Differentiation Beyond Instruction

Differentiation is a word we hear a lot in education. Differentiated Instruction is something most schools as well as most teachers strive to do regularly in their classroom. We know how important to focus on students’ strengths and give them a little push when they are not grasping a concept. We know all students learn differently and we need to meet those needs.

But why do we just think that students learn differently but are the same outside of instruction and curriculum? Most do not even realize that they are thinking that way. We know that learning is not one size fits all, but when it comes to discipline, we have one size fits all approach.

I often post on social media, blog, and speak about ADHD. Responses I always get from people are asking about how to handle certain situations or advice on my idea for behavior charts, plans, etc. I’m just going to come out and say it, I hate behavior charts and I some times wish clothes pins would disappear from Earth so they never have to go on red again. As an advocate for students with ADHD, I understand the negative effects these have on children. And don’t even get me started on the horrible effects of Class Dojo. I’m still waiting on that lawsuit from mental health officials once we have proof of the way those “monsters” have ruined the self esteem of children all over the world.

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I understand the purpose of behavior charts, give students a physical reminder of making a mistake then hope that this helps. I am not going to sit here and argue about the stats on this, but I am going to explain ADHD and other behavior problems. They are impulsive. Students will ADHD do not blurt out on purpose. Standing up and walking across the room is not premeditated. Forgetting homework in the locker and asking to go get it is not an evil plan to go play in the hall (most of the time). So punishing students for something that was not premeditated to make them stop that behavior is never going to work. (If you haven’t, take a moment to read this post on what you probably didn’t know about students with ADHD.)

Every time I talk about this, I get another question, if I don’t have behavior charts, how do I reward students that actually do benefit from them? Believe it or not, my child is one of those students. His goal is always to move his clothes pin up. And he usually does. He lives for the reward of having the best behavior in the class. He has zero impulsive behaviors and most of his actions are premeditated. He does deserve to be rewarded for trying so hard to do what is right.

So I just contradicted myself, right? Not really. What if we approached discipline and classroom management with a differentiated mindset? Let’s look at it like we look at curriculum. Say a child has a learning disability or dyslexia. You are going to teach reading and have different requirements than a student that is gifted and reading a lexile score 3 grades higher than he/she is in. I would hope that the student with dyslexia would never be randomly called on to read a passage in front of the class and his/her reading scores are probably based on reading the level he/she is on. But you may have your gifted student read a picture book to a small group during centers and grades come from doing activities on the meaning of books they are reading.  So a student with ADHD is really like that student with dyslexia, they cannot help their impulses. Do they need to be corrected and taught how to handle the situation? Sure, but stopping class and making them move a clothes pin is not going to ever correct or stop the behavior. But saying, “we don’t disrupt” and moving on to call on a student with their hand up reminds them of the behavior without shaming them. (Yes, moving that clothes pin in front of everyone is shaming. Trust me, it is humiliating, I’ve been there.)

Now that gifted student needs that encouragement and chance to succeed. Then set a reward program. Maybe have a ticket program that students can collect when caught being good. Please make sure everyone gets a ticket at some point. Let them use the tickets to buy prizes or trade activities like choosing friend to sit in special lunch seat with them.

I also get the question about how if they are more lax with students with ADHD or other behavior problems, is that fair to students that don’t have ADHD? Yes it is. All students are different and you need to meet each of their needs. A student without ADHD yells out in class just because he wants attention of his crush has to move clothes pin but student with ADHD does not. It is ok. I promise, by November, your student with ADHD no longer cares about her clothes pin anyway, she knows it is going to be moved no matter how hard she tries. The student that wanted to test you and be center of attention, if he moves his clothes pin, he is going to realize that he was in the wrong and will remember that when he goes to do it again.

So if you have a behavior chart, so many schools require them, you don’t have to treat each kid the same when it comes to ‘moving the clothes pin.’ If you don’t have to have a behavior chart, why have it? I taught elementary school for a long time. I did not have one. But I had a clip board (had this in middle school too) where I would record discipline problems and have the students sign when they got in trouble. To be honest, I did not use it much because if I could not remember it by end of day, it probably was not a big deal and I didn’t need to tattle to parents about it. But everyday my students had a behavior calendar and I would write a smiley face if student didn’t get in trouble but if they student did something awesome or they had a discipline problem, I would put a little note on the day. It was simple and gave me a quick one-on-one time with every student for 1 minute each day.

Every child in your classroom is an unique gift. Our job is to take them and love them as they are and help them become better people. Shamming and putting them down does not do that, it kills who they are and stunts their emotional growth. They are all different and we should treat them that way.