Paraprofessionals play a crucial role in the special education classroom, including for students with learning disabilities (LD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Many paraprofessionals are assigned to a single student and provide a broad range of supports during the day. Learn more from Crisis Paraprofessional Kayla Berry about that work and how classroom teachers and paraprofessionals can most effectively partner in support of students.
How did you start working in special education?
I have two younger brothers with autism. I always worked with them, trying different strategies to see what would help even for small wins like learning to tie shoes. I also started working in recreation programs for kids with disabilities and now I run a weekend recreation program for adults with disabilities. I got into this field because I always liked to work with kids and adults to make a difference in their lives.
What is your job as a crisis paraprofessional?
There are different types of paraprofessionals. There are health paras in charge if a kid has a seizure, asthma, or other medical issues. And then there are crisis paraprofessionals for kids who have behaviors that need support or may need frequent breaks, like for movement or other activities like kicking a soccer ball. We’re there for them all day. We go to each class with them, including the specials, and we may be there for recess and lunch depending on the IEP.
The student I have this year has ADHD, so he needs a lot of breaks. We change the atmosphere for a little bit, and sometimes transitions are hard for him. We’ll go before the rest of the class does and we’ll leave after the class by ourselves to reduce that distraction. That has worked well.
What helps you work with lots of different teachers?
Thankfully, we’re in a small school so everyone knows each other. We can ask each other, “What does he need or how can I support him?” “How can we best help him succeed as a team?” Sometimes people expect me to take him off to the corner to work, and so I ask, “Well, how can I support you, the teacher, to support him?” Maybe a question needs to be shorter or maybe he needs writing lines on his paper. It’s helpful to have that bond and that respect. And the classroom teachers have great ideas, too because sometimes I run out of ideas since I am with him all day!
Are you ever asked to support other students?
Yes, and if my student is doing okay, I don’t mind helping. But there was a time when I was asked to support a reading program and leave my student to help another. Then my student had trouble while I was gone and the teacher was looking for me to deescalate the situation. I had a conversation with administrators and explained that I didn’t mind helping but my student was priority number one, especially in the case of this student who had a lot of meltdowns. And they understood that and reworked the schedule.
What are some of your first steps when you meet a new student?
You have to be very patient. It takes a while for students to trust you. They might test you a lot before they know you’re not going anywhere, that you’re going to be there for them. I also try to find out their interests and bring them up in the conversation as often as I can to help build that relationship.
What advice do you have for other crisis paraprofessionals?
The most important thing is to be a team player. Don’t try to do everything by yourself, and ask for a break when you need it because if you’re not in your right mindset then you’re not going to be able to help the student. And if you are really struggling, speak to someone in the school who you trust — maybe a social worker or a guidance counselor — and ask them, “What can I do? I really don’t know if I can handle this anymore with this student.” That’s especially important if the child is acting out a lot.
In addition, try not to take things personally. Communicate what you need. And speak out for the student because you are their hotline, their cheerleader, and their advocate.
How do you want your students to see your role?
I want them to know that I’m here to help them. I’m not here to give them the answers, but I’m here to help them grow so that they can be independent. Many of my students are also afraid to be wrong, so I try to encourage them to trust themselves. I also try to help them with their emotional challenges. I tell them, “If things are hard, you need to say so. You need to say you need help or you need to speak up for yourself,” because a lot of the kids will get frustrated and then they act before they speak.
What are some ways that your colleagues support paraprofessionals?
One person who has been really supportive to me is Shira Moscovitz, a special education and technology teacher in our building. She used to see me in the hallway dealing with tough behaviors. She was very respectful of paras and one year she put a note in everyone’s mailbox saying, “Happy Paraprofessional Day.” She would often take time to thank us. She understands that we have a hard job, and, in her room, everyone’s on the same team. No one is higher up. The child is our priority and so what can we do to help the student?
What do you do for self-care?
When I leave school, I try to take a break from talking to anyone for a bit since my days are so intense. I also try not to talk about work too much outside of work. I listen to music and I think hobbies are important. I really like to travel, so over the summer I try to plan like a long trip.
What inspires you about your job?
The student I am working with this year really wants to do well in school, so he’s trying hard. And even though he has hard times throughout the day, he wants to do well and improve. He wants to show his teachers that he’s on another level in reading, that he was able to do his math, that he’s doing the multiplication by himself, and I think that’s really good to see.