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  • Writer's pictureKristin Phillips

Managing Differentiation in the Classroom

The question came upabout how you get students on an IEP started in class.  You have given the assignment, you were clear in the instructions but the first 10 minutes are busy and you realize that the students on the IEP have just been sitting, or sharpening their pencil, or in the bathroom, or causing a disturbance because they don’t know how to get started.  What to do?

Here are some suggestions.  There is no easy answer and different solutions might work in different situations:

  1. Planning for differentiation has to be part of the initial planning process not an after- thought. Sometimes we think that we will just wait and see how a student does with the class assignment and then if he or she is stuck, then we will differentiate.  It is better to have decided in advance how you will differentiate and start with that.  From the student’s point of view, it is easier to understand and do more than to be frustrated from the get-go.

  2. When thinking about differentiation, think about the concepts not the task. Often it is that task that is too complex, not the concept; the task is too open-ended, not organized enough, the reading level is too high.  By determining, in advance, what concept the student needs to focus on and determining what the barriers to learning that are, you may be able to differentiate easier.  It is not about task completion.  It is about learning.

  3. Know your subject matter so that you can see the continuum of learning. No matter what concept you need students to learn, there is something they had to learn first to get there.  Think about what knowledge the student might be missing that is inhibiting their understanding.

  4. Have a rule that NO ONE can ask you questions for the first 5-10 minutes after you give a task. Lots of students ask questions that they can actually figure out on their own.  That gives you some peace and quiet to check in with those students you know need you right away.

  5. Small group instruction is your first defense in differentiation. If you predict that some students are going to need extra support or a different assignment, call them to the guided learning table first.  Support them right from the beginning of the task so that frustration doesn’t set in.  You may need to use that few minutes to activate background knowledge for them, create a graphic organizer, reduce or chunk the amount of work.

  6. Talk less, show more. Most of your students can process verbal instructions but many students on an IEP cannot.  Make sure that you are writing the instructions on the board as well as saying what they are.  And, identify that you are creating the visual support by saying “Everyone point to the instructions”.

  7. In the first few minutes of the work period, find your struggling students and create a quick checklist of 3 (no more) things that they need to do to get started. Put it on a sticky note.  They need to come and let you know when those three things are done.

  8. Strategic grouping of students can help. If you know that you will be available to work with a group of students, group your students homogeneously and work with the group that needs you most.  If you don’t think you will be able to work with students right away, group them heterogeneously so that everyone can get started.  Later in the period, pull students who may need support from their groups to check in with you.  If you don’t do this last step then you risk that those students are not getting the concepts.

  9. Model with graphic organizers and then have them be optional. Students can choose the organizer or not.  Most students will choose what they need.  You may be surprised to see who needs what.  And, you are still the teacher.  If someone doesn’t choose the organizer who needs it, you can insist.

  10. Create tasks that have multiple entry points into learning. The curriculum does not indicate how “hard” the work needs to be.  Tasks that are accessible to all are easier for all students.

  11. You wrote the IEP. It gives you permission to have the student learn differently, less content or show the work in alternative formats.  It is fair to do that.  When you are planning, think of those IEPs and how you will manage those students. Differentiation becomes more difficult when we have not planned for it.

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