Tag Archives: differentiation

The growth chart

There are three little red books sitting in a row in a cubby hole in my desk.  At one point they took up far more of my attention than was probably healthy, and now they sit, gathering dust, rarely seen and rarely remembered.  Inside, they contain all sorts of useful information pertaining to the health of infants, including records of health visitor visits, immunisations and growth charts.  When you are at home with baby you can pore over them and obsess to your heart’s content.

They aren’t all the same, though, and I freely admit that I had a problem with it at the time, and to a certain extent, I still do. Inside Sam’s book there is a plastic packet containing the growth charts for Down’s syndrome.  At the time, I wasn’t ready to accept that he should be measured by a different yardstick.  At the time, as now, I couldn’t accept that different yardstick as symboliaing a different standard, of expectation or of care.

And, after going on seventeen years of tangling with doctors and nurses of his behalf, I know that I am right to be cautious.  Too many people seem to accept a lower standard of health and a higher threshold for pain for him for me to be entirely trusting of the protocols.  When a young person (or an old person, come to that) cannot advocate for themselves, be that because they are too young, or because they have some form of learning disability or difficulties in communication, you, as their parent or carer, have to learn to step in and make sure that things happen – sadly things like food and drink and getting the right medicine at the right time (and I’m not talking about the NHS in recent years, either).

But, and here’s the thing, he is different.  His physiology is expressed in a different way to the typical population, and, along with that, comes an understanding that in all sorts of ways he needs something different.  At first I understood it in the acceptance that, as his mother, I was allowed – and I was – to be more anxious than the average parent.  As he has grown, I see that he needs different, earlier, bed times at home, different, adapted texts at school.

In many ways, that growth chart represents both the blessing and the curse that is a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome.  While perhaps not so obvious to the untrained eye when he was tiny, it is there, now, for all to see.  Unless you are asking for help from someone official, like a government or local authority department or something, people can see, they can hear that he is different, and that adjustments will need to be made for him wherever he goes.  If only it didn’t mean that, at the same time, people who had less of an understanding, if not of Down’s syndrome, but of him as an individual, that expectations would be simultaneously lowered.  The application of a medical diagnosis to a social context isn’t always helpful.

I’ve never taught anyone with Down’s syndrome (if you don’t count Sam).  The children who have been through my classes have been the kinds with an invisible disability, like Autism, ADHD or dyslexia – and the vast majority of them haven’t had a diagnosis at all.  And, as their teacher, I have made all sorts of adjustments in order to make my classroom the kind of place where they can learn, from special places to sit to requiring the rest of the class (and myself) to change our behaviour or printing out the words in a larger format.

Which is why I am confused by the assertion that it is only those children who have a legally protected characteristic who I must make adjustments for.  If you want learning to happen in your room (or your corridor) then adjust you will, in a hundred million little ways, from creating a calm and purposeful atmosphere of mutual respect (and no, children don’t mind when they are asked to stop teasing/winding up certain individuals, in fact, quite the opposite, and no, they don’t mind when some children need more stickers than they do, again, quite the opposite, unless we bang on about it not being fair and make out that it is the stickers or the ‘special treatment’ that is the important thing, rather than the learning) to adapting materials and resources so that they can be universally accessed, or finding a different way for a child to show me what it is they really know rather than tying themselves in knots over spelling in a science lesson.  To suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the myth that teaching is (or should be) easy, and that special educational needs isn’t complicated.

And no, I don’t see that as a lowering of standards.  What it is, is an understanding that an education is a process and that you will never, especially in a child, be presented with the finished article. Because, in the end, learning is fundamentally unlike that one dimensional, linear, medical growth chart.


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I’m trying desperately to keep on saying the same thing, but in a different way so you don’t get bored.


The Concept of Differentiation

I was asked about differentiation in advance of the meeting about Initial Teacher Training at the DfE .  I really could go on at some considerable length about the subject – so here are a few thoughts to get you started.

When I was younger it seemed a simple matter: differentiation.  You got to know the children and then you tried to match the work you were giving to them.  This could be in all sorts of ways, from different work set to differentiation by outcome.  As a creative person I tended to favour the outcome side of things, but as I continued to teach, I began to understand that what was good for a child like I had been, wasn’t necessarily good for everyone, and in particular those children with SEND.

Now that I’ve been teaching a good few years, and that I have the added advantage of a child with significant needs living in my home, I can see that the environment in which we work, the things around us that distract and confuse, are just as important.

For instance, if I want Sam to get up and get dressed for school, it helps if I put his clothes out for him.  That way I can be sure that he will get into his school uniform rather than his football kit.  (The weekends are times for him to discover why shorts in December aren’t such a good idea).

In a classroom context this might mean that I set out all the resources before the children arrive for a lesson, that the pencils are sharpened, that everyone has a ruler and no one needs to fuss.  Or it might mean that some children might be building a model robot out of specified materials, or will use particular paint brushes or instruments.  In order to help them learn I close the boundaries a little bit.  I don’t leave them stymied by the distraction of too much choice.

Some children need more support than others, but all children need to find the things that they can do on their own.  Sometimes this calls for imagination, but the moment a young man in an electric wheelchair told me that he could now dress himself, and the dignity that that had given him, was an impressive one.  Or the time my friend-who-is-a-dance-teacher told me about some work she had been doing with older young people with special needs and the helpers jumped in with their suggestions before the dancer had had a chance to make their mind up.  Giving people the opportunity, no matter what their disabilities, to make decisions for themselves, to act independently, is important; and teachers need to understand this, and look for these moments.

At first glance, these two principles might seem in opposition to each other, so teachers need to learn about balance, and how we don’t always have to teach every lesson the same way.

Balancing the needs of the individual, or of one group, against the rest is always going to be a challenge, and teachers need to have some strategies to deal with this.  Teaching a particular lesson always in one way is not the answer.  In order for teachers to get the best out of the children they teach they need to mix it up.

With that in mind, in my totally honest opinion, the DfE needs to challenge those people and organisations who claim ‘this is how you do it and only this way; Thou Shalt Not Deviate From The Way’.  This is not how teaching works.  Giving scripts to inexperienced teachers stunts their creativity and prevents them from thinking for themselves.  Sometimes, ‘rules’ need to be broken and changes made in the interests of the children we teach.  Unless they have dramatically different needs, for their sakes, sending children to another year group for some lessons because you can’t see how to include them in what you are doing in your class should be a last resort.


I’m sure there is more I could say on the subject – and there will be, in my book (out in May!).  Thanks for reading – and thanks for asking.

Scrapheap Challenge

Ah, the behaviour of children.  The eternal preoccupation of every parent, and certainly every teacher in the land.  The subject of newspaper headlines, innumerable books, studies, and inspection reports on a local and national level.  It might almost be a national obsession greater than the weather.  Almost.

When we were considering the best place of education for our precious boy, back in 2004, behaviour was one of our main concerns.  As a little one, our son was biddable, if random, happy (mostly) to go where he was put and do as he was told, so, knowing that children learn from each other, the thought of what he might pick up from his classmates was a concern.  ‘We need him to be with good role models, not be the role model,’ we told ourselves, and duly sent him to a mainstream school.

It shouldn’t be too difficult for them to fit him in, I thought, teachers do it all the time, fit kids in.  It’s called differentiation.  He can have his activities, suitable for his needs, be in the class with his genetically ordinary peers and benefit from having the best of both worlds.  They can benefit by learning Makaton and difference.  Inclusion, working for everyone’s benefit.

Except, now that I’m back on the inside, instead of out in the playground looking in, I’m not entirely sure.  You see, differentiation is a hard task master.  In some schools it requires worksheets re-written five ways and pages-long, colour-coded, checked-and-approved plans that take hours and hours to prepare for every lesson (at which point you can guarantee there will be a bee and all the careful plans will fall into the dust), in others it demands reams of marking, in prescribed colours (we teachers like our colours and our stationery, especially if we can come up with a little rhyme, or better still an acronym, to go with it, like ‘pink for think’ or ‘D.I.R.T.’), because everything we do, even though we know that the best sort of differentiation is in the way we relate to our pupils, the way we talk to them, tailor what they need to do next in that instant, must be evidenced, must be written down somewhere where the inspectors can see it, mark it for approval.

It’s the reason why many primary schools have gone down the road of setting for ability in Maths and English, at younger and younger ages.  In many ways it makes sense.  If you can put the children together who are working on the same kind of thing at the same kind of level you will be able to pin point your teaching, and everyone will get along quicker, right?  Your teachers will be teaching to a smaller bandwidth of ability, making their lives less complicated, won’t they?  Makes life easier for everyone, doesn’t it?  Yes?

Except where the set is the same for Maths and English.  That’s a tricky one.  The thing is, that some children will be good at both subjects and some children won’t.  Some children will show a marked preference for one or the other and what do we do then?  Put them up a set, and they struggle in a class where the work goes too quickly, their confidence in their abilities slowly eroding?  Put them down, where they will be alright in one subject but bored and un-stretched in another?

And what about the children like mine, those who could just as well go to the local special school as the local mainstream?  Or the children who are new to English, working hard to make sense of an alphabetic code that doesn’t tally with the one they have already started to learn?  What about them?  What happens if they are in Year 6, but they still need some of the kinds of activity that go on in Year 1, or Reception even?  What do we do about them?  Do we send them down to the other end of the school, a giant perched on tiny chairs?  What does that do to their self esteem?

And, when it comes down to the nitty gritty, what about their learning needs?  Children are complicated little creatures, and, when they are in a great school with great teachers and they’re in every day and yet they still don’t seem to be getting along as they should, then something must be at the bottom of it.  It’s easy to see with my son, after all, his condition has been named and studied for a long time; it is instantly recognisable when you meet him.  But the others, the other children with hidden things, like ADHD, or Autism, or any other number of –isms or delays, or the even more invisible, the unquantifiable consequences of neglect or abuse, of poverty or parenting that doesn’t quite make the grade, what about them?  Do we lump them all together, place them in a group designed around a letter or a number, or do we concede that it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

Again and again, I have seen and read reports that talk in disparaging terms of setting on grounds of ability.  While it might be nice for the academically able, the ones who will get As and A*s when they are barely out of the womb, the ones in the classroom with the teacher, what about the ones who find themselves swimming around the middle or the ones who scrape the bottom of the barrel, out in the corridor, what happens to them, what do they learn?

Do they learn how to listen to other people, to take turns, to apply themselves when they find something difficult, to ask a friend or teacher for help, to battle on through no matter how great their challenges?  Or do they learn to hide the gaps, the holes in what they know with silliness, with low, or high level disruption, with behaviour that throws us off the scent, distracts us from finding out what is really the matter?  Are they hiding the bitter suspicion that, even at nine years old, they aren’t in the high flyers pile, but already sneaking onto the scrapheap?

There are many reasons that we chose a special school for Sam’s secondary education, and, to be perfectly honest, if I’d known then what I do now, I think I may well have been tempted to make the jump a hell of a lot sooner; the fantastic facilities, the dedicated, knowledgeable staff, the high expectations of children living with the greatest of difficulties, the priority placed on learning for an independent life, all these things played a part.

But you know what?  In the mix, a big part of the mix was setting.  Just as when we were looking for a school in the very early days the same old chestnut kept rearing its ugly head.  In a system that plays lip service to inclusion, where the way to provide a personalised curriculum is to group the children, ostensibly by ability, but often, in practice, by behaviour, just what, exactly, will he be learning?

Immaculate behaviour wherever we go. Honest.