Differentiation is a key part of teaching, no matter what type of school you teach in. Normally when we discuss differentiation, we discuss ways to meet the needs of our low achieving students who have deficits or gaps that need to be met. The high achieving students, who are doing well already, are rarely differentiated for unless they become a behavior issue due to boredom. Unfortunately this often means that students who are doing well often never meet their full potential. This is particularly true in lower income or lower achieving schools or classrooms where there are more low achieving students than high achieving ones.
Every student in your classroom has a right to be pushed to their full potential, no matter their level. As a teacher though, there are only so many hours in a day, so how do we differentiate for our highest achieving students? Here are ten strategies to help you meet those students' needs:
1.) Allow students time to work on their individual deficits, even if they aren't academic. High achieving students are NOT great at everything. Even your best student will have weaker areas. For some students it is handwriting or spelling. For other students it is social skills or athletic ability. When they have finished their work, give them additional time to work on these weaker areas. Students might be given additional time to practice cursive writing or they may use the internet to research different ways to stay physically fit. Allow students to weigh in on where they are weak and encourage them to to use their time to help fill in these gaps for themselves.
2.) Let students expand out instead of up. If a student is doing very well on 2nd grade standards, it is often the case that we go ahead and give them 3rd grade standards. While this is an okay strategy, often there is more that can be done within their own standards if we allow students to dig deeper.
For example, it is tempting to move students who have mastered addition with regrouping problems into multiplication. But is there more they can do with addition with regrouping? Can they develop their own word problems with this skill? Can they complete error analysis on problems completed incorrectly? (Some error analysis problems like this can be found in my Addition with Regrouping Tiered Activities at the Fix it Level.) Can they create a video teaching others how to solve problems like this? (You can find a Video Creation Planning Sheet and Rubric at my Teachers Pay Teachers store.)
This is also true with reading. Often we push students to read harder and harder books because they can. While reading new books is wonderful, students often run into books with more grown up situations than they are ready for. Students can learn about new vocabulary and new ideas from reading additional books on their own grade level as well, or by digging deeper into the books the entire class is reading. Perhaps that student can do an author study and read additional books from the author of the book you are reading in class. Perhaps that students can be a topic and read multiple books about that topic. Students might be encouraged to do a self-guided novel study using my Student Selected Novel Study Packet on a novel that is really interesting to them.
3.) Allow students a chance to teach. Some students really enjoy being peer tutors. Others do not. However giving students a chance to teach others will expand their own thinking and memory of a topic. We remember 95% of what we teach. For students who do not want to be a peer tutor in person, they can easily create video tutorials, using my Video Creation Planning Sheet. Either way the process of teaching will help students further process their learning.
4.) Give early finishers ongoing projects to work on. Often high achieving students become the "I'm done." students. They finish work quickly and then become bored. Or because they know they will finish early, they become distracted and socialize instead of putting forth their best effort. Alternatively, some will rush through things because they are used to being done early and having time to chill. Having ongoing projects can help alleviate these behaviors by making sure students are always busy with quality activities. Some projects from my Teachers Pay Teachers store that work well for this are:
- Mystery Book Reports
- Informational Trade Book - Book Reports
- Country Study Reports
- Math Projects
- Biography Projects
- Self Selected Book Studies - Fiction or Non-fiction
5.) Use technology to develop a PLC for students. Just like teachers need to connect with other teachers, students need to connect with other students. High achieiving students often have few peers in their school who are on the same level as them. As a teacher, you can allow students to connect with other high achieving students around the world using websites like Edmodo. Students may also connect with adults in a field of interest for them. For example a student who is very interested in science, may contact a scientist at the local college. Once students have made an initial connection, they may write penpal letters or e-mails with these people, giving them a chance to interact with someone who will push their brain to new levels.
6.) Provide puzzles and brain teasers. Higher achieving students often enjoy solving a puzzle that seems unsolveable. Puzzles and brain teasers challenge their brains to process at a higher level than normal school activities. Of course puzzles and brain teasers are great for all students, so I usually call them "early finisher activities", leaving these activities open to everyone, but accessed mainly by my high achieving students. Some of my favorite puzzles are my Math Tiling Puzzles, which work on basic math standards, but take it to a higher level of understanding.
7.) Allow time for community outreach. Social skills are often one of the hardest skills for our highest achieving students. One of the best ways to encourage social skills like empathy and compassion is to encourage students to work in the community. Within the classroom, this could be as simple as a letter writing campaign to soldiers or children who are in the hospital. Or students could leave larger community outreach projects like food and clothing drives for the needy.
8.) Give time for individual interest projects. Genius projects or passion projects are a great way to allow students to truly pursue their own interests while still building on their literacy skills. While these projects are great for all students, high achieving students will be able to dig the deepest. These students may also use these projects as an "early finisher" activity. The great part about individual interest projects is that they can be completely individualized. Students can learn another language. They can learn how to design a YouTube channel. They can study fashion design. They can literally study any topic that is interesting to them.
9.) Keep expectations high, but achievable. Be careful when working with your high achieving students to not set the bar too high. While we want to stretch students, we sometimes forget that high achieving kids are still kids. They don't want a bunch of extra work. They want to be interested. And they still don't have the same understandings as adults. So keep your expectations high, but still make them kid appropriate and achievable for your students.
10.) Provide time for creative thinking. For some reason we often stretch our high achieving students in standard school subjects, but we forget about the arts. Art, design, music, dance, drama and programming all use different parts of the brain. Giving students a chance to be creative also feels more fun to students, which makes them less resistant to extra work.
No matter which of these strategies works best for your students, the important thing is to be sure to differentiate your instruction for these highest achieving students just as we do for our lowest achieving students.