‘Everything I do is bad.’

This is what an 8-year-old said to me on my first day as a 2nd grade classroom teacher. 8 years old and he had already felt failure so many times that bad performance at school was now his whole mindset. ‘What was I going to do?’ you may ask. Well, let me tell you!

A student’s image of oneself as a learner is vital to their motivation and well-being at school. Whether the student believe they can be successful or that they will always fail will determine how they see school in general. Is it a place of learning or a place of misery? For this particular student, his learner image was poor. He did not believe he could succeed in anything, and so, he ceased to try. Yes, he had special needs that were difficult to cater for in an integrated classroom with 15 students with 15 different sets of needs. However, willingness to provide moments of success to everyone, I have found, is the key to meaningful learning experiences.

Half of my 15 students had more needs than an average grade 2 student. Difficulties ranged from disruptive social behaviour to dyslexia and autism spectrum disorder. The answer, in essence, is differentiation. But what is differentiation? In their book, ‘How to Succeed in Differentiation’, Anssi Roiha and Jerker Polso write that ‘differentiation is a support method for teaching, in which the challenge of difference and individuality is answered’ (Roiha & Polso, 2020, p. 29). When everyone is offered opportunities to succeed at the level they are able to, students’ mood is lifted, mental health improved, and the overall atmosphere of the classroom becomes much better. But how to do this in practice?

I mostly utilised active learning methods in the classroom. My students very quickly learned what to do when they arrived in the room and all the desks had been moved to the side – they would go into their pre-assigned small groups to wait for instructions. Very often, I mixed subject-specific content, such as mathematics, with physical activity, such as a relay race. In these cases, teams, which consisted of students from different skill levels, could weigh their strengths – some students were good at writing, some good at running, some good at leadership, and so, everyone had an important task to do. Everyone got to feel like they belonged, and everyone felt successful. This, of course, did not come without practice – children need guidance with everything. However, they are very receptive to meaningful learning experiences, so this learning method took them very little time to master.

In my classroom, students would be hardly seen with an exercise book, filling page after page of tasks on a page. However, this, of course, was a part of learning, as written tasks are sometimes important. To make these tasks accessible, any exercise was created to allow for differentiation. If the task was to write a story about a day in their life, I had to ask myself what I was assessing – was the objective to be creative? Was it to use proper grammar? What were the key things I would be assessing in this task? All else, for that task, was more or less forgotten. Of course, the most high-achieving students would create elaborate stories about themselves, their friends, and families, with impeccable grammar and flow to the story. However, for those to whom even the mere drawing of letters was proving difficult, there were other options; students were allowed to record their story in spoken form, if I was assessing creativity. If I was assessing grammatical structure, those students could write simple sentences about their day, making sure they had their capital letters in the beginning and a full-stop at the end. This way, the high-achievers could be successful, but so could the low-achievers. Everything was done so that everyone had a chance to be the best they could be with the given task.

Differentiation is not easy. It takes time and effort from the teacher, but once one gets into the flow of things, it becomes like second nature. Want to learn how this can happen? Contact us on emilia.repo@foxicon.fi and we’ll help you move forward with inclusive teaching through differentiation!

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