When Helping Is Hindering: A Look at Paraeducator Support in Physical Education
Apr 28 2022
Educators are natural helpers, and in our desire to help, sometimes our support can cross the line from empowering to hindering. It is imperative that any educator, but especially those working in one-to-one support models, place student voice, growth, and autonomy at the core of their support systems and strategies. Otherwise students may develop unhealthy dependencies on the support and the educator themselves resulting in long-lasting and wide-ranging detrimental impacts. —Ayla Reau
“Paraeducators, also referred to as instructional assistants, educational assistants, teaching assistants, or learning support assistants have been placed between the teacher and the student, with their employment being credited as foundational to the success of inclusive education.”
The use of paraeducator support, especially in a one-on-one context, is meant to increase the inclusion of students with physical, behavioural and cognitive needs, yet studies have found that this type of support can create a variety of issues that stem from a ‘dependency’ culture. Inadvertently leading “to detrimental outcomes as paraeducators balanced conflicting relational responsibilities pertaining to their duty of care and support with the promotion of student growth and autonomy.”
In these instances, the support provided counters an inclusion narrative that promotes “autonomy, interdependence, and choice.”
In this study the authors try to gain a better understanding of the impact the presence of paraeducator support in physical education specifically. Data was collected by conducting interviews with participants who looked back on schooling experiences. Participants were all students experiencing physical impairment who had paraeducator support across their elementary to high school years. Here are some common threads from the participant’s stories:
- Participants shared stories of “impoverished social networks and marginalized participation” with paraeducator presence often creating an obstacle to social interactions with classmates.
- In their elementary years, the participants “experienced restricted physical education participation due to paraeducator fear and disinterest in the participants’ meaningful participation.”
- In early middle school, the physical presence and over protection of paraeducators hindered natural social skills development which led to social dependence and distancing of participants from their peers.
- “An abundance of care, based in stifling benevolence restricted the development of naturally occurring social engagement with peers and the development of meaningful self-direction. In protecting the participants from what paraeducators perceived to be potentially harmful exchanges with peers, the outcome was ethically questionable, negative (traumatizing) support over the longer term.”
- “Toward late middle school, participants found themselves negotiating relational boundaries to gain independence yet preserve beneficial interdependence.”
- In high school, participants often felt abandoned through the loss of their paraeducator support.
Participants recommended that paraeducators should provide meaningful strategies for participation, especially in the elementary years. In upper elementary and middle school years paraeducator support should be discretionary, with the students and their guardians determining what supports are required. This should be done in order to facilitate and ease the transition to high school where students will have the greatest need for autonomy.
It is also important to recognize and reflect on that everyday paraeducator practices could be “disability affirming or reproduce disability as a negative way of being in the world.” Paraeducator practice and support should also be conducted in a way that does not suppress the development of natural social networks, allowing for students to access the skills needed to seek peer support.
Finally the provision of paraeducator support for physical education “beyond the elementary school should be negotiated with the students and their families with ample opportunities for re-evaluation of needs and roles.” When this support is removed it should be done in a way that does not cause feelings of abandonment and isolation for students who have become socially dependent. Ultimately, students should have an input in the “spaces, times, activities, and roles paraeducators assume.”
Donna L. Goodwin, Brenda Rossow-Kimball & Maureen Connolly (2022) Students’ experiences of paraeducator support in inclusive physical education: helping or hindering?, Sport, Education and Society, 27:2, 182-195, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2021.1931835
Summary by: Ayla Reau—Ayla is excited to help continue to grow the MARIO Framework, seeing the potential for it to impact all students across any educational context.