Collaborating Effectively with Paraprofessionals with these 5 Ideas

Working with paraprofessionals is a gift! There is no way around that! I have had years where I have had NO paraprofessionals or teaching assistants as they are often called. No matter who the person is and what their skills and talents are, they are a gift in the special education classroom. It can be extremely difficult to manage a SPED classroom without these special people.
How well the special relationship between you and the paraprofessional evolves takes communication, teaching, feedback and compromise to make it work well. And just like any relationship, it requires constant attention and care.

So you are new to special education or perhaps you are getting new paraprofessionals because you have changed jobs.

 Where do you start?
One of the most important things in working with adults in the special education classroom is establishing a relationship. Here are a few ideas on how to make the most of YOUR paraprofessionals/teaching assistants in YOUR classroom.

One of the first places I decided to start  was to start was the same place I start for students.
 I knew I wanted to establish a good relationship with them and a safe and friendly environment for everyone to be in.  I wanted them to feel comfortable in the classroom. I wanted them to have a stake in how are kids performed.

Establish a relationship. Get to know the person.

Share your story with them. What makes YOU tick? What goals do you have for the classroom and the kids? Sometimes I did this in a casual way with just chatting with them in getting to know them other times I did this in a more formal way with a kind of get to know you form.

  1. Often I would set up times outside of school where we could meet, have coffee and chat. This usually worked best for me because I could focus on getting acquainted with this new person with whom I was going to work closely.
  2. Set aside time during the school day to get acquainted. Sometimes impromptu chats ended up being interrupted. I found it worked best if we set aside a time to chat. I liked to have the opportunity to share my classroom goals, a little about myself such as likes, dislikes, and expectations. 
  3.  Sometimes its just impossible to get a moment before you and your paraprofessional are working side by side in your classroom. In those circumstances, I occasionally used  a Get Acquainted form. While it sounds stuffy and formal, I found when I had to use it, it gave my parapro time to sit down at their convenience and reflect and give thoughtful answers. This usually gave me a lot of useful information  it gave me information about how they saw themselves, what they felt their strengths and weaknesses were.  I also share an expectations list of things that are expected in their job, not only by me but in our Special Education department and school. If you would like a copy of the form and the expectations I used, you can get yours HERE.

    Introducing students
    This is one of the most important things to do. I liked to have a student information sheet ready to share with the paraprofessional.
    Start with their strengths.  Everybody has strengths and weaknesses and paras are no different. When assigning tasks,  I selected an activity or task I knew would be an area of strength for them. Perhaps it would be something they shared with me they liked to do. The next thing I do is to look at where they think they are weak whether that is in things such as discipline, recording data,  in managing children with severe behavior issues, or changing diapers/pull ups. This might be something I observed or something they had shared with me was weakness.

    STRESS Confidentiality
    One of the first areas I always share with paras, to begin training is the importance of confidentiality. Who we share information with and who we do NOT. The other important area to get to immediately is how to take data. Utilize all your resources at hand whether that is webinars videos one the one teaching training or even on the job training use your resources to give the information you need them to have.

    Share Share Share
    Share your knowledge. Talk out loud. That may sound so funny to say, but how many teachers do so much  of their work mentally?
    Share your kids IEPs with the paras. Explain the goals and objectives. Share  the prompting levels, behavior plans, tokens systems because they are an integral part of your success and the success of your students.
    Another way to share information about your students with teaching assistants is with a STUDENT INFO form. I design a short information form that I complete on each student. It includes things such as a picture of the student, their likes & dislikes, Their medical needs and behavioral issue and reinforcers and techniques that work best for that specific student. I have a few examples of ones I have used in my store FREE. Check them out. Check back often for new additions.

    Assess, reteach, adjust and GIVE FEEDBACK!
    Give positive and constructive feedback to your teaching assistance. Set a time aside to give feedback and guidance to the paraprofessionals. Always be open to hear what they are saying. What is working for them?
    We all like to hear whats going well. Share the good things you see. Share and reteach what isn't going as well.

    Adjust, modify and BE FLEXIBLE!  Of course, we know FLEXIBILITY is key in Special Education!


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    1. First I start with the container. Sometimes I purchase a blank lunch box but I find those difficult to find. Other things I have used are new blank paint can, small colored pails.

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    LIstening to your students for Behavior Solutions

    A delightful 1st grader on the autism spectrum entered my classroom and my life one year.  He cried and screamed a lot, but beyond that, had no verbal communication skills. He could sign a few things, but those signs were often poorly executed and difficult for others outside his world to understand.
    He often ran through his repertoire of signs when asked to use them just to see if he "hit" one that will work. Frustrating to say the least...on all sides.
    So here I was,  a new person in his world and I needed to communicate with him and him with me. Where should I start to help this student?

    I chose to start with things he liked. His preferred items.  Luckily, I had most awesome paraprofessional and together we walked this path together to work our way into his world and him into ours.
     and found a variety of activities he demonstrated interest in doing. One of his first was a 2nd hand office chair I had gotten from a fellow teacher. Fortunately, it is very sturdy and safe because we soon discovered he loved to spin. The preferred item we found was through his behavior analyst. He shared that he enjoyed gummy bears.
    Once I had found 2 items he preferred, I made a choice board with those two items. We set up a schedule for him that alternated work time and choice time. At the end of each work time we asked him to "make a choice".

    We started with a board with just two items. A food item of gummy bears and a picture of the chair he LOVES to spin in. It took several weeks to get a good pointing action from him and the moment we got a close proximity of indicating a response as to what he wanted -he got the item.

    It was AMAZING to watch this learning in progress. I worked many years and in many ways with kids with disabilities, but I was in awe and humbled every time when I had the privilege to see learning like this take place.
    The next step was increasing his items. We found he like grapes and jumping, so those were also added to his choice board. The jumping was an fantastic find, as it added to his physical activity and seem to funnel some of his energy into an appropriate physical outlet.
    Here is an example of the 4 item choice board I made.

    As you can see I try and use real pictures when at all possible, but sometimes, its quicker and easier to use clip art.
    Now we have built up to a choice board with 12 items on it. 

    Here are some other examples of choice boards. 
    Here is one for the same student much later in the year with multiple choices on it.

    Tabbed Choice Boards
     Choice Boards

    Here is a First/Then card I often used. The student can pick choice cards from the board and use them here.

    For this student choices and alternating work and choice activities were the key to helping him begin integrating into our classroom. 
    Remember, when you have those problem kiddos, take it slow, progress in small steps and listen to the students too. Sometimes they will tell you what they like and needs.

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    One of the best tools a special educator can have is an treasure chest of visual supports.
    Visual supports cover a large range of student needs. For students who have difficulty communicating with others and difficulty understanding what others are communicating to them, visual supports can be a life saver. I know they have saved me many times.
    Visual supports present information in a way that is easier for kids to comprehend. They can be customized to meet the individualized learning style of each student. Sometimes they can be that one thing that gets the message across.

    A wide range of needs can be met by using visual supports such as increase independence, understanding classroom and school rules, provide a system to organize tasks needing to be completed, aid in making choices, facilitate transitions from one task to another, clarifying what work is to be completed and in what order that work should be done. These are just a few of the things visual supports can do.

    In the special education classroom, we constantly work with students exhibiting challenging behaviors such as anxiety, anger, frustration, eloping, and more. Visual supports are a great way to present behavior expectations and direction while diminishing some of these challenging behaviors.

    There are many different kinds of visual supports. Today I will touch on just a few.

    1) Visual schedules are a great way to communicate many different types of activities in a classroom. This can be done for the entire class or group within the class. For me, using them individually has worked the best.
    One year I had a lot of students that were able to transition from center to center in the classroom. I needed something to help them understand what was on their schedule next and where they would be going.

    With this type of visual support, they were able know the order of the work centers using the number on the cards and then they could also tell which center they should be doing. They matched the sea creature on the card with the matching sign at the center. In addition to helping the student it also was great for me because it controled the number of participants at each center.

    2) Checklists and organizers can help by breaking down larger tasks into smaller more manageable steps. Checklists can contain pictures or pictures and text to aid the student in completing the correct steps in things such as arriving at school or preparing materials to go home at the end of a day.
    Here are a few examples of checklist and organizer visual supports. Thanks to Chris at Autism Classroom News and Resources for sharing this.


    3) Behavioral supports can help
    manage and prevent challenging behaviors. These could include rules and guidelines of what to do in certain social situations such as fire drills, or asking someone to play. These are particularly useful in preparing the child for what comes next, and what will happen when challenging behaviors occur. Behavior supports can tell the student how to complete steps such as going to the bathroom, taking a break or asking for help.

     Check out how this next idea has designated partitions on the table to show the space for each person.  These spaces also have a reminder at each spot for the behavior expected while at the table.

    LOVE THIS! Thanks to Autumn for sharing these great ideas. You can check out her blog post about these here

    4) Routines in the classroom are another  great use of visuals. These great visuals  from Nicole Chavanne show a visual indicating when bathroom passes are available provide a great way to communicate using pictures. Visuals such as these can cut down on interruptions of the classroom and help students know when its okay to use the facilities. Check out these BATHROOM VISUALS
    The visual at the bottom is a great reminder for students about the noise level in the classroom. 

     First/Then boards can be a simple type of schedule we can use to communicate. You can use these for schedule issues and behavior issues. The great thing about First Then boards is they can be used for the even the smallest behavior you are reinforcing. In the picture below, the student is being asked to FIRST raise their hand. THEN they can have their preferred activity such as the puzzle card shown here.

    I found it worth my time and effort to spend some time making as much of the visuals ahead of time. For instance, I liked to make the first/then boards and the cards to go with them, get them all organized. Then when the need arises in the classroom you can pull the needed visuals and implement them quickly. 
    Make sure your visual support tool box is well stocked and ready to go at any time. 


    Reinforcing Behavior and Academics

    Token boards are a great way to increase compliance with non-preferred activities in the classroom and at home. They provide students with a visual means of telling when and how they will receive reinforcement. 

    What's a Token Board
    A token board is a visual system that shows progress toward a reinforcer with tokens earned for completing behavioral and academic tasks. They act as a visual reminder for the student about how close they are to the reinforcer. It helps to keep them more focused and reinforce positive behavior. The token board is an awesome way of decreasing those verbal reminders we constantly repeat to students, of what is expected. Instead of repeatedly stating your expectations,  point to the token board, saying "When you finish 2 more words you may....".

    I first started using token board systems to increase positive behavior while in the halls and special activities such as music, lunch, art, and P.E. It worked so well, I soon extended it into the everyday activities of my classroom.
    If I had an unusual behavior I wanted to work on with a particular student such as sitting in a chair, I used a token board first. And many times, it was perfect!

     There are many different types of token boards you can use. There is no one correct type. Use what works best for you and your students. I usually use very simple token boards to eliminate artwork that may be distracting. Some students will work harder if the token board contains pictures they like. You may need to experiment to see what is best. You may need a variety of types of token boards to meet the needs of your students because as we all know, no 2 students are alike. One of the greatest things about token boards is they are so modifiable. They can be super simple or more complex to meet the need of the task/behavior and student.  A token board should include the following parts.
    • A reinforcer/reward section - what is the student working for
    • Tokens section - what tokens  have been earned
    • Quantity of tokens needed- how many do they need to earn?
    Here are a few of the token board series I frequently used. The cards have different amounts of token spaces on them so I can use them to increase the work/behavior reinforcers as the students become successful.

    How to use Token Boards:

    1.  Select a reinforcer the student is interested in. Perhaps you have a student that loves princesses. Then perhaps having a princess on their tokens will be particularly motivating to them. Dinosaurs, pennies, keys, smiley faces, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Thomas the Tank Engine are just a few of the other tokens I have used. 

      I often had a board in the classroom with the token reinforcers that were available. The students could select which one they wanted to use on their token card. Making sure the token reinforcer and end reward is motivating to the student is key to token boards being successful.
    2. Select the behavior or task you want to be completed. It's important to use one that is attainable and broken down to the simplest step. (e.g. If you want the student to complete a math assignment of 4 tasks or problems, but they can't complete 2 make sure to work on completing 1 first then build up to 4 when 2 and 3 tasks have been mastered.
    3. Each time the student successfully completes the requested task/behavior then hand him a token to be placed on the board. (e.g. If you are working on sitting in a chair. 
    4. Keep the board in view for the student to help with attention.
    5. When the student has earned the designated amount of tokens, give them the agreed upon reinforcer.

    Teaching Token Boards:
    1. Two options
      A.  Begin with a token board that is almost complete. If using a 5 penny board, for 1 example, pre-load the board with 4 pennies. When the student performs the desired behavior, place another penny on the board and immediately reinforce the student. Always place the penny on the board in view of the student and pair with verbal reinforcement each time.
    As the student becomes more familiar with the token board, preload the board with fewer pennies until you reach the student’s current ability level. The ultimate goal is to start with an empty board.

    B. Begin with a token board with minimal spaces for token such as 1 or 2. As you progress, you can change the card to other with increasing amounts of token spaces on it.
    When introducing the token board, the teacher may manipulate the board and tokens. As student understanding of the token board increases, allow the student to manipulate the board and tokens.

    Token boards can be used in a variety of ways and lend themselves easily to many different situations. How do you use them in your teaching?

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    We all work with struggling readers, especially in Special Education.  In previous posts, I wrote about working on improving skills in comprehension. You can find SEQUENCING here and MAIN IDEA here.
     Today I want to focus on those students that have reading decoding issues. 
     No matter what reading issues students have, we want to make sure they receive all components of reading instruction. Our kids often come to us reading several years behind their grade level as or not reading at all. We want to make sure they get a well-planned reading instruction, not just instruction in the area in which they are behind.
    What are some things we can do in our reading blocks to help these kids?

    📘Break up the independent reading time into several different smaller timed sections. The kids could spend a small segment reading with a partner. 
         📗Try letting the student listen to a partner read and then reading the same selection to their partner.
         📙Have them listen to stories online at sites such as on STORYLINE ONLINE  , or  JUST BOOKS READALOUD . One of my favorites for many years is  RAZKidsRaz-Kids does require a  membership fee, but is well worth it. On Raz-Kids which part of the A-Z Learning, students can listen to books being read for practice and even record their reading so teachers can track the progress.  
         📕 Centers - If you use reading centers which is a great way to get in reading practice be sure your students have the ability to do the center individually or if pairing partners, keep students with similar reading levels together.
         📗 File folders games are an excellent way to work on reading decoding skills. They can be specifically tailored to the ability level of the student. I used a color code system when setting up my file folder centers. For example; Reading file folders all had a triangle on them then all the reading file folders were in colored folders such as red for beginning, green for emergent and so on. 

    Word Work
    Providing time for students to practice working with words is extremely important. Word Work gives them time to play with the word, practice and explore all the possibilities. While there are way too many to mention in this post, here are some of my favorites.
    What are some great ideas for Word Work time that you use?

         👉Foam Letters - these provide great tactile reinforcement and are great for letter sound work.
    👉Letter Stamps - kids love these and these are a quite well used of capitals but also come in lowercase as well. These are a super way to practice stamping words. They are flexible to use when teaching any phonetic sound and kids adore stamping the letters. To spice things up I have different color inks the kid can use and this becomes a real higlight of center work for the kids.
    Make it fun and flexible with easy activities such as these. They are easy to set up and extremely flexible no matter what phonetic skill you are working on.