The 2 Sides of Improving Special Educator-Paraprofessional Collaboration
The growing shortage of special education personnel in schools means more work for the educators who stay, and special education teachers and paraeducators shoulder much of the responsibility. As a result, having strong teacher-paraprofessional relationships is more important than ever for meeting individual student needs.
However, the relationship between a special education teacher and a paraprofessional is like any other relationship: it’s complex.
So, how can you strengthen collaboration across these two roles in your district? First, you need to understand both sides of the story, that of the teacher and the paraprofessional.
That’s why I asked special education teacher Kayleigh Ackerman and former paraprofessional Lauren Harnett to share their special educator-paraprofessional collaboration experiences ― including challenges they’ve faced and tips for improving things.
Here’s what they shared.
Q: What are the main benefits of smooth collaboration between special education teachers and paraprofessionals?
Kayleigh: Teachers and paraprofessionals or teaching aides (TAs) need to be on the same page in order to support students to the maximum extent. It’s our responsibility as teachers to train, teach and support our paraprofessionals. Whether it is through scheduled daily meetings or a quick chat in the hallway, keeping lines of communication open is most important.
Lauren: Paraprofessionals tend to be responsible for the details of what goes on during the day with individual students, whereas teachers are focused on planning and running their classes properly. In other words, the teachers are looking at the forest and the paras are amongst the trees. For a teacher’s lessons to be effective, both paras and teachers need to be in constant communication about individual student needs as well as curriculum and classroom requirements ― which are constantly shifting.
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Q: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to special education teachers and paraeducators working together?
- Teachers need to help paraprofessionals understand the “why” of negative student behavior. Helping them understand the “why” helps them to take the reaction or emotionality out of their response to the behavior. Behavior is a form of communication. If we all understand what the behavior is trying to communicate, I think we can work more cohesively as a team.
- Make sure that paraprofessional morale is high. Bring in coffee, chocolate, a small thank you card here and there. Sometimes we don’t realize how big of role paraprofessionals play in our classrooms.
- Beware of burnout. It’s HARD to work closely with students day after day, especially in a 1:1 ratio. Make sure you are asking paraprofessionals, “What do you need?” “Can I support you?” Also, make sure they have space to keep their belongings in your classroom!
- Communication is a big one. Things happen so quickly in a school setting, and changes occur so rapidly with students that it can be easy for a teacher and para to be on different pages about the same student within a day or two of discussion. Constant, regular communication is necessary for a harmonious relationship between teachers and paras.
- It’s hard to get through lessons neatly with so many needs in one classroom. The teacher’s plans are sometimes thwarted by outbursts or medical necessities, so it’s important to remain flexible and have back up plans.
- Coordination among paras in a multi-para classroom is huge. There are often a mix of classroom and one-to-one paras in classrooms, which can lead to duplicated tasks and role responsibility confusion very easily. It’s important to set clear responsibilities early on so everyone knows their role.
When it comes to special educator-paraprofessional relationships, trust is everything. Learn how to build it early on.
Q: Do you have tips for how teachers and paraprofessionals can work together most effectively?
- Talk, talk talk! Listen to paraprofessionals. Understand them and build a relationship with them. If they trust you as the teacher, they are going to trust the information/plans that you lay out. Treat them as your equals. Include them as part of your teaching team. Make sure students treat and see them as a teacher, too! They’re not just the “helper.” They are the glue that keeps our classroom together!
- Explain why that child needs the supports that they do.
- I have created a binder for our classroom, with all the IEP information, student support information, kids’ schedules, service schedules and safety plans. It helps us stay on the same page for each student.
- Create lots of trackers to help you keep up with what’s going on with the kids. This will create space in your brain to focus on the lesson and deal with what’s in front of you instead of worrying about whether something has been done.
- Communicate your actions as frequently as possible. Classrooms can be crazy with lots of things happening at once. It’s helpful to announce your unexpected actions ― for example, “I’m taking Evan to the bathroom,” to ensure your co-workers know what you’re doing.
- Be flexible. Don’t let chaos or constant change in priority thwart the needs of the kids. Even if you and your teacher are not on the same page, do your best to stick to a routine and predictable responses with the students.
- Go over responsibilities early in the year to avoid duplicated efforts and make sure the relationships in the room remain cordial.
Q: How does trust factor into successful collaboration between special education teachers and paraprofessionals?
Kayleigh: Trust is everything. Relationships are everything. Trust has to go both ways. Paraprofessionals have to trust teachers and you have to trust them in order for students to have the most success in the classroom.
Lauren: Trust is one of the most important things to build early on, which is why I emphasize the clear delegation of roles from the get-go. This prevents most [potentially negative emotions] that could stem from feeling like someone else is doing your job and will help facilitate positive communication between co-workers. This extends to the kids — it’s hard to maintain authority or earn the trust of students if classroom staff do not work as a unit. And you can’t be a functional unit without trusting one another to maintain your responsibilities.
Takeaways for your school district
Kayleigh and Lauren emphasized that consistent and clear communication between special educators and paraeducators is critical to student success in the classroom.
To help improve communication, both Kayleigh and Lauren created information repositories to house shared knowledge and paperwork for each student. Having a shared source of information can help classroom teams remain up-to-date with what’s going on for each student, even during especially busy times.
Consider how communication and trust between special educators and paraprofessionals can be improved in your district.
*These interviews have been edited for brevity.