How do they know what they know? : a qualitative multiple case study to explore how pre-kindergarten paraeducators develop professional skills during their careers.


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Paraeducators are an essential component of the workforce in many classroom settings, including early childhood and special education (Abbate-Vaughn, 2007; Bagawan et al., 2022; Stockall, 2014; Walker et al., 2021). Although the classroom responsibilities can look very similar to those of a credentialed lead teacher, requirements for paraeducators across the country are not the same as the prerequisite training for a teacher, and often paraeducators are not required to have background knowledge on instructional practices or behavior management strategies (Bagawan et al., 2022; Dennis et al., 2021; Mason et al., 2020). Paraeducators are a large subset of educators contributing to the success of students. Understanding how they determine and address their professional needs is an important area of study.

This study aimed to provide an in-depth look at the experiences of paraeducators in their day-to-day professional responsibilities, their relationships with their teachers and administrators, how they identify their own professional needs, and determine a course of action to address those needs. The questions posed in this study examined the self-directed learning characteristics of pre-kindergarten paraeducators in Ravenswood Schools and how those characteristics influenced career development choices. The following research questions guided this study:

  1. How do pre-kindergarten paraeducators’ stages of self-directed learning influence the ways in which they determine and address their professional needs?

  2. What experiences are most valuable to pre-kindergarten paraeducators for their professional development of skills related to their job responsibilities? The research design for this study was a qualitative multiple case study with six participants who were all pre-kindergarten paraeducators. Data sources for this study were one-on-one interviews, a questionnaire, and participant resumes.

    Seven findings came from this research. The findings were (a) collaboration, (b) education, (c) self-directedness, (d) traditional learning experiences, (e) movement across the stages of SDL, (f) family, and (g) undervaluing of paraeducators. The findings of this study determined that pre-kindergarten paraeducators are self-directed in their learning and have several implications for three distinct stakeholder groups: pre-kindergarten paraeducators, pre-kindergarten teachers, and school and district administrators.