What Teaching Assistants and Paraeducators Do for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
Paraeducators often go by other names, including teaching assistant, teacher's aide, paraprofessional, or school aide. Regardless of what title is used, the specific responsibilities assigned to teaching assistants can vary widely, as can their formal training to work with children with visual impairments. The paraeducator is a member of the blind student's educational team who may be assigned to work in the classroom with your child to assist her classroom teacher and the teacher of students with visual impairments.
Depending on your child's specific needs and her age, a paraeducator who works with her in the classroom might have duties such as the following:
- supporting and reinforcing instruction: The teacher of students with visual impairments, classroom teacher, or other members of your child's educational team may ask the paraeducator to assist your child during instructional times in the classroom. For example, the paraeducator may need to provide verbal descriptions to your child of visual presentations, such as classroom demonstrations or videos. At other times, the paraeducator may take your child aside and help reinforce concepts taught in the regular class lessons.
- preparing materials: The teacher of students with visual impairments may ask the paraeducator to prepare or obtain accessible versions of instructional materials for your child so that she can have them at the same time as her classmates. For example, if the class is reading a book together, the teaching assistant may be asked to prepare a braille copy of the book with tactile illustrations in it. The paraeducator may enlarge charts or maps in a textbook on a photocopy machine or prepare a tactile version for a child who reads braille.
- helping your child practice skills: The teacher of students with visual impairments or the orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor, may have taught your child a new skill and the paraeducator may be asked to reinforce it. For example, if the teacher of students with visual impairments has taught your child how to braille math problems on the braillewriter, the paraeducator may be asked to guide her as she completes her math assignment using braille.
- monitoring safety: The paraeducator may supervise your child if she needs support in monitoring her own safety in such situations as walking through the halls, playing on the playground, or participating in hands-on projects in the classroom. This allows the child to participate safely in the class's activities, while learning to do so independently. Or, the paraeducator might be assigned to "shadow" your child while she practices an O&M technique on a school route, allowing her to find her way on her own, as long as she is traveling safely.
- assisting with self-care tasks: The paraeducator may assist younger children or children with multiple disabilities who need assistance with such tasks as toileting, dressing, and eating, while encouraging them to learn to do these tasks independently.
- supporting social interactions: The paraeducator can help your child practice appropriate social skills such as facing the person she is talking to, using appropriate body language, joining a group, or asking for assistance when she needs it.
- serving on your child's educational team: The teaching assistant may spend a lot of time with your child in different classes or as she works with other educational team members such as the occupational therapist or orientation and mobility specialist. Thus the paraeducator can share with other team members considerable information about how your child is progressing in her education and how she responds under different circumstances and situations around the school.
Balancing the Role of the Paraeducator
Because the teacher of students with visual impairments may not work with your child every day, the paraeducator may be the professional with whom she is spending the most time. It is important, therefore, to understand what the role of the paraeducator is—and is not. The paraeducator plays a vital role in the classroom but is not a teacher. Usually the paraeducator will be under the supervision of the general education teacher, but in matters related to visual impairment, the paraeducator will be following the instructions of the teacher of students with visual impairments or the O&M instructor. The paraeducator provides practice, reinforcement, and monitoring of skills but should not be providing formal instruction, especially in specialized areas such as reading braille.
In addition, because the paraeducator often works so closely with your child, his or her role can be a delicate one. In general, your child needs to be encouraged to develop her own skills and to become increasingly independent. For many children with visual impairments having an adult who is with them almost all the time, causes them to become overly reliant on the paraeducator to do things they could be learning to do themselves. Thus, it is important for the paraeducator to resist providing too much assistance or supervision that might interfere with your child's development of independent skills. For example, the paraeducator has to balance the need to stay close to your child for safety reasons with maintaining enough distance to give her the opportunity to socialize freely with other students.
Who Is Assigned a Paraeducator?
Some school districts assign a teaching assistant to every visually impaired child, but your child may or may not need this level of support. Sometimes a teaching assistant is assigned not to your child, but to her classroom. In this situation, the teaching assistant can lend your child a hand when she needs it or work with a group of students that includes your child and then assist other children when your child is able to do a task independently.
If a paraeducator is assigned to your child or her classroom, you may want to talk to the teacher of students with visual impairments or the classroom teacher about how the paraeducator will work with your child to support her so that a good balance is had between support and the development of independence.