News & insights

  • Differentiated learning: supporting learning for students of all abilities

    Student learning can be influenced by a number of factors: gender, culture, disabilities, socio-economic status, comfort level, or a combination of the above. Finding a way to help each student in your classroom learn may be a challenge – but it’s not impossible.

     

    Celebrating all learners

    Some students excel at sports, others at language, or maths. Some come into the classroom with confidence, others bring learning anxiety. Many will be novice learners, while others will display academic excellence at every turn. This is not a new phenomenon – it’s common knowledge that students are different, as are their learning needs. This diversity in student learning should not just be tolerated, it should be celebrated.

    Differentiated instruction involves responding specifically – and with flexibility – to what students know. It involves changing the way the curriculum is presented to suit each student, rather than setting lessons in stone. It means providing multiple ways for pupils to learn new content, make sense of new ideas, and prove their understanding.

     

    A cross-section of an Aussie classroom

    Australia is home to more than 200 different languages and approximately one student in every four is learning English as an additional language (EAL). But the diversity doesn’t stop there. A recent national audit revealed that 19.4 percent of Australian students have a disability or learning difficulty. Students who have been diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, non-verbal learning disability (NLD), autism, language disorder or auditory processing difficulties are all represented by this statistic. It’s important to note that 65.9 percent of children with disabilities (aged 5-14) attend regular classes in mainstream schools. This means it’s common for all teachers, not just special education teachers, to encounter students with disabilities and language difficulties.

    In the last 10 years, there has also been an increase in primary school students presenting with high levels of anxiety. And let’s not forget our gifted learners – yet another group of students who require tailored tuition.

    This data shows that a typical Australian classroom must be able to accommodate a range of learning needs and abilities. Whether a student presents with a language disorder or has recently immigrated to the country, it falls to teachers to move each of their students forward in their learning. This is a huge responsibility – and no easy task. It’s one thing to believe in differentiated learning, but how does one deliver differentiated instruction?

     

    A classroom-based solution

    Differentiated teaching starts with getting to know your students – their prior knowledge, strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. Once you have this information, student needs can be incorporated during the lesson planning process.

    So how can you identify the areas where your students are struggling the most? Using an accurate and easy-to-use clinical assessment like WRAT-5 allows you to determine the academic level of your students. It can be used to assess and monitor reading, spelling, and math skills, and can help identify possible learning disorders. This type of early intervention allows for differentiated instruction to begin because once you know what your students know, you can tailor your pedagogy to their needs.

    Results from the first round of tests can be used as a benchmark for future testing, creating a way for you to measure each student’s progress. Tracking student learning will enable you to keep delivering differentiated instruction, and set you well on your way to improving learning for your students.

    This article is part of the Mind the Gap initiative that supports student wellbeing to improve learning outcomes. For more information about this topic, or any of the clinical assessments mentioned in this article, please feel free to contact Anisa Zulfiqar.

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  • Social & emotional learning: five key skills you can start teaching in your school

    Research is increasingly telling us that children and adolescents who learn social and emotional (SEL) skills achieve better academic development, physical health, and quality of life. 90 percent of educators believe that SEL skills directly benefit their students’ performance, and 80 percent of employers believe that SEL skills are extremely important to achieving success in the workplace.

    Learn about the five key skills you can start teaching, and how to implement an effective classroom system in your school.

     

    What is SEL?

    SEL is the process through which students acquire the knowledge and skills to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, empathise with others, cultivate positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. It provides a foundation for safe and positive learning, and teaches students resilience and life skills. A recent meta-analysis revealed that adoption of SEL programs led to a 22 percent increase in social and emotional skills, and an 11 percent increase in academic achievement.

    Separate studies have shown that having emotional and social skills can help increase the likelihood of high school graduation, readiness for postsecondary education, career success, positive relationships, and better mental health.

    Importance of social-emotional learning graph

    Setting students up for life: five key skills

    If we expect students to be ready for life after school, then classroom instruction must include the following social and emotional skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

    Each social and emotional skill is listed in more detail below, along with an example of how it can be promoted in the classroom.
     


    Skill


    Activity

    Self-awareness:
    the ability to identify your emotions and tie thoughts and feelings to behaviours, leading to an awareness of how your words and emotions impact other people.

    Reflective tasks like journaling allow students to see their impact on the world.

    Self-management:
    the ability to self-motivate, have self-control, and regulate your emotions.

    Breathing exercises, taking a break, and counting to five are tools that can help a student deal with strong emotions or learning anxiety.

    Social awareness:
    learning to embrace diversity and empathise.

    Role-play a social justice issue, or conflicts that arise in the playground, like bullying.

    Relationship skills:
    the ability to work cooperatively with other people to handle challenges and resolve conflict.

    Project-based group work can help students learn to compromise and work cooperatively together.

    Responsible decision-making:
    the capacity to consider the wellbeing of self and others, and ability to evaluate the consequences of various behaviours and actions.

    Ask students to debate an issue, or make pros and cons lists to help them listen to, and respect, others’ ideas.


    The importance of Response to Intervention (RTI)

    RTI is a multi-tiered framework that can help identify students with learning difficulties and provide evidence‐based early intervention. A student's response to instruction and intervention allows you to recognise which tier and level of intervention is appropriate for the student. Students in tier 1 and 2 respond well to general classroom instruction, and may only need smaller group intervention to help them catch up to their peers.
     

    Importance of social-emotional learning graph


    RTI also aims to identify the students in tier 3, usually 5% of the class, who are struggling the most as they lag behind their peers by more than 12 months. Students in this tier usually go through tier 1 and 2 without making major progress, and will therefore require a referral to an allied health professional for intensive, individualised intervention.

    This framework can also be used to identify students who have social, emotional, or behavioural difficulties, as well as academic difficulties. In this way, the RTI model can be helpful for improving learning of academic skills and social and emotional skills.

     

    The Social Skills Improvement System – Social-Emotional Learning (SSIS-SEL) Edition

    The good news is that social emotional learning skills can be taught and continuously improved using in-class assessment and intervention tool like SSIS-SEL. This assessment is based on the RTI model and provides evidence-based tools to screen, assess, and intervene for each of the five key emotional skills. The program can be used as a preventative framework for students who present minor to mid-range difficulties in tiers 1 and 2, and it can also be applied as a more comprehensive intervention tool for struggling students in tier 3. SSIS-SEL is a flexible clinical tool, it can be applied either as a classwide program, or as a targeted solution in smaller groups of students.

    SSIS-SEL is the only system that incorporates key academic skill areas, allowing you to assess the same skills that you teach. Using this system, you can support the development of social and emotional skills in each of your students.

    The screening assessment takes approximately 5 to 10 minutes to complete, the full assessment takes approximately 15 to 20 minutes to complete, and the intervention modules take up to half an hour to complete.
     

    Importance of social-emotional learning graph

     

    This article is part of the Mind the Gap initiative, aimed at supporting student wellbeing to improve learning outcomes. For more information about supporting your special education or classroom teachers with effective assessment tools like SSIS-SEL, please feel free to contact Anisa Zulfiqar.

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  • Intellectual disability or language disorder?

    When a child has difficulty with language, it might also be assumed that they have an intellectual disability. But not all children who have trouble expressing or understanding spoken and written language will be diagnosed with an intellectual disability.

    Read on to learn more about the difference between intellectual disabilities and language disorders, and what you can do if you suspect a child needs professional help.

    Neurodevelopmental disorders are often noticed in the early years, from birth to five years. These disorders frequently co-exist. For example, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have an intellectual disability, and many children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also have a specific learning disorder. Communication disorders include language disorder, speech sound disorder, social (pragmatic) communication disorder, and childhood-onset fluency disorder (stuttering) (DSM-5, 2013).

     

    What is an intellectual disability?

    When compared to their peers, children with an intellectual disability have greater difficulty learning new things, understanding concepts, solving problems, concentrating, and remembering.

    Many health professionals won’t officially diagnose very young children with an intellectual disability, preferring to wait and see if a child is simply a late bloomer.

    However, there can be some early warning signs:

    • Slow to sit, crawl, or walk
    • Delayed talking
    • Poor attention
    • Limited planning or problem-solving abilities (e.g. a child may be unable to play in a constructive way with toy building blocks)
    • Difficulty with understanding rules and instructions
    • Behavioural and social problems
    • Trouble with self-care tasks such as getting dressed, toileting, and feeding themselves

    It’s important to note that all children develop at different rates, some may start out slower but catch up as they get older - this doesn’t necessarily mean they have an intellectual disability. However, if you’re worried about how a child’s skills are developing, it’s best to have them assessed by a professional sooner, rather than later.

     

    What is a language disorder?

    A child who experiences difficulty finding the right words or speaking in clear sentences may be diagnosed with a language disorder. You might notice that they’re having trouble putting their thoughts into words, or perhaps having trouble following conversations with their peers.

    It’s important to also note that a language disorder is different from a speech disorder or a hearing impairment. Children with language disorders generally don’t have trouble hearing or pronouncing words. Their struggle is related to understanding and applying the rules of language - like using the correct grammar, and speaking in well-formed sentences. “Children with SLI [specific language impairment] may be intelligent and healthy in all regards except in the difficulty they have with language. They may, in fact, be extraordinarily bright and have high nonverbal IQs,” writes Margaret Ervin in The ASHA Leader.

    There are two main types of language disorders, ranging from mild to moderate or severe.

    1. Expressive language disorder: Having difficulties explaining, thinking, or expressing needs. Young children may have trouble with:

    • Asking questions
    • Naming objects
    • Using gestures
    • Putting words together into sentences
    • Learning songs and rhymes
    • Using correct pronouns, like "he" or "they"
    • Knowing how to start a conversation and keep it going (Source: ASHA.org)

    2. Receptive language disorder: Having difficulties understanding language or meaning. Young children may have trouble with:

    • Understanding what gestures mean
    • Following directions
    • Answering questions
    • Identifying objects and pictures
    • Taking turns when talking with others (Source: ASHA.org)

     

    I think a child might have language difficulties, what do I do?

    If you’re concerned that a child may be experiencing language difficulties, we recommend that a referral is made (with parental approval) to the school's learning support team.

    Parents and teachers will be invited to complete a checklist on the child’s development and learning abilities. The learning support teacher might also complete an initial language screening test using the CELF-5A&NZ Screener – a quick 15-minute test that accurately screens the child's oral and social language skills. The test results will recommend whether further investigation is required, in which case the child might be referred to a speech language pathologist, and/or a psychologist.

    These professionals may work together to determine if the child is simply a late bloomer, or if they have a language disorder and/or an intellectual disability. Both professionals play an important role:

    • A speech language pathologist assesses a child’s speech and language skills with standardised tests such as the CELF-5A&NZ
    • A psychologist measures IQ, including nonverbal intelligence and adaptive behaviour, for example, is the child able to toilet, dress, or feed him/herself independently. The psychologist can obtain an overall idea of the child’s intellectual abilities with tests such as the WISC-VA&NZ and Vineland-3.

     

    What’s next after diagnosis?

    If a child is diagnosed with a language disorder, a speech language pathologist can offer intervention strategies and support for parents and teachers to assist the child in the learning and social environments.

    Prevention strategies are key – the earlier a child's difficulties are identified, the greater their chance of improvement. If there are any concerns with a child's development and learning it is best to discuss these with your child's teacher; alternatively you can contact a speech language pathologist in your area.

    This article is part of the Mind the Gap initiative that supports student wellbeing to improve learning outcomes. For more information about this topic, or any of the clinical assessments mentioned in this article, please feel free to contact Anisa Zulfiqar.

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