Supporting Paraprofessionals to Support Students with Individualized Education Programs (IEP)s

by Daniel Parker, Assistant Director of Special Education, Division for Learning Support, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

I’ve always felt that paraprofessionals, also referred to as paraeducators, para-pros, instructional or teaching assistants, or program aides, are a critical component to the provision of exceptional special education service and supports.  This belief was shaped from my first experience working in a public elementary school in Lawrence KS in 1996.  Graduating with degrees in psychology and philosophy, and not knowing what career paths I would find, I took a position in a school that had piloted a new system to support students with autism.  I had never heard the term “autism” and did not have much experience with children or adults with social, learning, cognitive, physical, or other differences.  I was not even sure what a paraprofessional’s job really was as I didn’t remember them in my own public school experience.  Luckily, I hit the jackpot of jackpots for first educational experiences as I found myself working in a school that implemented an intensive, data-centered, evidence-based, and inclusive program for students with autism with the goal of improving academic and functional skills so that we could “work ourselves out of a job”.  Although we did not work ourselves out of a job, the experiences and outcomes I was a part of in my first year as a paraprofessional led to many students no longer requiring the level of support I was hired to provide and went on to shape my future and career.

The students I was responsible for supporting, often in one-on-one ratios, were unlike any students I had the opportunity to meet in my own educational experiences.  These students experienced sensory, communication, and motor differences that greatly impacted their ability to engage in a traditional education program and were members of one of the first generation of students to have the opportunity to receive an education in a traditional public school setting.  It was the first time I realized how the acquisition of basic academic and functional skills could have an enormous impact on a child and family.  I’ll never forget witnessing the first day a mother heard her child clearly state “hello mom” when she walked through the front door of our school to pick up her child.   Being a part of teaching and supporting basic skills to students that some families had been told “would never be able to ____” had a profound influence on me.  This and many experiences to come, where I felt that I was a part of “working magic” on this vulnerable population of students and realizing outcomes that seemed at first unimaginable, led me to pursue a career in education.  It was only years later that I realized what we were doing was not magic and required an intensive amount of systemic support and planning. 

As I moved through various roles in education whether it was general education, special education, or administrative roles, I always paid attention to the what, how, to who, where, and why the services and supports for paraprofessionals were being provided.  I’ve been a part of great systems and not so great systems and have seen the impacts on each for students, families, and staff.  I am lucky to now work in a position of statewide support to assist others in developing and implementing systems to effectively utilize paraprofessionals to maximize the ability of students with IEPs to access, engage, and make progress in their grade level instruction and environments.  This article has given me a chance to reflect on what my colleagues and I can do in a statewide role to support paraprofessionals in Wisconsin and I welcome others to reach out and provide us with additional resources and ideas to develop these ideas and supports together. 


For licensure purposes, Wisconsin Administrative Code PI 34.01(4) uses the term “aide” and defines an “aide” as a school employee who works under the direct supervision of a licensed teacher in a district or school whose responsibilities include, but are not limited to, supporting the lesson plan of the licensed teacher, providing technical assistance to the teacher, helping with classroom control or management, and other duties as assigned. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2004 and No Child Left Behind 2001 use the term “paraprofessional.”  A paraprofessional who is assigned to support the provision of special education services pursuant to an individualized education program (IEP) must hold the Special Education Program Aide license, unless the individual holds any valid Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) license.   If an individual is employed as an educational interpreter for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, a Special Education Program Aide license is not sufficient.  Interpreters must obtain the Educational Interpreter – Deaf or Hard of Hearing license. 

Defining Roles and Responsibilities

When developing a system, since paraprofessionals cannot be assigned teacher duties, it is important to outline paraprofessional responsibilities in relation to teacher responsibilities.  Wisconsin state guidance defines paraprofessional responsibilities to include, but not limited to, supporting the lesson plan of a properly licensed teacher, providing technical assistance to the teacher, and helping with classroom management. Teacher responsibilities include, but are not limited to, planning and delivering instruction, diagnosing learning needs, prescribing content delivery through classroom activities, assessing student learning, reporting outcomes to administrators and parents, and evaluating the effects of instruction. 

It is important to keep in mind that paraprofessionals must be in direct supervision of a licensed educator.  Direct supervision means regular, continuing interaction between a properly licensed special education teacher, or a licensed director of special education and pupil services, and a paraprofessional which includes the teacher’s time to evaluate the special education services provided. There must be sufficient contact between the special education teacher and the paraprofessional, and between the teacher and the student, to enable the teacher to diagnose educational needs, prescribe teaching and learning procedures, and evaluate the effects of teaching.  Ensuring a system is in place for direct supervision benefits everyone, including the paraprofessional, to ensure they are not put in positions that lead them to overstepping their role in a student’s education.  

One role to emphasize is in relation to educational decision making.  Paraprofessionals should not make decisions about what activities, lessons, content, or environments a student they are supporting accesses.  Those decisions are made by the IEP team and unless otherwise indicated by a student’s IEP, it is expected that students with IEPs participate in the same curricular and extracurricular activities, content, and environments, as students without IEPs.  It is important for this expectation to be clearly communicated to paraprofessionals on a regular basis, especially when they are assigned to work with an individual student throughout a school day.  

Paraprofessional Skills “Toolkit”

Research has shown that some students that receive direct one-on-one support from a paraprofessional have fewer social relationships with peers and less independence than students who do not receive one-on-one support.  Ensuring paraprofessional “skills” focus on improving the independence of students in social and academic settings is a critical component to an effective system of support.  When I was a paraprofessional, we had the benefit of an early release day every Wednesday.  The special education teachers that I worked with used this day to enhance our “toolkit” of skills to support us in working with students we were assigned.  We also used this as an opportunity to explore and align our beliefs about student learning, allow us to be active participants in the data reporting and analysis process, and develop our ability to use evidence based practices with fidelity.   

Below are some of the skills that we would discuss and practice that focus on helping students become more independent and better able to navigate classroom instruction and environments across the school day.  One of the most exciting advances in special education today is that many of the strategies outlined below are supported through free online modules, recorded webinars, and trainings.  A list of professional learning supports is included in the resources section of this article.   

Modeling: Modeling is an excellent strategy for paraprofessionals to support any area of skill development and can be done in any setting (e.g. classrooms, hallways, playground, and in the community).  Common skills for paraprofessionals to model may include step by step problem solving, reading comprehension strategies, self-talk, or using sensory or self-regulation techniques.  Paraprofessionals can also help individual or small groups of students by modeling good note taking skills as students and peers learn those skills to be more independent over time.    

Supporting Communication: Students with IEPs may require communication related supports ranging from using scripts or sentence starters to supporting the use of augmentative and alternative communication devices.  Paraprofessionals can assist students to ensure students have access to their communication tools, systems, or devices throughout the school day.  They can also assist in ensuring the communication system or device has available the specific communications (symbols, words, or sentences) needed to engage in specific activities.  Modelling and supporting the use of communication systems with different teachers and peers promotes generalization of communication skills and expands the ability of students to communicate with different people and in different places. 

Providing Multiple Means of Representation:  One of the three Principles for Universal Design for Learning is providing multiple means of representation.  Paraprofessionals can assist with different options for receiving information such as paraphrasing directions or academic content, re-directing students to written or visual prompts or directions, accessing prior knowledge by relating content to past experiences, and previewing content with students prior to instruction.  

Providing Reinforcement and Social and Emotional Support:  It is often difficult for teachers working with multiple students to provide the frequency and rate of positive reinforcement and reassurance that some students require to use new skills and manage their emotions throughout the day.  For example, depending on the demands and setting, some students may require some type of reinforcement at very high intervals (e.g. once every ten seconds) to engage and complete a skill or activity successfully.  Once implemented by a teacher, paraprofessionals can support token or other reinforcement systems that require high rates of feedback as well as ensure that students immediately receive the reinforcement that is unique to their preferences.  In addition to external reinforcement, some students may require social and emotional supports and reassurance throughout the school day.  I’ve found more than once that well planned and scheduled “touch base” supportive conversations or short playful activities between a paraprofessional and a student throughout a school day can provide the support and sense of safety to ensure the student does not require a removal in the middle of instruction.  In addition, paraprofessionals can support the use of sensory diets, movement breaks, self-regulation plans, and other supports designed to support the movement and social and emotional needs of students.  

Supporting Physical Needs: Paraprofessionals can be additional eyes and ears in the classroom to inquire and attend to daily needs of students in relation to hunger, sleep, physical supports, and emotional distress.  Some schools customize “The Incredible Five Point Scale” or have other methods of “checking in” to ensure students have what they need at the start of each school day.  For students with IEPs with unique needs for diets or physical supports, especially when supports may be shared between home and school, paraprofessionals can assist to ensure students have what they need at the beginning, middle, and end of the school day and take data in relation to physical needs that can assist families in coordinating with out of school supports.  

Supporting Peer Prompting: To ensure students with IEPs know how to look for and respond to cues in the natural learning environment (e.g. learning from other students) at times when they may not have direct adult supports, peer prompting is a strategy that supports student engagement while reducing dependence on adult support.  The concept behind peer prompting is simple, anything that a paraprofessional might say, point to, or remind a student to do is provided by a peer instead of the paraprofessional.  However, implementing peer prompting systemically requires support and practice.  As peers learn when and how to support students to stay engaged, paraprofessionals can provide reminders to peers and assist them in using systems for peer prompting.  Examples of peer prompting systems include check lists at table groups, social scripts for conversations, and comprehension cards during peer reading activities.   Common prompts to encourage paraprofessionals to transfer to peers includes getting out materials for specific activities, transition buddies across the classroom and school, engaging peers in conversations during social or academic turn and talk times, and providing peer models and prompts to engage in activities during recess, center, and play groups.  

Documentation and Data Collection: There are many ways paraprofessionals can document the use of skills and supports outlined in a student’s IEP.  With advances in technology, many schools are using web based forms as well as apps on devices or phones that allow for immediate and efficient data collection.  Other schools or teachers prefer to develop paper data collection forms that paraprofessionals use to track specific data points throughout a day.  When using a paper or non-electronic system for data collection, it is important to allow time for paraprofessionals and teachers to summarize and chart the data on a regular basis to ensure the information is informing the teacher on future instructional decisions.  Paraprofessionals can also assist students to self-monitor and collect data on their own behaviors, such as using a graphic organizer or tracking the use of a skillful and positive behavior such as a self-regulation technique.  Because student self-monitoring systems often require intensive up front support and monitoring, paraprofessionals can assist students in accurately self-monitoring across environments and assist with linking the self-monitoring to reinforcement, encouragement, and communication of success across educators and families. 

Supporting Social Interactions: As mentioned previously, paraprofessionals can either increase or decrease the level of independence and social interactions students’ experience.  It is critical for paraprofessionals to engage in conversations with teachers and families about when and how to support student engagement and when to back away to allow for independent and natural social interactions to occur.  There are many ways for paraprofessionals to support interactions with class and school peers that do not require the paraprofessional to be the “gateway” to interacting with a student.  Having these skills is especially important for paraprofessional supporting student with significant differences in their communication and physical abilities.  Today there are many evidence based practices that support students in understanding and navigating social settings including social scripts, social narratives, social autopsies, and facilitating peer mediated interventions and supports.

Providing Choices: Providing choices is one of the easiest ways to improve student engagement as well as assist students in understanding, identifying, and building self-determination around supports that benefit them throughout the day.  It is important for teachers and families to guide paraprofessionals to know what choices are appropriate during different activities and how many choices should be available based on the needs and abilities of individual students.  Once teachers map out the students school day and brainstorm choices with a student, paraprofessionals can ensure that students have access to those choices and support students in building self-determination by prompting them to request those choices across other educators and peers.  Choices might include choices of instructional materials (pens, paper, books), reinforcement for completing tasks, and choices in scheduling when appropriate.  

Using Visual Schedules and Organizers: Independent development and use of a schedule is a life-long skill for everyone and something that many students with IEPs may require years of successful practice to learn to do independently.  Schedules help students know how to predict what is expected, understand the sequence that may be required to finish an activity or lesson, and know when something is considered completed, and know what is coming next.  Using schedules can also have a tremendous impact on reducing anxiety.  Paraprofessionals can help students follow different types of schedules including written, visual, or schedules that use pictures or icons depending on the abilities and needs of students.  Helping students use organizers also supports students moving from adult support to tools that they can use across subject areas.

Systems that Support Paraprofessionals

In addition to a paraprofessional skills “toolkit”, paraprofessionals need a system of support if they are going to be able to provide long term support for students with IEPs.  Principals play an extremely powerful role in ensuring school staff have systems in place to support areas of collaboration, communication, and ongoing professional development that paraprofessionals need to feel supported, know what to do, and reduce burn out when working with the most vulnerable student population.  Below are a few ideas of systemic supports for paraprofessionals. 

Providing Vision, Direction, and Purpose: Once assigned to a classroom or student(s), paraprofessionals should be given a clear vision and mission of the school as well as goals for individual classroom teachers and student(s).  When possible, they should be included in school or district-wide meetings where mission and vision as well as key school initiatives are discussed.  Another way to support understanding of roles and purpose is to have regular meetings between paraprofessionals, teachers, and administrators during the year to discuss the roles of the paraprofessionals versus teachers and provide opportunities for feedback on these roles to clarify expectations.  At the student level, paraprofessionals should be informed of IEP goals, supplementary aids and services, and other IEP related information that relates to the supports they are assigned to provide to specific students.  Because IEPs and special education language and requirements may be unfamiliar to paraprofessionals, they may need additional assistance in understanding their role in supporting the IEP as well as understanding the requirements in relation to special education and providing students with access to curriculum, instruction, and environments and their role with implementing what is written in the IEP.  Again, allowing paraprofessionals an opportunity to ask questions, clarify their roles, and discuss examples of what their role is for implementing the IEP “might look like” across the day and educational settings is recommended. 

Coaching: We know from implementation science that students do not benefit from innovations and supports they do not receive.  Although presentations, workshops, online learning, and other professional learning opportunities can contribute to learning new skills, these skills often are not implemented without some type of coaching component.  Just like any other educator, paraprofessionals benefit from regular coaching sessions to reflect on their practice and support implementation of practices with fidelity.  One way to support a coaching model is to provide special education and related services staff with coaching training as well as a time set in a weekly or monthly schedule.  This allows paraprofessionals time to debrief with an educator on the supports they provide around a specific “toolkit” skill or problem solve on how to support a specific student behavior.   

Modeling and Feedback: In addition to coaching, modeling is another support that educators or administrators can provide to support paraprofessionals.  Just as students benefit from educators modeling skills, paraprofessionals will benefit from modeling from teachers and administrators.  Modeling can consist of modeling appropriate responses to student behaviors, modeling language that supports high expectations and person first language for students, and modeling specific skills that paraprofessionals are asked to perform.  Modeling and feedback is typically a three step process.  First, a teacher or related service provider models a skill with the student while the paraprofessional observes.  Next, the paraprofessional practices the skill with the student while the teacher or related service observes.  Then, the teacher or related service provider gives specific and immediate feedback to the paraprofessional and provides further modelling.  The process is repeated until the paraprofessional demonstrates using the skill several times.  Since paraprofessionals can often be assigned to provide one-on-one support for a student on a daily basis, even if for a short amount of time, this allows students opportunities to practice and use a skill at a higher frequency leading to a faster rate of skill attainment.  The teacher or related service provider continues to monitor the implementation of the skill through observation, monitoring of data collection, and provides additional modeling and feedback when needed or once the skill level is attained and generalized.  Thus the teacher or related service provider continues to lead the assessment, instruction, and educational decision making process. 

Communication Systems across School Staff: Often a paraprofessional’s day begins and ends with the students they are assigned to support.  Thus, they may not have access to communication with teachers in meetings where important processes or decisions have been made that may impact individual or groups of students.  In addition to receiving updates, paraprofessionals need systems in place to be able to communicate information and data to other educators about individual students.  Furthermore, paraprofessionals must be kept up to date on IEP related changes that might impact the supports they provide to individual students.  

Data Collection Systems: One specific form of communication that is critical for paraprofessionals to have systems in place is in the area of data collection.  Technology has provided many low cost and efficient methods for data collection including online forms or apps that collect and store data in a central location.  When possible, time in paraprofessional schedules should be provided daily or at least weekly to input academic and functional data for the skills and goals that are being addressed so that this information can be reviewed by the student’s teacher and incorporated into regular reports of student progress.  

Scheduling Time with Students Equitably based on Student Needs:  Often paraprofessionals are assigned to support individual students with the greatest needs throughout the day.  Other times, paraprofessionals are assigned to support key areas of instruction that specific groups of students require additional support.  Analyzing and scheduling when individual or groups of students may need more or less support during the school day not only maximizes staff resources but also ensures students are not being supported at times when they are able to be independent or successful without direct one on one or small group support.  One strategy to address schedules is to write down the daily schedules of students that require paraprofessional support to identify each part of the day when individual students are independent with little support, may require some additional support from the classroom teacher (e.g. starting an activity), may benefit from peer support, or may need adult support throughout an activity.  Analyzing schedules may also identify times and locations in a school day when a group of students have similar academic or social and emotional skill needs that a paraprofessional could assist in supporting.  

Active Listening Training:  An important skill for paraprofessionals is to listen and observe what is happening with and around students in the educational environment.  Active listening is a skill that can be learned that and utilized to not only understand academic instruction but to support students in crisis who require more substantial social and emotional supports.  One of the most difficult skills for any educator to perform is staying calm in stressful situations or when a student displays explosive behaviors or has not learned skills to communicate concerns effectively or self-reflect and problem solve.  To build strong relationships with students, educators must be able to listen before responding to students who express needs throughout the day and utilize active listening strategies to assist students in problem solving so they are better able to examine their own behaviors to find their own solutions moving forward.  

Training in Family Engagement:  Students with IEPs that require direct one on one support throughout parts of a school day often requires a special understanding and empathy when working with families.  Paraprofessionals must be supported by teachers and administrators in how communication channels and systems of communication are set up with families.  Not only should paraprofessionals have clear “how” and “what” communication channels established, but they schools should also establish protocols in communicating with families to clearly outline the roles of the teachers compared to the roles of paraprofessionals.  In addition, they may need training to better understand and build empathy for families of students with more significant needs so that they are able to understand and support individual family hopes, dreams, fears, and concerns.   

Implementing Supports with Fidelity: When an accommodation, modification, or support is designed for a student and multiple paraprofessionals are responsible for implementing or providing access to the support, it is critical to ensure that the paraprofessionals have a system in place for ensuring those supports are provided consistently across staff.  Examples of providing consistency may be to clearly define what and when supports are provided, asking paraprofessionals to take date on the use of supports, and training staff to use the same language and protocols when responding to student behaviors.  There are many tools such as scripts, video modeling, classroom observations, implementation checklists, and written protocols to assist in implementing supports with fidelity.  A unique way a school addressed fidelity was to modify “The Incredible Five Point Scale” that is often used to support understanding of student behaviors.  The Five Point Scale was modified to outline specific student behaviors and corresponding staff response to help staff understand how to respond to specific students in a given situation.  

Providing Professional Learning Opportunities: When possible, paraprofessionals should be given opportunities to learn side by side with other educators that work with the students they support.  Professional learning can also be supported by ensuring paraprofessionals have “go to” resources and learning module assignments for times when the paraprofessional may unexpectedly have opportunities for professional learning such as when students are absent.  IEPs can also be used to designate “consultation to school staff” to provide paraprofessionals with direct modeling, training, or coaching on specific skills or knowledge needed to support individual needs of students.  In addition, schools should train paraprofessionals in appropriate reading, writing, math, and social and emotional strategies to ensure paraprofessionals are able to successfully support students with IEPs who are under the direct supervision of a licensed special education teacher.   Below is a list of professional learning resources that paraprofessional may be able to access throughout the school year.  

Additional WI DPI Resources

WI DPI Webinar: Effective Use of Paraprofessionals. 

WI DPI Special Education Paraprofessionals

WI DPI Information Update Bulletin 10.05 Frequently Asked Questions about Special Education Paraprofessionals

WI DPI Use of Paraprofessionals in Speech and Language Programs:

WI DPI ESSA Paraprofessional Hiring Requirements  

WI DPI Autism Webinars 


Additional National Professional Learning Resources

  • Autism Internet Modules

  • AFRIM Modules  

  • National Resource Center for Paraeducators

  • Council for Exceptional Children: Paraeducator professional development standards

  • Master Teacher Para-educator Online Training 


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