DEALING WITH INDIVIDUAL NEEDS IN HETEROGENEOUS GROUPS

How are students who would ordinarily be part of pull-out programs - as well as other students who are often left out - to be included in the activities of the classroom? How can their diverse needs - and those of the other students in the class - be met?

Knight and colleagues (1982) warn of three problems that often result from simply putting a mainstreamed child into a group and hoping for the best: 1) rejection, 2) "adoption" of the mainstreamed child almost as a mascot, or 3) the rest of the group forgets the child after an initial period of "paying dues". Asking a particularly responsible, empathetic child to "mother hen" the mainstreamed student is a common approach but is unfair to the hen and often not helpful in integrating the "chick" into the class. Even for adults, it is not easy to learn to value, without condescension, the contributions of less-able colleagues. It is equally difficult for less-able learners to learn to take the risk of trying to contribute to the group; they are likely to be more comfortable in the same passive role they may play in the presence of a mother hen. But inclusion skills can and must be developed in all class members, the included as well as the excluded, if we are to prevent the rejection of mainstreamed children.

Gifted students, too, have their inclusion problems. How can they stretch their abilities and at the same time value the contributions of the others in their group? And how can they "shine" without becoming the object of unwanted attention or sometimes even ridicule? At their root, these are issues of acceptance and appreciation of individual differences. In a positive classroom climate, students would understand that no member of the class has more value as a person than any other, that each has a contribution to make. And as for acceptance of gifted children, "behavior that heretofore was described as 'oddball' or 'peculiar' can become 'unique' and 'interesting'" in a positive classroom (Schmuck et al., 1966).

What can be done to promote inclusion? Contact Theory, Gordon Allport's (1954) "generally accepted and well-researched" (Slavin, 1985) idea that bringing students of different races into close contact will enhance cross-racial friendships, is a promising approach to promoting cross-ability as well as cross-cultural friendships. After all, how are children of different abilities going to find common interests if they are kept apart all of the time. The idea is not to force friends on children, but rather to remove artificial constraints that might get in the way of potential friendships. In fact, just by doing so, the teacher who regularly assigns students to mixed groups is clearly indicating support for heterogeneous interaction. Careful grouping of students improves the chances that members of mixed groups will benefit from contact with their teammates. To Allport's principle of frequent interaction with a variety of classmates, Vacha and his colleagues (1979) add that, in order for these associations to promote inclusion, they must be rewarding in some way. Cooperative learning (Slavin, Johnson & Johnson) is one good way to facilitate mutually rewarding interactions. In addition, Vacha's curriculum on improving classroom climate begins with activities to help improve the attractiveness of isolated or disliked children. This curriculum makes some general recommendations for day-to-day classroom organizational schemes that can help ease rejected and neglected children into the social structure of the class:
  • Sociometric grouping,
  • Looking for and capitalizing on "things that unpopular children can do that will reward the rest of the class"
  • Frequent regroupings for daily activities (to allow isolated students to interact with many potential friends)
  • Individual counseling for disliked students
  • Keeping students with budding friendships together
  • Reducing exclusivity in cliques by promoting contact of members with non-members
  • Eliminating competition between groups and group punishments (they may make scapegoats of unpopular students)
  • Bullying prevention (Committee for Children, 2005)
  • Directly teaching social skills
Elaborating on this last point, research clearly establishes that social skills training can improve self-concept and the feeling of importance of isolated and disliked students (Haynes-Clements and Avery, 1984; Royce and Arkowitz, 1978; Schneider, 1986; Csapo, 1986; Comber, et al., 1989; Gresham, 1982). Gresham recommends teaching social skills in a structured five-step model:
  1. Establish the need for the student to attain the skill by brainstorming advantages of having the skill and evidence that a student has or doesn't have it.
  2. Identify sub-tasks. Greeting, for example, is a sub-task of making a friend.
  3. Modeling appropriate behaviors (teacher, video, actors, etc.)
  4. Behavioral rehersal. Structured and guided role-playing with feedback.
  5. Generalization training in varied formats to help with transfer.

Among published programs designed to help students learn social skills are Vacha, et al. (1979); Schmuck and Schmuck (1983); Walker, et al. (1988); Lewinsohn, et al. (1984); Committee for Children (2002, 2005).

Inclusion of Less-Able and Students with Disabilities

Merely placing a disabled child in a mainstreamed environment not only fails to result in improved social acceptance, it actually "results in a decrease in social status relative to comparable children who remain in segregated classes." Leyser and Gottlieb (1981). Cooperative learning and computer-assisted instruction are two proven ways of gaining acceptance for less-able students and those with disabilities (Glatthorn, 1987). Some others are listed below. (The first nine suggestions are from Leyser and Gottlieb, 1981.)
  • Get the student involved in classroom and extra-curricular activities.
  • Identify skills, hobbies and interests of low-status children and planning activities that capitalize on their expertise.
  • Combine verbal reinforcement for correct answers given by less-able students with giving group credit for cooperation, listening, etc.
  • Increase positive teacher interactions with the student.
  • Include the target child in discussion and call him/her by name.
  • Teach peers to reinforce prosocial behaviors and ignore inappropriate ones.
  • Directly instruct students in social skills.
  • Implement peer tutoring arrangements with the less-able student as the tutor of a younger student or the tutee of an older student.
  • Use sociometric data to group less-able students with classmates they choose sociometrically.
  • Build a circle of friends around the less-able or student with a disability, providing him or her with a support group to promote inclusion to the highest degree (Flynn, 1990).
  • A related suggestion: Form peer support networks with peer buddies, volunteers (or nominees) who have been trained in friendship seeking, developing and keeping. Through instruction, modeling and role-playing, buddies learn such skills as initiating conversations, solving interpersonal problems, appropriate non-verbal communication, etc. Although they are artificial and may not extend beyond the schoolyard, peer buddies are a very real lifeline that during school connects less-able children to their classmates (Villa and Thousand, 1988).
  • Have specialists come to the classroom to give special education instead of having the children go to the special educator (Flynn, 1990).

As with other classrooms, the environment of the classroom containing mainstreamed children should contain structure and order, including explicit instructions, clear expectations, and consistent consequences (positive and corrective) outlined by the teacher (Leyser and Gottlieb, 1981).

Inclusion of Gifted Students

Nearly half of all talented and gifted students underachieve (Cohen, 1987). Boredom, pressure to conform, and stifled creativity cause gifted students to underachieve or drop out. Pull-out programs respond to these problems by challenging gifted students and placing them in a more supportive environment. But pull-out programs, when available, constitute a small percentage of the school week and gifted students have needs all day, every day (Cohn, 1990). As stated elsewhere, the Eugene School District's Education 2000 Report (1988) states that "research indicates that (heterogeneous grouping) increases the academic performance of lower or middle achieving students without jeopardizing the performance of higher achieving pupils." How can we provide for the needs of gifted students in heterogeneous classrooms so that we can do better than simply "not jeopardize their academic performance"? First, differentiated instruction in the regular classroom will require the expertise of gifted education specialists as much as that of special educators. When gifted educators work with regular classroom teachers to develop stimulating units to match with individual needs and interests, the winners will be not only the gifted, but all those in the class. There is also a trend toward specialists working as generalists who are able to provide the teaching team with expertise in their particular areas (Clark, 1986). Wouldn't the parent of a child not officially identified as gifted, be happy to have a gifted educator as one of her teachers? How can instruction be differentiated to meet the needs of gifted students? Cramer (1978) offers the following three-point program:

1. Accelerate in the skill areas - one way of differentiating instruction for gifted students is "curriculum compacting" (Renzulli, 1982). In simple terms, curriculum compacting allows students to "test out" of any material they have mastered. Using the unit tests provided with adopted texts as pre-tests is one way of testing for mastery. A student who knows the material being taught would move on to the next unit (or test out of it too) or move into the enrichment or self-initiated activities described below.

2. Enrich in the content areas - "What seems to be missing (in today's classroom) is long-term assignments that build on the work of the previous day and increase in depth and involvement over a period of a week or more" (Glasser, 1986). Two major goals of schooling are to teach students learning-to-learn skills and instill in them a love of learning. Enrichment projects are an excellent approach to developing these skills and attitudes. To take advantage of enrichment opportunities, able-learners need some skills to use as tools. These are skills that can be taught to the whole class since enrichment project are not solely for the gifted, Cohen (1987):
  • Research skills - advanced library skills, data interpretation, reporting skills, scientific methodology, and use of technology.
  • Higher level thinking skills - analysis, synthesis, convergent and divergent thinking, and evaluation.
  • Creativity - fluency, flexibility, originality, elaboration, and curiosity.
  • Communication - writing stories, essays, poetry, books, letters, journalism, etc., and photography, audio, video, theater, art, dance, and languages.
Choices of topics do not necessarily need to be unguided. Enrichment in the topic under study by the class can occur by broadening the area, deepening it, stretching it to associated areas (as with an association web), transferring it to new areas, or addressing new audiences with the product of the study. Some specific activities to enrich include:
  • Additional resources for research (primary sources, interviews, etc.)
  • Independent study (appropriate for some students, but not all)
  • Individual projects, small group investigations, mini-courses, special interest groups or learning centers
  • Interest development centers
  • Literature programs like Junior Great Books and Accelerated Reading
  • Resources from the surrounding community (museums, workplaces, the university, etc.) to help provide extension
  • Invited guests to help students develop interests
Careful development of project plans for enrichment is advised. Kaplan's (1978) "learning experience model" of enrichment activities contains four elements: research, a process, content and a product. Two examples of projects containing these elements:
  • Conduct (research) a survey (process) to write a persuasive essay (product) on a controversial issue (content).
  • Conduct an experiment (research) to establish (process) a hypothesis (content) and prepare a graph to display the results (product).
When the project statement includes all four elements, students have a much clearer task than they would if they were doing a project on a broad topic. Real-world problems - like letters to the editor about a current issue - motivate many gifted (and other) children and literature units are particularly well-suited to providing diverse challenges for diverse ability levels and interests (see Moss, 1980 for an example). Not every gifted student will thrive automatically on independent enrichment activities. Being used to success without much effort, gifted children often need to be given really challenging work in manageable chunks to keep the project from being too overwhelming. Narrowing the scope may also help (Cohen, 1987). The teacher's involvement will vary from child to child but frequent conferencing to provide feedback, support and direction should be part of every child's enrichment program.

3. Encourage students to make choices and to initiate learning - In Clark's (1986) "responsive learning environment", in which almost all instruction is given to individuals and in small groups (and in which the classroom is full of learning possibilities), gifted students can pursue interests in depth with a minimum of time limitations. Students can be grouped flexibly with other students as their learning needs demand - or they can work individually when it is more appropriate. The gifted learner can function as a teacher, a researcher, an apprentice, a resident expert or a learning manager. The classroom becomes more of a laboratory for learning and is more closely related to the real world. In fact, students may often find projects and inquiries in which they can work outside the classroom in the larger community.

The laboratory-type classroom would be unlikely to look very much like a traditional students-in-neat-rows room. A more traditional approach is to develop well-designed learning centers; the time involved in setting them up being worthwhile because "the enrichment for the child and the training and resources the centers provide for the teacher, are an educationally sound combination. "Some such model is clearly needed for teachers of heterogeneous classes" (Cox et al, D1985). There would be a variety of stimulating materials in such a classroom. A partial list of materials for self-initiated study might include:
  • Biographies
  • Computers, good software, internet access
  • Video camera, multimedia station
  • Games
  • Learning or interest centers
  • Bulletin boards that attract curiosity and invite further study
  • How-to books, Reference books
  • Sample textbooks at a variety of levels

Often, though, materials are less important than motivation. Whenever possible, attempt to leave assignments open-ended enough that interested students, whether they be able-learners or just interested, can extend their studies. Then, if students are relatively free to use the library for self-study, self-directed students can find the materials there. Some other ways to provide choices for students include:
  • Allow gifted students to work together on occasion
  • Permit or encourage students who need time off from group work to work alone on occasion
  • Deadlines should be flexible to allow quick workers to finish early, and others to spend more time probing more deeply. (Individual contracts can help provide a basis for individualized deadlines)
  • Don't always make the gifted student a helper
  • Mix some game-like activities into the day
  • Use questioning strategies in class discussion to tap a variety of learning styles, and leave some of the questions hanging for independent study
  • Team teaching is one instructional format that allows teachers to provide individual guidance to people working on projects
  • Support participation in extra-curricular activities and clubs
  • Schedule a self-directed learning day. In Cramer (1978), students choose eight (and get five) of 80 choices including games, projects, conferences with the teacher, catch up on work, use a computer, view media, practice skits or songs, cook, sew, work on a hobby or collection, etc.
  • Use peer tutoring. (We learn 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we both see and hear, 70% of what is discussed with others, 80% of what we experience personally, 95% of what we teach someone else. Glasser 1986)
  • Offer electives
  • Use commercial programs for gifted students
  • Participate in Odyssey of the Mind
  • Use thematic teaching
  • Plan school-wide enrichment units

Conclusion
In a homogeneous classroom or group, flexible instruction is possible but not necessary. The teacher might assume (no doubt falsely) that all students bring to class approximately the same skills and abilities, interests and motivation. In heterogeneous groups such an assumption is impossible - and unnecessary. Still, good teaching is good teaching and good teachers are usually flexible responding to the needs of the students. When the class has a wide variety of needs that cannot be met in a classroom where students are expected to "stay with the group", the flexible teacher will adapt to meet diverse needs.

Not all differentiation needs to be preplanned. Nancy Nameth, a now-retired elementary teacher in Eugene, had a wide variety students in her room. As I was observing her class doing a cooperative assignment that involved a measurement in "paces", the class was wondering how long a pace really was. One gifted student suggested that a pace might have as standard a length as a foot or a yard. Nancy asked the student if he would like to research his hypothesis and report back to the class. He did and half an hour later, using resources in the classroom, he was able to share an interesting account of the various distances that are represented by a pace in different settings. The class clearly valued his contribution and carried on an animated discussion with him and he just as clearly was proud of his contribution. In handling this "teachable moment" as she did, Nancy provided a perfect example of effective differentiated instruction on the fly.