Years ago I struggled with differentiating for my 25 children. I taught 4th grade but purchased classroom materials for 3rd, 5th, and sometimes 2nd grade.
As we all know, children come to us with varying abilities and in a multitude of developmental stages. Just because we teach 5th or 4th or 3rd grade doesn’t mean each child is mentally—or emotionally– ready for what we regard as average for that age.
So we’re teaching the grade below. And the grade above. And roughly half of our class that’s on grade level. You’re creating lessons, planning, teaching, and testing—a trapeze act where you must balance all those levels of engagement and ability. We lose our sense of purpose and stress out trying to do it all.
But what if it were different?
Imagine that tightrope above an alligator pit transformed into a beautiful path surrounded by flower beds.
You will not believe how it’s so simple. I know you won’t because it wasn’t easy for me—at first. But with the right resources behind you, and a few ideas, you can fast-forward through the mistakes I made. Here are the basics to get you started on that flowery path.
STEP ONE: INTRODUCE THE RESEARCH
The research behind a growth mindset as detailed by Dr. Carol Dweck in Mindset demonstrates that the brain grows through practice, facing new challenges, and learning from mistakes.
Kids need to know that too! Introduce the concept of a growth mindset by explaining that “this is how the brain grows”. When we do so, we’re empowering them to be in charge of their learning—not only producing brain growth, but motivating all of them to be learners.
Here are the perfect TpT resources for introducing the growth mindset concepts:
Grades K-2. Read “The Little Engine That Could” accompanied by Suzy’s Place Writing Activity. Then, introduce the ideas with Deb Hanson’s PowerPoint and accompanying resources. It even has a cute little brain that’s lifting weights! The resources are geared for Grades 3-6, but the visuals are engaging for K, 1, and 2 as well. iSpyLearning created a comic book style coloring book just for primary grades. It’s perfect for centers and small group.
Grades 3-5. Again, Deb Hanson’s PowerPoint and accompanying resources are perfect for introducing the ideas. Follow up with the Close Read article, “Scientists Discover You Can Grow Your Brain” with accompanying materials. You can use it in small group or whole group lessons.
Grades 6-8. You can also use the same PowerPoint and Close Read, but add an amazing resource: The Super Hero Teacher’s Growth Mindset Bell Ringer Prompts for the Entire Year. These prompts are a great resource for critical thinking and discussion of a growth mindset especially for your advanced students.
STEP TWO:USE HIGH IMPACT STRATEGIES
It’s not the resource alone that allows you to differentiate and grow all your learners. It’s how you use those resources that matter.
Research shows that class discussions and students evaluating their own learning grow students more than using differentiated materials. (I’m kicking myself as I remember purchasing all those needless 3rd grade materials for my 4th graders!)
TpT sellers offer Accountable Talk resources for primary and secondary. Mrs. B’s First Grade sells the posters and bookmarkers to easy access for primary. I use Leslie Ann’s FREEBIE bookmark stems for my intermediate classroom.
Use Krafty Teacher’s growth mindset exit tickets at the end of lessons, at the end of the day, or Learning Targets for Primary. The SuperHero Teacher Growth Mindset Bell Ringers also help reinforce the growth mindset. They’re open ended so it requires students to think about their learning for the day.
While I use varying instructional strategies to differentiate for my strugglers and advanced kiddos, all my students know they’re in charge of their own learning. That perspective pushes them to grow no matter where they are developmentally. They’re all motivated and excited about learning.
The soul of “differentiating”, for me, is seeing them as whole human beings despite their young ages. They’re not deficient, they’re not “just kids” or “behind” or “advanced”—not really. They’re all just learning. Just like the rest of us.
I can meet them wherever they are and we walk that beautiful learning path–together. It’s no tight rope I’m walking, but a beautiful garden path full of bright eyes ready for learning.