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Doing Your Homework:
Dealing with Confusing Educational Jargon

by Suzanne Whitney, Research Editor, Wrightslaw

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My district has special ed teachers, general ed teachers, teaching assistants, and teaching aides. Teaching assistants are supposed to have associate's degrees.

After reading your article, Why You Should Request a Paraprofessional, Not an Aide, I am confused. Are teaching assistants the same as paraprofessionals?

Sue’s Answer

Yes, it is confusing when people do not use the correct terms.

Federal law (No Child Left Behind) provides definitions for "teachers" and "paraprofessionals". These are the terms educators should use in education settings and when discussing services in a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

If school personnel use local terms such as "aide" or "assistant," ask that they write the definitions of these terms in the meeting notes or minutes. This will help you and others know what is being discussed.

If a person who teaches a child needs to have specific training, this should be spelled out in the child's IEP. Do not assume that all people with a particular job title (i.e., special ed teacher or teaching assistant) have the same education, training or expertise.

If I had to guess, I would say your district calls paraprofessionals who assist teachers "teaching assistants" and calls paraprofessionals who are translators or provide physical help to students "aides."

I know it's confusing. That's why it's so important for educators to use the correct terms. Regardless of the terms your district uses, you should not have to guess at what the terms mean.

Ask for the definitions, in current federal education law, of what school personnel mean when they use these terms. This publication, Title I Paraprofessionals - Non-Regulatory Guidance (March 1, 2004), includes terminology and educational requirements for non-teachers in the classroom.

What is the difference between a "teacher" and a "special education teacher?" Certification requirements are established by each state. The difference between a "teacher" and a "special education teacher" may be as little as two introductory undergraduate classes in special education.

Do not assume that a “certified special education teacher” has the necessary training to provide quality remediation services for a particular child. For example, to read fluently, a child with dyslexia needs to have instruction from teachers who are trained in multi-sensory structured language instruction. Yet, states rarely require teachers to have this language training to be certified as special education teachers -- or even as reading specialists.

Young children with autism need intensive Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) / Lovaas therapy from teachers who are trained to provide this therapy. (See Current Interventions in Autism: A Brief Analysis) Yet, few states require that special education teachers who teach young children with autism receive training in ABA/Lovaas therapy.

To learn the minimum requirements for special ed teachers in your state, contact the Bureau of Credentialing for your state department of education or [ and ask for this information.

If your child needs a teacher with more training than the minimum required for certification, make sure this is specified in your child’s IEP.

Useful Articles Teachers, Paraprofessionals & IEPs

Why You Should Request a Paraprofessional, Not an Aide - Article includes the federal legal definition of "paraprofessional," federal limits on parapro duties, and why parents may want to request a paraprofessional, not an "aide" in their child's IEP.

What Teachers, Principals & School Administrators Need to Know About NCLB

Support for School Personnel and Parent Training: Often Overlooked Keys to Success by Susan Bardet, Esq. IDEA To help children learn and succeed, IEP teams can use the tools provided by IDEA, including support for school personnel and training for parents.

How to Request a One-to-One Parapro for Your Child by Wayne Steedman, Esq.

Learn about reading, multisensory language instruction (and a list of Multisensory Structured Language Providers)

Learn about ABA/Lovaas training for young children with autism and other developmental disorders.

Meet Sue Whitney

Sue Whitney of Manchester, New Hampshire, works with families as a special education advocate and is the research editor for Wrightslaw.

Doing Your Homework, Suzanne Whitney gives savvy advice about reading, research based instruction, and creative strategies for using education standards to advocate for children and to improve public schools.

Her articles have been reprinted by,,, The Beacon: Journal of Special Education Law and Practice, the Schafer Autism Report, and have been used in CLE presentations to attorneys.

Sue is the co-author of Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind (ISBN: 978-1-892320-12-4) that was published by Harbor House Law Press, Inc.

She also served on New Hampshire's Special Education State Advisory Committee on the Education of Students/Children with Disabilities (SAC).

Sue Whitney's bio.

Copyright © 2002-2022 by Suzanne Whitney.

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