I know we are always short staffed in the schools but I wanted to share a few reasons why I think it is so important to have our paraprofessionals join in a few of our speech therapy sessions throughout the school year. I know it is not realistic to have paraprofessionals in every session nor is it necessary but trying to schedule a few times a school year can be so beneficial for not only our students but also help staff members learn how to communicate more effectively with the students. I try and coordinate a time with the special education teacher that the classroom paraprofessionals can each attend maybe 1-2 speech sessions with me.
If a student has a one-on-one paraprofessional that is a different situation. Depending on the student the paraprofessional may need to attend more of the speech language therapy sessions to assist with behavior or other concerns. It is important to remember that therapy sessions are not a time to schedule the paraprofessional’s lunch or breaks. Even though I try to have a consistent schedule there are times where I may have to finish testing another student, have a parent meeting, IEP meeting, or other required task that I need to attend to and have to reschedule the therapy session so I don’t want that to be the paraprofessional’s only break. These students may also have significant communication deficits and having the paraprofessional observe and work with you in the session might help with carry-over of those targeted communication skills and strategies.
Here are some strategies/tips I try to incorporate into the sessions when I have the opportunity to have one of my paraprofessionals join in my therapy sessions. If you can try and set up some sessions at the beginning of the school year it seems to work out really well plus it helps establish a good working relationship with your paraprofessionals. I have some amazing paraprofessionals that are so helpful and work well my students because we have worked together for several years. Many times it is important we help train those paraprofessionals who are new or have less experience working with students with diverse learning needs.
Modeling how to use simple language with our students. This is such an important concept and I find myself not only teaching this to my paraprofessionals but also when I have new graduate clinicians I’m training. Many times there is way too much language being used with students with significant communication deficits. We need to simplify the language. Break down those multi-step directions into shorter 1-2 step commands. We don’t need to use extra words, figures of speech, or complex language. Our students often need longer time to process and have a more limited vocabulary knowledge and use. For example, instead of saying “it’s time to clean up and we need to throw all the paper in the trash and then put the glue and scissors in the storage boxes.” I would say “clean up”. “paper in trash” and then when that is complete “glue and scissors in box”. You might need to use a visual prompt and/or point to the objects and where to put them. Give the student some time to process the message before you repeat it again. Short simple phrases paired with visuals as needed is going to help with the student’s understanding of the verbal message.
Provide extra wait time for answering questions or responding to comments. Again most of the time our students have reduced receptive and expressive language skills. They need extra time to process the question and then also additional time to verbally or with an AAC system provide the answer. I often like to play a bingo to help model this concept to my paraprofessionals. I happened to watch one of my paraprofessionals play a “wh” bingo game with three of my students for one of their stations when I realized I needed to help my paraprofessional understand how to communicate with my students.
The paraprofessional was trying their best but using way too much language and not providing enough wait time. In that situation, the activity is not benefiting our student because the student is just sitting there and it is as if they are listening to a foreign language. Here is how the session I observed went. The paraprofessional read the question such as “what do you sit on?” and did not even wait two seconds before asking it again but changing some of the words. “What is it that you can sit on at school?” “Do you see it on your board?” “Look and see what you sit on?” I’m not trying to be negative about the paraprofessional but this is actually what I saw happening.
It was too fast for me and there was continues talking without a break for the student to process. This particular student happens to also have a very slow response time. Here is how you can model it for that activity “what do you sit on?”…. I wait a good 5-10 seconds because the student may be looking at their bingo board to help answer the question. If they don’t get it I restate the question in the same way making sure I have the student’s attention before asking the question again. “What do you sit on?” I wait again and if the student still has trouble then I give them a choice of 2 answers…”a chair or a table”. Giving them extra time to process and restating the question the same way is helpful. Sometimes it feels strange to wait those extra few seconds but it is so important for our students to have that time to process the verbal message. You can also pair a visual/gesture with the message instead of adding more words. Sometimes less is more.
Give choices when answering questions. I kind of mentioned this before. If our student is not answering a question don’t just given them the answer. First try to give them 2-3 choice of answers. For my really low students who have less expressive language skills I often hold out my hands and associate an answer with each hand. Then the student can touch which hand answers the question. For example, “what color is the sun?” After I wait and repeat the question I would hold out a hand and say “blue” associated with one hand and then “yellow” as I hold out the other hand. The student can then select the hand that represents the “yellow” choice. I am always giving my students choices to help answer questions before just giving them the answer.
Teaching our paraprofessionals about AAC systems. It is also really important our paraprofessionals know what type of communication system our students uses for communication. For my students using PECS I try and provide a short overview about PECS and the level the student is using. I provide models and examples of that level. If the student is on the single picture exchange I explain how after the student exchanges the picture you say the word/item on the picture and immediately hand the student the item. Again, use less language. I only say the word on the picture I don’t say “great job, you want a pretzel”. I would just hold up the picture and say “pretzel” as I hand the student the pretzel. I might try and set up one-two activities a week in which the paraprofessional could work with the student on using PECS. It would be a simple task the student has done or is familiar with such as “snack” or a simple requesting game in which the student just exchanges a single picture to receive the piece of the game/activity.
For my students with AAC systems I also try to explain about the AAC system and how critical it is for the student to have easy access to the device. If they don’t have the device out then we are taking away the student’s voice. I could go on and on about AAC systems but it is important to just provide the paraprofessionals some of the basics about which AAC system the student is using, why the student is using it, and the benefits of having the device. As the paraprofessionals continue to work with the students you can provide additional training on particular communication systems. If a student using an AAC device has a dedicated paraprofessional then I would provide some more extensive training at the beginning of the school year to make sure the student has access to and is using their AAC system throughout the day.
Paraprofessionals work with our students all day so it is important we help them know about how our students process language and communicate with others. Providing them a few strategies to start with at the beginning of the school year will be so beneficial for everyone in the classroom. I know we are all limited on time but helping train our paraprofessionals during speech sessions will be worth it!