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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang
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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.

2. Calm

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.

3. Organized

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.

5. Creative

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.

6. Knowledgeable

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?

Karen Wang

Written on December 2, 2013 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
  • Martha

    A good sense of humor! I guess it is related to having a positive attitude. I found it very useful to “break the ice” with the student, or to connect with students in a fun way to increase student’s interest.

  • Pam Turner

    All of the qualities you list here are right on. I would also add that they need to be collaborative – working hand-in-hand with the teachers that serve those same students in order to advance student learning based on grade level expectations. Due to the high expectations for all children, parapros need to have the support of the teachers, administrators, and districts for whom they work in order to be successful. The most interesting quality you name is ‘intellectual curiosity’ and I applaud you for supplying staff with the Temple Grandin video (loved that movie by the way!). The thing that I think is absolutely necessary to support that intellectual curiosity is support from teachers and administration in supplying appropriate professional development opportunities.

  • Katie Kirby

    Nice,and helpful.

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