Differentiation Intervention: A Case Study

I received an email about a differentiation issue, and decided it was worth doing an entire case study on the problem this parent is facing.

I’ve crowdsourced it with some awesome teachers from the Bullitt County School District in Kentucky (near beautiful Louisville). We sat down one afternoon and hashed out ideas. We’re sharing them below.

Differentiation Difficulties

Here’s the initial email:

I have a 2nd grader who performs at a 5th grade level and a kindergartner who is performing at 2nd (math and reading for both kiddos). For my 2nd grader, I have been begging his teachers every year to differentiate his work, but they tell me that they don’t have the resources. When I asked about my kindergartner this year, the teacher told me “remember she’s only five.” Both children complain frequently about being bored, but they are also well behaved, so easily ignored in the classroom.

My concern is that they are not learning to work hard, and we see it at home when they try something that doesn’t come instantly to them, they both break down in tears and give up. I am giving up on the school’s differentiating their work; they made it clear to me that it’s not going to happen (or that they are “differentiating” by ability grouping even though the “high” group has the exact same work as every other group).

I have started having them do workbooks at home that are at their performing grade level for about 15 minutes, four days a week. My question is, am I doing them a disservice by making them do more work? They don’t ever complain, but I know they would rather be playing after sitting bored in school all day. I am substituting the workbooks for their given homework, and am afraid that I am sending a bad message of not having to do what is asked of them, but I don’t want them to have to do more boring work that they learned 2-3 years ago!

Any feedback would be very appreciated.

Thank you,


We loved this email because:

  • the parent isn’t dumping all responsibilty on the school
  • the parent is realistic about her child’s abilities
  • the parent is worried for all of the right reasons
  • it’s a huge issue that affects many parents

The Teacher Task Force:

Our suggestions

Suggestions for Parents:

  1. Read this article by Dr. Tracy Inman on what kids don’t learn when they’re not challenged in school. This article responds directly to your concerns. It will validate you.
  2. Read the article on what to do when school isn’t meeting the needs of your child. Follow its suggestions.
  3. We don’t recommended “extra” work, even on ability level. You’re right: the children need to play. Play is the work of children, and is necessary for their development. You’re also right to be concerned about the message it sends to kids to substitute what was assigned. Read this article about it. Smart kids need as much play as typical learners. They’re not just walking brains.
  4. Invest in this book on parenting gifted kiddos.
  5. If there’s no GT parent support group in your district, consider starting one. Parents are constituents of elected officials who make these decisions, and you will be more effective if you are not a sole voice. Be open to the educators who are passionate about GT students, and consider supporting them through memberships in your state GT organization or supplying great books.
  6. If you encounter encounter resistence, our suggestions include:
  • Look at your district’s acceleration policy. If there are not grade level acceleration options, do they offer subject level acceleration? (If there is resistance to acceleration, check out the Acceleration Institute for persuasive research on the positive effects of acceleration.)
  • Parents, if you want your kid to stay in the “right” grade so they can be bigger/stronger/faster in sports, consider if that is more for you or them. Be honest in this self-reflection.
  • Does your district have a GT Coordinator? If so, this person may be a tremendous asset to you to help you understand what options are already in place.
  • If there’s not a GT Coordinator or similar role, and if none of our other suggestions work, then it’s time to ask for a formal meeting with the teacher team and an administrator to develop a plan. Even if kids are compliant now, that is unlikely to remain through the teenage years, and they are actually at high risk of dropping out. That goes back to the article mentioned above.

Suggestions for Teachers:

  • Use acceleration. If there is not formal opportunity, can you do an informal acceleration, sending the child to a more appropriate grade for one or more subjects? Read my take on it.
  • Assess. Don’t feel pressured to depend upon parent self-report of student ability. Look. Is the child actually performing at that level? Ask the teacher at the other level for a test you can use. This is not formal identification, but it will give you data that will support one idea or the other.
  • Develop your own differentiation toolbox that includes strategies that aren’t time burdensome and don’t cost money (here’s my Differentiation Made Easy Handout, independent research, Khan Academy or other online options).
  • Take a class or read a book on differentiation. Can you learn some simple differentiation strategies? Can you bolster your own knowledge bank. You’ll find that most of these strategies work for all learners. It’s not “extra” – it’s excellence for all.
  • Join your state’s NAGC affiliate. You will learn and become more passionate about meeting the needs of your gifted learners. This will give you the motivation you need to make the sacrifice it takes.
  • If you’re worried about the social/emotional impact, consider this:
    • If we have typical or even struggling students who can’t behave appropriately for their grade level, we give them a special plan and sometimes even an entire helper person to assist them with the social/emotional piece. We don’t punish kids cognitively for social/emotional misalignment.
    • They don’t fit in socially in the “right” grade anyway. Walk into any Kinder class and ask, “Who’s the smartest kid in the class?” And they will all point. No identification test needed.
    • The idea of grouping by age is solely a result of industrialization and preparation to work in a factory. If you’re not concerned that your GT student be prepared to work on an assembly line, don’t worry about getting them out of synch with the false age/grade connection that is our current model.
  • We suggest that teachers also read this article by Dr. Tracy Inman on what kids don’t learn when they’re not challenged in school. Knowing the consequences of not meeting the cognitive needs of our GT kiddos can help us find the energy and justify the time to prepare to meet those needs.
  • If there’s no support in your district for GT learners, at the very least and as a start, meet their emotional needs. Be affirming and supportive. Don’t punish them for being gifted. Do all you can on the DL.
  • Never use the GT child as a tutor. They’re not good tutors in general, and they deserve to learn, too. Read this for more.
  • Be careful about having them work in mixed-ability groups all of the time. They deserve the opportunity to work with other gifted kids. This takes no prep.
  • Be reasonable in your expectations of their behavior. They’re children, and they can develop very differently cognitively. This is called asynchronous development, and it’s a thing. A kid who can do sixth grade math may still behave like the eight-year-old they are. Expecting them to act older because they’re smarter is the same as expecting them to act older because they’re taller.

Parents or teachers, if you’ve got other ideas, throw ’em out in the comments.

Special thanks to the amazing teacher task force who brainstormed all of this and was terrific!

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