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Stanford program equips paraeducators to work more effectively with students

Photo of teacher with student who has Down syndrome
Paraeducators support students with the most intensive needs but receive little, if any, training. The Para Pro Academy, launched this summer on the Stanford campus, is a free professional development program focused on skills for working with students with disabilities, including Down syndrome. (Photo: Ermolaev Alexander / Shutterstock)

Stanford program equips paraeducators to work more effectively with students

The Para Pro Academy at Stanford prepares classroom staff to support students with disabilities, including Down syndrome.

When it comes to navigating learning differences in a classroom, paraeducators provide vital support for teachers by working one-on-one with students with the most intensive needs. But many receive limited training – if any – for their role, leaving them underprepared for the challenges of working with students with disabilities.

To better equip paraeducators for their work in the classroom, the Stanford Down Syndrome Research Center (SDSRC) and the Graduate School of Education (GSE) recently launched the Para Pro Academy, a free professional development program focused on skills to support students with disabilities, including Down syndrome. 

The GSE, as part of its strategic vision, is expanding research opportunities and piloting new programs in critical areas that are key to improving learning outcomes. Learning differences is one of the flagship initiatives of that work. 

“Paraeducators are the most underutilized resource in schools,” said Chris Lemons, an associate professor of special education at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) and co-director of the SDSRC. “My team’s research has demonstrated that paraeducators can be incredibly effective in providing academic and behavioral supports when they receive high-quality professional development and ongoing coaching, and we wanted to explore whether we could provide that as a service to schools in the Bay Area.” 

Eleven paraeducators from Bay Area school districts participated in the inaugural Para Pro Academy, which took place on the Stanford campus this summer. 

Lakshmi Balasubramanian, a lecturer and research associate at the GSE, co-led the academy with Lemons. Jessamy Tang, managing director of the SDSRC, and Anna Markesky, a senior at Palo Alto High School, provided additional support.

Through lectures, group discussions, and problem-solving scenarios, paraeducators learned about the legal parameters that outline their professional role, characteristics of students with Down syndrome, strategies to support academic and behavioral outcomes, and approaches to collaborate effectively with other school staff members. 

Each participant also brought in information on a target student, including the Individualized Education Program (IEP), a plan created for students with an identified disability to ensure specialized instruction and related services. During the four-day program, the paraeducators developed a plan outlining the components of the training they would implement this fall, identifying supports needed in their district and data they would collect to determine if they were successful.

Lemons and Balasubramanian will follow up with each individually throughout the year to provide further guidance.

“The feedback from participants was incredibly positive,” said Lemons. “We hope to expand our efforts to provide this type of support going forward.”

To learn more about future professional development opportunities from the SDSRC and the GSE, contact the team at

Faculty mentioned in this article: Christopher J. Lemons

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