Finding Success Working with Paraprofessionals (Ep. 137)

Having a positive, collaborative relationship with your paraprofessionals is vital. But how do you establish and continue that type of relationship? In this episode, Shannon Lauffer joins Tim to share some of her best ideas about working with paraprofessionals in your art room. Listen as they discuss the importance of communicating your routines and procedures, making sure you are providing the right amount of support, and how to handle any conflicts that may arise.  Full episode transcript below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for our teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Shannon Lauffer has been on a couple times recently, and we talked about how popular she is. She’s kind of letting it go to her head, but I did feel like we need to bring her on one more time. She has a lot of areas of expertise, and I think she has so many great ideas, and she brings all of these very sort of difficult topics, things we don’t talk about enough as our teachers, and she makes them really entertaining. I wanted to bring her back because recently, I was reviewing some of her footage for a PRO-learning pack that she was recording, and it is just full of great ideas on working with paraprofessionals, and so I was hoping she could summarize some of those ideas in the podcast here because this is something I have always struggled with. I know a lot of our teachers struggle with how to deal with paraprofessionals in your room.

What should you ask them to do? How can you best share expectations? What happens if you have something go wrong? How do you deal with that? How do you approach that? We’ll go through that and a lot more today, but honestly, this discussion is only gonna be scratching the surface. There’s so much more you can dive into, and I’ll give you some ideas and some recommendations throughout the show. First, if you really want to learn a lot more, you need to look out for the pro pack that will be coming, not for a few months, though, but there will be videos, a ton of downloadable resources, and just so much more in there.

While you are waiting for Shannon’s PRO pack, there are so many more that you can explore. There are three new ones this month. One is All About Pure Feedback by Kim Jensen, who is an amazing facilitator from California. There is a pack that I put together, All About Surviving Your First Year of Teaching High School. If you don’t listen to me enough on this podcast and you want to listen to me talk for another hour and a half about that, then make sure you check that out. Nick Hahn has a pack on mono-printing, also, which is really engaging and quite a bit of fun. We release three new packs on the first of every month and just an incredibly extensive library at this point. If you have not checked us out yet, make sure you take a look and start your free trial at theartofed.com/pro. All right, enough from me. It is time to bring Shannon on and start our entertaining conversation, so here she is.

All right, I am here with Shannon Lauffer. Shannon, how are you?

Shannon: I am so good. It’s me again.

Tim: I know. I’m so excited to have you back on the show.

Shannon: Same.

Tim: It’s fun stuff. You’re always popular, but … So, behind the scenes, just talking about Art Ed PRO, you recorded a learning pack recently, all about working with paraprofessionals. I was the lucky person who got to review all the footage, which was super exciting.

Shannon: Oh, lucky you.

Tim: I know. I thought to myself that, hey, this would make a great podcast, as well. I’m excited to talk to you about it.

Shannon: Same.

Tim: Let’s just start off with a simple question. Why do you think it’s so important to have a good collaborative relationship with your paraprofessionals?

Shannon: Man, when paraprofessionals come into your classroom, this is a moment of either like, this can be so fantastic for my students, or this can be a real detriment to their learning. Setting up a positive relationship, a positive working relationship with paraprofessionals, is super, super important. This can almost become almost like a co-teaching model. When a paraprofessional is in your room, it’s because the students need support. Establishing this collaborative relationship is good, A, for you because you can utilize them to the best of their ability and to the greatest needs for the students, but also for this paraprofessional to understand what you need as the teacher.

I think the most important thing to remember, just kind of working with humans in general, is that you always have to be able to step into their shoes. This paraprofessional is probably with the same student or students for most of the day, and they go all different places. They’re in their self-contained classroom, maybe a regular education classroom for inclusion. They come to all the specials. They do this. They do that. Everybody has their own routines, and everybody has their own rules, so imagine how hard it is for that paraprofessional to adapt to each and every space. I think that’s the most important reason that we want to build this great relationship from day one, and so that they understand the expectations and what to do in your classroom.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really well said. I want to dive into some of those ideas a little bit later, but first off, just thinking about getting the relationship started right, I think a big part of that, like you said, when you’re working with anybody, but specifically paraprofessionals, is creating that line of communication. How do you make sure that you get started on the right foot, open up those lines of communication? What are your strategies at the beginning of this working relationship?

Shannon: I would say the most important thing is to introduce yourself as soon as possible. If you’re starting at a new school or if you’re in the same school and you have new paraprofessionals coming in, mosey on down on your first couple days and introduce yourself face-to-face. This is just kind of great practice with colleagues, in general, but I think is really going to make your paras feel welcomed in your classroom. I also really love to kick off the year with a welcome letter for my paraprofessional. First off, you’re-

Tim: Yeah, that’s a good idea.

Shannon: Yeah, it’s so powerful ’cause you’re expressing gratitude for everything that they’re going to do during the school year, and also telling them what they can expect when they walk in because just the way your students would walk in on the first day, support staff is gonna want to know what to expect, as well. You can tell them where they can put their bag, or their lunch, or their purse, where they can find a seat to use so they don’t have to sit in a one and a half foot tall chair, they can have an adult chair, or what your classroom rules and expectations are, the protocol they need to take their students for a break. These are all just little things that you might not think about, but if you put them out there on day one in a letter, it’s gonna ease a lot of those frustrations and concerns on their end.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s really good advice. I also wanted to ask you, just kind of along those same lines on something that you mentioned in your first answer, it’s tough for them to keep track of everything that’s going on, especially when they are in so many different classrooms. How do you, besides the welcome letter, how do you help paras know everything that’s going on in your room, especially specific to art? We have so many routines, procedures, little things we do in the art room. How do you let them know everything that’s going on?

Shannon: It’s super useful to create almost like a binder. What if you gather all these things, like this is the bathroom protocol. This is what happens during a lockdown. This is where we go for a fire drill. Just think about those days like, I’m sure we’ve all been there where you have a class of like 25 kids, and all of a sudden, the fire alarm goes off. You’re like, oh my gosh. They don’t even know how to walk in a straight line yet. How will I get them to the middle of the soccer field? If your paraprofessional knows those routines and has them in front of them, they can help you get those kids to where they need to be. But, it’s hard for them to help you if they don’t know what to expect. My best piece of advice is to make a binder that has all these little routines, expectations, that … Not, like, 400 pages, but just some of the things that they will need to know to make their life easier, to support their students, and also to support you when some of these things might be happening.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really good advice. I think that’s gonna work out really well.

Shannon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim: I also wanted to kind of address something negative. I think a lot of teachers have had an experience with this where the paras either just get so excited about having art supplies in their hands, or they’re so worried about the kids’ work looking like adults think it should look that they just kind of take over.

Shannon: Yeah.

Tim: They are doing the work for the kids. I guess, what do you think are the best strategies to ensure that paras are providing the right amount of help, the right amount of support, making sure they’re not doing work for the kids, and if they are, how do you address that?

Shannon: Yeah. This is probably the trickiest part of working with other adults in your classroom. I think the first thing I would do is outline that expectation in my paraprofessional letter. Student work is student work. Please do not do artwork for students. They should be doing their own work. I’m more concerned with the process over the product. A great way to kind of back that up is to talk about assessment. You can say like, “It’s my job to assess all of these students, and I can’t assess the students’ ability to master a certain technique or to make growth over the course of a school year if you are doing the work for them.” It’s great to have kind of like a little backup piece to support your claim. The reason I don’t want you working on their paper is because of assessment.

Also, it’s so powerful for a student to make their own marks. If we take that away from students, how detrimental is that? But, I think it’s also really important to go over the different levels of support. This is sometimes … I think a lot of us do this without thinking, but there’s actually a prompt hierarchy that in special education is used. If a student is unable to do something independently, what do they need to do it? Do they need just a verbal prompt? Can you just gesture towards something? If the student is supposed to have a pencil in their hand and they don’t have a pencil in their hand, you can just tap next to the pencil. Then that prompts them to remember like, oh, I should pick up my pencil.

However, the most invasive prompt would be a hand over hand, so where if a student is really struggling with something, let’s say they’re painting and they have low tone in their hand. They can’t grip the paintbrush. The paraprofessional might use a hand over hand method, so the student is holding the paintbrush and their hand is on top of theirs. That would be the most invasive thing we would ever want to see. We should never see the paraprofessional doing the work for the student ’cause it’s not even prompting. It’s just supporting them. I guess I know I’m kind of going on and on about this, but another thing to consider is if you see that, is the task that you have assigned the student outside of their ability?

Do we need to modify the project? I know with a lot of my little guys, cutting is really hard. They might be able to cut straight lines, and maybe they need a spring-loaded scissor or some hand over hand support, but if I’m asking them to cut out a bunch of circles, should that be a goal right now? If not, it’s like, okay, the job of the … We’re gonna modify the project, the paraprofessional cuts the circles, and then puts them in front of the student. We’re taking away one of these skills that a student is unable to master at this point, and then we’ve modified the project so that they can still engage with the material at their own level. Did I answer the question?

Tim: You did. Your answer actually made me ask another question.

Shannon: Yeah.

Tim: Just thinking about that hierarchy of prompts, obviously we want to work on kids having less and less help from their paras. Well, I don’t even know if less support is the right word, but moving up that hierarchy where they don’t need quite as much assistance. Do you keep-

Shannon: Can I just interject super quick?

Tim: Yes, yes.

Shannon: ‘Cause something that I’ve talked about with some of my friends in special ed and with some of the paras that I’ve worked with is like, the goal of a para is to … How do you put it? Is to work themselves out of a job.

Tim: Right.

Shannon: The ideal thing is to have all of our students be fully independent, to complete all their work on their own. So, I digress, but I just think that’s such an interesting way to consider the ultimate goal is not to have support K-12. The ultimate goal is to be able to fade that support as time goes on.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: I totally interrupted your question, and I apologize.

Tim: No, that’s okay because I was just randomly circling around thoughts in my head, and you succinctly put them together for me, so I appreciate that.

Shannon: Oh, perfect.

Tim: The question I was thinking, like, do you design projects or design modifications so that kids need less support for them, or do you just kind of adapt the supports to go along with the project that you have in mind?

Shannon: I guess it depends on what kind of a class you’re teaching. If you are teaching an inclusion art class, you would design your project, and then you would have modifications in mind, combinations and modifications in mind for the students who maybe cannot complete all the aspects of that project. The last thing you would ever want to do is say, like, “Well, all my students are doing this, and the ones who are struggling, they’re just gonna color.” We would never just isolate students because they struggle. We’re always working towards the same objective. I think this is something I kept circling back to when I was talking about differentiation, is you always stay focused on your objective.

In an inclusion classroom, you would design support so that all students are challenged and are learning, but can still be successful. Whether that means providing students with some pre-made pieces that they can assemble on their own, or giving them a certain level of hand over hand support, or a partial physical prompt, we’re still setting them up to do the work independently. However, I think it’s a little bit different if you’re working in a … What are they called? An adaptive art class, or you have a self-contained class that comes to you for their own art class. In that situation, you might be focusing more on the skills that we’re trying to master. If these are a group of students that maybe struggle with fine motor, maybe cutting is the objective and they might all be at different levels. Cutting seems to be just the hardest skill to teach kids.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely.

Shannon: If you think about it, like, man, opening a scissor, closing a scissor, guiding the paper, holding two hands, there is so much going on. But, you might design an entire project just around that skill. I think also, another important thing to remember is if a student is working on a skill that they haven’t mastered, you always want to pair it with something they have mastered, or else they’ll just feel like they’re failing the whole time, but if we can say, okay, cutting is hard, but next we’re gonna glue. If the student already understands how to glue and assemble something, then we’re pairing something that’s hard with something that they already know how to do. That kind of supports them through that process.

Tim: Yeah, that makes sense. I kind of wanted to ask you, just circling back to paras working themselves out of a job. When kids are working well on their own, a lot of times, paras will have some downtime. Do you think it’s okay to ask them to do something extra, and how do you approach that? You don’t want to be like, “Hey, I noticed you were standing around doing nothing. Do you want to wash some brushes for me?” Is there a better way to go about that, and do you think it’s okay to ask them for additional help?

Shannon: I think it is. This, obviously, would be on such a case by case basis. I guess I can talk about my own experience. In my own experience, my paras have just been so fantastic. If I say like, oh my gosh, I’m totally swamped, would you mind cutting some paper for me? I need 9×12. I have 18×36. They’re like, “No problem.” They are happy to jump in and help. I think it’s really helpful to have kind of a list of things, like these are the tasks that kind of take my time at the end of the day. It’s washing brushes. It’s wiping down countertops. It’s reorganizing my paper table, or whatever it is. At the end of the year, it’s testing all my markers so I can decide which ones have to get recycled and which ones we can keep. If you have a list, that’s a great way that you can say like, “Hey, it looks like your student is really thriving right now. Do you want to step away for a little bit?”

However, I think it’s really important to establish that boundary of like, keep checking in with them. The last thing we want is for the student to finish what they’re doing and to not know what to do next, but I’ve told my paraprofessional like, go hang up artwork in the hallway. Then you look around. It’s like, well now, I can’t help the student and they’re sitting by themselves. They don’t know what to do. It’s really finding that balance of how well the student is doing independently if any other students maybe need support or help, and how big of a job you might give them to work on.

Tim: Yeah, that makes sense, too. Okay. Then I just have one last question for you because not all of us have had wonderful paras our entire career.

Shannon: It’s true.

Tim: If you do run into a spot where you have some conflict, something where you’re on the different page, maybe they’re doing something you don’t want them to do, maybe they’re working on kids’ artwork, even though you’ve asked them and told them why you don’t want them to do that, or even undermining classroom management. I’ve had that happen before. How do you approach that? What’s the best way to deal with that, in your opinion?

Shannon: Yeah. I think the biggest things I’ve dealt with is undermining, or if you have several paraprofessionals in a class, they’ll kind of talk in the background, like talk to each other …

Tim: Yes, yes.

Shannon: Or talk over you while you’re teaching. It’s like, oh my gosh. I think step one is we set our expectations at the beginning of the year. Do not … You might have a few things in your paraprofessional letter like, “Only one adult should talk at a time. If classroom management issues arise, please alert me and I will deal with them.” However, conflict is bound to happen. I mean, again, whenever you’re working with humans, conflict is part of it. For me, the most important thing is … I’m not a parent, but I think this is what parents do when they’re successful, is present a united front. The worst thing you can do is pin us against each other. If my paraprofessional says one thing and I want something different, I’m not gonna tell them they’re wrong in front of all my students ’cause then my students see that there’s a conflict.

Tim: Right.

Shannon: What I might do is say like, “I heard Mrs. so and so say that you lost recess today. I will let your teacher know. Please tell me what happened.” I might debrief with that child. Then afterwards, I’m gonna follow up with my para and say like, I mean, for me, this is kind of my own philosophy, like, “I don’t believe in taking away recess. So in the future, please do not do that.” It kind of comes down to this is your classroom. At a certain point, you have to own it, and you don’t want to push somebody out and make them feel like they are less, but it’s your classroom and it’s your job to make those decisions. Maybe right after class, depending on what your relationship looks like, you can kind of debrief and say like, “In the future, please do not do that. I’ll make the decisions. You can let me know when it’s happening and I will intervene.” Some people don’t respond super well to that. It’s always kind of navigating those waters of conflict between individuals. It’s like, I’m listening to you. I hear what you’re saying. I know you’re working in the best interest of kids, but in the future, this is what will happen.” I guess the other really important thing about working with people is just knowing that you’re not gonna get along with everybody.

Tim: Yes.

Shannon: We have to have a professional working relationship. We will present a united front in front of kids, but other than that, if you don’t like me and I don’t maybe like you, it is what it is.

Tim: Yeah.

Shannon: Our objective is to teach kids. I guess that would be my best bid of advice for when that arises.

Tim: No, I think that works. I think that is some really good advice. Cool. That will also be a good place to leave it, so we will go ahead and wrap it up. Shannon, thank you again so much for coming on and sharing-

Shannon: My pleasure.

Tim: All of this awesome advice. It’s always great to talk to you.

Shannon: Hey, you’re welcome. Yeah, same.

Tim: Hopefully, we can have you back on the podcast again soon. Thanks.

Shannon: Excellent. I love to talk, so …

Tim: All right, see you later.

Shannon: Thanks so much, Tim.

Tim: All right, thank you to Shannon for coming on. If you want to learn more, again, that PRO pack will be coming in the next few months, but in the meantime, I want you to check out our article on the AOE site, called What You Need to Know About Inclusive Education in the Art Room. We’ll link to it with the show notes, of course. Just go to the AOE site and you can access it there, but the ideas in there are incredible. It goes far beyond just how to deal with paraprofessionals. Shannon has so much great advice in that article about special education law, inclusion, ideas for your classroom, and even further recommendations on how to add to your learning beyond what’s in there. That’s what we’re trying to get at here, giving you the ideas that you need to gain more understanding, to be better in your classroom, and to be better for your kids.

Tim: Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening, as always. Next week, Abby Schukei is gonna be back on talking about career education. It always good to have Abby on and I am really looking forward to it. We’ll talk to you then.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.