Utilizing Paraprofessionals to Support Virtual Learning

By Amy Howie, Senior Associate

The shift from physical classrooms to virtual spaces forces teachers to reflect on previous practices, and to view standards, instruction, and assessment in new ways. State standards and content have not changed, and the “what” of learning is a constant for students and teachers. Student engagement remains critical during this time, and the “why” of learning requires a personal connection to students as well as intentional strategies to monitor engagement. The “how” of learning is accomplished, as teachers use innovative approaches when planning virtual instruction, which ensure multiple means of student action and expression.

Tips for Engaging Paraprofessionals

The role of paraprofessionals is to support students with specific goals or instructional tasks, and to provide teachers with the implementation of supports and services outlined in the Individualized Education Plan (IEP), 504 Plans, English Learner Plans, etc. Paraprofessionals often provide supplemental instruction, modify materials, support students in general education classes, collect data, and support communication with parents and families. Paraprofessionals can provide the same supports in a live classroom and through a virtual format; the instruction just looks slightly different. The following tips provide ideas for utilizing paraprofessionals in a virtual setting:

  1. Prepare for Virtual Instruction. As teachers plan to deliver instruction in a new, virtual way, paraprofessionals can:
  • Research resources, websites, and technology tools that support specific needs identified by the teacher.
  • Create video instruction using scripts created by the teacher.
  • Make audio recordings of books, text, etc.
  • Convert materials to formats that are easily accessible in online learning platforms.
  • Adapt or modify curriculum materials, develop graphic organizers, etc., according to needs of each student.
  • Create schedules for students each week, including visual schedules.
  • Provide students and families with logistical support for setting up new technology, accessing materials, testing equipment, etc.
  • Review the use of Alternative Augmentative Communication (AAC) and Assistive Technology (AT), and identify students who will need specialized supports.
  1. Supplement Instruction. Utilize paraprofessionals to reteach skills, provide additional practice, or support instructional activities. Once a teacher has delivered virtual instruction, paraprofessionals can follow up with students using web conferencing, FaceTime, telephone calls, etc., in order to:
  • Teach the same skill in a new way.
  • Lead additional activities reinforcing the skill(s) taught.
  • Provide support as students complete activities to demonstrate skill(s).
  • Break down components of the instruction into smaller parts, and present again.
  • Support small groups of students with follow-up activities, additional instruction, etc.
  • Provide specific accommodations outlined in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), such as reading aloud certain text; providing detailed notes; repeating, clarifying and explaining directions; etc.
  • Host open office hours to provide support with assignments, and answer student questions.
  • Provide a supportive role in related service provision via telepractice, specifically serving as a support to the related service provider on a web conference, and supporting data collection and behavior management.
  1. Monitor Student Progress. Paraprofessionals assist teachers with maintaining accurate records of student progress. Shifting to a virtual setting means that the process of collecting information must be reconsidered. What information is typically collected during the school day? How? How could the same information be captured differently? Paraprofessionals can help monitor student progress in the following ways:
  • Use formative assessment strategies during virtual one-on-one or small group instruction sessions, and record observations.
  • Record observations on a template created for each student—to monitor engagement and/or behavior.
  • Complete a data collection form created for each student—to monitor progress on IEP goal(s) during instruction or scheduled assessments.
  • Provide anecdotal feedback to the teacher regarding specific student successes and challenges related to skills, and responses to virtual instruction.
  1. Communicate. Consistent and clear communication during this challenging time is as important as it has ever been. Paraprofessionals can support teacher and school communication by:
  • Meeting with the teacher of record or case manager weekly to review instruction plans and determine how students will be supported.
  • Meeting with general education teachers to learn about upcoming instruction, activities, assignments, and assessments, and reporting information to the teacher of record or case manager.
  • Communicating the weekly schedule to students and parents, and review visual schedules as needed.
  • Leveraging relationships with students and parents to provide emotional support by regularly checking in via phone, text, etc.
  1. Provide Professional Development. Paraprofessionals serve a vital role in the education of many students, but they often have limited access to professional development. Districts and schools can use this time to:
  • Survey paraprofessionals to find out the topics they would like to learn more about, and direct them to relevant resources.
  • Offer full access to school or district resources, and suggest training that may be of particular interest.
  • Provide opportunities to attend teacher-led instructional sessions, and debrief after the sessions to reinforce evidence-based practices.
  • Allow time for paraprofessionals to connect with other paraprofessionals, so they have opportunities to discuss experiences and provide support to each other.
  • Provide opportunities for professional development that aligns with paraprofessional roles and responsibilities, and allow time to research new instructional strategies, tools, and tips for supporting students.

How PCG Can Help During This Unprecedented Time

COVID-19 is creating significant challenges for school districts across the U.S. Public Consulting Group, Inc. (PCG) is always looking for ways to support school districts and students.

Special Education Research, Action Planning, and Facilitation Subject matter experts and consultants can research best practices, inventory resources, guide action planning, and facilitate the development of digital learning instructional continuity plans to help you address emergency situations that result in interrupted education for students with disabilities.

Online Special Education Paraprofessional Courses Whether you’re just getting started or you’re a seasoned paraprofessional, these courses provide practical, universal tips and strategies that can be implemented immediately. Each three-hour course is self-paced and develops knowledge and skills to better understand roles and responsibilities, improve communication and collaboration, and maintain high expectations by using the right tools to support students.

Virtual Instruction Toolkit This toolkit contains a library of tools and resources to help educators establish Online and Distance Learning instructional models based on best practices.

Virtual Staffing Solutions Provide trained professionals to augment staffing needs, and work directly to support your efforts to deliver continuity of instruction and services during this emergency period—using your available digital learning solutions or providing PCG’s EDPlan™ suite of tools.

About the Author

Amy Howie is a Senior Associate at PCG and provides thought leadership and consulting services in the areas of special education and leadership to states and districts across the country. Amy serves as the advisor to Indiana’s Project SUCCESS, a resource center developed and managed by PCG in collaboration with the Indiana Department of Education to support higher academic achievement for students with disabilities. Amy also leads a variety of professional development engagements with district and state partners to build leadership capacity and improve student outcomes.

Prior to coming to PCG, Amy served as a building administrator for six years where she led efforts to improve instruction and increase achievement by developing and supporting special education programming; Response to Intervention initiatives; and Positive Behavioral Support programs. Amy was also a special education teacher for 10 years, including experience at elementary and secondary levels and covering a range of disability areas and instructional settings.

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