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Ask an Expert: How to meet the needs of all kids in a classroom.

EdNews Parent expert Ann Morrison responds:

Q. My son’s teacher doesn’t seem to be doing a good job of differentiating instruction for the vast array of student learners in this class. What questions can I ask to ensure each child’s academic needs are being met?

A. It’s true that every classroom has students with a wide range of knowledge and skills. Even in kindergarten, students’ abilities vary by four to five years. Teachers have a big job ensuring that each child is both supported and challenged in the curriculum.

There are several approaches teachers can use to optimize instruction for all their students. One approach is to differentiate instruction, another is called Universal Design for Learning, and a third approach is to provide accommodations to instruction for individual students.

There are several components that all three of these approaches have in common. First, they all assume that there is no “one size fits all” approach to learning. They work from the premise that children have differing levels of readiness, differing interests, and differing strengths.

The second component common to each of these approaches is that every student is held accountable to the same academic standards. At no point are the expectations for one student set below the standards set by the state and school district. Students who are close or who have already exceeded the standard are encouraged to pursue more complex learning.

A third commonality is that the teacher provides multiple means for the presentation of material and information. If the topic being taught is the Civil War, the teacher would provide several types and reading levels of books for students, but would also share videos of historians discussing the Civil War, have students take part in some type of Civil War re-enactment, encourage access to online Civil War simulations, and other resources. Providing multiple means for the presentation of materials allows students to engage with the class content through a variety of learning channels and the knowledge gained through one channel supports the student learning through the others.

The last element of a differentiated classroom is that the teacher will provide multiple avenues for students to express their learning. Rather than the more traditional approach of having a single form of assessment, such as a paper and pencil test or written report, students in differentiated instruction might be able to choose between using writing, acting, illustrating, singing, or other means of expression to demonstrate their mastery of content.

If you see content being presented in a variety of ways and students being offered choices in the ways they demonstrate their knowledge, your son’s teacher is likely doing a good job of differentiating learning opportunities. If it isn’t clear, feel free to ask your son’s teacher about the variety of materials available to students for learning about class content and the students’ options for demonstrating learning.

To find out more about differentiated instruction, take a look at Carol Tomlinson’s article, What is Differentiated Instruction? For more information on Universal Design for Learning, go to the Center for Applied Special Technology and the National Center on Universal Design for Learning. While differentiation and Universal Design are intended for whole classrooms, instructional accommodations are used more often when meeting individual student needs. Special Connections has a well-written article, An Introduction to Instructional Accommodations, which explains accommodations in greater depth.

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