A Paraeducator Training Program and Mentoring System

Arlene Barresi, Training Coordinator and James Fogarty, Executive Director of Instructional Services,Board of Cooperative Services - Eastern Suffolk County, New York.

The Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES), located on the eastern end of Long Island in New York State, has launched a comprehensive inservice program for training the district's paraeducators.

BOCES provides a wide range of services to children and youth from birth to 21 years of age who have diverse developmental levels and learning styles and require individualized and compensatory education services. Many of the education and related services for school-age students who have disabilities or other special needs are designed to provide a transitional bridge from BOCES-based programs to general education classrooms near a student's home. Among the direct services provided by BOCES are home- and center-based education and support services to infants, young children, and their families. BOCES also offers opportunities for junior and senior high school students with challenging behaviors and learning or other disabilities to gain academic, vocational, and social skills that will enable them to return to their home district or to live and work in their community.In addition, BOCES administers learning centers for students who have drug or alcohol dependency or are at risk because of chronic health problems.We also provide specialized technical and occupational training for teenagers and adults to prepare them to (re)enter the workforce.Training for careers as automotive technicians, child care workers, computer technicians, medical and laboratory assistants and, in other fields is available through this program.

To provide these services, BOCES uses a differentiated staffing arrangement. Members of instructional teams include teachers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech language pathologists, vocational specialists, and paraeducators.Indeed the 730-plus paraeducators employed by BOCES are integral members of the team who work alongside their professional colleagues and participate in all phases of the educational process.

Developed jointly with the local affiliate of the New York State United Teachers, the BOCES training program is a flexible system that may be used to train paraeducators working in general, special, compensatory, and early childhood education.

In addition to the training, there are several other components that have contributed to the success of the program, including:

  • the recruitment and training of paraeducators and teachers to serve as mentors and trainers;
  • workshops to prepare teachers to supervise and work effectively with paraeducators;
  • regular briefings about the goals of the training for principals and other district personnel;
  • orientation seminars for substitutes and new paraeducators.

The following sections describe the procedures that we used to develop the curriculum and plan the model.

The Model

Planning, implementing, and maintaining a viable staff development program for paraeducators is not an easy task. We believe that personnel at all levels must be committed and actively engaged in the process.It is the administration that sets policy, establishes the guidelines for

managing the program, and provides fiscal support.Trainers and mentors develop and carry out the program.Principals and teachers provide opportunities for paraeducators to practice and master skills learned in the training.

During the developmental phase for the BOCES paraeducator training program, administrators and representatives of the paraeducators identified several issues that needed to be addressed. First, we needed to make sure that we were fully aware of the diverse tasks that paraeducators perform in varied learning environments.Second, we needed to know what skills paraeducators require to perform these tasks. Third, we needed to develop a process that would enable us to provide ongoing training of the highest quality using cost-effective strategies.Fourth, we needed to gain the support of district personnel and building staff, including principals, teachers, and paraeducators.

Defining Training Needs

The methods that we used to define current roles and duties of paraeducators included spending time in classrooms and other education settings observing and interviewing paraeducators and teachers.In addition, we obtained lists of duties from other districts across the country and compared them with what is happening in BOCES.Based on our findings, we developed a set of skills required for all paraeducators employed by the district.

Once we determined the skills needed by the BOCES paraeducators, we began a search to find appropriate training models and instructional materials.It was easier to find resource materials to meet our needs than to find training models that had been tested, had achieved longevity, and could be readily integrated into our personnel development system.

Developing thet System

After reviewing several instructional programs, we selected a series developed by the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals in Education and Related Services (NRCP). These competency based materials are designed to prepare paraeducators to work in inclusive classrooms and transitional/vocational programs for children and youth with disabilities. They have also proven to be easily adapted to train paraeducators working in Title 1 other compensatory and general education programs.

There were two primary concerns that confronted BOCES administrators and paraeducators as we began to develop a paraeducator training system.The first was to meet the needs of both new employees and experienced paraeducators that have, in some cases, worked for the district for as long as thirty years. The second was to develop a viable process for maintaining ongoing and structured opportunities for training.

Meeting the Needs of New and Experienced Teachers

To address this issue, we established two goals. They were to develop a training program that would: 1) recognize the similarities in the duties of all paraeducators working with students of different ages in a broad range of programs, and 2) prepare more experienced paraeducators to take on duties that are continuing to evolve and become more complex and demanding.

During the start-up phase of the training, we decided that because systematic training had not been previously available, all paraeducators would benefit from participating in three core courses that include: 1) Roles and Duties of Paraeducators; 2) Legal and Ethical Responsibilities of Paraeducators; and 3) Communication and Problem Solving.All of these courses are part of the NRCP curriculum. In addition, the NRCP curriculum offered us a framework and resources for preparing paraeducators to use effective instructional techniques and behavior management strategies developed by teachers, observe and document data about student performance and to report the results to teachers, understand principles of human development, and respect the diversity in cultural heritages, values, and lifestyles among students.

Because paraeducators require additional (specialized) skills in order to work in different programs that serve children and youth who have different learning needs, levels of ability, healthcare and physical needs, we also incorporated opportunities for building-specific training.

Providing Structured Ongoing Training

In order to meet our second challenge, we had to look beyond content and address the process.After exploring many approaches, we decided to develop and implement a Paraeducator Mentor Trainer Program that would allow us to: 1) orient new paraeducators and substitutes; 2) conduct program and building specific training for more experienced paraeducators; and 3) establish and maintain an ongoing paraeducator training program.

Skilled and experienced paraeducators are the key to ensuring that structured/systematic training and support for new paraeducators are available.They are mentors for paraeducators in their building and they welcome substitute paraeducators to their building.They also participate in the delivery of the core courses to their colleagues. In the BOCES training model, the paraeducator mentors/trainers:

  • Provide guidance to new paraeducators about general performance expectations, information about district and building policies, and emergency procedures;
  • Provide new and current paraeducators with a common core of knowledge and skills;
  • Select topics and coordinate the delivery of training responsive to unique program/building requirements;
  • Orient substitutes; and
  • Brief principals, and other BOCES personnel about the goals and content of the training program.

Selecting and Training Mentors

Paraeducator mentors/trainers are selected using the following criteria.They are:

  • Demonstrate a commitment to improving the performance and enhancing the status of paraeducators in the delivery of services to students and their parents.
  • Demonstrate an ability to communicate effectively with professional colleagues, paraeducators, students, and other people with whom they come in contact on the job.
  • Demonstrate a willingness to learn new skills in order to provide and facilitate training for the paraeducator workforce.

As the training model evolved, we identified two new issues that required our attention. The first was the need to add more courses to the core curriculum for all paraeducators.And the second was to develop inservice workshops to prepare teachers to direct and work more effectively with paraeducators. (The development of training for teachers was based on the requests we received from teachers.)

To expand the paraeducator curriculum and to provide training to teachers, we decided to add teachers to the training staff.Now teachers and paraeducators work together to develop workshops for members of the BOCES instructional teams.

Similar criteria are used to select teacher trainers.

Paraeducator and teacher trainers receive ongoing training provided by the program coordinator and a consultant. They are provided release time from their day-to-day responsibilities in the classroom to attend the training seminars and conduct the core courses for paraeducators, teachers, and substitutes. The paraeducators and teachers participate in 2 two-day training sessions annually and meet with the training coordinator periodically.Depending on the number of new paraeducators and teachers entering the system each year or the need to train substitutes, individual trainers conduct an average of three or four training sessions annually.These sessions require approximately two hours depending on the content being covered and the skill levels of the participants.

The procedures used to prepare the trainers are designed to provide them with the skills that they need to carry out their instructional and mentoring responsibilities. The training utilizes methods that recognize adult learning preferences and styles.

Specifically, paraeducator and mentors/trainers learn to:

  • Develop lesson plans using the NRCP core curricula.
  • Identify materials and equipment required to conduct a workshop.
  • Use effective communication skills.
  • Deliver training that builds on the life and work experiences of the trainees.
  • Revise sessions based on feedback from participants in the workshops, the program consultant, and other trainers.
  • Schedule building-and/or program-specific workshops.
  • Understand and interpret BOCES policies that affect paraeducator and teacher roles and team performance.
  • Identify and articulate paraeducator and teacher needs.
  • Cope with day-to-day problems.

The trainers learn and practice using role plays, case studies, small group discussions, brainstorming activities, and problem-solving strategies.They are also provided with opportunities to review audio-visual and other resource materials they will use during various workshops.In addition, they identify their own learning styles and assess their individual strengths as effective communicators.

Once again we turned to the NRCP curriculum for paraeducators.In addition to the core courses described above, we have added the following workshops: 1) Human Growth and Development; 2) Instructional Techniques; 3) Behavior Management; 4) Observing Behavior and Recording Data; and 5) Appreciating Diversity.

We also selected instructional materials developed by the NRC for Paraprofessionals for the teacher training. Some of the topics addressed in the modules are identical to the core training for paraeducators.They include: Distinctions in the Roles and Responsibilities of Teachers and Paraeducators, Communication, and Problem Solving. In addition, teachers learn to plan paraeducator assignments, direct and monitor the performance of paraeducators, and provide on-the-job coaching of paraeducators in order to help them master the skills learned during their inservice training.

Training Procedures

Most of the core courses and program-specific training are provided at the building level. It is, however, sometimes more efficient to provide various workshops at the district level.Attendance is limited to no more than 25 to ensure that the district-level workshops enable trainers to use a wide range of instructional methods that meet the needs of adult learners. The time needed to present the core courses is approximately ten (10) clock hours.We have reached the point where we are able to provide training to paraeducators and teachers during their first year of employment. In subsequent years, they attend sessions on human development, instructional techniques, behavior management, observing behavior and recording data, appreciating diversity, and more and teachers participate in more in-depth courses to enhance their supervisory skills. The district provides these training sessions during the school day and employs substitutes for the teachers and paraeducators.

Program-specific training topics for paraeducators may include but are not limited to: assistive technology, using adaptive equipment, positioning, turning and transferring children and youth with physical disabilities, working with learners with challenging behavior, and health, safety and emergency procedures. These training sessions are conducted by occupational and physical therapists and/or nurses with skills in the content area or, when appropriate, the paraeducator and the teacher-training teams.

Training Paraeducator Substitutes

The paraeducator mentors in the individual buildings in collaboration with teachers and principals have developed a handbook for substitutes that contains information about building policies and procedures, schedules, and guidelines for working with the students in the program.The mentors are also available to orient and assist substitutes new to their building or program.

In addition, substitutes who are interested are offered an opportunity to attend a more formal training session that includes a brief overview of the skill-building information presented in the core courses for paraeducators.These workshops are delivered by the paraeducator and teacher trainers.

Enlisting The Support Of Principals And Teachers

The development of the BOCES paraeducator staff development model was based on the concept that a successful inservice program could not take place in a vacuum.Establishing and maintaining a standardized, systematic training program requires the commitment of many players.Policymakers and administrators at the district level, principals, and teachers must: 1) be aware of the contributions that paraeducators make to the delivery of individualized education for children and youth; 2) recognize the need to enhance the on-the-job performance of paraeducators; and 3) work together to create an environment that accepts paraeducators as integral members of the instructional team.

Sharing information with the different audiences about the goals of the training program, the instructional activities, and the content is an ongoing process.Policymakers and administrative staff at the district and building levels are kept up to date about the training in several ways including: 1) reports during regularly scheduled district wide meetings from the Executive Director of Instructional Services for BOCES; 2) district and union publications; and 3) periodic briefings provided by the training coordinator and paraeducator mentors in specific programs and buildings.

Managing The System

The day-to-day management of all components of the project is the responsibility of the Training Coordinator. The Coordinator, who is a paraeducator, spends about 1/3 of her time on work connected with administering the program.She, too, receives release time from her classroom duties to carry out these responsibilities. To emphasize its importance and enable us to forge a strong program, we decided that the Coordinator would report to the Executive Director of Instructional Services, who ensures that the training and other activities are based on the district's philosophy of service delivery, staffing patterns, and other personnel practices.The Director also sets the guidelines for managing the program and delegates tasks to the Coordinator.

Evaluating The System

Evaluation activities are designed to assess the quality of the training and to provide us with information that we need to revise and strengthen the model.The evaluation activities include participant surveys and structured opportunities for feedback from the trainers/mentors about the effectiveness of the training and issues that need to be resolved in order to ensure that the quality and integrity of the model is maintained. Mentors also periodically submit written reports about training sessions held in their buildings.This enables us to maintain a database about the training the paraeducators receive through the various components of the training.

The Director of Instructional Services, the Training Coordinator and a program consultant review the results of the evaluations and determine how to improve the program and to make it more relevant to the needs of the paraeducators and teachers in the diverse programs administered by BOCES.

Conclusion

Perhaps reactions from paraeducators who have participated in the training provide the best insight into the value of the program and why it has been so universally accepted by all members of the BOCES staff.A few comments taken from training evaluation forms and feedback sessions with the paraeducator trainers/mentors are presented here.

"I'm not just an aide anymore. I'm a paraeducator who is an important member of the team. "

"Participating in the trainer/mentor program has given me my own identity in addition to being someone's spouse or mother."

"I appreciate what my teacher does much, much more!"

"The training is enabling me to bring a new dimension to my work.It forces me to think about what I do, why it needs to be done, and how I do it."

"As a trainer/mentor, I've seen the self-esteem of the other paraeducators grow."

"The training has given me an understanding of the wider world, what teachers really do, and what paraeducators contribute beyond the classroom and building."

"Being paraeducator trainer/mentors and doing the training has given us so much confidence in ourselves."

"I wish I could have had this training years ago.It has helped me recognize the impact I have on the kids."

"We make a difference."

If you have questions or want more information about the BOCES model write:

Arlene Barresi
Training Coordinator
40 Pine Street,
Seldon, NY 11784.