Berks IU 14: Trained Paraprofessionals Promote Student Independence

For parents of students with special needs, paraprofessionals can be a godsend. While teachers provide instruction, paraprofessionals work one-on-one or in small groups to help students overcome hurdles, build new skills, and strive for independence.

In Pennsylvania and nationwide, the standards for paraprofessionals have risen dramatically in recent years. Federal and state regulations now require that paraprofessionals be highly qualified, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education awards a credential attesting to their skills and knowledge.
In Berks County, school districts wanted professional development that meets the highest standards, and Berks County IU 14 stepped up to meet the need. Since 2003, the IU has trained 1,300 paraprofessionals from 18 Berks County school districts. The efforts have reached 13,000 Title I and special education students and English Language Learners.

The rigorous training includes eight days of professional development in effective instruction, behavior, communications, reading, math, and writing. Paraprofessionals apply their lessons in their real-world classrooms and review the outcomes. Those seeking advanced training can take courses to specialize in low-incidence disabilities, inclusion, behavior, and reading.

The difference shows in student achievement and skills. Rebecca Chadwick, educational consultant of the Berks County IU Office of Professional Development & Curriculum, leads the initiative with a team that includes her assistant, Mary Ann Reardon.

Chadwick recalls one longtime paraprofessional who insisted that a particular student could not learn to feed herself. Chadwick taught the paraprofessional to break down the process into tiny steps – learn to hold a spoon first, followed by putting the spoon in the bowl, and so forth – and the paraprofessional was amazed to find that it worked.

Special education directors at districts countywide are “extremely positive” about the training, knowing that the instructions teachers give for boosting children’s skills are carried out by trained paraprofessionals, says Chadwick.

“It’s teaching paraprofessionals how to help children become independent,” says Chadwick. “How do we help kids become more confident? How do we help give kids the skills they need to be successful? It makes a huge difference when paraprofessionals get training and they understand why and how they’re doing what they do.”

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