Planning for the Paraeducator

How is planning for a paraeducator different than planning for yourself and from co-planning with a peer?

You may have already read about co-planning in another section of the Special Connections website. The forms contained in that section provide an excellent basis for planning with another teacher. However, planning for a paraeducator is different because the role is different than yours, and it doesn't legitimately allow them to make decisions about the curriculum or instruction that students receive. While you may be able to use shorthand in your plan book or on a planning form to remind yourself of what you intend to do, a paraeducator cannot be expected to read your mind and is left stranded without written plans.

Why is planning for paraeducators important?

Dynamic instruction is founded on good planning and good planning is founded on assessment information. While most teachers have stopped using the planning forms their education professors gave them, effective teachers are absolutely clear about the purposes of their lessons and they create classroom experiences that target those purposes. They decide ahead of time what activities they'll engage students in, how they'll provide directions to students, and what materials they'll need at their fingertips. They know what homework will be assigned and they know beforehand how they'll prepare students to engage with the concepts.

When experienced school professionals fail to plan, they may be able to wing it or make it through a class or two without disastrous results. However, when no one plans for the instruction delivered by paraeducators, it means that paraeducators, who are unprepared to plan lessons, are on their own to design the instruction. It is legally and ethically unacceptable for a paraeducator to work with students who have complex learning needs, or with social, emotional, or health issues, with no written plan provided by a supervisor. Yet, it is commonly done.

Paraeducators, unfortunately, are frequently allowed to make decisions that should be rightfully made by fully qualified professionals. Interviews with paraeducators have revealed intuitive or "home grown" attitudes about their roles in supporting students, in the absence of written plans. Some paraeducators believe it is their job to keep students with disabilities from "bothering the classroom teacher." They believe that they are responsible for all aspects of a child's education, that they have to create all adaptations for the child, and that they are responsible totally for the child. And, sadly, they have been allowed to deliver services with little guidance.

Paraeducators who are placed in such positions realize that they are poorly equipped to do the job. Some paraeducators have reported that, "I make my own plans." Others reported, "No one plans, I just follow along trying to do what I'm supposed to," and still others reported that they "write lesson plans for the reading group." Paraeducators in many locations have reported that they held full responsibility for students, including planning lessons and activities, creating curricular and instructional adaptations and modifications even though state policies do not advocate such responsibilities for paraeducators.

When teachers were asked if they planned for paraeducators, they often admitted that they did not. Some teachers justified their lack of planning for paraeducators, "I don't need to plan - she just knows what to do." Some said, "She doesn't need a written plan, I just tell her what to do on the 'fly' (French, 1998)." While these responses may reflect the current state of affairs, none of them exemplify a legal or ethical position.

Should we expect something different from paraeducators than we expect from teachers? In a word, yes. Paraeducators are not teachers. They are valuable school employees who hold a legitimate role in the teaching process, but they work in a different capacity than teachers. For example, paraeducators assist teachers of students who are learning English but they do not have the skills to conduct language assessments or to plan lessons that focus on language acquisition.

We expect nurses and doctors to have different roles. We recognize that a nurse may give the injection to a patient, but we understand that the doctor prescribed it. Nurses do not prescribe medications or courses or treatment-they deliver them. They provide daily care to patients; ensure the delivery of prescribed medications and treatments, and record data so that the doctor can make informed decisions about further treatment. Similarly, we do not want paraeducators prescribing instructional sequences, units, lessons, or adaptations. We do want paraeducators delivering instruction and interventions, carrying out the curricular adaptation plans made by the professional.

Designing instructional environments and making decisions about the goals, objectives, activities, and evaluations of instructional episodes are tasks that are well outside the paraeducator's scope of responsibility. We should not let it slide when a paraeducator, who works on an hourly basis, with little preparation, and no professional credential, is allowed to plan or, worse, is forced into planning for students because the professional has neglected to do so. Paraeducators should not be asked to do the teacher's job. There is an important instructional role for paraeducators, but that does not include usurping the teacher's role.

What factors should I consider in planning for paraeducators?

First, let's consider what it is that a special educator plans. Those who work in self-contained classes plan like any other teacher for all the curricular and instructional needs of their students. There is little else to say about that situation.

On the other hand, special education teachers who work in inclusion programs have to plan differently. Their plans are not so much about the curricular standards (because general education teachers plan the class lessons). They are about the adaptations to general education curriculum and instruction that are driven by the IEP and are necessary to the success of students in general education classes.

Because the tasks that paraeducators perform vary substantially in complexity and risk, the type and level of planning also varies. Consider the following factors.

Paraeducator Experience, Skill, and Training.

If a paraeducator has performed the same type of instructional activity, student supervision assignment, clerical task, behavior management technique, data collection, or health service in the past, and has performed satisfactorily, then plans may be very brief. A sentence or phrase added to the schedule would suffice. On the other hand, if a paraeducator is new to the position, has received only a brief training, or doesn't have the skills, the plan must be more detailed, specifying outcomes, actions, materials, cautions, and levels of authority.

Complexity of the Task

Obviously, clerical work requires minimal planning and direction, but instructional work requires more. The more complex the instruction, or the intervention, the more important it is to give specific directions in the plan for data recording and instructional techniques. For example, a paraeducator should be given specific directions regarding the amount of student success or failure to tolerate. A paraeducator may be directed to allow a student to fail at a task and then redirect his or her efforts or, alternatively, to give enough prompts and cues so that student performance is errorless.

Behavior issues are also complex. A paraeducator working with students who have significant behavior or social issues needs more guidance about appropriate ways to interact with the students, appropriate limits to set, and types of behavior to tolerate or ignore, as well as the behaviors that require interruption, redirection, or reinforcement.


Two circumstances that increase risk are structure and distance. Structure refers to the circumstances of the situation. Where there are walls and doors, where the activities are performed uniformly with other students, where there is little movement or few choices, there tends to be less risk. Within a school, physical education classes pose greater risks for students than English classes.

Distance is the physical separation between the paraeducator and the person responsible for the outcomes of instruction. Where the paraeducator performs his or her work matters. The distance of the paraeducator from the supervising professional is one factor that contributes to risk. The greater the distance, the greater the risk. Greater risk requires more specific guidance.

For example, Ruby works one-to-one with an elementary school student with autism in the general classroom, hallways, lunchroom, and playground-all at some distance from the special education teacher. Ruby needs full information about the student's health, academic needs, appropriate adaptations, and appropriate instructional techniques, as well as specific directions on how to cue the student to engage in activities. The plan should tell Ruby how much or little verbalization to use and how to work around the student's sensitivities to touch and other sensory inputs.

Another example is of a secondary special education program where students go into the community for life-skills experiences, vocational exploration, or work experience. The paraeducator is working in a high-risk situation, away from the teacher, and in a low-structure situation. Such a paraeducator should have a list of precautions and emergency procedures, as well as specific goals and directions for the instructional sequences that take place in the community setting.

What do plans for paraeducators contain?

Components of Plans

  1. Purpose of task, lesson or adaptation
  2. Long term student goals, short term objectives
  3. Specific student needs & strengths
  4. Materials & Research
  5. Sequence of actions, use of cues or prompts, permissible adaptations
  6. Data structure for documenting student performance

Good plans are brief, easy to read at a glance, and relatively easy to write. They also contain six key components.

Components of Plans

A good plan specifies how to do the task, the purposes of the task or lesson, the specific student needs to be addressed or strengths on which to capitalize, the materials to use, and the type of data needed to determine whether the student achievement is satisfactory, moving in the right direction, or unsatisfactory.

It is also important for the paraeducator to understand how the task fits into the broader goals and outcomes for the student. For example, James, a student with severe and multiple disabilities, has been learning to raise and lower his left arm. If Lu, the paraeducator who works with him, understands that James is preparing for a communication device that depends on this skill, she will be sure that he practices many times a day and that he practices correctly. So, the plan may tell Lu that the goal is for James to raise and lower his left arm deliberately. It should also tell her that the long-range goal is that he will be able to use a button or switch that controls an assistive speaking device. The plan also needs to have a place to document the number of opportunities he had to practice the skill, the amount of cueing or prompting he required to perform the skill, and the number of times he successfully performed the skill, with or without cueing or prompting.

How can I plan for paraeducators efficiently?

Communicating About Plans

When you plan for yourself, communicating with another person isn't an issue. But, when you plan for paraeducators, lack of clarity can cause unexpected problems. Try to look at the plan from the paraeducator's point of view. Unless the plan is communicated in a format that she understands, she may not be able to use it.

Good planning formats are easy to use and user-friendly. If the planning form or format is handy, simple, and includes all key components, you will improve your communication and minimize the amount of time you spend doing it. How can you be sure the paraeducator knows how to carry out the plan? You may also need to check for understanding about the plan. Asking the paraeducator if he or she has any questions is one way to open the opportunity for clarification.

Planning Forms and Formats

Plans do not necessarily adhere to a predetermined format. Many teachers use their creative talents to design forms and formats that respond to the unique characteristics of their own situation. Professionals have sufficient latitude to create a planning form or format that pleases them and addresses the combined needs of the team. What is contained in the written plan, the amount of detail, and the specificity of directions are all negotiable.

Although a paper-based planning form isn't necessary and plans certainly may be written on any type of surface (chalkboards, dry-mark boards) or electronic platform (hand-held electronic planner, centrally located computer), school professionals tend to rely on paper.

Using blank paper means that the plan-writer will have to write certain pieces of information or structural aspects of the plan over and over again. Forms eliminate the duplication of effort and streamline the planning process. Paper-based planning forms, like other planning formats, must also meet the dual tests of ease-of-use and user-friendliness.

Ease of Use

Ease-of-use means that the plan form or format should be readily available and comprehensive enough to cover all the key components, yet simple enough that the professional can use it consistently. The professional is the best judge of ease-of-use. For example, a template created and kept on a word processor may be readily available for a professional who has a computer on his or her desk. Multiple copies of a printed form kept in a desktop folder may be easier for another teacher who prefers the pen to the keyboard.

Length of the form is also important. Too many components make it difficult to know what to write and too tedious to write it in each space. Including too few components may result in the transmission of too little information or of information that is too general to be useful.


User-friendliness refers to the visual appeal of the form and its familiarity. User-friendliness is best judged by the paraeducator. Visual appeal often means that there is a lot of white space or graphics on the page and that the length is sufficient but not overwhelming. A paraeducator faced with a two- to three-page plan will be less likely to read the plan carefully than she would given a single page, neatly written or typed. The use of common terminology and a reading level that is consistent with the knowledge and literacy level of the paraeducator are also important factors in user-friendliness.

What is the role of the paraeducator in adapting curriculum and instruction?

The paraeducator holds the ethical responsibility to follow written plans and oral directions provided by any or all school professionals assigned to the student with disabilities. The written plans need not be complex, but must be developed by the professionals who participated in assessment of the student and in the IEP planning, and who hold responsibility for that student's IEP goals and objectives. A list of goals and the related adaptations covering the range of classroom instructional situations meets the legal requirements if it is shared with the paraeducator as well as general education teachers.