I hear it less now than I used to, but parents still routinely ask whether I can help their child get a 1:1 aide (meaning a paraprofessional who is ostensibly hired only to support a single child). My first response is that it’s always been very difficult, but due to budget cuts, it’s more difficult now than ever. My next response is that aides are not usually the answer to helping kids stay in a mainstream or gifted class.
I recently heard a prominent Miami-Dade school official say at an IEP meeting for a disabled who qualified to be in the gifted program but needs support – “Aides are for students who can barely keep their heads above water, not for a child like this.” But I think that response was disingenuous because most school districts don’t offer aides for kids who “can barely keep their heads above water” either – their solution for those kids (despite the federal legal requirement to keep kids with mainstream kids as much as possible) is to place them in “self-contained” classrooms of purely disabled kids. Who can blame them really. Assigning a 1:1 aide to a child means spending that person’s salary on only one child. That’s an enormous amount of money in these tight-budget times. But my point is this: 1:1 aides in and of themselves don’t generally help kids stay in mainstream classrooms. As a matter of Florida law (and the laws of many other states), only certified teachers can teach kids, not aides who generally have paltry qualifications and need not even have mastery of the English language. So, officially the aide can only keep the child on-task and following directions. I’ve observed a few aides who without formal training are simply natural educators and actually help kids to “access their education.” The majority of aides in my experience have no training in education (e.g., former bus drivers) and no training in behavior management – so they don’t even know how to effectively keep a child on-task, let alone keeping his or her impulses or emotions under control. Most of the aides I’ve observed are useless, quite honestly, to help the kids their assigned to; sometimes the aide causes the child to act-out against her aggravating the child’s behavior problems. As a child gets older he or she becomes very self-conscious, even resentful, of having an aide sit next to them. The aides often become the teacher’s helper with administrative tasks, like passing out worksheets, and the child makes little progress accessing his or her education. Ultimately, the child can’t survive in the mainstream classroom and is moved to a more restrictive special education environment. So, rather than fighting for an aide, I suggest getting your child the proper accommodations for his or her disability. One effective accommodation, is a peer “buddy” who is strong in the areas your child is weak will sit next to him or her, model good behavior, and depending upon his or her personality, will actually help your child follow directions and stay on-task.
UPDATE – September 20, 2009 – My position on this issue has changed and deepened slightly in the past few months to a year. Safety is a key and necessary justification for a 1:1 aide. Certainly there are those with physical or medical disabilities who absolutely could not join in a mainstream public school classroom without an aide. And some students with behavior problems (I’m thinking right now of high-functioning students on the Autism Spectrum, but there are others) can rise to the occasion, even flourish, in a mainstream classroom with the extra support of an aide. Those are often children who would pose a threat to themselves or others (usually unintentionally) without an aide. True miracles to see.