Key Takeaway:

Educators are natural helpers, and in our desire to help, sometimes our support can cross the line from empowering to hindering. It is imperative that any educator, but especially those working in one-to-one support models, place student voice, growth, and autonomy at the core of their support systems and strategies. Otherwise students may develop unhealthy dependencies on the support and the educator themselves resulting in long-lasting and wide-ranging detrimental impacts. —Ayla Reau 

“Paraeducators, also referred to as instructional assistants, educational assistants, teaching assistants, or learning support assistants have been placed between the teacher and the student, with their employment being credited as foundational to the success of inclusive education.”

The use of paraeducator support, especially in a one-on-one context, is meant to increase the inclusion of students with physical, behavioural and cognitive needs, yet studies have found that this type of support can create a variety of issues that stem from a ‘dependency’ culture. Inadvertently leading “to detrimental outcomes as paraeducators balanced conflicting relational responsibilities pertaining to their duty of care and support with the promotion of student growth and autonomy.”

In these instances, the support provided counters an inclusion narrative that promotes “autonomy, interdependence, and choice.” 

The Study 

In this study the authors try to gain a better understanding of the impact the presence of paraeducator support in physical education specifically. Data was collected by conducting interviews with participants who looked back on schooling experiences. Participants were all students experiencing physical impairment who had paraeducator support across their elementary to high school years. Here are some common threads from the participant’s stories: 

  • Participants shared stories of “impoverished social networks and marginalized participation” with paraeducator presence often creating an obstacle to social interactions with classmates.
  • In their elementary years, the participants “experienced restricted physical education participation due to paraeducator fear and disinterest in the participants’ meaningful participation.”
  • In early middle school, the physical presence and over protection of paraeducators hindered natural social skills development which led to social dependence and distancing of participants from their peers. 
    • “An abundance of care, based in stifling benevolence restricted the development of naturally occurring social engagement with peers and the development of meaningful self-direction. In protecting the participants from what paraeducators perceived to be potentially harmful exchanges with peers, the outcome was ethically questionable, negative (traumatizing) support over the longer term.”
  • “Toward late middle school, participants found themselves negotiating relational boundaries to gain independence yet preserve beneficial interdependence.”
  • In high school, participants often felt abandoned through the loss of their paraeducator support.


Participants recommended that paraeducators should provide meaningful strategies for participation, especially in the elementary years. In upper elementary and middle school years paraeducator support should be discretionary, with the students and their guardians determining what supports are required. This should be done in order to facilitate and ease the transition to high school where students will have the greatest need for autonomy. 

It is also important to recognize and reflect on that everyday paraeducator practices could be “disability affirming or reproduce disability as a negative way of being in the world.” Paraeducator practice and support should also be conducted in a way that does not suppress the development of natural social networks, allowing for students to access the skills needed to seek peer support.  

Finally the provision of paraeducator support for physical education “beyond the elementary school should be negotiated with the students and their families with ample opportunities for re-evaluation of needs and roles.” When this support is removed it should be done in a way that does not cause feelings of abandonment and isolation for students who have become socially dependent. Ultimately, students should have an input in the “spaces, times, activities, and roles paraeducators assume.”

Summarized Article:

Donna L. Goodwin, Brenda Rossow-Kimball & Maureen Connolly (2022) Students’ experiences of paraeducator support in inclusive physical education: helping or hindering?, Sport, Education and Society, 27:2, 182-195, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2021.1931835

Summary by: Ayla Reau—Ayla is excited to help continue to grow the MARIO Framework, seeing the potential for it to impact all students across any educational context.

Key Takeaway: The implication of this review is that a lack of preparation prior to supporting students with disabilities in PE class, particularly those with visual impairments, can lead to indirect and direct bullying of the students by teachers, paraeducators, and peers. As special educators, we must include PE teachers and paraeducators in IEP meetings and ensure they feel prepared to modify and adapt their program for learners with disabilities. —Erin Madonna

Lindsay Ball and colleagues completed a systematic review of the literature around bullying of students with visual impairments in the Physical Education (PE) setting. The purpose of their review was to describe the current experiences of youth with visual impairments in order to develop avenues for future research around issues of bullying in physical education classes. 

For the study, 114 participants reported on their experiences in PE with a broad age range represented due to the retrospective nature of some of the included studies. Ball et al. (2021) oriented their work with the definition of bullying posed by Chester et al. (2015)1 and Stough et al. (2016);2 Bullying is “the intentional behavior to physically or emotionally harm another, which occurs through an imbalance of power.” Exclusion of youth with visual impairment, when done with intention, was considered bullying in the context of this review. The team focused their review around three questions:

  • “What types of bullying are youth with visual impairments experiencing during PE?”
  • “When/how does the bullying take place and by whom?”
  • “What are the outcomes of the bullying?”

Overwhelmingly, this review makes clear just how common bullying of youth with visual impairments is in the PE setting. As they describe the frequency found within the studies they reviewed, Ball et al. (2021) point to the findings of Bear et al. (2015)3 reporting that young people with visual impairments are likely to be bullied twice as frequently as peers without disabilities. Social-relational bullying was by far the most common form found in the reviewed studies, with 86% of studies reporting exclusion, marginalization, isolation, and other forms of discrimination present in PE experiences. Dishearteningly, 93% of studies indicated that the bullying occurred during PE class time with 93% of studies showing peer-to-peer bullying and 50% of studies revealing the bullying was perpetrated by the educators themselves.

While the rate of bullying may appear shockingly high, it is upon review of Ball et al.’s (2021) data where we begin to understand the systematic structures which have allowed for this bullying to persist. “PE teachers are often ill prepared to teach children with visual impairments due to a lack of adequate preparation. This lack of knowledge leads to unnecessary exclusion, both intentional and unintentional, of students with visual impairments from participation during PE.” 

Underprepared educators are unable to create an environment where students with visual impairments are empowered and included. As Ball et al. (2021) point out “efforts made by teachers to promote a climate that is autonomy-supportive are the foundation of positive perceptions of inclusion, according to the perspectives of children with disabilities.”

They even go further to share Jimenez-Barbero et al.’s (2020) recommendation that, “when Universal Design for Learning is utilized in PE, all students with or without disabilities benefited from it. Physical educators can create a climate of acceptance and empathy that fosters participation by all students which may lead to increased self-esteem and decreased bullying of students.”

When considering the outcomes of the bullying experienced, Ball et al. (2021) describe how negative feelings towards physical education can persist through adulthood, often manifesting in the form of avoidance of physical activities. This impact has long-reaching implications for the health and well-being of those with visual impairments. Allowing youth with visual impairments to participate fully in physical education classes, rather than restricting their participation because of a fear of risk, perception of weakness, or other limits has the potential to positively impact their self-esteem. “Autonomy, competence, and dignity of risk are all critical components of an individual’s self-determination, which has a large influence on an individual’s motivation to participate in physical activity.”

Ball et al. (2021) also touch upon the question of self-advocacy as a possible counter-action to bullying. In the majority (86%) of participant responses, no resolution to the bullying occured. There was evidence that when the student with visual impairments ceased to be perceived as an “easy target,” the bullying also ceased. If students with visual impairments are supported in harnessing the power of their own voice, we provide alternate paths to confronting bullying and changing the paradigm that has allowed bullying to persist in PE classes.

It is important to note that this review was limited in part by the fact that not much was known about the participant’s backgrounds or the training of the PE teachers and paraeducators involved. The retrospective nature of some of the included studies may also have resulted in details being forgotten or reported PE practices being inconsistent with current practices.

Summarized Article:

Ball, L., Lieberman, L., Haibach-Beach, P., Perreault, M., & Tirone, K. (2021). Bullying in physical education of children and youth with visual impairments: A systematic review. British Journal of Visual Impairment, 02646196211009927.

Summary by: Erin Madonna — Erin philosophically aligns with the MARIO Framework’s deeply rooted belief that all learners are capable, and she firmly believes in MARIO’s commitment to the use of evidence-based practices drawn from the field of multidisciplinary research.

Research author Lauren J. Lieberman, Ph.D., was involved in the final version of this summary.

Additional References:

  1. Chester, K. L., Callaghan, M., Cosma, A., Donnelly, P., Craig, W., Walsh, S., & Molcho, M. (2015). Cross-national time trends in bullying victimization in 33 countries among children aged 11, 13, and 15 from 2002 to 2010. The European Journal of Public Health, 25(Suppl. 2), 61–64.
  2. Stough, C. O., Merianos, A., Nabors, L., & Peugh, J. (2016). Prevalence and predictors of bullying behavior among overweight and obese youth in a nationally representative sample. Childhood Obesity, 12(4), 263–271.
  3. Bear, G. G., Mantz, L. S., Glutting, J. J., Yang, C., & Boyer, D. E. (2015). Differences in bullying victimization between students with and without disabilities. School Psychology Review, 44(1), 98–116.