Webinar Script

Slide 1: Welcome to the unit on communicating with students. I’m Kevin Daberkow, a researcher and middle school math teacher working for WordFarmers Associates on behalf of the Ohio Partnership for Excellence in Paraprofessional Preparation at the University of Dayton School of Education and Health Sciences Grant Center.

Slide 2: This unit focuses on effective ways of communicating with students. It first describes the context in which paraprofessionals and students interact, and then it goes on to present some basic guidelines for communication that should benefit students’ academic progress…and the quality of your interactions with them.

Slide 3: Paraprofessionals usually work with students in the classroom, a small community 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 public performances of a sort, usually apparent to their peers. It can be stressful for many students.

Slide 4: For this reason, the openness, or transparency, of the classroom context can present a challenge to effective communication with students. For good reason, students who need help with schoolwork may not be happy that other students know it. Even students who want and appreciate a paraprofessional’s help may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. So what?

Slide 5: Students whom paraprofessionals are supposed to help may act like they don’t want the help that the parapro is prepared to give and that the student actually wants! 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 are independent and even “tough.” If you find yourself in this situation, it’s especially important to establish trust and empathy— referred to as “rapport”—in order to work well with the student. Curiously, it can be more difficult for paraprofessionals to establish rapport with students than it would be for a teacher.

Slide 6: Does it seem like a ridiculous claim that students do feel this way? Does this situation seem unfair for you, since you are clearly needed? It does seem unfair, but it’s the real world.  And, in fact, students’ unhappy feelings about working with a paraprofessional are justified!

Slide 7: Research shows that when paraprofessionals join a classroom, their very presence—just the fact that they are there—influences how classmates treat the students the paraprofessional works with. If there is no paraprofessional, there seems to be no problem. When the paraprofessional is there working with the student, something is seen by students to be wrong. On the basis of this (selfish, unfair, and mistaken) perception, classmates may be less likely to interact with the students the paraprofessional works with. Some classmates may tease them. Sometimes, even teachers interact less with students who have a paraprofessional helping them. All of this is true and ordinary—though not, of course, in every classroom. Maybe you’ve seen it on the job. It’s a very unfortunate situation, but it’s the way things too often actually are!

Slide 8: Considering the possibility that such a situation might occur, paraprofessionals often need to make a special effort to open lines of communication with their students. This reality is the point of this unit, and adopting the guidelines described shortly can help paraprofessionals establish rapport and communicate more effectively with students.

Slide 9: Consistent use of these guidelines may not achieve the ideal—establishing and maintaining rapport with all of your students—but over time consistent use of the guidelines will improve communication with students.

Slide 10: Here are the guidelines that we will explore in the rest of the webinar:

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

Slide 11: The guidelines relate to rapport and why rapport is so important. So what is rapport? It’s a feeling of connectedness and security in people who are communicating. This feeling means that communication is possible: we expect to understand one another, and to try to understand one another. When we feel rapport, we are cooperative at a fundamental level. We accept the idea that we are doing something worthwhile together. Feelings of rapport can be strong or weak, temporary or long-term. But such feelings are essential among humans because we are social beings. To relate actively to others we need to feel connected and secure.

Slide 12: And 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 educational tasks.

Sounds simple, right? It turns out that these things have many parts, so let’s take a closer look.

Slide 13: Let’s start with being respectful. A simple idea, but how do you show respect to children? Aren’t children supposed to respect adults? What can it mean that adults should respect children?

Slide 14: Respect relates to dignity and worthiness. Even small children have a sense of dignity. Like most of us, they dislike being shamed, overpowered, or insulted.  To gain and hold students’ trust and positive regard, perhaps one of the best ideas 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 that we consider them worthy. And students are worthy, moreover, 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 15: All this no longer sounds so simple. It might, in fact, turn out to be difficult. So what does respect look like in practical terms?  Respect translates to everyday courtesies, such as acknowledging students’ entrance into your space or yours into theirs with a pleasant greeting; making and keeping eye contact when conversing with them; and showing attentiveness and interest with words, tone of voice, and body language.

Slide 16: Moreover, language that shames or demeans students, such as sarcasm or harsh accusations, shows a lack of respect even though, unfortunately, it’s sometimes seen in schools. But it’s completely unprofessional. At the same time, we are all human. Sometimes we lash out. But the respectful response is to own up to our error and to apologize to students. If we act badly and expect forgiveness without apologizing, we’re expecting too much! Respect includes the capacity and willingness to apologize.

Slide 17: There’s much more. In brief, respect demands patience. An important part of being respectful is attending to students’ meaning even when they have problems explaining themselves. Problems like what?

Slide 18: A lot of things: shyness or reluctance to talk; or inability to put strong feelings into words (for instance, because they lack the ideas or words to do so); or physical or sensory disability; or speech or language disorder, accent or dialect; or a first language that is not English. The connectedness that rapport requires and that respect ensures requires patience. In fact, in your case as a paraprofessional working with vulnerable students, you have to have the upper hand when it comes to patience. This is the sort of respect that excellent educators show children. And all educators owe it to children, even when they fall short! Showing respect in this way is hard to ask for—but it is what good educators strive to do.

Slide 19: Patience is especially necessary to convey respect to students who are English language learners (ELLs) or who speak English with an accent different from yours (or from “standard” English). When communicating with such students, focus on meaning. Only in language-arts lessons might it be important to pay more attention to form (such as errors in grammar or vocabulary). But correcting students’ grammar or accent during conversation or when they’re asking or responding to a question about an assignment will undermine rapport. In that context corrections damage rapport by undermining security: the “corrections” send the message that students are unworthy and deficient. In fact, such off-the-cuff “corrections” are not corrections at all—they are insults, and students understand them correctly as insults!

Slide 20: Making students self-conscious about how they talk, especially if it is also how their family and friends talk, risks not only embarrassing them, but making them feel alienated, not only from the instructor, but from the classroom community. No educator should behave this way.

Slide 21: So that’s respect. Let’s turn now to paying attention to changing dynamics while talking or interacting with students. This guideline is almost as important as respect.

Slide 22: First, let’s consider the fact that as students become comfortable communicating with a paraprofessional, they may begin to look for social interaction that they don’t necessarily get from their peers. As a result, the student you’re supposed to help be a member of the classroom can reduce his or her efforts to interact with classmates. Bad result! Not helpful! So if paraprofessionals observe this change in communication dynamics, they need to bring it to the attention of the instructional team. The team can develop procedures to encourage increased interactions of the student with classmates. So paying attention to the student’s interactions in the classroom and taking actions to ensure that those interactions remain frequent and positive are very important parts of your role.

Slide 23:  Second, your good rapport with a student might deteriorate sharply or suddenly…or more slowly over time. It’s another thing to look out for as you pay attention to changing dynamics while talking or interacting with students.  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 this change also needs to be considered by the instructional team. It’s not something to hide, even though it probably feels bad. You might even think that you’re at fault in some way. Ask the team for help! It 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, showing respect for the student’s thoughts and feelings.

Slide 24:  Here’s a way of communicating that is respectful and also leads to productive adult-student dynamics. It’s the idea and use of “assertive language.” What’s that?  Simple: assertive language 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 will be able to leave for recess once you turn in your paper.

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

Slide 25: Still 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 immediately what it is. Acknowledging the stumbling block without attributing blame can help students view the situation more objectively.

Slide 26: 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 are 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 implies the value of continued effort. Here are some more examples of statements that acknowledge a student’s emotional response but 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 missing recess may feel unfair; but getting the social studies essay written and turned in is what we are concentrating on now.

Slide 27: So much for attending to the changing dynamics of interactions with students. Let’s move on to the third guideline for communicating effectively with students: being friendly and simultaneously remaining focused on instruction. An instructor’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 to educators is the sort needed to cultivate effort and focus on academic work. The use of “small talk” about topics other than schoolwork should be limited. Initiating and sustaining friendly discussion of academic work, however, is a very important part of your job.

Slide 28: As part of such conversation, you will inevitably need to provide feedback to the student. How to praise a student and how to correct the student’s errors are critical instructional decisions. For instance, what is the right amount of praise? How is it best delivered? How should you communicate about errors the student makes? These are questions for the instructional team. Praise (even something as simple as “good job”) is a form of feedback, and giving feedback is one of the most powerful ways of teaching. Following the team’s best judgment about how to give feedback is a critical part of your role. If what the team decides doesn’t seem to be working, share this information with the team.

Slide 29: There we have it:  rapport, respect, communication dynamics, and academically relevant friendliness. Communication is a foundation for all instruction. As this webinar has suggested, paraprofessional educators who build and maintain rapport with their students by communicating respectfully, paying attention to changing dynamics in communication, being friendly, and keeping communication focused on school work can make a positive difference in students’ achievement in the classroom. Remember, too, that helping to manage communication with students, and to solve communication problems with students, is a key responsibility of the instructional team, even if that team consists of you and your supervising teacher only.