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  • Writer's pictureKristin Phillips

Simple Ways to Differentiate for Students

The Individual Education Plan (IEP)  is our promise to the parents and the student that we will teach them something that is probably different from the regular program.  But that is hard to do.  Sometimes, often from a sense of being overwhelmed by the diverse needs in our classroom, we hope that students on an IEP will just “get something” out of the activity, task, or assessment.  The problem is that really they aren’t getting much out of that activity and we are not fulfilling our promise through the IEP.

Differentiation, popular a few years ago, seems to have gotten a bad reputation, probably because some of the early definitions were next to impossible to achieve.  As we discovered, differentiation is NOT:

  1. Providing a totally different instructional program to each individual or even to those on an IEP

  2. Having the Special Education Teacher provide you with a packet of worksheets for the student to work on independently

  3. Going off with the Educational Assistant so that the work gets “done”

Here are some quick and easy ways to provide some differentiation within the regular classroom program that will support learners without being too much extra trouble for you or the student.  We will look at them again at the next staff meeting and have some time to discuss how they fit into your subject area and classes.

  1. Small group instruction is the definition of differentiation.  There is your chance to match your instruction directly to student need.  You do not have to have the same teaching points for each small group; in fact, you shouldn’t.

  2. Help them organize the page. Any time you have an assignment or activity with a blank piece of paper, it may overwhelm up all your students with learning disabilities, slow processing and/or organizational issues.  Students with ASD can also find the blank paper intimidating.  They have no idea where to begin or how to start.  They need more guidance with what to put down.  While you may be moving many of your students towards being able to organize their thoughts or having the freedom to choose how to reflect their thinking, some students still need your guidance.  A graphic organizer does not need to be elaborate or even photocopied ahead of time.  Try folding the paper and adding some headings, putting in how many points you need the student to make, adding the numbers.

  3. Don’t have students copy. For many students copying the question off the board or a short note is labour intensive and they never get it done or by the time they have copied it down there is no time to do the work.  Know who those students are and go around and put it in their book for them if it isn’t very long.  You will spend just as much time doing this as you will fussing with them to get it done.  If it is a note they need, instead of giving them a photocopy, give them a photocopy with the most important words as blanks to fill in.  That ensures they read the note.

  4. Change the format. If you want students to write a paragraph, differentiate by accepting a web or a list or point form.  Help create the outline for them to get started.  If you are giving a fill in the blanks assignment on a test, give students the bank of words.  If the math problem is long, give the work in smaller sections.  If most students are writing, but you have a student who is much stronger orally, have him speak his answer into Dragon Dictation or Explain Everything or even Garage Band!

  5. Talk it out. Almost all students will perform better on a task if they have had a chance to talk about it first.  Students with special needs require this more than anyone and do best if they have a chance to do it with you.  A short conversation about what they are going to do, AND record some words on a sticky note for them, will give students a starting point.

  6. Know your students. In an inquiry-based, learning community environment, we give students a chance to create, develop their own ideas, learn together.  That isn’t going to work for everyone.  Just because the current pedagogy suggests a direction, you are the professional.  You know your students.  If group work terrifies a student or causes the student to be socially ostracized, minimize the group work for that student.  If open-ended tasks paralyze a student, provide guiding questions.  If coming up with a creative idea is overwhelming, give them a choice of three, or two.

  7. Change the complexity of the task. In many of the content subjects, students on an IEP do not need to work at the same level of complexity.  After you have assigned the task or activity, go to those students and quickly jot down for them a simpler version of the task.  Ask them to define 3 words not 10 and give the page reference.  Change to simpler numbers in mathematics.  Have them make a list of character traits instead of writing a character description.

  8. Provide the vocabulary. Many special needs students cannot access the words they need to do the task.  Give them lists of words.  Give them sentence starters.  Give them fill in the blanks.  Give them multiple choice.  Lessen the vocabulary and word retrieval requirements.

Differentiation is about making the learning situation different based on different needs.  Sometimes, little changes can make a big difference.

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