When participating in a game or activity with my two young children I am continuously modifying directions and steps for each of my learners. Often times I refer back to my days as a Special Education Teacher, and the strategies I used to best help my students succeed.
Of course, as parents, caregivers and educators we are all constantly changing and implementing the directions we give and the way in which we interact with each of our “students”. I usually do not give my four-year-old the same task as my six-year-old because they are at different ability levels, both cognitively and physically. This is not to say that they are not able to do the same activity or task simultaneously, it just takes a bit more planning to make the activity enjoyable and inclusive for all. Not to mention, skills and abilities are dynamic, so what my kids can do is constantly changing and evolving – so I have to be on my toes!
Now that I have my own children, the importance of meeting learners at their level, creating a space where they feel confident in their abilities, and giving them opportunities to flourish is a part of my every day life. When a child does not feel that they can succeed at a certain task, they can become easily discouraged, which can have dire consequences on learning. We have all been there. Irritation, anger, and shame are all common feelings to experience when we just can’t get the hang of a skill or task. In fact, most of us experience it every now and then. After all, making mistakes is all part of growing! However, there should always be an element of fun to learning anything new. It should never be exasperating, wearisome, and infuriating all of the time. When a young child constantly feels that he/she cannot achieve success, even in the smallest of tasks and skills, this can greatly affect how they approach learning anything new in the first place. For children who have learning challenges, this can be a daily struggle. Over time, this can have a serious impact on their self-esteem.
Fostering confidence, independence and self-reliance is of paramount importance to educators. Meeting each child at their level allows them to acquire skills and knowledge, which in turn, supports growth and development and gives them assurance that we (their parents/ educators/caregivers) have faith in them. This is what occurs when adults allow children to explore and discover and learn in their own ways, and this is at the heart of differentiated learning.
In short, differentiation describes the process of utilizing multiple strategies to teach a skill or concept to a heterogeneous group of learners. As a 2014 Early Math Counts blog pointed out, differentiation does not necessarily mean you are providing every single individual learner with a modified set of instructions. It simply specifies that educators implement modifications, when necessary and needed, based on the needs of learners.
For example, if I am baking with my children I may give them a similar task, but differentiate the instruction based on ability level. The directive for both could be “measure out one cup”. Now, I know that they both can accomplish this task; therefore, I must modify my assistance and facilitation with each to create an environment of success. By giving instructions that are too complicated right away, I run the risk of one or both children beginning our fun activity with a sense of failure, which is never a good way to start. I find it is best to start small and work your way up. Build upon skills and utilize the learner’s abilities to best help them acquire the development of new concepts. This way, children feel confident and more likely to try something new, which is a win-win for all!
Since I already know my youngest can recognize the number 1, I know he will be proud of himself for locating the correct measuring cup, then filling, and pouring it in himself. However, if he didn’t yet know his numbers (or needed further assistance due to physical challenges, etc.) I could modify this even more by providing a visual cue for him (e.g., writing it down on a piece of paper or white board, or have number flashcards available) and have him match it to the correct number on the cup. Another modification could be that I set out all the measuring cups and have him find “the biggest one”. It’s all about setting up a successful experience for the learner at his level of ability, encouraging independence and self-reliance early on, and allowing him to experience those important moments where he makes his own connections with new concepts.
For my eldest child, having her simply find the “1 Cup” measuring cup would be far too easy. Instead, I could ask her to find the 1/2 measuring cup or ¼ measuring cup, and then we could have a discussion introducing concepts of division and multiplication (i.e., two halves make one whole; four fourths make a whole, etc.). This slight modification encourages independence, self-reliance and success and gives them both the own connections with new concepts. exposure of new concepts in a fun way.
Teaching is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and this is why creating a differentiated learning environment is so important. Whether there is one child or thirty, utilizing various strategies to support each learner does not have to be cumbersome, can be done in any type of setting, and will help all types of learners gain confidence in their abilities while having fun learning math skills!