“Velcro® Aide” vs. Learning Facilitator

Click here to download the podcast version of this article.

There is a realm of conflict surrounding the use of 1:1 aides in special education and many local education agencies (“LEAs”) have developed their own assessment protocols to determine when a child really needs an aide to try and rein in this issue.

Sometimes these assessments just turn into a means of justifying to the parents a decision against aide support that was actually made by the LEA for fiscal reasons, so there are still issues with these types of aide assessments that need to be worked out.

Because these are LEA-made evaluations that are not bound by regulation and they aren’t scientifically validated standardized tests, LEAs can make them up however they want and some are better at researching best practices than others. But, even if it’s the best aide assessment in the world, none of that makes any difference if the aide support a child is given isn’t used well.

A good aide assessment is going to examine the child’s areas of unique need and the types of instructional supports she needs in order to benefit from her educational opportunities. Then it will look to see if aide support can provide at least some of the instructional supports that are needed and to what relative degree in each area of need.

The point is not to put an adult in a 1:1 situation with a child simply to act as her conscience for her, absolve her of any responsibility for her own behavior, or rob her of the lessons that life is trying to teach her. The point is to provide live, in-the-moment feedback on situations where the child’s knowledge and/or skill deficits prevent her from reaching the right conclusions regarding what she is supposed to be doing and help her figure out how to recognize the external cues that tell her what she’s supposed to be doing, then slowly fade the support as she learns to function more independently.

That means that any aide assigned to a child has to constantly be “on” whenever with the student, looking for those teachable moments and catching students early enough in the process of reaching a faulty conclusion to steer them back onto the right path and show them how to tell the difference between an appropriate choice and an inappropriate one. This applies to curricula as well as social skills and behavior.

Undesirable behavior occurs when the student doesn’t know how else to make her wants, feelings, and needs known and she uses the most effective “tool” that she has in her “toolbox” but it really isn’t that good of a “tool.” Here, I’m using “undesirable behavior” to mean any response that isn’t the desired response. So, it could mean the wrong answer to a math problem as much as it could be inappropriate protest behaviors occurring in response to the presentation of non-preferred tasks and activities. Don’t use “undesirable” in a personally judgmental way towards a child. Think of “undesirable behavior” as a neutral term that simply means a response other than the one you were looking for.

Undesirable behavior may be prompted by something other than the task demand being placed on the child. For example, one young man whom our organization serves has recently been identified with diabetes. He has severe autism and was placed on a particular medication for aggressive behavior that subsequently increased his appetite, which, coupled with his poor impulse control, led to overeating and morbid obesity. The obesity led to diabetes.

We were having terrible challenges with his behavior, which can escalate into some pretty serious self-injurious behaviors (“SIBs”) and physical aggression against others. That’s a particular problem because he is 6’2″ and weighs nearly 300 lbs.

What ultimately became apparent was that his blood sugar being out of control was contributing to his behavioral outbursts. This young man has very limited verbal skills. Most of his utterances are at the 1-2 word level. He couldn’t tell anyone how he felt when his blood sugar would rise and drop.

Plus, with the medication making him crave food, he was constantly eating preferred foods that sent his blood sugar through the roof. These eating habits were being reinforced by his teaching staff, who reinforced his appropriate behavior and task completion with iced coffee drinks, smoothies, burgers, hot dogs, and the like while out in the community and at school.

The diabetes made the aide’s duties far different than before because now he not only has to implement the behavior plan and keep behavioral data throughout each day, he also has to control for the environmental elements of food choice. He has to offer a choice between vegetable sticks and string cheese instead of a choice between a burger and a hot dog as a reinforcer. He has to steer clear of familiar places in the community where the student had grown accustomed to getting his unhealthy snacks and get him excited about buying healthy snacks at new places.

The behavior plan had to be modified in the IEP to account for the impact of the student’s diabetes. His life skills cooking goal had to be modified in his IEP to reflect the limited diet he must now be on to help control his diabetes.

Here, the behaviors we’ve been trying to address were being exacerbated and perpetuated by biochemical factors that had nothing to do with the instruction being presented to him or what he was expected to do. How his aide was being used had to change to adapt to the needs arising from his diabetes.

The function of the aide is to 1) plug holes caused by a child’s knowledge and skill deficits until those pieces of information can be taught to her and 2) to use each applicable situation as a teaching opportunity to help the child learn and apply the knowledge and/or skills she lacks. That means constantly keeping an eye open for a teachable moment, which can be incredibly exhausting when supporting a child with significant needs. A good aide is never running on auto pilot or sitting doing nothing while the child who allegedly needs the aide is successfully functioning independently.

If the support needs are not that demanding, the aide can be shared with other students in the classroom. This makes the student being supported feel less different from the other kids in the class, which is huge in fostering increases in her independence and being accepted by her peers.

Sharing the aide can help create a natural support system for a child with special needs once her peers accept her as who she is. A sense of collaborative learning is fostered among the students whereby the aide becomes a trusted facilitator of positive peer interaction and it’s the student’s peers who begin to constructively coach her, under the guidance of the aide, so she can learn the skills and master the concepts necessary to participate successfully in school.

Aides are very often provided to children with behavioral issues, so it’s important to speak to the issues of this large segment of special education students. Children with behavioral needs generally have social skills deficits.

If their social skills were appropriate, they wouldn’t be engaging in socially inappropriate behaviors. Or, if they possess the skills but don’t use them, they’re basically sending a message – the behavior serves a communicative purpose to call attention to an issue for which they lack the language skills or vocabulary to articulately describe.

Have you ever gotten frustrated about something and slammed a door? Did slamming the door resolve the difficulty that made you frustrated or did it just help you release some steam? Did slamming the door communicate to another person that you were frustrated? Was something that person said or did the thing that frustrated you?

Was your communicative intent really to convey to that person the degree to which his/her behavior caused you frustration? Could you not just as easily have looked the person in the eye and said, “It makes me feel very frustrated when I take meat from the freezer and put it in the refrigerator in the morning but then you go and put it back in the freezer later in the day so that when I come home, there’s no defrosted meat to cook for dinner.”

In this scenario, the intended message is essentially the same. It’s just that slamming the door doesn’t really convey every detail of your sentiment, only the fact that you’re displeased and the strength of your displeasure. Talking about how the situation makes you feel in matter-of-fact terms paints a far clearer picture for the other person than just slamming a door. This is why door slamming is considered childish and inappropriate while rationally talking things out is generally agreed amongst most people to be a more constructive way of making ones needs known and solving problems.

When you’re dealing with the inappropriate behaviors of children with disabilities, it’s not that different from door slamming. Whatever is provoking their inappropriate behaviors, they lack a better way of expressing what it is and are calling attention to it the only way they know how. They’re hoping someone more knowledgeable and able than themselves will intervene and make their problems go away, whatever they are. These are the teachable moments in which good aides can help them identify and use better ways of expressing themselves.

Aides are often also used to facilitate social interactions between children who have significant pragmatic language deficits and their peers during structured and unstructured times. That requires a fair amount of skill, as well. In unstructured situations, the opportunities for social interaction are everywhere and being able to read the situation quickly enough to appropriately facilitate a social interaction between a child with pragmatic impairments and his typical peers is particularly challenging. I’m convinced that the people who can do it were born with a rare cognitive gift of some kind. Yet, these are our lowest-paid people in special ed and that is just a crime.

The problem with the low wages paid to aides is the message it sends. It says, “Not only must you be directly on the front lines actually delivering the intervention that will keep this public education agency’s nose clean with its regulators, you must do so part-time for below a living wage with no benefits.” It completely disrespects the importance of the aide’s role in a child’s education.

A 1:1 aide has the most intimate form of an educational relationship that can be had with a student. The aide has to know the student well enough to predict how she will respond to a given situation, then adjust to the situation to support the child appropriately. If a child really does need aide support, the quality of the aide is paramount. The most intimate educational relationship the child has absolutely must be solid and successful or everything else can be easily blown apart.

There is no constructive purpose served by giving a kid a “Velcro® aide.” Simply having a warm body in the vicinity is not the same thing as providing aide support.

The failure to use aides effectively has made aide use very unappealing to many LEAs. Because these LEAs use the aides ineffectively, students tend to require aide support for many years, if not throughout their entire educations, which even at low wages turns into a considerable waste of fiscal resources.

In some LEAs, the profession also tends to attract people who are willing to do as little as possible and barely more than survive off the meager means that generates for them. When aides are just being assigned to shadow kids and not really do anything with them that increases their abilities, the aides really don’t serve much of a constructive purpose.

In LEAs like this, it’s a low paying job, but there are low expectations in the area of job performance, and that appeals to certain types of people. Some LEAs will give the job to the first warm body that accepts the crap wages and the educational outcomes from these arrangements are usually atrocious.

But, the solution is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because an LEA is using aides ineffectively does not mean that those aides cannot be used in an effective manner at all or that more qualified aides can’t come in and actually provide effective intervention. Denying aide services because they haven’t been effective in the LEA’s experience is not basing the content of a child’s IEP on that child’s unique needs; it’s a misinformed decision based on the LEA’s past experiences of doing thing wrongly.

If any factor other than the child’s needs drives the content of her IEP, a FAPE is being denied and the LEA puts itself at risk of litigation. The fact that an LEA does not know how to effectively use aides does not preclude a child from requiring appropriate aide support.

I think part of the problem is the job title. Many LEAs have started using “paraprofessional” or “SCIA” (which stands for “special circumstance instructional assistant”), both terms meaning next to nothing to the average parent. I think if aides were referred to as “learning facilitators” then their job titles would actually describe what they do.

The term “aide” is so vague and generic, it’s no wonder hardly anyone knows what an aide is actually supposed to do. An aide is supposed to facilitate the student’s learning; to plug in those tiny little bits that would otherwise go missing. Those tiny bits are subtle to recognize but critical to success and you have to be up close and personal to see them. That degree of responsibility is worthy of both recognition and adequate compensation.

It should be the imperative of every LEA in the nation to learn how to use aide supports constructively and effectively so that hiring a few really good, well-trained people at a higher wage can well serve all of the students who need them. Further, qualified aides with clear direction as to the skills and knowledge they are supposed to facilitate for their students can do so in as brief amount of time as is necessary to achieve an appropriate student outcome for each child on an individualized basis. Aide support that is done properly often works good aides out of their jobs fairly quickly, making them immediately available to support other children.

Using one’s resources with surgical precision to maximize one’s outcomes is more effective and less costly than floundering around. It means everybody has to work smarter and be more thoughtful about the impact of their actions and decisions. Lazy people are going to resist any approach that makes them work harder, as are people who are legitimately already overburdened. This becomes a personnel issue because an LEA often needs to get rid of some slackers, increase staff to support the demand for services, or both.

And, then there’s the training. Everyone in the special ed department needs to all have the same, identical understanding of what aides (by whatever name they are called) are supposed to do and how aide supports are supposed to be provided. It may take time for the internal culture of the department, if not the entire LEA, to adjust, but it’s important that the changes are ultimately accepted or the LEA is at considerable risk for due process claims, if not class action law suits.

Click here to download the podcast version of this article.

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2 thoughts on ““Velcro® Aide” vs. Learning Facilitator

  1. Funmi

    I managed to lose the podcast on velcro-aide from my itunes library and am unable to download it from your website even though I see the link to do so. I promised to share it with our school district Director for Special Education prior to my meeting with him coming up soon. Could you please send me the mp3 file for that podcast

    1. Anne M. Zachry Post author

      The file size is too big to email, but you can access it directly at http://kps4parents.podbean.com/2011/06/18/velcro%C2%AE-aides-vs-learning-facilitators. If you look at all the meta data at the bottom of the article, there is an underlined link labeled “Download.” If you click on that, it will take you to another page where you can download the MP3. Hope this helps! We really appreciate you sharing this with your special ed director!!!!


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