Making the Classroom a Place for Everyone

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Over the summer, a few of us at TWT received questions about how to manage extra adults in the classroom. As former special education teachers, Melanie and I decided to launch our own little mini-series.  Yesterday, Melanie shared Maximizing the Adult Resources in Our Classrooms, by sharing tools and resources to support adults as they work in your classroom.  Today I will share important ways to make the classroom a place for everyone, emphasizing communication and management strategies.  We hope these posts will set you up for a successful year!

As you stop by the office to check your mailbox, your administrator catches you. “Hey, I wanted to let you know you will have an instructional assistant or the special education teacher coming into your room this year.  They’ll be there to help you and Susie (a student with special needs).”

At first, you think, “Great, I’ll have an extra pair of hands in the room.” Then, as you walk a few steps down the hall, you realize the addition of the extra hands in your room will need to work in synchronization with your hands.  Balancing student needs and the needs of the special education teacher or paraprofessional is going to take some planning, flexibility, and communication.
As a former teacher of students with special needs (the first eleven years of my teaching career), I have been in many classrooms.  Each classroom community is unique.  The expectations of the teacher and the class can differ significantly from classroom to classroom and day to day.  The impact of adult resources in a room can be a tremendous asset when we take the time to synchronize our practice.

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Begin Synchronization: Establish a Common Understanding:

  • Discuss how you plan to practice classroom community, procedures, and guidelines for the class. Merge the ideas of both adults and the students. Then, model these practices.
  • Talk candidly about the goals and expectations for all the students, incorporating the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals and objectives for the student with unique needs.
  • Address the areas of need as well as the areas where the student will be most successful and have opportunities to lead their peers.
  • Set expectations for when the student will gain the support of a peer, an adult, or will work autonomously.
  • Institute a plan for a gradual release of support moving the student toward independence.
  • Make note of the places where more support might be needed and how the special education staff can assist in preparing to accommodate the need.  For example, a student may require a picture schedule to help learn routines or the aid of a peer to complete a job.
  • Establish a plan, talk about schedule interruptions and how you will communicate these changes to each other.
  • Once your plan is set, respect the plan as much as possible. Be timely and communicate schedule changes as soon as you’re able.

The Foundation is Set, Now What?

Now it’s time to dive into teaching and learning together as a community.  As you set about teaching and working to guide your community of learners, remember you’re both here to support all students.  I find these talking points helpful when meeting with a paraprofessional.

  • When you’re teaching a lesson, invite the special education teacher or paraprofessional to sit beside students, teaching the students to engage with the teacher and the students through the lesson.
  • While kids are working independently, invite the special education teacher or paraprofessional to sit at a table with students who may need support in completing the task.  This table may or may not have the student with special needs sitting with the group.  Inclusion at the table will depend on the learning objectives and areas of strength determined in prior conversations.
  • When working at a table of students, remember to guide and teach students to collaborate with peers at the table.
  • Keep the goals of the student with special needs in mind and teach all students, not just the student with an IEP.
    Respect and seek opportunities for the student with special needs to be independent and a leader.
  • When directions are in question, teach the student to ask peers before asking the teacher.
  • When the special education teacher or the paraprofessional are unsure of schedule changes, new procedures, or directions encourage the student to ask another student for confirmation.  Sometimes, teachers make unexpected shifts in a schedule that was shared before the arrival of the special education teacher or paraprofessional.

Maximizing the Synchronization:

  • Communicate! Consider having a notebook (digital or paper) where both of you can note observations, successes, goals, and questions.
  • Find edge times (away from students) in the day to share and talk. Look for the minutes in the hallway, at the copier, or at the mailboxes to talk.  It’s amazing what we can accomplish in a two-minute hallway conversation.  Ideally, meeting weekly would be helpful, but in the event you don’t have time in your schedule, edge times are very useful.
  • Adjust, assess and readjust! Be flexible, be open.

Establishing expectations, student goals, and classroom norms from the start will help you and the paraprofessional move forward as a team who operates with the best interest of the children first.