Spend a solid five minutes with the parents of gifted kids, and you’re like to hear the term “differentiating” tossed around at least a few times. It’s the golden standard for kids of varying gifts and abilities, the seemingly-perfect answer to the seemingly-endless question, “What do I do about my kid being so different?”
Got a kid who is a few grade levels ahead in math? Differentiation.
Is your daughter reading chapter books while the rest of the class is still sounding out phonics? Differentiation.
Maybe your asynchronous son excels in science but still struggles with grammar? Differentiation.
Differentiation in education is, simply put, providing work and learning for kids based on their abilities rather than their age group. It’s more individualized instruction that takes into account where the student is – academically or otherwise – rather than educating based on assumptions about where they should be. Differentiation is, really, doing what a kid needs when what that child needs is different from most of the group. Differentiation is the goal. Differentiation is beneficial. Differentiation is not limited to a classroom.
I have three kids. Three gifted kids. Three very different, very unique, not-in-any-way-comparable-to-each-other kids. One excels in math while another gobbles up history. One can’t stop dancing and another hates music. One is tall, one is petite, one is built like a pit bull. All struggle with anxiety, though in three different ways. One gets angry, one gets angsty, one gets emotional. All three have different abilities, different struggles, different needs. I have three different kids. With those differences come different needs, of course, and I’ve had to learn that parenting, like education, is not one-size-fits all.
Books and movements and theories abound, but at the end of the day there are no sweeping educational methods or parenting practices that are universally successful. There’s a lot we can do wrong, of course, but no one approach or process that will always ensure optimal outcomes. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, but I was shocked to realize, through years of struggling, that kids – siblings – are different people with different tastes and different needs who respond differently to different things. Where one child may need cuddles while upset, the other needs space. One child needs a set bedtime and one needs the freedom to stay up and read until his brain calms down. In the more practical vein, one child with severe food allergies means that sometimes one child gets one meal while the rest of us get another. Sensory issues mean that one child gets meatballs with no sauce while the other kids get meatballs with sauce – all made from scratch because of the food allergies.
It’s a lot of work.
There are some who would call it coddling, claim I’m giving in to my kids, who would ask me who’s in charge around here. I’m in charge, in case you’re wondering, and I get to decide how best to respond to each of my kids’ needs. Besides, if you think making separate meals for kids is time-consuming, you should see how long it takes to battle a kid who just won’t eat.
So what do meatballs have to do with education? What does differentiation have to do with how my kids are raised? What is it exactly you’re trying to lay out here?
Permission to educate your kids as differently as you feed them. Permission to do whatever your kids need, no matter how far from society’s norm – or your own expectations – that may be. Permission to adjust, adapt, switch, or leave whatever you need to in order for your child to thrive. Permission that no one can give you, but that you must grant yourself.
It’s okay to pull your kids out of the school with the great reviews and long waiting list.
It’s okay to pass the neighborhood school and find a private one farther away.
It’s okay to homeschool your kids.
It’s okay to homeschool only SOME of your kids.
It’s okay to push for gifted programming in your child’s school.
It’s okay to attend co-ops for some – or all – of your homeschool subjects.
It’s okay if co-ops aren’t a fit for your child at all.
It’s okay to find enrichment opportunities for your child after school.
It’s okay to let their teacher know that they need more.
It’s okay to let their teacher know that they need less.
It’s okay to unschool, deschool, homeschool, private school, special school, afterschool, public school, magnet school, forest school, charter school, or online school.
It’s okay to change your school.
It’s okay to ask more of your school.
It’s okay to choose any of these options for only one of your children, or for all of them.
It’s okay to differentiate for your child.
When my middle child started having trouble with his school, I felt frozen. It’s the best school in the county, and families literally line up for a chance to enroll their children. We were so fortunate to be a part of such an educational mecca, and the two years my oldest had already spent there had only served to reinforce our confidence in the way they did things. In fact, we’d chosen this school solely on the personality of this middle kiddo. We didn’t know why yet, but we knew he was different, difficult, and this heavenly school offered individualized plans following a growth mindset and brain-based learning. Lots of buzzwords, very exciting.
Only it wasn’t, not for him.
What worked so well for my oldest, then my youngest, and thousands of other kids… didn’t work for this one.
After taking longer than we should have to make the decision, we pulled our middle child out of the fantastic local school and began homeschooling him. Just him. The other two wake up early, eat breakfast, and go to school, while the middle kiddo stays home and learns with me. When 3:00 nears, we leave whatever we’re in the middle of and join the long pick-up line at school. And that’s okay.
My oldest attends a special school-within-a-school. He had to apply, attend interviews, and be selected to attend the specialized public middle school. It’s a unique combination of tech and freedom, algorithms and wiggle chairs, and it’s perfect for him. The school is across town and doesn’t have its own PE or music program, so it shares with another middle school. And that’s okay.
My youngest attends that amazing elementary school we pulled my middle kiddo out of. She is a bit of a diva, a performer at heart, and requires a constant audience, which her hands-on and attentive teachers are more than happy to provide. She attends classes with higher grades for the subjects she’s exceling in, she talks so much with her friends during lunch time that she rarely finishes a meal, and she cannot wait to wake up dark and early to get to school every morning. She absolutely loves where she’s at, and that’s okay.
It’s inconvenient to stop our homeschool lessons or plan field trips around their pick-up times. All of the different papers and projects and various deadlines and holidays, class parties and homeschool meet-ups, it’s a lot. It would be easier if everyone was home and we didn’t have to buy so many uniforms and supplies and backpacks on top of curriculum. It would be so nice to sleep in a little more every morning and spend some days in our pj’s, to not have to pack lunches and check folders and prepare the next day’s lessons. It would be so nice if each child’s education was on the same page, at the same time, or even in the same place, but it’s not, and that’s okay. That’s not what they each need, and home – or school – is not where they’d each thrive. One needs worksheets and one needs a good book. One needs structure and one rebels against it. One needs a crowd and one needs solitude. All of them need differentiation, and right now that means they all need three very different things. And that’s okay.