The 10 Qualities of a Great Paraprofessional
Last week I wrote about the pros and cons of parapros in special education. Most of the parapros whom I have personally met are warm, attentive and selfless. It’s obvious that they do not choose their careers for fame or fortune - parapros come to school every day because they love to be there and believe that they are making a positive difference in the lives of children.
What are the qualities of a great parapro? What are the red flags for an unsuccessful placement? For families new to the world of special education, here are 10 character traits to look for in a parapro.
1. Likes kids - unconditionally
I’ve noticed that many adults have an idea in their heads of what children should be like, and don’t seem to know what to do when children behave outside those expectations. That attitude only generates misery in a parapro’s career. A love of children - all children, with all types of abilities, in all situations - is an absolute requirement. An unflappable parapro enjoys being around children and acting as a positive influence in their lives.
A parapro’s job may be thankless, repetitive and frustrating for long periods, interrupted by meltdowns and medical emergencies. The best parapros remain calm and patient both in crisis and in tedium. Very few people pull this off successfully, though some can learn with practice.
Since many students with special needs lack executive function skills, a big part of a parapro’s job is to teach and model organizational skills. That means keeping track of assignments and bathroom breaks, instructing a student about maintaining neatness in a desk or locker, having the right class materials at the right time, and much more.
4. Team player
A constant source of stress for parapros is the tug of war between teachers, administrators, parents and the student. Parapros follow the instructions of teachers and administrators, but also have to make difficult judgement calls when working one-on-one with a student. Parapros often act as a go-between, relating concerns and observations to the supervising teacher and to the parents. It’s not always clear what is in the student’s best interest, and when mistakes are made, parapros are the team members most likely to lose their jobs. Their role on the team requires thoughtfulness and diplomacy.
I love it when one of my son’s parapros tells me that he or she has a background in the arts, because that usually translates to the ability to think outside the box - and that’s the only way to work productively with my son! Parapros need to come up with creative solutions on the spot whenever traditional methods fail, and that happens often in special ed.
Most school districts only require a high school diploma for parapros, and there is no certification process. The parapros who have helped my son the most each had some area of expertise to share with him - in some cases, it was a sense of playfulness or unrelenting positive encouragement. But now in middle school, he needs more academic support, so his parapros bring more knowledge in different school subjects.
7. Intellectually curious
Parapros have to be ready to change the way they do things at a moment’s notice- they may work with students with different types of special needs at each hour or they may find that traditional methods do not work in a particular situation. They’re always looking for a better way to do things!
A few years ago, I gave copies of the film “Temple Grandin” to all of my son’s teachers, therapists and parapros, with the explanation that the film gave good examples of the positive impact teachers can have on a student’s life. One parapro told me the next day that she watched the whole movie as soon as she got home - she really wanted to learn more about autism and to see an example of a positive outcome.
8. Knows when to back off
The best parapros allow students to develop independence, and encourage interaction with fellow students and the teacher. Instead of guiding the student to the answers, a truly great parapro knows how to remain present or step back while the student figures out the answer for him or herself.
9. Knows when to step in
When something is not quite right, a responsible parapro knows how to intervene. Sometimes it is a complex social situation, sometimes an attention issue in class, or even a lesson in life skills.
10. Positive attitude
The single most important attribute for a parapro, or anyone working with students who have special needs, is a positive attitude. I’ve seen experienced teachers with all kinds of certifications who failed to understand my son’s most basic needs, and I’ve seen inexperienced - but cheerful and curious - parapros who made an instant connection and knew exactly what to do. Without their hope to light the way, I don’t know where we’d be right now.What are your favorite qualities in a parapro?