When we are thinking about differentiation and programming for special needs students, it is important to think about our own mindset. Because these students are confusing, and difficult and often unpredictable, it is tempting to believe that they could do better if they only tried harder. Often students with processing difficulties or learning disablitlites can do the work one day only to have no idea what to do the next. Certainly the child is just being lazy. Since the student with ADHD could concentrate yesterday, she should be able to concentrate today. Two weeks ago you had such a pleasant interaction with a student with behaviour difficulties, so why is he being so surly and disrespectful today? He could be pleasant if he wanted to.
There is another possible mindset we can have: Kids do the best they can. When they aren’t doing well it is due to a lagging skill set. This is the work of Ross Greene (http://www.livesinthebalance.org/). As educators when we adopt this mindset we see difficulties differently.
Do you ever get up in the morning and say to yourself, “I’m just not going to do a good job at work today. I could but I’m not going to.” Do you ever say, “I could ski down this hill really well but I think I will just fall all the way down”? Do you ever say, “I could be really nice to this person but I think I will say something nasty just because I can”? Probably not. Rarely do people choose to do poorly if they could do better. Kids aren’t any different. I don’t think that kids choose to do poorly. I do think that they may be missing the skill set to make the correct choices.
Let’s also think about situations we have been in where we felt totally out of our comfort zone. Perhaps it was at a conference where you didn’t know anyone, or at your spouse’s family gathering, or at a physical activity where you felt like a clutz. In those situations where you really felt that you didn’t belong, did you tend to hang back, talk less, maybe find the bathroom as an escape? Did you maybe talk too much because you were nervous? We have all been in those situations. If you are a special needs student in a situation that is overwhelming and difficult for you, you might not try very hard or escape. You might cause a disturbance about something else to lessen others’ expectations of you. I do not think that in these situations students could do better if they just tried harder. They are reacting to a difficult situation in a very human way. And they are just kids.
When I am frustrated and feeling like some of my students are just not getting it, it is helpful to remind myself that they are probably doing the best they can in the situation in which they find themselves. I can then help to identify the difficulties and try to move forward. As the educator I can change the parameters to ease the situation and allow the student to develop the skills needed.