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Winter 2000 Table of Contents
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The Paraprofessional Working with Students with Visual Impairments

By Jim Durkel, Statewide Staff Development Coordinator with help from Cyral Miller, Outreach Director TSBVI, Outreach Program

Last spring I attended a national conference on and for paraprofessionals working in public schools. I have thought about that meeting and would like to share some of my thinking with you.

WHAT IS A PARAPROFESSIONAL?

Paraprofessionals are people who have not completed a professional education degree (are not teachers) but have jobs that support instruction for students. These could include people called teacher aides or paraeducators who work in the classroom. Braillists, who don't work with students directly but spend their day preparing materials for one or more students, could also be included in this group. In some school districts, one paraprofessional may serve both roles. In some school districts, one paraprofessional may provide support to a student with visual impairments part time and work with other students in the classroom part time.

WHAT DOES A PARAPROFESSIONAL DO?

The paraprofessional's role is to support the teacher, either the classroom teacher and/or the teacher for students with visual impairments, and/or others working with the student. The support is centered on specific IEP goals and objectives for the student. This support can include modifying materials, assisting with reading overheads or writing on the blackboard, giving one-on-one assistance in specific tasks, helping control behavior problems, providing opportunities for practice to reinforce previously learned skills, or collecting data related to IEP objectives. A paraprofessional should always be thinking about how a student can be independent in a task and give just enough support so the student is successful, but not so much that the student does not have to make much effort.

Sometimes paraprofessionals are asked to do jobs for which they do not have certification or legal authority. Paraprofessionals should not make decisions about what material should or should not be taught. Paraprofessionals should not teach braille. They can reinforce braille skills, but only a teacher for students with visual impairments can teach braille. Similarly, the paraprofessional does not teach new orientation and mobility skills. They should reinforce the skills the certified orientation and mobility specialist has taught. The paraprofessional should not decide what technology a student might need, how much homework a student should or should not do, nor design a behavior plan for any student. That function is reserved for the ARD committee.

A paraprofessional has specific roles to help support instruction. In meeting that goal, a paraprofessional should not have to take emotional or physical abuse from a student. Paraprofessionals help insure continuity of instruction, but should not serve as the go between for classroom teachers and the teacher for students with visual impairments or the teacher for students with visual impairments and the family. The paraprofessional should learn to come in and fade out as needed, rather than hover over and smother students.

HOW CAN WE HELP THE PARAPROFESSIONAL DO HIS OR HER JOB BETTER?

That can be summarized in two words - training and supervision. Paraprofessionals need training just as any one doing any job does. We cannot hire some one with no background (having gone to public school themselves does not count as training) and expect them to work with our students.

All paraprofessionals need training in how to deal with inappropriate behavior, how to prompt, how to fade supports and how to reinforce desired responses. They should know their role and job duties and have a clearly defined "line of command".

They should know who will evaluate their performance based on what criteria. They should know where to go for support and with grievances. All paraprofessionals need to know about universal health precautions. All need to know how to recognize and report child abuse or neglect.

Paraprofessionals working with students with visual impairments need additional training. They need to know about a particular student's visual impairment and how that impairment will affect learning. They need to know how to modify materials for that student. They may need to know the braille code. They may need to know how to use a computer to assist in producing braille. They may need to know about the technology a child is using so they can help troubleshoot. They may need to know how a child should use a particular low vision device. They need to know basic orientation and mobility techniques, such as sighted guide. They may need to know how to help a student organize her space. They need to know how to deal with a student's emotional responses to being different. They need to know how to reinforce social skills and daily living skills.

Who will provide this training? Most education service centers now offer training to all paraprofessionals in the basic areas. There are currently no standards for training, as we do not certify paraprofessionals in education in Texas. However, that may change in the near future. The current IDEA, the Federal law dealing with special education, states that training needs for any member of the educational team can be addressed during an IEP meeting.

The best place for a paraprofessional working with a student with visual impairments to get VI-specific training is from the vision professionals. This ties in with supervision. The paraprofessional is there to help a child meet IEP objectives. Ultimately the professional responsible for those objectives is the classroom teacher, teacher for students with visual impairments and/or certified orientation and mobility specialist. It is important, then, that these professionals provide support to the paraprofessional. This support would include clear training on how to work with a student with a particular type of visual impairment. It would also include enough training so that the paraprofessional could provide support not only in the regular classroom activities but also in the extended core curriculum areas; recreation and leisure, compensatory skill use, daily living skills, social skills, etc.

This kind of training requires regular, ongoing contact and support. The teacher for students with visual impairments and certified orientation and mobility specialist, have a responsibility to observe paraprofessionals on a regular basis to insure their work is appropriate. Again, it is these professionals who are responsible, along with the classroom teacher, for a student's success (or failure) on IEP goals and objectives. It would be embarrassing to show up at an IEP meeting and say the student did not meet these objectives because the paraprofessional did not know what to do or was doing something in a wrong manner.

The ongoing support also should include a discussion about the paraprofessional's role with other students in the classroom. The teacher for students with visual impairments and classroom teacher must sit down (probably with an administrator) and agree on the paraprofessional's roles. It is important to recognize that most students with visual impairments do not need full time paraprofessionals. Instead, a given student's IEP must be considered. Does the student need support during a particular subject? Is the student taking a science course with much lecture and where many graphics are used? Or is it a hands-on science course and a good peer lab partner would be better than adult support? Is this a student who will need tactile symbols? These symbols require making, repair, and storage. Is the teacher for students with visual impairments going to need help to do this? Does the student need support to use an adaptive mobility device? How is braille going to be produced so that the student gets it in a timely manner?

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF PARENTS?

Parents can play an important role in the support of paraprofessionals. At the IEP meeting, parents may want to raise the issue that the teacher for students with visual impairments and certified orientation and mobility specialist will need time to train and observe the paraprofessional and that the paraprofessional may need release time to attend training.

Parents, please do not use the paraprofessional as a "shoulder to cry on" and complain to them about the teacher for students with visual impairments or classroom teacher. If you have issues with those professionals, please address them directly. If you have concerns about the work of a paraprofessional, ask for a staff meeting to address those concerns.

TO PARAPROFESSIONALS

Thank you for the work you do. You help in so many ways. You have the right to get training so that you can be effective in your job. You have the right to ask for the teacher for students with visual impairments and certified orientation and mobility specialist to regularly observe your work and give you feedback and support. You may need to take an active role in asking for that training and support. There are materials designed for you to help you do your job better. One good resource is A Paraprofessional's Handbook for Working with Students Who are Visually Impaired. This book is available from Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired at a cost of $25. A second and very excellent resource is Classroom Collaboration by Laurel Hudson, and is available from the Perkins School for the Blind. You can call (617) 972-7367 for ordering information.


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Last Revision: September 4, 2003