technique where children in the early stages of writing are encouraged, during writing activities, to write down the sounds they hear in words. Emphasis is placed on increasingly accurate attempts rather than on correct spellings. For example, a first grader writing “hiz” for “his” or “grl” for “girl” shows that the child has a growing awareness of sound-letter relationships.

Invented spelling gives children valuable practice in sound-letter awareness; it also allows them to continue the flow of their writing without stopping constantly to find out correct spellings. They can write what they want to say without needing constant help from an adult.

Coupled with word walls and other ways of learning conventional (correct) spelling, invented spelling has been shown to be very successful.

Paraprofessionals should ask the classroom teacher for guidance on how and when to encourage invented spelling. Find out when it is appropriate to give children the conventional spelling of words and when to prompt them. To prompt, tell them, “Say the word slowly. What sounds do you hear? Write them down.”

Don’t expect complete accuracy in their attempts. It is acceptable to leave their imperfect spelling as is. Depending on its purpose, it can be edited at a later time.

As they get older, students are held responsible for the conventional spelling of more and more words. They may have personal dictionaries containing grade-level words that they are expected to spell correctly, as well as words they tend to use frequently in their own writing. They also learn dictionary skills. Please see Facts on the Teaching of Spelling, Appendix IV, for more on this topic.

• The teaching of math has undergone enormous change over the years. It now involves greater emphasis on understanding math concepts as well as doing computation. Multiplication and division may not look anything like what most adults learned in school!
• The math program that is now in use in Ithaca elementary school classrooms is called Everyday Math. Paraprofessionals can ask to examine the teachers’ manual for more information and should listen carefully as the teacher gives directions to the students.
• Most teachers use math “manipulatives” to help children discover math concepts. These include beans, tiny blocks, unifix cubes, Legos, dinosaurs, shapes, and so on, that children can sort, count, stack, make patterns from, and add, subtract, multiply and divide.
• Math games and exploration of math materials allow students at different ability levels to increase their understanding of math concepts and improve their computation skills.

Science and Social Studies
Teachers plan science and social studies units around state and local curriculum requirements. Often, science and social studies are integrated into reading, writing and math.
-Students read about, research and write about topics such as volcanoes, sea animals, pioneer days or the Civil War.
-Students watch the transformation of a caterpillar into a monarch butterfly. In a journal, they tally the number of days it takes and write down their observations.

Students have a natural curiosity about science that can make it fun and engaging to study. Hands-on experiments and the opportunity to observe and handle samples and materials give students a concrete understanding of the subject matter.


Allen, Rick. (2002). "Teachers and Paraeducators: Defining roles in an age of accountability." Education update. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Ayres, Barbara & Hedeen, Deborah. (February 1994). "Been there, done that, didn't work: Alternative solutions for behavior problems". Educational leadership.

Council for Exceptional Children. (Summer 2001). Exceptional children.. Arlington, VA.

Dover, Wendy. (2002). The personal planner & training guide for the para educator. Manhattan, Kansas: The MASTER Teacher, Inc. Publisher.

(2001) The para educator's guide to instructional and curricular modifications. Manhattan, Kansas: The MASTER Teacher, Inc. Publisher.

Ewing, Marilyn. (1997). Build me a house. Ithaca, N.Y.

Flaccus, Trisha. Paraprofessionals: Your important role. Ithaca, N.Y.: T-S-T BOCES.

Giangreco, Michael. (1997). Quick-guides to inclusion: Ideas for educating students with disabilities. Baltimore: Paul. H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Hallowell, Edward, M.D. & Ratey, John, M.D. (1994). Driven to distraction: Recognizing and coping with attention deficit disorder from childhood through adulthood. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kluth, Paula. (2003). "You're going to love this kid!" Teaching students with autism in the inclusive classroom. . Baltimore: Paul. H. Brookes, Publishing Co.

Lee, Peggy. (2002). Best practices in reading instruction: A workshop for paraprofessionals. (Unpublished) Ithaca, N.Y.

_ (2001). A balanced writing program: An inservice for k-2 teachers. (Unpublished) Ithaca, N.Y.

Loschert, Kristen. (March 2003). "No para left behind." NEA today. National Education Association.

Morgan, Jill & Ashbaker, Betty. (2001). A teacher's guide to working with paraeducators and other classroom aides. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Mosshoyannis, Thalia, Pickett, Anna Lou & Granick, Len. (1999). The evolving roles and education/training needs of teacher and paraprofessional teams in New York City public schools: Results of survey and focus group research. N.Y.: CUNY Workforce Development Initiative.

Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities. (2002). Sample individualized education program and guidance document. Albany, N.Y.: The State Education Department.

(1998). The learning standards and alternate performance indicators for students with severe disabilities. Albany, N.Y.: The State Education Department.

_. Regulations of the commissioner of education. . Albany, N.Y.: The State Education Department.

O'Neil, John & Loschert, K. (April 2003). "Special report on ESEA requirements of paraeducators." NEA today. National Education Association.

Payne, Ruby. (2001), A framework for understanding poverty. Texas: Aha! Process, Inc.

Picket, Anna Lou. (1999). Strengthening and supporting teacher provider-paraeducator teams: Guidelines for paraeducator roles, supervision, and preparation. N.Y.: CUNY.

Pickett, Anna Lou & Gerlach, Kent. (1997). Supervising paraeducators in school settings: A team approach. Austin, Texas: pro-ed, Inc.

Savage, Catherine. (1998), Ithaca High School special education department paraprofessional’s handbook. Ithaca, N.Y.

School Conduct Manual. (2003-2004). Ithaca City School District.

Special Education Training and Resource Center. Discover the possibilities. Ithaca, N.Y.: T-S-T BOCES.

Twachtman-Cullen, Diane. (2000). How to be a para pro: A comprehensive training manual for paraprofessionals, Higganum, CT: Starfish Specialty Press.

Working with teaching assistants: A good practice guide. (2001). England: Department for Education and Employment.


This resource is available in every ICSD elementary school nurse’s office:
Disability Profiles. A compilation of written materials on all major disabilities, produced by Ithaca City School District teacher Sue Hemseth.

These are available from the TST BOCES SETRC Center (607/257-1551):
Flaccus, Trisha. Paraprofessionals: Your important role. . Ithaca, N.Y.: TST BOCES.

Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities. (2002). Sample individualized education program and guidance document. Albany, N.Y.: The State Education Department.

Special Education Training and Resource Center. Discover the possibilities. Ithaca, N.Y.: TST BOCES.

The following books and non-published materials may be borrowed from the ICSD Office of Staff Development:
Dover, Wendy. (2002). The personal planner & training guide for the para educator. Manhattan, Kansas: The MASTER Teacher,Inc. Publisher.

(2001) The para educator's guide to instructional and curricular modifications. Manhattan, Kansas: The MASTER Teacher, Inc. Publisher.

Giangreco, Michael. (1997). Quick-guides to inclusion: Ideas for educating students with disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, Publishing Co.

Grandin, Temple. (1995). Thinking in pictures and other reports from my life with autism. N.Y.: Vintage Books.

Hallowell, Edward, M.D. & Ratey, John, M.D. (1994). Driven to distraction: Recognizing and coping with attention deficit disorder from childhood through adulthood. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kluth, Paula. (2003). "You're going to love this kid!" Teaching students with autism in the inclusive classroom. . Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, Publishing Co.

Lee, Peggy. (2002). Best practices in reading instruction: A workshop for paraprofessionals. (Unpublished). Ithaca, N.Y.

_ (2001). A balanced writing program: An inservice for k-2 teachers. (Unpublished) Ithaca, N.Y.

Morgan, Jill & Ashbaker, Betty. (2001). A teacher's guide to working with paraeducators and other classroom aides. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

School Conduct Manual. (2003-2004). Ithaca City School District.

Twachtman-Cullen, Diane. (2000). How to be a para pro: A comprehensive training manual for paraprofessionals. Higganum, CT.: Starfish Specialty Press.

Recommended Websites:


www. welcome.to/parapalooza


APPENDIX II--not available in wikispaces version

Specific Disabilities

not available in wikispaces version

Sample IEP

not available in wikispaces version

Reading, Writing and Spelling

not available in wikispaces version

Conflict Management



Sub plan for: Date:
(para name)

Dear Substitute: My job is to help this student function as fully as possible in the regular classroom setting. Because of a disability, s/he needs some extra assistance, as described below.
I encourage him/her to be as independent as possible while meeting basic classroom expectations. I try not to interfere with the student’s social interactions, as long as they are appropriate. Below you will find specific information about the student and about modifications that help him/her be successful.

The classroom teacher will take primary responsibility for this student’s program and may ask you to help with other tasks in addition to assisting this student. Thank you for filling in for me today!

Student name: Teacher name: Grade:

Special alerts:


Location of materials:

Student’s interests and strengths:

Student’s needs and strategies that work:


Sub plan for: Linda Hand Date: October 18, 2011

Dear Substitute: My job is to help this student function as fully as possible in the regular classroom setting. Because of a disability, s/he needs some extra assistance, as described below.
I encourage him/her to be as independent as possible while meeting basic classroom expectations. I try not to interfere with the student’s social interactions, as long as they are appropriate. Below you will find specific information about the student and about modifications that help him/her be successful.

The classroom teacher will take primary responsibility for this student’s program and may ask you to help with other tasks in addition to assisting this student. Thank you for filling in for me today!

Student name: Sam Kidd Teacher name: Ms. Brown Grade: 2

Special alerts: None

Schedule: The classroom schedule is on the chalkboard board.
7:40 Sam gets off bus and comes to the classroom by himself. Ms. Brown will introduce you to him. He hangs up his jacket and backpack himself.. Please put the date at the top of a new behavior chart.
9:30-10:00 Sam goes to the resource room for reading help. Please help in the classroom while he’s gone.
11:30 Leave for the cafeteria with Sam.
12::00-12:25 Please go to recess with the students. Sam usually takes the nerf-ball and shoots baskets with a few friends. He tends to stay off the climbing structures because they’re hard for him. If he wants to climb, please help him so he’s safe.
12:30-1:00 Your lunch time. You can eat in the staff room.
1:15-1:45 Resource room teacher comes in to help Sam and some others at writing time. Please help other students.
2:00 Dismissal. Please make sure he puts his homework packet, lunch box, and behavior chart (Ms. Brown will initial it) into his backpack.

Location of materials: Sam uses a soft pencil grip, in his pencil case. His behavior charts are in on a clipboard on the right side of the windowsill. The nerf-ball is in a box near the door. There’s a basketball basket on the playground.

Student’s interests and strengths:
• Loves animals and knows a lot about them.
• Loves shooting nerf-ball baskets.
• Is kind to other children.
• Likes to be a helper..

Student’s needs and strategies that work:
Sam has limited muscle strength. It helps to:
• Give him more time to do writing tasks or reduce the length of assignments.
• Use a soft pencil grip.
• Leave earlier for lunch so he can have a longer time to get to the cafeteria and eat.

Sam has difficulty processing spoken directions. It helps to:
• Use short, clear one- or two-step directions. Repeat or rephrase directions if needed.
• Use visual cues (pictures, gestures, real objects) along with spoken directions, when needed.
• If possible, show him examples of what finished projects such as book reports, art projects, etc. will look like.

Sam gets frustrated and angry easily. When he loses control, he may yell, throw his things on the floor or tear up his paper. He has a behavior chart. He gets a smiley face for each activity where he cooperates and works hard. He takes it home at the end of the day. He’s working on learning appropriate ways to deal with his anger, such as expressing his feelings in words, asking for help, or choosing one of the ways he knows to calm himself. It helps to:
• Make changes in assignments so he can do them successfully. (Ms. Brown will usually do this).
• Offer some help or encouragement if he seems to be struggling. (Please don’t do the work for him, though!)
• Remind him that you want to be able to put a smiley face on his chart.
• Prompt him to try ways he knows to calm himself such as taking some deep breaths, counting backwards from 20, getting up to get a drink, or asking to take a little walk or to do an errand for Ms. Brown.
• If he can’t pull himself together, he gets a sad face on his chart. He may also lose some recess time or another privilege. Ms. Brown will decide this.