Carol Ann Tomlinson (2014) defines differentiation as common sense:
Teachers in a differentiated classroom accept, embrace, and plan for the fact that learners bring to the school both many commonalities and the essential differences that make them individuals. Differentiation classrooms embody common sense. The logical flow in a differentiated classroom is this: A nurturing environment encourages learning.”
Differentiation in academics has been well defined, but we must also define and apply differentiated practices in the teaching and learning of behavioral skills (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011). We can predict that some students will learn at different rates and in response to different approaches or strategies. Just as in reading, mathematics, or other academic areas, a variety of factors will necessitate that we prepare to differentiate instruction of behavioral skills at all tiers.
We can predict that a student with significant deficits in prerequisite reading skills may experience difficulties in making meaning of text that the class is using as a primary resource in, let’s say, an eighth-grade social studies classroom. We are committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure that the student demonstrates mastery of the prioritized skills and concepts of grade 8 social studies and are confident that, in collaboration between staff and between students, this vulnerable student will be successful.
How do we as educators prepare for success in this situation? We begin by identifying that the need exists and determining (at least preliminarily) the causes of the reading difficulties. In this grade 8 example, perhaps the student has difficulty decoding multisyllabic words, so his teachers provide one of the following five scaffolds to assess that information.
- Text written at lower Lexile levels that addresses the same social studies prioritized concepts and skills
- Visual representations of the concepts
- Opportunities to read grade-level texts with peers
- Access to audio recordings of the grade-level text
- Sentence and paragraph stems and other structured writing supports so that the student can show what he knows
Perhaps this student also responds demonstrably better to visual instruction and support, so his teachers are purposeful and prepared to provide visual cues and resources to accompany the auditory instruction that can often times dominate classroom environments.
As an important aside, learning for the student in the preceding grade 8 social studies example, for whom decoding multisyllabic phonics is a difficulty, is impacted by a significant deficit in a foundational skill—successfully decoding multisyllabic words, which is a skill that teachers expect students to master in the upper elementary grades. In addition to Tier 1 differentiation and access to Tier 2 additional time and alternative supports (as the evidence indicates the student needs), this student would receive explicit, intensive, and targeted Tier 3 intervention support in multisyllabic phonics to ameliorate a difficulty that is significantly inhibiting his ability to access text and learn.
The preceding scenario is familiar to most educators, and we accept that differentiated practices will be necessary to support student difficulties and differences when attempting to master academic skills. We must make the same commitments and make the same preparations to support student difficulties and differences when attempting to master behavioral skills.
We can predict that some students will learn at a different pace and in response to different approaches or strategies. We must prepare to provide differentiated supports in the learning of behavioral skills just as we do in the learning of academic skills. Just as in reading, mathematics, or other academic areas, a variety of factors will necessitate that we prepare to differentiate Tier 1 instruction of behavioral skills.
- Students lack knowledge of immediate prerequisite skills—they will require some preteaching.
- Students lack knowledge of foundational prerequisite skills—they will require more extensive scaffolding to meet grade-level expectations.
- Students have different styles, interests, or modalities through which they best learn.
- We have evidence, through frequent checks for understanding, that students will benefit from just a little more time and a slightly different approach within the core environments.
Armed with our proactive, predictive knowledge, we can begin to prepare differentiation strategies to use with our students.
As we commit to differentiation, let’s differentiate more systematically, more proactively, and more positively:
- Systematically: Use these strategies across the school, for any student, with common procedures, when evidence indicates the need; moreover, use these strategies with fidelity (the way to use them) and for a long-enough period of time for improvement to occur. (While twenty-four useful repetitions are necessary to solidify academic learning [Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001], one hundred useful repetitions may be necessary to solidify behavioral learning [Benson, 2012].) Practically speaking, systematic means that a student in need of scaffolded supports to succeed would receive that support in the same way throughout the school day, no matter the teacher or environment. And, systematic means consistent, both throughout the day and for as long as the support is necessary. When a lack of adequate student progress is at least partially the result of our lack of consistency and follow-through, then we as educators are a major contributing factor in this lack of success. Tactile and sensory supports, a strategy listed above for students who struggle with arousal state regulation (they may be over and under-reactive to sounds or sights or touch), can involve students squeezing an object or rocking safely in a chair as they manage their behaviors. We would use this strategy systematically by employing such techniques across all classrooms, within all environments, and with all staff members. This would mean that all classrooms and staff members would have the necessary resources (squeezy balls or safe rocking-type chairs) and know how and when to support the student it its use. If a student benefits from this differentiated practice, then we all must use it all the time; it should be used systematically.
- Proactively: Screen to identify students whose skill needs that may necessitate the use of these strategies and provide supports to students before they establish more entrenched difficulties and frustrations. Practically speaking, proactive means that we don’t wait; that we provide supports as soon as we possibly can. Proactive approaches can be informed through two processes. First, screening completed at the end of last year or the beginning of a new year will identify students for whom behavioral skills represent a need. Proactive means that the new school year begins with supports already in place within all environments and that all staff members understand and provide the supports. The second opportunity to support students proactively is made possible by the analyses of evidence collaborative teams complete. When the frequent analysis of data indicates that some students need a little more and a little different type of support to be successful, then teams and schools have the opportunity and responsibility to provide these supports as soon as possible. We would use sensory supports like squeezy balls or safe-rocking chairs proactively by beginning the year with these supports in place because we have screened that a student needs them to be successful or because they were used productively last year and we effectively communicated and transitioned from last year’s teachers to this year’s teachers. We cannot, need not, and should not wait to introduce differentiated supports that students up for success behaviorally
- Positively: Let’s avoid employing these strategies with reluctance and from a deficit point of view; instead, let’s consider them as we would consider the use of differentiation strategies for reading difficulties and communicate a growth mindset. Practically speaking, provide differentiated supports positively means that we do not blame students or their parents for difficulties; rather, we accept, and even expect, that some students are going to need a little more time and an alternative set of supports to be successful. A positive approach also means that we expect these differentiated supports to work and that we believe in every student’s ability to grow. We do not, alternatively, go through the motions of providing supports (that we do not expect to work) so that we can move toward special education assessment and placement. Last, positive means that we provide feedback, recognition, and reinforcement when students are behaving in appropriate, productive ways; we do not only provide feedback (punishment or consequences) when students do not meet behavioral expectations. Using the squeezy balls or safe rocking chairs positively means that this strategy is normalized – it’s normal that students need them and can use them. Such a strategy is not unusual and it is not a punishment, as in “If you can’t settle down you’re going to need to use your squeezy ball.” The use of behavioral differentiation strategies such as these should be as normal as differentiation strategies that we use to ensure students successfully access text in a reading lesson.
It’s inevitable that we will need to provide differentiated behavioral supports within Tier 1 environments for students to meet behavioral and academic expectations, so let’s be ready.