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Teach Your Child Coping Strategies Now for a Smooth Transition into Adulthood Later

When your child outgrows her 1-to-1 para, she’ll need to know how to cope in myriad ways on her own. Don’t let her jump into adulthood without providing her with the proper training—use this expert advice for a smooth transition.


Under the 1997 Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, appropriately trained and supervised paraprofessionals are allowed to assist with special education as well as activities of daily living for students with intellectual disabilities. Sometimes, though, overdependence on 1-to-1 paras can adversely affect the social and academic growth of students with disabilities, resulting in a child who is not able to cope with transitions or various challenges that might come his or her way. 

Who gets a para?

At the child’s IEP meeting, the Committee on Preschool Special Education determines if a child will need to have a 1-to-1 para to help with transitions and various activities throughout the school day. Age is not a factor when assigning a para to a child; the decision is based on the child’s ability to function independently in the school environment. Some children are assigned paras for most of the school day, while others may only need assistance for certain tasks such as riding the bus or eating lunch. 

A para may also be assigned to help direct a child’s attention toward the teacher and help the child begin and complete individual tasks or assignments. A para may assist the child in unpacking his bag, taking out his homework, or helping him with transitions during the school day, whether from activity to activity or in and out of school for outdoor play.

Children who receive a para may have an autism diagnosis, ADHD or ADD, or they may have physical disabilities or medical needs.

Joseph Laudadio, a specialist supervisor for Life’s WORC in Garden City, says that in his experience, many children who receive a para are on the autism spectrum. In determining whether a child with autism needs a para, Laudadio says the committee assesses three factors: whether the child tends to elope (run away), whether the child is aggressive, and whether the child is able to communicate his wants and needs. 

How long does a para stay with a child?

Whether or not a para stays with a child long-term usually depends on if the child is able to generalize, meaning that he or she is able to take direction from and interact appropriately with a variety of people. “It may be important for generalization purposes if a para change is made every three to six months,” Laudadio says. “But if the child doesn’t have trouble generalizing and doesn’t become reliant on that particular para, the para may stay with the child for a year or two.”

The goal though, of course, is for the para to encourage independence in the child and get him to the point where he no longer needs to have the para’s aid.

How can paras encourage independence?

Paras are generally taught how to fade back their prompts to increase independence, so be on the lookout fo that. Children should also spend time with other teachers or teaching assistants to promote learning how to work with different people. 

“The worst thing a para can do is become too close to the child and hover over him,” Laudadio says. “A para should give the child space and allow for moments of independence. They should also limit verbal prompts—a child is not going to become independent if he’s constantly being told what to do. A good para will use gestural or model or visual prompts instead of using words.”

While the most critical thing is to allow for independence, Laudadio says, the second is to follow through with praise. “If you see a moment of independence, that’s when a para is allowed to do what we call ‘cartwheels,’” Laudadio says. “That reinforcement and praise is so important.” The praise could come in the form of a prize, candy, or by the para simply saying “What an amazing job!”

In order to become a para, according to Laudadio, an individual must be certified as a teaching assistant. Aside from that certification, paras are not necessarily trained in dealing with autism or other special needs, and they also may not be trained in how to use appropriate prompting techniques or how to encourage independence. There are a things parents can do, however, to make sure their child is getting the best experience with his or her para:

1. Ask for a trial period with the para. In public schools, paras are assigned by the school district, and parents typically don’t have a say in who is assigned to their child. Laudadio says he’s noticed in the past three to four years that more parents are requesting a one- to two-week trial period with a para to make sure the individual is a good fit for their child and is able to encourage independence.

If the child attends a private school or program, the para is typically assigned by an outside organization that works with the parents and child to assign a para who best fits the child’s needs.  

2. Request a consultant to train the paras at your school. As a behavior specialist, Laudadio spends time at schools on Long Island training paras on appropriate prompting techniques and ways to encourage independence. “In my experience, paras are not always well educated on what developmental disabilities are,” he says. Laudadio recommends that parents ask about the para’s background and training, and if they’re not satisfied they can—and should—advocate for their school to hire a consultant. 

practice, practice, practice

How can parents encourage independence in their child?

A para’s job is to work on independence at school. Typically, skills do not generalize from school to home because skills have to be taught in each environment separately. Parents should consult with their child’s para during parent-teacher conferences to discuss methods that are successful in school and how a parent can adapt those methods for the home environment. 

Think of the things you do for your child every day. Do you do all the work? Whether it’s getting dressed for the park, cleaning up toys, or feeding a meal, sometimes it’s just easier to do it yourself. But if we put the time in at an early age to teach more independence, our children will reap the benefits later on. Fostering independence requires planning, extra time, stepping back, and practice, practice, practice—but it is well worth the effort!

Independence is a skill; as with teaching any new skill, start small. It is always a good idea to begin with something the child likes to do. If your child likes playing in the park, begin with having him get his coat and put it on. You may have to teach the individual skill first. For example, hold the coat and have him put his arm in it, start the zipper, and let him finish.

At the same time, speak with the school and the child’s para to let them know what you are working on at home so that they can practice the skills at school as well. Consistency is critical, as well as a strong home-to-school connection.

 As you see more independence emerge in one area, include more opportunities. For instance, if you’re cleaning up toys, do it together at first and then slowly help less and less.

Paras help children become more independent in the school environment, but unless the same procedures are implemented at home—including the same consequences and positive reinforcements—they will not automatically generalize to the home environment. Collaboration is the key to success.


Bernadette Flynn, Ed.D., has served as executive director for the New York League for Early Learning for 10 years and has spent 34 years working in special education. She earned her doctor of education degree from Teachers College, Columbia University.


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