This unit on communicating with students discusses briefly the context in which paraprofessionals interact with students and defines “rapport,” typically an important goal of communication. It then offers guidance on how to communicate with students in ways that help them develop a good working relationship with educators.
The classroom context in which paraprofessionals work provides some opportunities for effective communication with students, but it can also pose challenges. Some students may come to see the paraprofessional as a trusted member of the instructional team and interact freely with him or her. Others may resent their need for help and treat the paraprofessional with suspicion.
Even students who appreciate the paraprofessional’s help may feel uncomfortable and embarrassed at having other students see them receiving help. Research shows that paraprofessionals’ presence may affect how classmates treat the students that paraprofessionals work with. For example, classmates may be less likely to interact with students who work closely with a paraprofessional. Some classmates may tease the students who have a paraprofessional helping them. Sometimes even teachers interact less with students who have a paraprofessional helping them.
For these reasons, paraprofessionals may find it a little more difficult than they expected it would be to establish rapport with their students. In large part, it’s the context that drives these difficulties, and the context requires that paraprofessionals consistently use basic principles of effective communication.
“Rapport” is a feeling of communicative connection or harmony between people. When two people feel rapport with each other, they feel that they understand each other and are working toward a common purpose. Feelings of rapport can be strong or weak, temporary or long-term; but they are important to most people, young and old, and may be vital to human accomplishments. Educators who establish rapport with students find that the students work more enthusiastically when they can see the link between their own efforts and those of their teachers and parapros.
Being respectful. Respecting students’ dignity is essential for establishing rapport with students. Even small children have a sense of dignity: they have a keen sense of violation when they are made to feel embarrassed or ashamed. Like adults, they dislike being overpowered or insulted, and they detect evidence of disrespect even when it occurs in fairly subtle ways, such as sarcasm directed toward them. To gain and hold students’ willing cooperation and openness to communication, the best guideline to follow may be to treat their ideas and feelings with the same respect that is given an adult’s ideas and feelings. Being respectful of students translates into such simple courtesies as acknowledging their arrival with a pleasant greeting, making and keeping eye contact during conversation, and showing interest through questions and tone of voice. Respect for what students have to say includes staying attuned to their meaning—even when their manner of expression is awkward or when speech problems, language disorders, physical or sensory disabilities, dialect, or accent make their meaning difficult to follow.
Paying attention to changing dynamics. As rapport between paraprofessional and students grows, so too should the students’ engagement with instructional tasks. This potential benefit, however, may be off-set by some students’ increased dependence on the paraprofessional for satisfying social interaction in the classroom. Any decrease in students’ interactions with their classmates and the teacher should be addressed through consultation with the instructional team about possible strategies to increase the number and quality of the students’ interactions with others in the classroom. An opposite dynamic to be aware of is students’ increased hostility or defiance, perhaps in response to increased stress about assigned work, or perhaps because of events having little to do with schoolwork. Acknowledging students’ feelings about problems they’re experiencing and communicating the possibility of finding solutions can “de-escalate” their growing frustration and help them reestablish productive interactions with peers and educators.
Being friendly and staying focused. Respect, interest, and attention, coupled with a friendly manner, help create a positive learning environment, but instructors’ receptivity to students’ interests can only go so far without interfering with their main mission—helping the students develop academically. When being friendly leads to talk about topics unrelated to schoolwork and takes too much time away from assignments, it is inconsistent with educators’ professional responsibilities to students. Straying from the academic topic occasionally is all right and may even help in the transition from one task to another; but, in general, educators’ communication with students should be focused on the work at hand.
Communicating with students in ways that take the classroom context into account and that foster rapport is essential to fulfilling professional responsibility toward them. By communicating in ways that are respectful, attentive to changing dynamics, friendly, and focused on academics, paraprofessionals can enhance students’ motivation and performance.