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Slide 1: Hello! I’m Marcquis Parham with WordFarmers Associates. Welcome to our slideshow on communicating with students! Before we get started, I’d like to mention that this information has been prepared on behalf of the Ohio Partnership for Excellence in Paraprofessional Preparation at the University of Cincinnati’s Systems Development and Improvement Center. Now, let’s talk about how we can effectively communicate with students.

Slide 2: In this slideshow, we’ll provide some information about the context in which paraprofessionals and students interact, and then we’ll discuss some basic guidelines for improving communication within this context. These guidelines should benefit students in a variety of ways, including enhancing their social-emotional learning, their academic performance, and the overall quality of your interactions with them.

Slide 3: Paraprofessionals usually work with students in the classroom itself. However, the very nature of the classroom can be stressful for many students. Classrooms are typically a confined space where student-to-student, student-to-teacher, and student-to-paraprofessional interactions are on display for everyone in the room to see. This means that students’ social and academic successes and failures are often subject to public scrutiny, from both the adults in the room and also from classmates.

Slide 4: The fact that students are “on display” in the classroom can present a challenge to effective communication. Students who need help with schoolwork may not be happy that other students can see what’s going on. Even students who want and appreciate a paraprofessional’s help may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. These feelings can present obstacles to effective communication.

Slide 5: For example, even though a student may want the help that a para is prepared to give, they may act like they don’t! In fact, sometimes students will act like they don’t care because of their discomfort or embarrassment, or out of a need to show other students that they’re independent or “tough.” If you find yourself in this situation with a student, it’s especially important to establish trust and empathy—sometimes referred to as “rapport.” Curiously, it can be more difficult for paraprofessionals to establish rapport with students than it would be for a teacher.

Slide 6: So how should parapros go about establishing rapport? First, it’s important to be respectful with and to students. Second, paras need to pay attention to changing classroom dynamics that affect communication. Finally, they should be friendly, but at the same time remain focused on instruction.

Slide 7: These three guidelines—respect, paying attention, and a friendly focus on instruction—will help you build rapport with students.

Slide 8: But what is “rapport”? Rapport is a feeling of connectedness and security in people who are communicating with each other. This feeling gives us a signal that communication is possible. When we feel rapport, we expect to understand the person we’re communicating with and to be understood by that person. Feelings of rapport help people work together cooperatively.

Slide 9: This is where the guidelines come in: they cultivate rapport. So here they are again:

  • Be respectful with and to students.
  • Pay attention to the changing dynamics of communication.
  • Be friendly and simultaneously remain focused on instruction.

Sounds simple, right? But it turns out that these simple guidelines have many layers. So, let’s take a closer look.

Slide 10: Let’s start with being respectful. It’s a simple idea, but how do you show respect to children? Aren’t children supposed to respect adults? What can it mean for adults to respect children?

Slide 11: Respect relates to dignity and worth. Even small children have a sense of dignity. Like most of us, they dislike being shamed, overpowered, or insulted. Perhaps one of the best ideas we can use to gain and hold students’ trust and positive regard, is to treat their thoughts and feelings as considerately as we would an adult’s. In other words, we need to take them seriously! Indeed, taking other people seriously is what demonstrates to them that we value them and consider them to have worth. And students do have worth, simply because they are present as students. They have important work to do with us, and we have important work to do with them.

Slide 12: All this no longer sounds so simple. In fact, it might turn out to be difficult. To help us get a handle on what this all means, let’s see what being respectful looks like in practical terms.  Respect translates to everyday courtesies, such as acknowledging a students’ entrance into your space—or yours into theirs—with a pleasant greeting; making and keeping eye contact when conversing; and showing attentiveness and interest with words, tone of voice, and body language.

Slide 13: On the other hand, language that shames or demeans students—such as sarcasm or harsh accusations—shows a lack of respect. Unfortunately, this behavior does sometimes occur in schools, even though it is harmful to students. We are all human, however, and sometimes we lash out. When this happens, the respectful response is to acknowledge our mistake and apologize to our students. If we act badly and expect forgiveness without apologizing, we’re expecting too much! Respect includes the capacity and willingness to hold ourselves accountable for treating others well and to apologize when we make mistakes.

Slide 14: Respect also requires patience. An important part of being respectful is paying attention to what our students are trying to say even when they are having difficulty explaining themselves.

Slide 15: Many things can interfere with students’ ability to express themselves. These include shyness or a reluctance to talk; difficulty putting strong feelings into words; a physical or sensory disability; a speech or language disorder; a different accent or dialect; or even a first language that is not English. Listening patiently is what’s often needed as a way to show respect and encourage students to share their ideas in words.

Slide 16: When interacting with students who are having communication difficulties, you should be sure to focus on what they are trying to say rather than on how they are saying it.

Slide 17: Correcting errors isn’t helpful in this situation and can actually erode rapport. Making students self-conscious about how they speak, especially if it is also how their family and friends speak, risks not only embarrassing them, but also making them feel alienated from the instructor and the entire classroom community.

Slide 18: So that’s respect. Let’s turn now to paying attention to changes in dynamics while talking or interacting with students. This guideline is almost as important as respect.

Slide 19: First, let’s consider the fact that as students become comfortable communicating with you as a paraprofessional, they may begin to look for social interaction from you that they don’t necessarily get from their peers. As a result, these students can wind up reducing their efforts to interact with their classmates. This is a real problem because part of what parapros should be doing is helping students who have learning challenges connect to their peers.

Slide 20: If you observe this kind of change in communication dynamics, you need to bring it to the attention of the instructional team. The team can develop procedures to encourage improved interactions that are inclusive of all students.

Slide 21: Another change in dynamics that you may notice is that your good rapport with a student might deteriorate. This could happen suddenly or more slowly over time. It’s important to recognize this change in dynamics and to understand that it’s not something to hide, even though it probably feels bad and you might even think that it’s your fault in some way. Almost all educators have observed this change in one or more children over the course of their careers. It’s a sign that something’s wrong, and it’s very important to ask the instructional team for help in dealing with it. They can explore reasons for the change and work to find ways to help the student readjust to working with you. In the meantime, you should continue to be friendly and patient, showing respect for the student’s thoughts and feelings.

Slide 22:  Here’s a way of communicating that is respectful and also leads to productive adult-student dynamics. It’s the use of “assertive language.” What is assertive language?  Simply put, assertive language is speech that gives clear directions for work and behavior. Here are a few examples:

  • Read silently so you can finish this paragraph before the bell rings.
  • Whisper to me so you don’t disturb the other students.
  • You’ll be able to leave for recess once you turn in your paper.

Slide 23: Assertive language directs students toward appropriate actions, and it tells them what adults expect of them. Clarity not only improves the likelihood that students will act in ways we expect, but it also can help de-escalate rising tensions. In almost all situations—but especially when there is conflict or heightened emotion—clear, brief sentences are more effective than long or complicated sentences for guiding students’ behavior and work. This means that assertive language is useful when you need to change the dynamics of communication.

Slide 24: Yet another way of attending to changing dynamics is to find points of honest agreement with students. When students seem at odds with you or with the teacher, there is always a legitimate reason for their confusion or frustration, even if you don’t know what that is. When you acknowledge the stumbling block without attributing blame, it can help students view the situation more objectively.

Slide 25: For example, if a student continues to have difficulty with oral reading despite increased effort, a paraprofessional might provide support by saying, “I know you’re working hard to read aloud.” Notice that this statement does not offer false hope that the added effort will automatically result in improved performance, but it also acknowledges the value of continued effort. Here are some more examples of statements that acknowledge a student’s emotional response and also encourage continued effort:

  • I can see why you would be disappointed with your grade, but we can work together on some study strategies that will help you with the next test.
  • It is a beautiful day outside, and I can see that missing recess feels unfair; but getting the social studies essay written and turned in is what we’re concentrating on right now.

Slide 26: Let’s move on now to the third guideline for communicating effectively with students: being friendly and simultaneously remaining focused on instruction. A parapro’s or teacher’s friendliness helps create a positive learning environment. But being friendly in the wrong way can be detrimental to students’ learning. The sort of friendliness appropriate in an educator-student relationship is the type needed to cultivate effort and focus on academic work. The use of small talk about topics other than schoolwork should be limited. Supporting friendly discussions about academic work, however, is a very important part of your job.

Slide 27: As a part of such discussions, you’ll inevitably need to provide feedback to students. Figuring out how to provide feedback is a critical instructional decision.

  • For instance, what is the best way to reinforce a student’s correct answer?
  • What kind of praise is effective?
  • How should you respond to students’ errors?

Answers to these questions are so important that the whole instructional team should consider them. Then, once the team has planned an effective strategy for providing feedback, everyone on the team should follow the plan.

Slide 28: There we have it: three guidelines: respect, paying attention, and a friendly focus on instruction. Paraprofessional educators who communicate well by following these guidelines can make a positive difference in students’ achievement in the classroom. Communication, after all, is the foundation for all instruction.