A Focus on the HOW.

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Differentiation Beyond Tier 1


More (Tier 2) Supports – within Instruction and Intervention Systems – are crucial elements of differentiation as well. These supports meet students where they are, as do differentiated strategies within the Core. Whether differentiation serves as the umbrella under which Instruction and Intervention Systems work, or Instruction and Intervention Systems organize and systematize differentiated practice is unimportant. Both sets of principles must be present.


Everything above applies to special education. Stated another way: differentiation must be foundational to – synonymous with – supports for students with special needs. But there is more. Let’s examine…


  • Screen – The purpose of a screening process is to efficiently, and in a timely manner, identify students who at a grave risk of experiencing failure and frustration so that: 1) scaffolded supports can be immediately provided within Tier 1, and 2) intensive and targeted supports can be provided within Tier 3. This applies to all students, including students with special needs. We must not assume we know that needs within a domain or the antecedents to difficulties are known, and we must not assume that supports are already in place. We screen to ensure that we can proactively serve students who likely have a significant deficit in a foundational skill.


  • Scaffold: Students should not fail a class because of a deficit in a foundational skill. Students in an Algebra class who lack fluency with computation must receive intensive, highly specialized support to ameliorate this significant deficit; they should not, however, fail Algebra; teachers can and must scaffold instruction so that these students can still access and master algebraic concepts. We maintain that all students can think critically and problem solve. They’re “smart.” They simply need our support – intensively, immediately, and specifically. Similarly, students who cannot decode text at a grade nine level must receive intensive, highly specialized support to ameliorate this significant deficit; however, they should not fail the grade nine English class; teachers can and must scaffold instruction so that these students can still access and master the comprehension-based concepts that are the likely the priories of the course. A significant deficit in a specific skill area must not limit a student’s ability to access core learning. We must differentiate to ensure success in the core and provide intensive, highly-specialized supports that address the significant need. (See information on differentiation above.)


  • Behaviors: We find that students who have experienced frustration and failure in schools, who have not been supported in a timely and focused manner within a system of supports, often lack a growth mindset and have internalized a sense of learned helplessness. Therefore, nurturing the development of behavioral skills – such as self-regulation and executive functioning – while important for all students, is absolutely critical for vulnerable students. This process requires that we:


  • Identify the priorities that all students will master.
  • Clearly define what mastery “looks” and “sounds” like.
  • Explicitly teach and model the habits and skills that we want to see and hear displayed and employed.
  • Prepare and plan for differentiated supports, because we know that some students will need additional time and alternative supports to master priorities; others will have mastered priorities before instruction begins and will require enrichment.
  • Assess student mastery of prioritized habits and skills so that we can determine the efficacy of our instruction and identify the areas of need for intervention.
  • Provide feedback regarding students’ success and setbacks as they relate to achieving mastery.
  • Intervene in a targeted manner if necessary.

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