This post is from December 5, 2013. We had to completely reset our blog in May 2014. Instead of backdating our blog posts, it was decided we would select some of our best posts and get those up over summer. Enjoy!-ParaEducate
Group work is the backbone of a lot of what goes on in the world. It is not enough to just know how to do something, but working in a group is cementing professional relationships.
As a student group, work can be exciting: freedom to chat about anything under the sun, a chance to work with a friend or an escape from looking at a worksheet.
Most students perk up like merekats with the phrase “Group work.” They make eye contact trying to secure attention from preferred classmates. However, for many students with disabilities, this behavior is either not natural or it is frightening. They do not know how to ask to join a group. Or they believe from past encounters, they are better off without group members.
As a paraeducator, the word group work should send you into relaxation. You have spent the entire year until this point in the classroom getting to know the class and the teacher. Your time is about to pay off. You already know students who have a good working relationship with your students. You even know your students’ level of participation in academic and non-academic activities.
The majority of my time in classrooms has been spent with students who do not know how to ask to join a group. Giving students a chance to look around and see how the groups are forming is important. For students who use an AAC or have limited communication, giving a card or teaching students how to use their devices to ask to join groups. Knowing that they can hear, ‘No, sorry our group is full.’ is an important skill. Hearing “no, sorry” is disheartening, but a student can learn from negativity. It is also to know that hearing, “Yeah, you can totally help us out!” is just as valuable for a different reason.
No matter their ability: all members of a class need to participate in group work. This bears repeating: no matter their ability, all members of a class need to participate in group work. If you do not hold a student accountable to group work, you lose opportunities to engage to increase vocabulary, academic concepts, and social skills. While some students may be solely responsible for typing the titles to a poster or changing slides, other students with disabilities could be contributing a paragraph, art work, or contributing ideas for the project. All the moments take extra work, but it is entirely worth it.
For group work, group grades, especially when group grades are established in Socratic seminars, philosophical chairs, or other group grading rubrics, it may not seem fair to hold a student who barely contributes to the same rubric. Working with the classroom teacher for an alternative rubric is ideal. Providing a stripped down, Pass/fail rubric is also useful. While some people may question why the rubric looks different, it achieves the same component. Classmate comments from Socratic seminars should be preserved.
A student who is reluctant to join groups is usually harder to reach. There are benefits to learning one’s limits, but when the limit is “I do not like group work,” a paraeducator might question their sanity at the end of the day having struggled to get a student to participate in group work. With an older student, it is usually worth investing the time to just let the student struggle and work alone. Hedging bets that the requirements for the projects were designed with at least two people, the student, even one that has a reduced workload of project requirements, may ultimately find themselves overwhelmed. Do not necessarily give in to reducing the work more. Discuss at this time the benefits of group work. Point out moments when the student can observe group work in real life. Point out times their favorite television show or movie characters participated in group work. It is often too tempting to rescue a student from this sort of snowball. Resist that urge, particularly with older students. It is important, that while you may control the manner in which a student may contribute to a project, that the work done by the student is the student’s work.
There students who are reluctant to join a group may have a fear of doing work, and presenting, for these students helping them break up the parts. And once these early hurdles are past, then comes negotiating job responsibility and being aware of the social interactions. Your goal is to become a fly on the wall and watch it all unfold. You can give reminders as necessary. But this is a chance to remind yourself your student is just another student. And the laughter and the frustration of group work will pay off in the end with the final product, no matter what the final product is: game, poster, presentation, or report.
For reluctant presenters going to present at a different time to present, usually to a small audience, maybe just the teacher at first, is a reasonable stepping-stone. Presentations are not something a student can slide away from, not like the way I know some students avoided presentations growing up. Even going up and doing a self-introduction is a valuable life skill for many students. As a student gains confidence with that, they can go for much longer and eventually discuss topics that are not preferred topics.
Group work is a lot of extra work. It is extra worrying for staff to make certain the student contributes in a meaningful way, it is getting through the social hurdles to make group work successful, and it is a constant dialogue with the classroom teacher to make sure the group work is meaningful, done with fidelity to the topic and to the interest of the student. But at the end, looking at the finished project, knowing the student has completed the project successfully on his or her own.
Do you have a question for us? Find ParaEducate online here, here and here. ParaEducate is company interested in providing materials, information, and strategies for people working in special education inclusion settings for grades K-12. ParaEducate, the blog, is published weekly during the academic school year on Thursdays, unless a holiday. ParaEducate shares their findings at conferences, through their books, and their academic adaptations.