How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms

Two Methods:Knowing Your Child's BackgroundUnderstanding Different Teaching Methods

Differentiated instruction is a way of teaching that recognizes variations in learning styles among students. In the same classroom, you are likely to have many special needs students that will need special consideration to reach their needs. Even with "normal" students, making many different methods of teaching allows for students to learn deeply. Differentiated instruction allows understanding the same core curriculum and material in a way appropriate to the needs of the student.

Method 1
Knowing Your Child's Background

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    Understand the assessments your students' level of ability, any legal accommodations they require, and any useful additional information.
    • In America, this would be given to you by your special educator, and you need to get familiar with plans in place (such as Individual Education Plans).
    • Check the records of your students to determine their starting abilities and past educational experiences.
    • Get a hold of results of standardized assessment tests in order to see where they stand according to ability and any areas of high proficiency and deficits.
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    Determine the nature of your student's special needs. In America, this can be physical, mental, or emotional. Sometimes, (such as the case of a "gifted child", it is not a disability.) For example:
    • Dyslexia
    • Hard of hearing/deafness
    • Autism spectrum
    • Hyperactivity
    • Gifted - superior abilities to average peers.
    • PTSD
    • Non-native language speaker
    • ADD/ADHD
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    Know your standards, requirements, and what is required in terms of standards. Typically, this is knowledge that a licensed teacher is familiar with, or becomes knowledgeable with prior to the school year.
    • Know what tests and activities must be performed in order for students to graduate from your class. Understand the units and themes that must be taught.
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    Become familiar with school staff you will partner with. Some students will not have any other additional support other than yourself, and occasionally there will be schools who have little or no additional staff to help. However, most special education students will require you to work with a team of specialists. Often these are key to your success, as they offer a wealth of information, insight, and guidance in how to work with these students. These may include:
    • Special Educator
    • Paraeducators/ Individual Aides
    • Language Pathologists
    • Occupational Therapists
    • School Psychologists
    • Principal
    • Guidance Teachers
    • Social Workers
    • Translators
    • ELL Teachers (in America, English as a Second Language)
    • The student's previous teachers
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    Get in contact with the student's family, if possible. Developing a relationship with the student's family helps not only gain understanding of the student, but in you as a teacher as well. Be proactive and do not expect the family to reach out to you first.
    • Be sure communication is positive, and not just about negative behavior, poor attendance, bad grades, and so on... this will make the family avoid you rather than reach towards you.
    • Try to get a sense of the family situation. A lot of things can become much clearer when you understand what is happening in a student's family outside of school. You may be a key person to help start interventions, support networks, or otherwise help the family.

Method 2
Understanding Different Teaching Methods

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    Realize there is not just one way to teach. We tend to think the way we were taught as students ourselves is the "one true way". And different schools embrace different approaches--a Montessori school in Italy will approach teaching in a different manner than a traditional Chinese school. However, there are typically multiple ways to teach the same skills and knowledge. This is especially helpful in making sure special needs students needs are met. For example, you could teaching addition in a 2nd grade classroom by:
    • Having the students watch you add items on a white board.
    • Engage in a computer program.
    • Have the students inventory the school's playground equipment closet.
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    Understand the structured approach. This is in many cultures the "traditional" way of teaching. Direct instruction typically involves lecturing straight to the students, usually at the front of the classroom with the aid of a blackboard. This is a mostly auditory experience, although it may use visuals and some question-and-answer. Assessment is usually through a test of some type.
    • This method tends to leave students with non-traditional abilities behind.
    • This methods assumes everyone has a strong working knowledge of a common language. (A student who speaks primarily English is in a math class taught in French may have great difficulty comprehending what is going on, even if he or she could easily master the math.)
    • This method requires a student to sit for extended periods of time, remain relatively silent, and requires a high level of discipline.
    • This methods is efficient in the sense that one teacher can teach a relatively large number of students quickly.
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    Use the inquiry-based learning model.
    • Inquiry-based learning. This system puts the student in a detective-like role, forcing them to figure out problems and come up with strategies on their own. The discovery process of inquiry-based learning is largely done with minimal help from the instructor.
    • This system requires student to show high initiative.
    • Inquiry-based learning typically requires teaching how to inquire. (Such as using a scientific method, using a writing process, or use tools and materials to make a circuit board).
    • This method tends to require more intense teacher participation.
    • This method may be more difficult for some learners who do better with simple directions, quick feedback, and a highly structured learning system.
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    Try cooperative learning.
    • Group work with students with mixed abilities. For example, a student who is especially good with reading and visual learning should be grouped with a more tactile learner. Give the groups a task and work with each other and adjust to the diverse abilities of their peers.
      • Be sure to make clear what "group work" should be like.
      • Teach students how to work with diverse abilities. While students often do so readily, it should not be assumed that students necessarily know how to do this. You will have to be ready to guide students on how to work with each other.
      • Group work can be difficult to access the individual student. For example, if Juan is grouped with two other students who do a poor job on the project, you may have to decide if this should reflects on Juan's grade or not.
      • Be careful that group work does not become unfair to higher-level students.
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    Teach information processing strategies.
    • Enlighten students on how to organize their homework and other educational priorities. Teach brainstorming and webbing, memorization and comprehensive. Students must learn how to process information before they can effectively learn.
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    Create activities to match students' styles and abilities.
    • Mold classroom activities according to your students' diversity. For example, if you have a number of Spanish-speaking students, create activities that include bilingual usage. Or if you have a student who is easily distracted, provide a hands-on, fun activity for him or her.
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    Determine how to authentically assess the students.
    • Make a test that is aligned with your curriculum standards but also includes the information provided to your students through differentiated learning. The assessment should measure the students' improvement but be flexible enough to cater to mixed-ability students.

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Categories: Teacher Resources | Teaching Students with Special Needs