Making the most of paraprofessionals


Hopefully you are not reading this post thinking, “what paraprofessionals?”  With all the budget cuts that seem to affect schools with zero discrimination for level of need, I realize some of you may be “winging” this pretty much on your own.  However, if you do have paraprofessionals in your classroom with you, I wanted to talk about ways to make sure you are using them in the best possible way: for you, for your students, AND for your paraprofessionals.

Let’s look at 5 ways we can up-level what these adults are doing with our students.

1.  Making assumptions about new paraprofessionals

This is a mistake I made so many times.  You think the school will hire someone who is qualified to work with your students and has at least some background knowledge on various disabilities, or at least the education system.  But that is not always the case.  Oftentimes, these individuals come into your classrooms with the best of intentions but with a total lack of knowledge.

So before throwing them right into a hectic routine, make sure you take some time to sit down and figure out where they are coming from.  Just like with parents (maybe even more so) stay away from big words and acronyms when talking about your classroom.  Explain the rules and procedures in the simplest of terms.

I find it helpful to talk through what a typical day is like.  How do things flow, what are the problematic times and activities?  Keep it positive.  You do not want this new person to be dreading coming in the next day.  Be honest but try not to describe your worst day.

2.  Addressing confidentiality with your paraprofessionals

As you are talking with your new or even seasoned staff, this conversation is a must have every year.  In order for them to do their job well, you will have to share potentially sensitive information about your students.  It needs to be crystal clear this information is confidential.  Again, do not talk in generalities.  Be very, very specific.  Make sure everyone understands that even talking about specific students with their own family members once they get home after a long day is not okay.  We all need to decompress, so make sure they know who they can go to if there is a problem or concern they feel is necessary to address.

I have been in public places (sitting in a booth at a restaurant, or in a movie theater) and have heard snippets of conversations; conversations that involve children people work with.  Often, unflattering and unattractive comments said because people just assume no one is around who would care or be affected.  It is a small world, and we are judged by others so quickly.  Sharing anything that happens in the classroom while in a public space is never okay.  You just never know who is listening.

Don’t just assume your paraprofessionals will be aware of or even understand what is meant by confidentiality.  That is why this conversation is so important.  Give examples of what is and is not okay to share with others.  Who is it okay to share confidential information with?  Finally, make sure they truly understand the severity of breaking confidentiality.  Not just for themselves, but also the damage it can cause to the students you work with and their families.

3.  Adding value

Sometimes it can feel like having extra bodies in the classroom can just get in your way and slow things down.  Sometimes you may feel so frustrated as you watch, yet again, a negative behavior being reinforced by a paraprofessional who does not realize the impact of what they are doing.  So, you need to be very intentional about how these important people can add value to your classroom.

Take time to think about what parts of your day or lesson needs extra assistance.  What could be added that would either make it run more smoothly or lighten your load.  And, as far as lightening that load, in order for your paras to be able to add value to your classroom, you are going to have to let go a little bit.  Give up some of that control and give some of those repeatable tasks to someone else.  Just think what you will be able to do with that extra bit of time.

4.  Playing to your paraprofessional’s strengths

As you are trying to determine the best way these individuals can add value to your classroom routine, think about what each person is good at.  This may take some observation on your part and time to really get to know them.  But inevitably, you will come to find that some are better one on one with certain students and some are better at keeping things organized and the class running on time.

Not every paraprofessional is going to be a natural with our students.  But, that does not mean they do not have value to add.  We just need to figure out what exactly they are good at, and how we can capitalize on that in the classroom.

5.  Feeling valued

I put this last, but it may be the most important.  You truly want your paraprofessionals to feel valued in your classroom.  You want them to feel like they are a critical part of the team and not just there to help with hygiene issues.  This comes not only from verbal confirmation from you, but also by giving them responsibilities they can feel good about.  Every adult in the classroom should feel like what they are doing matters.  Obviously, they are not there for the big paycheck.  Most of them have a deep desire to help students learn, and likely have been drawn to special education for a reason.   Be sure to foster this feeling of importance in your paraprofessionals.  Encourage them, praise them, guide them with kindness, and most importantly give them responsibilities within the classroom and with the students that are truly meaningful.  

To summarize:

  1. Don’t make assumptions
  2. Address confidentiality
  3. Best ways to add value
  4. Play to their strengths
  5. Make sure they feel valued





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