Substitute Paraprofessionals: What to Do & Not to Do

Categories: Interventions

We’ve all been there and likely more than we would prefer. You have a substitute classroom assistant. We get it. Our assistants have lives too and get sick or need to go the doctor or are just using a personal day (#nojudgement). It easy to be so overwhelmed with being annoyed or irritated that we let it ruin the whole day. First off, be happy that you get the substitute because we have all probably been there too where no sub is sent. If you are one of those people who would prefer to have no sub, because sometimes dealing with the substitute is harder than being short staffed – I totally get it. The school clerk one year just stopped even sending the sub up to my room because I would politely yet some what curtly tell them ‘no thank, please go back downstairs’ when they entered my class. We’ll talk about that in a minute. So start off with not to do. And if you’ve ever accidentally done one of these, you learned the hard way and will probably never do it again.

Don't give the sub the most challenging student.

This may seem obvious but on a busy, hectic morning it might not be. In your head you are thinking, Ms. Thompson is out, Ms. Thompson is the paraprofessional for Charlie, the sub will go with Charlie. Well, if Charlie has high frequency self-injury and potentially dangerous aggression and requires a specific behavior plan – do not give that poor substitute Charlie. Think about how much the paraprofessional has done on learning the behavior plan, learning how to track data, recognizing the triggers for Charlie’s behavior, and paired to be a reinforcing person to work with. A substitute cannot accomplish all of that in one day. Switch it up. If you are classroom that has a lot of assistants and then likely more absences for assistants consider this when planning your paraprofessional assignments. Maybe you have your staff regularly switch which students they are working with. This may be more work up front but it can majorly help prevent burnout and your are ready to go on days when someone is out.

Don't expect them to figure it out.

Just like we think about the learning history of our students, we should think about the learning history of our staff. Maybe this is their first day in a special education classroom. Asking them to run independent work or reading centers and then walking away is not going to cut it. I understand they are only there for a day so you aren’t going to do an in-depth training, but some quick do’s and don’t’s and showing where material is for 2 or 3 minutes will make your entire day go much more smoothly.

Do hand them a schedule that says when their lunch and breaks are.

Let’s be real. As fun and amazing as your classroom is, the sub is still going to immediately know when their lunch and breaks are. No shame or judgement. Have a few extra copies of the staff schedule on hand and highlight when their breaks are and hand it to them. Then there is no miscommunication about what time to be back or when they can leave.

Do shut down inappropriate questions or chatter.

A few years ago, I had the same substitute paraprofessional several times. He was a nice guy and seemed to like working in our class but he was very chatty. I tried to ignore it but then I noticed he kept asking the other paraprofessionals specific questions about students’ diagnosis and if this kid could talk or how long this student had been in our class. There is nothing that ruffles my feathers more than talking about people like they aren’t there. I let a few of the questions go and then realized I was sitting there in the middle of the afternoon with blood boiling. This is my classroom. This is a place I have worked really hard to make my students feel safe, comfortable, and respected – why am I letting someone (albeit likely unintentionally) take that away? I walked right over to him and pulled him to the said and very quickly but directly said, “Please do not ask specific questions about students. That is confidential information. Please do not talk about students like they are not here.” No opportunities for questions. No discussion. Just shut it down.

Do take the help - even if it's just for laminating.

So maybe you are like how I used to be and would rather not deal with an extra person and having to explain the schedule and all that so you would rather not take the sub. Like I said, I completely get it but I think another option may appeal to you. Take the sub and have them do laminating, copying, cleaning, or cutting. We can’t complain to our admin that we are short staffed and then not take extra help when we get. When is the last time your toys have been cleaned? Or work task bins wiped down? Probably a while. Have a bin with work that needs laminated and velcroed – lord know we always have some of that to be done. So take the help.


  1. What do you do if your a recent high school graduate with a disability in a transition program but I’m applying to this as a job since my program doesn’t have many opportunities unless you already went to college which I didn’t . And I’m leaving my program despite my disabilities and I’m graduating my program soon . While I’m in my program my parents will be driving me to my first job as a para substitute what do you do with and without a lesson plan ? Will my disabilities get in the way ? And my parents had egg donors so I don’t want to share about my family with students how do I avoid sharing about even who my mom and dad are ? This is because , since I don’t know both my moms my birth was unatural I have two moms and one dad as in biological parents I have two biological moms ! I’m still human trust me ! It happens ! Also my parents will stay with me for the background check and finger printing etcetera . Any advice ?

    • Margaret- I hope you have a great experience subbing! As a para substitute, you will be given instructions and plans from the special education teacher. You should not need to develop your own lesson plans. Related to your family, you do not need to share any personal information with your colleagues or students. If asked (which is unlikely), you can simply say, “I’d prefer not to talk about my personal life,” and change the subject.


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