Perspectives of Students
With Intellectual Disabilities about their
Experiences with Paraprofessional Support
Stephen Broer, Mary Beth Doyle and Michael F. Giangreco
interviewed sixteen young adults who were all
supported by paraprofessionals in general education classrooms
for some period of time while they were in public school.
This study is interesting because, as the authors note,
there are no other studies that have sought the perspectives
of students with significant disabilities themselves. All
of the young adults who participated in the study were verbal
and were able to recall and describe events that had happened
in the past and what their feelings had been.
All but one of the study participants had completed school
within the five years of the study; the other participant
was in the last 2 months of school. The majority of the sixteen
participants had attended different high schools; the three
who attended the same high school were enrolled in overlapping
years. The paraprofessionals that supported nine of the former
students were different individuals. Seven of the study participants
were supported by the same paraprofessional in the two different
high schools attended, but in different years.
Researchers report that four themes emerged from the work
of the study. Each is interrelated with the others, but all
suggest that the relationships between the students and the
paraprofessionals assigned to support them were one of their
prime and sometimes exclusive relationships while they were
felt a little weird. It felt like having, like a mother”
Nearly all the paraprofessionals described by the study
were women and many were, in fact, old enough to be the parent
of the student in question.
like the paraprofessional was acting as a mother was comforting
for some, “she was like a mother to
me,” but discomforting as well. Study participants
believed that having a mother was not appropriate in school
and that this dynamic did interfere with developing friendships.
my friend now. She has been for a long time”
participants perceived themselves as very isolated from
the regular activities and relationships in their schools.
They shared a keen recognition that they were different and
often commented that when they were in school they felt like
they “didn’t belong”. They remembered desiring
to belong and “fit in” but recalled instances
of peer rejection and resignation that other students with
disabilities were “my kind of people”.
These feelings and experiences contributed to the notion
that paraprofessionals were friends as participants explained
the ways in which paraprofessionals filled the companionship
void they often felt at school. Most noted that they typically
interacted with their paraprofessional more often than with
peers. This was especially true of the times when students
without disabilities would be interacting primarily with
The young adults in the study were able to recognize that
their relationships with paraprofessionals did interfere
with making conversation and casual opportunities for developing
3. Protection from Bullying
of the young adults in the study reported significant levels
of bullying while they were in school. Several of
the participants wept while recounting their experiences – still
feeling very keenly the hurt experienced as a result of the
words and actions of their peers.
There was consensus among the study participants that the
adults were not only unaware of the amount of bullying experienced
by students with disabilities, but that they were also not
effective in dealing with bullying. In those instances, participants
remembered feeling that in some instances they were teased
because of having a paraprofessional, but also that the paraprofessional
would often act as a protector and as an advocate on behalf
of the students when they were bullied in school.
4. “The classroom teacher, she didn’t
know me very well”
The young adults who participated in the study reported
that most often it was the paraprofessional who interacted
with them and was their primary teacher in the general education
also related in many instances that they were not important
enough to receive the teacher’s attention,
a perception that was communicated to them by both teachers
and paraprofessionals. They were told that there were too
many other kids in the classroom, or that the teacher was
busy with other tasks, or that the teacher couldn’t
spend much time with them because “they have a class
to teach”. This reinforced both their feelings of isolation
as well as their reliance on the paraprofessional for instruction.
They were grateful, in many instances, for the help they
received, “She taught me a lot” and that the
paraprofessional “helped me understand what they’re
trying to say”. Others acknowledged that they needed
the extra behavioral support as well.
were few instances of participants describing the curriculum
modified to meet their individual needs. Several
participants indicated that often the paraprofessional “intervened” while
the student was still working on the tasks. But the most
common recollection among all of the young adults in the
study was that the paraprofessional actually did the work
for them, “I didn’t have to do anything. She
pretty much did it for me.”
The themes that define the relationship between the students
with intellectual disabilities and the paraprofessionals
assigned to support them should be of concern to advocates
and parents. This is despite the often positive characterizations
the former students recalled in describing the experiences
where the paraprofessional was remembered as a parent, a
friend, a protector and a primary instructor.
reinforcement of stereotypes about students with intellectual
disabilities as child-like and
support situation that invites bullying despite the ability
of the paraprofessional to intervene
are isolated from the instructional content and interactions
the students and with the
teacher in the
are unlikely to be receiving adequate instruction when
paraprofessionals are doing
or all of the work
lack of adequate instruction may also be seen as a lack
of individualized instructional
education teacher as well.
students do not need or have a mother figure in school.
To have a mother figure is to invite what the authors conclude
will be almost universally negative perceptions and treatment
of students with disabilities. “Mother supports” reinforce
stereotypes that individuals with intellectual disabilities
are child-like and that they need mothering rather than high
expectations, effective instruction and supports.
Beyond the stereotypes are the equally troubling concerns
about fairness and equal treatment of students who may be
perceived and may come to perceive themselves as somehow
less worthy of instructional time and effort as clearly demonstrated
in this small, but well designed study.
As important as educational progress is
the opportunity to mature socially and emotionally. This
previous observations from the field that the use of paraprofessional
support can increase isolation from peers and decrease the
opportunity to experience and learn from the natural “flow” of
everyday events and socialization, which is part of the public
school experience for all students.
may also conclude that the provision of a paraprofessional
support person did not provide the students who participated
in this study with the individualized services and accommodations
they required. Rather, the provision of the paraprofessional
can become the sole attempt at individualization – and,
as we have seen, for some students it can become a barrier
to socialization and high quality instruction.
the authors concluded that the extent to which students
perceive paraprofessionals as mother, friend, protector and
primary teacher can serve as a significant indicator of the
overall “health” of a school’s delivery
of educational services both in general and special education.
Research: Perspectives of Students with
Intellectual Disabilities About Their Experiences with
Support. Stephen M. Broer, University of Vermont,
Mary Beth Doyle, St. Michael's College, and Michael F. Giangreco,
of Vermont. Published in Exceptional Children, Vol.71,
No. 4, pp. 415-430.
Alternatives to Overreliance on Paraprofessionals
Researcher Michael Giangreco and his colleagues have
done extensive field work and research to identify
the issues that contribute to the effective use of
paraprofessional supports in general education classrooms.
Working with paraprofessionals, they have identified
critical issues for the field that include:
report feeling unprepared.
report being under-compensated for the work they
to do as their
role expands to doing “teacher type” activities.
are often the staff members who spend the most time with students who
most significant and complex disabilities.
Giangreco respects the field and supports strengthening
paraprofessional supports, he maintains that this will
not be sufficient to avert a “double standard” that
resigns special education students to receiving the
majority of their instruction from paraprofessionals
rather than qualified special and general education
research informs us about alternatives which Giangreco
et al recommend:
existing funds from the hiring of paraprofessionals
to the hiring of special educators. Schools that
resources in this manner increase the number
of highly qualified faculty without increasing
cost and improve
working conditions for special educators by reducing
teacher attitudes that are welcoming toward the
inclusion of students
building of professional capacity to support
the educational needs of mixed-ability groups.
a pool of trained paraprofessionals that can
be centrally deployed by a principal or
support strategies are a natural support that have
a solid record
in the literature.
include a “Learning Lab” where
all students who need extra support can get
individual or group tutoring.
to Overreliance on Paraprofessionals in Inclusive
Schools and The Paraprofessional Conundrum:
Why We Need Alternative Support Strategies are available