Communication is Key to Effective Collaboration Between Arts Educators and Instructional Assistants

When working with students with disabilities, arts educators frequently encounter other adults in the classroom. Instructional assistants, also called paraprofessionals, work as part of the educational team and often focus on supporting students with disabilities. Will Houchin and Zoe Gelinas, both students in Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s Master of Music in music education (autism concentration) program, have drawn on their own experiences to identify ways to foster collaboration between arts educators and instructional assistants, and provide a better arts learning experience for students with disabilities.

Before starting their graduate program, Gelinas worked as an instructional assistant (IA) in an elementary school and taught voice and piano lessons; Houchin taught music in an elementary school. Both found the portrayal of IAs in their graduate school texts and discussions inaccurate or incomplete, and developed a common interest in reframing the conversation about the arts educator-IA relationship.

A photo of a man with short hair, glasses, and a beard, standing in an auditorium and holding a ukuele.

Will Houchin

“I worked with a really good group of IAs at my school in Arizona, and one of the things I noticed in talking to other music or arts educators was that their impression of IAs was not necessarily as positive as mine,” says Houchin, explaining his interest in the topic. Gelinas’ experience as both an IA and a music educator gave her a unique perspective on how the two roles could collaborate effectively.

Gelinas and Houchin point to good communication as the key to successful IA and arts educator collaboration. Houchin explains, “Arts educators must understand the communication dynamic in each classroom and school, and ask questions to understand how the special education team operates. Is it best to talk to the classroom teacher, aide, or IA? When is the best time and method to communicate with them? What kind of information do they need?”

Photo of a woman with long, curly blonde hair, leaning against a multi-colored wall.

Zoe Gelinas

To aid in communication, Houchin and Gelinas encourage arts educators to establish clear expectations for their students and make sure the adults in the classroom understand those expectations. For instance, Gelinas points out the importance of creating a classroom culture where it is OK to make mistakes. “It is natural for adults to want to help a student be successful and jump in to assist them prematurely. Arts educators should let IAs know that the expectation is for students to make mistakes, and that is OK,” she explains.

Reflecting on her own work as an IA, Galinas noted one particularly good relationship she had with a first grade teacher who made her feel very welcome in the classroom. She recalled, “When the students sat in a circle for morning meeting, the teacher made sure I sat in the circle as well instead of sitting behind my student. I remember her saying, ‘You are part of this class, too!’ We need to make sure IAs feel welcome in the music and art room, just like I felt in that first grade classroom.”


Will Houchin and Zoe Gelinas will present “Fostering Collaboration between Arts Educators and Paraprofessionals” at the 2018 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference on Tuesday, August 7, at 2:00 p.m.

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