Taming the Chaos Within: How Schools Can Use a Differentiated Instruction Approach to Behavior Challenges
“How can you make a world for people to live in until you’ve first put order in yourself?” —Thornton Wilder, The Skin of our Teeth
Early in my teaching career, my headmaster called a faculty meeting and had us watch a documentary about learning disabilities. Most of the students in our small school struggled with a disability of some kind, from mild dyslexia to almost total aphasia. Some of their parents were caring and concerned; many were frustrated and exhausted. The video, called “How Difficult Can This Be?” showed us a workshop during which a facilitator conducted a variety of activities to make participants feel as though they had all sorts of learning challenges. He gave them mangled text to read or fuzzy pictures to look at and then barked at them to “look harder” at things they could not possibly see, no matter how “hard” they looked (whatever that meant).
Even without participating directly in the workshop, we learned a great deal about what it felt like to be our students—students who had spent a lifetime being told to sit still when they were already sitting as still as they could. How heartbreaking it had to be, to be yelled at for not being able to control a twitching hand or a tapping foot. How enraging it had to be, especially by the teen years, to be scolded for not reading things that were physically unreadable. No wonder our students had been in and out of every school in town.
To many teachers, the idea of “differentiated instruction” is a ridiculous, pie-in-the-sky idea dreamed up by out-of-touch authors or professors who don’t understand how difficult it is to plan and execute a single lesson, much less several options per class. But to many students, differentiated instruction is the difference between success and failure in school. For many students, instruction that isn’t adapted to meet their needs is instruction to which they simply have no access.
Identification of learning disabilities and a well-implemented IEP or 504 plan can make all the difference for these students. But what about students whose problems do not fall into the establish categories of problems that will lead to legally-mandated accommodations? What about students for whom years of poverty, neglect, or trauma have so stressed the neural circuitry that they have not developed levels of executive function at the same pace as their peers? When they don’t have a medical label to explain away their problems, they simply get labeled “bad” and are punished rather than helped. And yet, their experience of school may be no different that the experience of students with identifiable disabilities: it doesn’t work, it doesn’t fit, they don’t know why, and they get yelled at for it.
This is tragic for all sorts of reasons—not least of which is the fact that, in the words of author, Eric Jensen, “Brains can change.” Neuroplasticity, the ability of a brain to adapt and change over time, even beyond childhood, means that a student’s past doesn’t have to be his future—that with careful and planful work on the part of the school, even a student with severe behavior issues can learn to control himself and succeed in the classroom.
But what does “careful and planful” mean for such students? It doesn’t mean medicating them into a stupor, and it certainly doesn’t mean threatening them with suspension if they take a wrong step. For students who can’t control their impulses or their aggression, it means providing a safe and orderly environment where they can actually, finally, learn to control their impulses and their aggression—where they can regularly practice a menu of self-control strategies and demonstrate increasing levels of self-control. At Philadelphia’s Anthony Wayne Academy, one of our Alternative Education schools, I have seen how even the most behaviorally-challenged students can take control of their behavior and earn increasing levels of autonomy and authority. I’ve seen students who were once sent away from their schools becoming leaders: running meetings, modeling correct behavior, and acting as role models for younger or newer students. They learn how to tame the chaos within themselves, whatever the cause of that chaos may have been, and gain enough self-control to return to their schools, earn their diplomas, and pursue their dreams.
That shouldn’t have to be seen as a miracle, or even a gift. It’s simply what those students need. Yes, they need algebra. Sure, they need world history. But if they can’t tame that inner chaos and take control of their lives, what meaning or use can algebra or world history ever have?
No student in our country should be denied the opportunity to succeed simply because he doesn’t fit into the box we call “school.” The school should accommodate itself to meet the needs of students, not the other way around. I believed this, way back in the 20th century, when it felt a little bit radical and strange. In this century, it should be a commonplace. Customization and personalization are simply what we expect—and demand—in most areas of our lives. In fact, I can’t think of any other area of life where we still think it’s acceptable to take a random group of 20 or 30 people (who share nothing but a birth year) and give them all exactly the same thing, delivered exactly the same way, regardless of what they might need or want.
Our democracy is built on the assumption that people can govern themselves and manage their own affairs—that we are not forever children, searching for a strong parent to obey. But not everyone is ready and able to take control of their lives—even at age 18. And a person who is unable to manage himself is a person who will eventually be managed by someone else—often the police or some other mechanism of the state. That is not exactly a gateway to the “pursuit of happiness” that was meant to be our birthright as Americans.
We are supposed to be giving our students the tools they need to succeed in life beyond the schoolroom. But if we can’t see the world through their eyes, how can we possibly know what tools they need?