A few years ago, a colleague and I returned to school to earn a masters degree in reading. One of our last assignments was a research project of our choice. We decided to study the effects on students when they were given support from paraprofessionals that had been specifically taught to tutor an area of reading, in this case, fluency. All students improved to some extent, and many improved significantly. Our professor encouraged us to publish our study, because it was different than the norm. We probably would have, except that it felt so darned good to be done with all the extra work. (In fact, we could be heard frequently saying “We’re done” for months after our last class was complete). We promptly pushed it from our minds, and have not thought much about it. Until now, until today.
Let me give you a little background information. I have been a special education teacher, working with the junior high population for over ten years. This year, I now spend most of my time in the primary wing as a reading interventionist. As luck would have it, one of our paraprofessionals in the junior high had a very light schedule. I requested her assistance with the very needy kindergarten classes. I had become busy, and there were quite a few little ones who could use individual help learning how to write their names.
There happens to be one little guy who seemed to have no readiness skills. In fact, he rarely spoke and didn’t seem capable of following the simplest directions. Trying to write one letter in his name was torture. The only time his face would light up was when he was working on an Ipad or computer. Not only did he have a problem academically, his behavior turned from bad to worse. He would not sit still for anything, often looking into cubbies for something he could confiscate. His face was always wet from a drippy nose, licking his hands and spreading germs, or spitting on something or at someone. He could be found more often on the floor, wandering the room, or under a table than in his seat.
We had tried various strategies. The fact that he could deliberately misbehave led us to believe that he might be more intelligent than what we originally thought. Last week, we decided on a plan that would have Kelly, our paraprofessional working with him as soon as the day started, before he had a chance to get into trouble. She would then work with him on the computer after lunch, this time dependent on behavior. After several days of working on targeted readiness activities, as well as computer time on specific areas of Starfall and ABC Mouse, changes were obvious.
On Thursday, our little guy had a wonderful day, behavior wise. We all celebrated. He was given abundant praise, an orange note home, and a toy from his teacher’s treasure chest as well as from mine. Today, J was able to name fourteen letters and sounds, write his name, and, for the first time, listen to and point at individual words, as he repeated them throughout a whole book. Success! All I thought about is, “What if we had given up? What if we didn’t have a paraprofessional who was willing, even eager to take suggestions, read materials given to her about concepts of print, okay with wiping noses and washing hands, reluctant to give up?”
Today my beliefs that paraprofessionals can add so much to the educational environment, given specific training, has been reaffirmed. Not only do children benefit, but paraprofessionals begin to feel more necessary, appreciated, and therefore, more excited about their job. I see it in Kelly. Her smile is wider these days, she gets excited along with the children she teaches, and she comes to me with “What next” questions, eager to do more.
Today, she cried, and hugged J, a little boy with a smile on his face that reached from ear to ear.
Will we publish our study? I doubt it, but that doesn’t mean we will stop challenging and teaching paraprofessionals to give it their all, for the benefit of children and themselves.