When a school is already doing a great job with their kids, parents are generally satisfied. However, when change is needed—as in the case of moving toward meeting diverse learning needs—things can get rocky. It’s human to resist change or feel threatened by it, or believe that a new practice or perspective will disrupt what’s already working very well.
With a visionary school leader, however, working with a team of teachers and parents, a school can make the transition from excellence for most to excellence for all, including meeting the learning needs of children who learn differently for reasons of attention or other kinds of learning problems.
Effectively meeting diverse learning needs means ensuring that all teachers have access to current resources and to meaningful professional development opportunities—and more. The research literature suggests that change works best with a combination of top-down, leader-driven initiatives happening simultaneously with bottom-up opportunities for networking, problem-finding, and collaborative problem-solving.
Ten Components of a Great School for All Kids
Change is most successful, and lasts longest, when it happens slowly and organically, step by step, in response to the perceived needs of all the stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Here are ten important points to consider:
- Growth mindset culture: A school that supports a growth mindset in its teachers and students is a school where diverse learners can thrive. A growth mindset means welcoming failures, problems, and setbacks as learning opportunities, rather than indications of weakness. That means looking for what can be learned from a problem, and not looking for someone to blame. Supporting a growth mindset is one of the most effective ways to enhance a school’s ability to address the learning needs of kids with exceptional learning profiles.
- Regular case-based discussions: Regularly scheduled (weekly or monthly) case meetings are productive forums where teachers share their experience and ideas with each other. During a case-based discussion, one or more teachers present information about one or more situations or students they have questions about. Participants think about the issues and generate possible solutions, in a spirit of collaborative problem-solving. Case meetings have many benefits: increasing collegiality and connections among teachers; building a resource bank of options for learning; solving, and preventing problems; increasing teachers’ creativity and enhancing teachers’ feelings of professional engagement in the school.
- Range of learning and assessment options: The range of options available to address students’ diverse learning needs is limited only by imagination. Options can include flexible groupings of students across classrooms and grades; online courses; mentorships and apprenticeships; extracurricular activities (with appropriate credit); group projects; alternate assessment forms (e.g., oral examinations, presentations, dramatizations, video reports); and independent projects; to name a few.
- Network of connections and resources: There are many benefits for a school to establish strong working relationships with local colleges, universities, businesses, community organizations, and other groups and institutions that may or may not appear to be focused on learning. These connections can be a great source for mentorships, and career exploration. They extend the range of learning options available at the school, often providing serendipitous opportunities. A school with various connections to the community is more vibrant, and also more likely to support diverse kinds of students in staying engaged in learning.
- Administrative support for experimentation: Teachers who are held to rigid standards of test scores and schedules have less flexibility, and are less able to adapt their instruction to address the learning needs of students who learn differently. Conversely, when teachers feel encouraged in their professional experimentation and creativity, they’re more likely to identify and address diverse learning needs. Principals can support teachers in using different means of assessment, trying innovative instructional methods, or introducing new technological processes. Changes like these can make a learning environment more dynamic, which in turn can motivate kids who had previously been disengaged, helping them respond more positively to day-to-day challenges.
- Professional development opportunities for teachers: Teachers need information and resources in order to assess individual students’ needs, and then develop appropriate instructional and assessment methods. They need opportunities to meet with special education experts, subject-specific specialists, other consultants, and colleagues to discuss students about whom they have questions or concerns.
- Inclusion of parents: Schools that nurture links to parents, and actively engage families in school activities and culture, do a better job of meeting diverse learning needs. A school that encourages parent networking and advocacy through newsletters, online forums, and open house days allows educators to stay in touch with perceived needs, as well as productive possibilities.
- Listening to students: Children and adolescents benefit from thinking about how they learn. This is especially important for kids who learn differently than their age peers. Encourage kids to express their thoughts about the learning process, including what engages them, what they’re having problems with, and how things could be better. Make time to listen to them.
- Professional consultation: Even with the most diversity-inclusive school, there are times when parents must consult outside professionals for more intensive assessments or psychological help. A school can offer trusted referrals, but it can’t take care of all of the needs of all students.
- Patience: School change requires planning, flexibility, and collaborative effort—and this demands time and patience on the part of everyone involved. A school community that’s mindful of this fact is better prepared to handle the inevitable challenges and setbacks that arise during the change process.
These components of a great school for all kids are interdependent. For example, a growth mindset fosters meaningful and collegial collaboration; professional development opportunities build teachers’ capacity to provide a range of learning options and administrative support for experimentation leads to expanded networks of connections and resources. Singly or in combination, these components work toward changing good (or less good) schools into vibrant, caring, and great learning environments for all kids.
Being Smart about Gifted Education, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster (Great Potential Press, 2009)