Paraprofessional Series: Working with Experienced Special Education Paraprofessionals as New Teacher

Working with Special Education ParaprofessionalsWorking with paraprofessionals can be one of the best and hardest things about being a special education teacher. It can be particularly hard when you're a newer teacher and working in a classroom with experienced paraprofessionals. It can feel weird to give a para instructions, directions and guidance if the para has more classroom experience than you or if the para is significantly older than you.
My first couple of years of teaching, I ended up working with a paraprofessional who had been in the classroom longer than I had even been alive! It did feel strange at first, but I knew I needed to get over that. I had to find ways to build relationships with the paras and to show them that I cared about them and the students!

Your relationship with your paras can make or break your school year (for your students and you!), so it's worth the time and effort to build a positive relationship with them. At the end of the day, the classroom is YOUR responsibility and it's your job to make sure that you are doing everything in your power to work in a positive way with the adults in your classroom.

Working with Special Education Paraprofessionals

I've had so many people ask me for advice about working with paraprofessionals who don't want to follow the teacher's plan and seem to specifically challenge the teacher due to the teacher's age or experience... If this is you, just know that you're NOT alone. This has happened to me numerous times and it has happened to many other teachers too. I don't have a magic wand or special secrets that will make it all better overnight, but I have some suggestions that have helped me tremendously over the years.

Appreciate what information you can learn about students from experienced paraprofessionals.  
Use it to your advantage if you're coming into a classroom with experienced paras who already know and have a relationship with your students! Make time to sit down with the paras to ask them questions about what games, toys, activities, etc. students do and don't like, what foods students do and do not like, what daily routines/ activities students are already able to do independently, what special interests students have, etc. Often times, these simple little things are left out of IEPs and other paperwork, but they are very important and helpful to know before you start the school year, so if you can get this information from paras, then you're lucky! This is a small way that you can include paras and show them that you value their input and what they bring to the table.

Ask paraprofessionals questions about what has and hasn't worked in the past. 
I love to ask paras what they think has and hasn't worked for the students/ classroom in the past. I ask them about things like: scheduling, grouping, inclusion time, behavior interventions, etc.

This will help you to get an idea of what paras did and didn't like about how past years were set up. You don't need to base all of your decisions on this information, but it can be helpful in making some key decisions. Don't forget that at the end of the day, it is your decision and responsibility to decide what is best for the classroom, but it isn't a bad idea to get some outside ideas and to try to keep the other adults working in the classroom happy, when possible!

For example, when I first started at my last school, I had a conversation similar to this with one of the experienced paras who had been in the classroom previously and she told me that each para was grouped/ paired with 2-3 students and those were the only students that those staff members worked with for the entire school year. She expressed her concerns about that and this was something that I was open to changing.

Give paras specific explanations and rationales for why you want to make change.
Change can be hard for some people! If a paraprofessional is struggling with how a new teacher is changing the classroom, then it's the teacher's job to help the para understand the reasons WHY the teacher needs to make those changes. Instead of saying something like, "I'm the teacher, you're the para, just do it my way," take the time to give explanations and rationals as to why you're making specific changes. I have found that when paras truly understand why I want to implement a plan, that they are more willing to buy in. Don't use fancy teacher terms or acronyms, use plain terms and just explain the basic why for the changes!

If you have a para who still is particularly resistant to change, here are a few ways to phrase conversations and problem-solve:
-"Let's try this for intervention/ plan, etc. for  __ months/ weeks, then we can revisit and discuss if it's working or not. If the team doesn't think it's working, we can tweak our plan."
-Use the data and be concrete, "The data shows Billy is still kicking 18 times a week with the current intervention that we've been doing for 4 weeks, so it's time to try something new. We will keep tracking the data to see if the new plan works and we will revisit it."
-"I might be a new teacher and haven't tried it yet, but there is research supporting ___ intervention. I'd like to try it for a few weeks and see if we see progress."

If you have any tips for working with experiences paras, please share them in the comments! Or ask any specific questions below too! Just please remember to be respectful of your colleagues and protect confidentiality.