Perhaps there is a student in your classroom that you almost wish is absent every day because it would make your life that much easier. Trust me, I’ve met that student, but I can just about bet you that that one student has not been reached out to by his or her educators, nor has anyone taken the time to meet his or her individual needs to prevent this student from “falling through the cracks.”
As a high school teacher deep within the trenches of educating students to be upstanding citizens of society, I have taught a diverse group of students with a wide range of abilities and learning exceptionalities. With over 100 students walking in and out of my classroom door each day, I can relate to those teachers out there that find it hard (sometimes impossible) to reach and engage every student, every day by meeting their individual needs.
Why is it Important?
When you are able to effectively differentiate your instruction and assessments, you will see an instant increase in student achievement as well as student confidence. When students feel like they can do the work and be successful, they will work harder for you and get so much more out of the lesson because they are vested. Small successes can lead to big gains. When you’ve hooked your students, you hold the power and everything else will fall into place.
Let me help you first recognize some learning exceptionalities most commonly found in our classrooms today:
1. Learning Disabled and Slow Learners
These students are those that have been diagnosed with dyslexia or dysgraphia. They read below grade level and often have a difficult time understanding abstract or complex concepts. As a teacher or parent of one of these students, you can reach these students through hands-on projects instead of written tests or assignments.
Have you ever watched a slow reader read? They usually start at the very beginning and read every-single-word in the most monotonous tone. They are not slow because they lack the ability to read, but instead lack the knowledge of how to read effectively with ease. They are unable to scan, browse, assimilate, and survey the reading material like an intelligent, effective reader.
Some helpful strategies to implement in order to effectively reach these students are to:
- provide outlines of the textbook content
- reduce the length of required reading
- allow extended time for reading
If students are required to read aloud in your classroom, it would be beneficial to break the students up into small groups or pair the students with a peer or mentor reader.
2. Developmentally Delayed
These students are functioning far below grade level because of mental handicaps, autism, or brain injuries. As an educator, your goal for these students is to get them to learn and retain basic concepts through project-based activities or observation labs.
3. Attention Deficit Disorders
These students are in an abundance, and this is probably the most common learning exceptionality I am faced with in my own classroom. They can be spotted easily because these students have a difficult time completing a task that has multiple steps as well as difficulty handling long assignments because they lose focus and concentration without sensory input from physical activity.
Many of these students lack organization and forget to turn in assignments on time. Because of their inability to focus for extended lengths of time, it’s often difficult for students with attention deficit disorders to remain on task, and when they get off task this can lead to some behavioral problems within the classroom.
A lot of information at one time can be overwhelming for any student, but for the student with an attention deficit disorder, information overload can cause them to hit a road block. This will cause these students to lose confidence, and that is not what you want. To combat information overload, it is best that larger concepts be broken into smaller chunks. Oral presentations instead of written tests or assignments may be a better way to assess students with this type of learning exceptionality.
4. English as a Second Language
With an influx of immigrants to our country, we are seeing many more of these students within our classrooms, and it is important to not take for granted their knowledge of the English language. Poor performance on an assessment may not be because of their inability to learn, but because there is a communication barrier. Observation labs are great for ELL students to gain a visual understanding of the content. Print assignments, tests and notes in their native language and pair them with a patient peer that is willing to help.
5. Gifted and Talented
When students perform above grade level and demonstrate aptitude in cross curricular assignments and assessments, they may be eligible for gifted and talented services. A gifted student cannot be easily picked out of a crowd of students because a lot of these students know of their intellectual abilities, but choose not to apply it in the classroom so as to not receive special attention or draw attention to themselves. Gifted students are usually able to handle activities that involve multiple tasks and a strong degree of independence and student initiative.
General Strategies that Can Help Modify Your Instruction to Help Students Who Struggle
- To help keep your students organized, use folders for assignments and have students use assignment folders. Implementing an agenda or student calendar to get students to keep a visual list of their assignments and upcoming tasks can help hold the student accountable and lead to an increase in the amount of student work turned in.
- To keep your students on task, reduce the distracting elements in your classroom, provide a task completion checklist and seat students who need extra attention closer to you. I have found that seating students with an attention deficit disorder near a window is not a wise choice because they tend to pay more attention to what’s going on outside than the words coming out of my mouth. It may take some trial and error to find the right spot for your exceptional students, but you will find their sweet spot and they will begin to excel.
- If student behavior is a problem in your classroom, then it may be beneficial to take a look at your classroom management plan (yes, you need one of those!) Modeling appropriate classroom behavior and expectations may be beneficial so the student can get a visual as to what is expected of him or her. Assign a positive role model or peer mentor to your students with behavior problems to help reinforce positive behavior. Very important: Recognize your students for any progress, big or small. Call or email their parents for good things instead of bad things. Leave positive notes on assignments to recognize their efforts.
- If the problem is not behavioral, but indeed social, then separating the student from peers that stimulate inappropriate behavior would be a starting point. This one step could lead to a big change in your classroom environment. Allow the student some time to “cool off” before conferencing with him or her so that he or she may gather their thoughts. Addressing social and behavioral problems immediately is the way to go. When left to the wayside and just “dealing” with the mayhem, you are actually reinforcing the problem behavior and you are providing a disservice to your students. If the problem persists, get the parents involved through conferences, home-visits and frequent communication.
Persistence and consistency is key when attempting to meet the needs of your students with a learning exceptionality. Sometimes just being there and letting your students know you care and will work with them to ensure their success can get them on your side. What are some strategies you have implemented that have worked for you? What has not worked? As an educator, it is important to reflect daily, whether it is through journaling, blogging, or creating lists. Take the time and you will see your desired outcome.