Volume: 9, Issue: 1


Independence: Training paraprofessionals to increase skills in the classroom
Це, Кортни Майюми [about] , Пиерсон, Мелинда Р. [about] , Хауэлл, Эрика Дж. [about]

ABSTRACT: Individuals with disabilities lack self-advocacy and self-determination skills as well as independence.  As key members of student learning and skill acquisition, paraprofessionals do not receive proper training to increase self-advocacy and self-determination skills in students.  Training paraprofessionals to use a variety of prompts and prompting hierarchies with students with disabilities can lead to greater student independence. Paraprofessionals will benefit from further and more advanced training in order to facilitate student independence while increasing student self-advocacy and self-determination skills.


  • Self-advocacy is the ability to take control of one’s own life to be able to speak up for one’s needs and wants
  • Self-determination is based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity to have free choice of one’s own acts without external compulsion
  • Paraprofessional is a person who assists a teacher because he/she does not hold full licensure
  • IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is a federal law in the United States that governs the rights of individuals with disabilities
  • ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is a federal law in the United States which establishes clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability.


Self-advocacy and self-determination skills are extremely important for individuals with disabilities to develop in order to gain independence for themselves. Self-advocacy instruction is found to be so important that IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) include it in their laws so that individuals with disabilities receive it while in school (Fiedler & Danneker, 2007).  IDEA emphasizes the importance of teaching and training students with disabilities who need assistive technology devices to communicate as well as transition services that require student participation and student interests and preferences to be taken into account when they are discussed (IDEA, 2015).  Individuals being able to communicate for themselves and knowing how to make choices and communicate their interests and opinions are all part of self-advocacy.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides the guidelines for businesses and employers to follow so they do not discriminate against individuals with disabilities (2008).  It is also required that employers and businesses provide accommodations for their employees with disabilities (2008).  Since ADA is widespread and well known, this creates an opportunity for people with disabilities to be aware of their rights and to advocate for themselves if they are not treated correctly by an employer or business (2008). 

Many of the skills that an individual with disabilities has are learned during his/her years at school.  The classroom is an essential place for students to learn functional skills that will help them be more independent later in life. Paraprofessionals are hired to aid in this learning process, but they often do tasks for students instead of letting students complete or attempt to complete the task which impedes students’ acquisition of important self-determination skills (Lane, Carter, & Sisco, 2012).  This may be due to the lack of training paraprofessionals have had, especially in the areas of self-advocacy and self-determination.  Whatever the reason, the consequences of what happens when students with disabilities do not develop self-advocacy and self-determination skills and become dependent on others are too harmful to allow this phenomenon to continue.  Unlike typically developing individuals, those with disabilities do not outgrow this dependence, but seem to become more dependent on others as they age. 

There has been a plethora of research on self-advocacy and self-determination in the field of special education in the last few decades. It was not until the late twentieth century that self-advocacy really came into light as an important skill for individuals with disabilities to learn (Gilmartin & Slevin, 2010).  There has been research about how self-advocacy skills need to be practiced everyday so students can retain and advance upon the skills they have already been taught.  Research has also been done on the importance of self-advocacy for students with disabilities in postsecondary schooling or workplace settings (Black, 2007).  Like most skills, students with disabilities should begin learning self-advocacy and self-determination at an early age so they will be better equipped to live more independently later in life (Fiedler & Danneker, 2007; Grenwelge & Zhang, 2013; Lee & Carter, 2012; Sheppard & Unsworth, 2011).  The usual modes for teaching self-advocacy skills can include direct instruction (Wood, Kelley, Test, & Fowler, 2010), technology (Black, 2010; Wood et al., 2010), and participating in programs that promote self-advocacy (Fiedler & Danneker, 2007; Lee & Carter, 2012).  One method of self-advocacy instruction that has not been researched thoroughly is utilizing paraprofessionals to teach and/or support individuals with disabilities and self-advocacy skills. Given proper training and support, paraprofessionals can be key players in teaching self-advocacy to individuals with disabilities as they often spend significant amount of time with students, and are thus in an ideal position to teach and maintain important self-advocacy skills that students will need to be successful in life. So far there has not been sufficient research in this area and, therefore, it is an important topic for investigation.

Self-Advocacy and Self-Determination

According to Fiedler and Danneker (2007), “the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1990, 1997, 2004), the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), the Rehabilitation Act (1973), various state statutes and regulations, national and local advocacy groups, professional literature, and conference presentations” (p.1) all deem self-advocacy and self-determination skills as important skillsets for students to learn.  IDEA requires student involvement in planning for their future by participating in IEP meetings and transition planning, which enhances self-determination (Trainor, 2008).  The push for self-advocacy and self-determination for individuals with disabilities started as a movement but, now promoting and enhancing self-determination has become best practice in educational services (Test, Fowler, Wood, Brewer, & Eddy, 2005).  Previously, individuals with disabilities were thought of as incapable of making decisions about their own lives.  This viewpoint led to a fostered dependence on others to articulate one’s needs and has negatively affected the autonomy of individuals with disabilities.  This viewpoint is not conducive for individuals with disabilities and negatively affects their quality of life and transition into adult life.  The purpose of this paper is to explore different methods and strategies for teaching self-advocacy and self-determination skills to individuals with disabilities.

According to the 2010 United States Census Bureau, 18.7% of people in the United States were labeled as having a disability.  Moreover, 11.3% of school-age children in the United States were diagnosed with a disability. The 2008 ADA Amendments Act defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual”(p. 2).

As established by IDEA and ADA, it is required that individuals with disabilities are taught self-advocacy skills throughout their education (Fiedler & Danneker, 2007).  Strategies for teaching self-advocacy skills may include direct instruction (Wood et al., 2010), technology (Black, 2010; Wood et al. 2010), and/or participating in social programs that promote self-advocacy (Fiedler & Danneker; Lee & Carter, 2012).  One method of self-advocacy instruction that has not been researched thoroughly is utilizing paraprofessionals to teach and/or support individuals with disabilities and self-advocacy skills.  Due to the lack of studies in this particular area, it is an important topic for future research.

Using Technology to Teach Self-Advocacy and Self-Determination Skills

Two areas in which adults with disabilities struggle the most are employment and postsecondary schooling (Black, 2010).  Attending a postsecondary school increases the employability of individuals with disabilities but these individuals often struggle to complete their schooling (Wood et al., 2010).  According to Hennessey, Rumrill, Fitzgerald, and Roessler (2008), even those individuals who graduate college and meet their postsecondary educational goals, struggle to be as successful as their non-disabled peers once they leave the educational world.  Due to these struggles in the aforementioned environments, it is important to teach students who are transitioning out of high school how to advocate for themselves given the decrease in supports provided in postsecondary school environments as compared to high school programs (Black, 2010; Wood et al., 2010).  Not only have the number of students with disabilities attending college increased (Wood et al., 2010) but these students also need to possess certain skills to be successful in college (Black, 2010; Wood et al., 2010).  In high school, students are given their accommodations without having to ask for them.  In postsecondary education, students need to find ways to get their accommodations and make sure that they are given the help they require (Wood et al., 2010).  One strategy that can be used to teach self-advocacy skills is through technology. 

Black (2010) and Wood et al. (2010) focus on using technology to help teach individuals with disabilities self-advocacy skills. Interestingly enough, the authors of these articles did not come to the same results, but had findings that are quite different from each other.  Black (2010) found that technology was more effective in teaching students self-advocacy skills compared to them being helped by a teacher or parent.  Wood et al. (2010) found that the technology used to teach self-advocacy skills was less effective than direct instruction.  These two articles show different ways that technology can be used and that, despite the use of technology, instruction can be made ineffective if not implemented properly.  Despite this, the authors show how technology can and cannot be used with individuals with disabilities to teach and improve self-advocacy skills.  Wood et al. (2010) noted that technology is just one way that self-advocacy skills can be taught although they argue that technology should be paired with other means as well to teach students to their best ability.  Technology can be used in the classroom to teach important skills as long as it is not the only means of teaching.  Students require a variety of instructional strategies in order to have all of their needs met and for them to learn most efficiently.  According to Black (2010), when students take part of planning for their future, they are more motivated to be responsible and they also get more opportunities to practice self-advocacy and self-determination skills.  Digital transition portfolios provide students with information that they will need to make decisions about their future and information they will need to give to others to receive necessary accommodations in postsecondary schools. 

According to both of these articles, self-advocacy skills can and should be taught using technology due to its accessibility for students with disabilities (Black, 2010; Wood et al., 2010).  According to Black (2010), digital transition portfolios help individuals with disabilities “function like their typical peers” (p. 121).  By creating these portfolios, students determine their needs, their learning styles, and other information that will help them be more successful in school and the real world.

Transition Programs and Self-Advocacy

After graduating high school and moving on to postsecondary education, students with disabilities face particular challenges that typical students do not face (Hennessey et al., 2008).  There has been an increase of students with disabilities attending postsecondary schools and they require specialized accommodations and supports (Hennessey et al.; 2008).  Despite the increase of students with disabilities attending postsecondary schools, there are many students with disabilities that require extra years of support and learning in a transition program setting.  Regardless of the setting that young adults with disabilities find themselves after high school, they all require training in self-advocacy and self-determination skills to improve their chances of being successful in the real world (Fiedler & Danneker, 2007; Grenwelge & Zhang, 2013; Lee & Carter, 2012; Sheppard & Unsworth, 2011; Test, Fowler, Wood, Brewer, Eddy, 2005).  

Several of the research articles specifically address the effects that transition programs have on students with disabilities and their self-determination and self-advocacy skills (Fiedler & Danneker, 2007; Lee & Carter, 2012).  This research includes ways to improve the outcomes of students with disabilities who have graduated high school and are ready to move on to postsecondary education or the working world.  Transition programs may increase participants’ success in postsecondary school or careers by teaching them their rights under ADA, how to make friends and meet new people, and that learning about their disability, their strengths, and their limitations are important.  Evidence that the model using direct instruction strategies to teach students and involve them in planning for their futures is very beneficial.  The authors emphasize that a big effort has to be made on the part of families, teachers, and service providers to teach students how to make decisions, plan for their future, and monitor how well their plans are being implemented.  This is proof that self-advocacy and self-determination skills need to be directly taught to students in order to help them be more successful once they leave high school and move on to college and the world of work. 

Relationships and Self-Advocacy Skills

Self-advocacy and self-determination skills can be taught in a variety of ways to help make a difference in a person’s life.  There are other important players that have an influence on an individual’s self-advocacy and self-determination skills (Bobroff & Sax, 2010; Gilmartin & Slevin, 2009; Grenwelge & Zhang, 2013; Lane, Carter, & Sisco, 2012; Trainor, 2008).  Self-advocacy groups (Gilmartin & Slevin, 2010) and social interactions (Bobroff & Sax, 2010; Lane et al., 2012) play an important role in teaching and practicing these skills. Unfortunately, recreational and social opportunities are not as prominent for individuals with disabilities as they are for their typical peers.  This is a critical discrepancy because socializing and participating in recreational activities for individuals with disabilities is a vital learning field for developing important skills.  One relationship that has an immense effect on student’s skills is their relationship with paraprofessionals (Lane et al., 2012).  How paraprofessionals are trained on self-determination, what they think about self-determination, and whether they help students gain these types of skills is one area that has been briefly studied (Lane et al., 2012).  Examining it is important because paraprofessionals have a huge impact on students, their abilities, and what they learn. 

When studying the effects of a paraprofessional’s impact on students’ independence, two variables that were found to be of importance were a paraprofessional’s familiarity with self-determination and the opportunities they had to participate in professional development in predicting how important paraprofessionals would find the different domains of self-determination to be (Lane et al., 2012).  These two variables also affected how often self-determination domains were taught to students with disabilities by paraprofessionals (Lane et al., 2012).  Choice making, decision-making, problem-solving, self-awareness, and self-knowledge are considered extremely important domains by paraprofessionals to teach students with disabilities (Lane et al., 2012).  This shows the importance of taking the time to properly train paraprofessionals on skills that need to be taught to students in order to increase their self-advocacy and self-determination. 

Positive relationships are not only found between students and paraprofessionals, but between students with disabilities and their typical peers as well.  When students with disabilities are paired up with their typical peers, both parties benefited in some way from the relationship (Bobroff & Sax, 2010).  When students with disabilities participate in recreational activities, then they have a better sense of self-determination.  Individuals who participate more in recreational activities scored higher when tested on self-determination skills.  Individuals who spent a significant amount of time participating in recreational activities were found to be better at self-regulation as well.  It is imperative that individuals with disabilities interact with their typical peers or participate in social activities.  Currently, as seen in several studies, individuals with disabilities do not participate in as many, if any, social activities as they should be doing in order to increase their self-advocacy and self-determination (Lane et al., 2012, Bobroff & Sax, 2010).

Prompting Hierarchies

Common strategies that are used to teach new skills to individuals with disabilities are prompts and prompting hierarchies.  Prompts are “systemic strategies used to increase the likelihood that a child will correctly complete the task or give the appropriate response” (Meadan, Ostrosky, Santos, Snodgrass,  2013, p. 32).  In order to increase an individual’s independence when learning a new skill, the instructor teaching the skill needs to know when and how to appropriately fade prompts (Meadan et al., 2013).  “Systemically and intentionally” using prompts is more effective when used within prompting procedures because “prompting procedures prevent(s) the [individual] from making mistakes while learning the new skill” (Meadan et al., 2013, p. 34).  The two most frequently used prompting hierarchies are the most-to-least and least-to-most prompting hierarchies.  The most-to-least prompting hierarchy “is designed as decreasing the prompt to its ultimate removal after beginning to teach with offering the prompt that gets the individual reacting correctly” (Aykut, 2012, p. 367).  This prompting hierarchy has been shown to be an effective way to teach new skills quickly (Davenport & Johnston, 2015).  The least-to-most prompting hierarchy is “a procedure that assists the learner in making a correct response” (Humphreys, Polick, Howk, Thaxton, & Ivancic, 2013).  This procedure consists of starting with the least invasive prompt and then moving on to more invasive prompts, as needed.  Prompting procedures provide an effective and efficient way to teach individuals new skills.  Using the appropriate prompts and prompting procedures prevents individuals from making mistakes while learning new skills, which helps them progress through the learning process more efficiently. The prompting procedures discussed are just two techniques that are available to successfully teach new skills to individuals with disabilities.



There are several implications found from the research articles.  First, service agencies need to work together to help students, beginning at a young age (Lee & Carter, 2012).  Educators and family members of individuals with disabilities also need to work together to provide individuals with opportunities to use self-advocacy skills, to instruct individuals on self-advocacy skills, to give individuals real-world opportunities to use their skills, and to help them develop leadership skills (Grenwelge and Zhang, 2012).  Second, more training and professional development opportunities need to be offered to paraprofessionals and other individuals who work with students with disabilities (Lane & Carter, 2012). Third, more classrooms should utilize explicit instruction as it can be beneficial for teaching students self-advocacy skills (Wood et al., 2010).  Fourth, effective transition planning for students needs to include teaching them the “knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses associated with one’s disability; knowledge of postsecondary support services; knowledge about disability legislation, including ADA and Section 504; and self-advocacy skills” (Rothman, Maldonado, & Rothman, 2008, p. 79).  Fifth, more self-advocacy groups should be established and attended by individuals with disabilities (Gilmartin and Slevin, 2009).  Research indicates that individuals with disabilities learn self-determination and self-advocacy skills best through repeated practice and real-life opportunities to use these skills, especially in recreational settings.  Sixth, self-advocacy skills can and should be taught to individuals with disabilities during their entire lives and not just left for when they are nearing adulthood (Test et al., 2005).   

The earlier students start learning these skills, the better equipped they will be to develop and become proficient in advocating for themselves.  Despite the variety of methods that can be used to instruct individuals on self-advocacy skills, there is one important method that has been passed up in most research.  This method is to utilize paraprofessionals to teach and support students in learning self-advocacy skills.  This method is important to implement due to the amount of time paraprofessionals spend with students and the influence they have on their learning.  Paraprofessionals can be key to providing students with these much-needed skills, and they can also monitor students’ progress to make sure these skills are being used correctly.  This is one more aspect of self-advocacy instruction that needs to be further researched in order to help individuals with disabilities gain and utilize self-advocacy skills.


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