A Mindful Approach to Differentiated Classrooms: Kindness Matters

JM Levine

The seminal ingredient of a successfully differentiated classroom is mindfulness. In cultivating mindfulness, specifically in the form of kindness, we create a true community of learners in a meaningful, not superficial, way. It is critical that all children feel competent in a differentiated classroom, and it is the teacher’s job to make sure that happens as often as possible. This starts with teachers being self-compassionate, teaching children that kindness matters and fostering the understanding that some children are not more equal than others.

If we set the bar for differentiation at the level of providing scaffolding or alternative assignments, then we’ve missed the mark. Philosophically and ethically, differentiation is, at its core, being mindful of all the ways we craft our differentiation and being watchful that no one is marginalized because of these differences. In the olden days, when children were placed in delineated reading groups (aka ability groups), it was very clear to everyone which students were in the low group. Educators need to take care that in differentiating the instruction, the scaffolding materials do not inadvertently recreate that sorting system. An inspection of overheard conversations between students and teachers tells us whether we are being successful.

The spirit of differentiating the curriculum is to meet children where they are so they can move forward. If we agree that learning is geared not just to the student as an individual but involves social behavior, then it is more than necessary to factor mindfulness and specifically kindness into the equation. Kindness needs to be the guiding principle, the principle which shapes our interactions and pedagogy. Kindness matters. It matters if someone—a teacher or student—gets embarrassed because of her current ability. It matters if class members (including teachers) are sorting children based upon highly esteemed workbooks (for example, a challenging math series) or lowly worksheets (for example, a more skill-based approach with much reinforcement and repetition). It matters if some children roll their eyes when a student, particularly a student who speaks profusely, contributes to a discussion. It is unkind to speak when other people are talking, whether it is student to student, teacher to student, or teacher to teacher. Educators must insist on kindness if we are aiming to create a safe learning environment for all of our students.

A Mindful Teacher

A mindful teacher models and lives what he hopes his students will eventually own: self-awareness, self-compassion and the ability to honestly critique his interactions. Plenty has been written about teacher burnout and the need for educators to self-nurture. The gift of self-care is a step in a healthy direction; developing a mindful practice is another. A mindful practice requires a keen awareness of everything that is said and done. It requires thinking through things slowly. Mindfulness requires active and thoughtful listening. A mindful practice presents in heightened sensitivity to and appreciation of the environment. Most importantly, a mindful teacher treats himself with kindness. He models his expectations for students. That is, when the teacher demonstrates self-compassion, his students may learn by observation.

Mindfulness is not about tips and tricks; it is about truly giving children age-appropriate responsibilities and real reasons to think about their own learning and behavior. Mindfulness helps students take care of their own hearts and teaches them to live by the consequences of their choices. For example, in a mindful classroom during DEAR-time (Drop Everything And Read), children might select their own reading materials. Ideally, the classroom library books are sorted topically, without obvious reading-ability notations (i.e., Lexile numbers, color coding, etc.), so a student needs to actually consider if a particular book is an appropriate choice. Trusting a child to make that choice sends an empowering message: It reminds that student that she has the tools to make a thoughtful selection. That is, trusting students to make some significant learning choices and having them experience success because of those choices, paves a path for the teacher to continue empowering student to proceed on a mindful approach to their learning.

Follow-up conversations might ask a student if she feels the book is a good fit. Allowing the child to reflect on her choices may help develop self-awareness. In turn, being able to discern “yes, this is a good fit” or “no, it’s a stretch” is a lesson in self-compassion. The endgame is having a child treat herself kindly, with whatever decision she makes. For example, if the book is a big stretch, the student can grant herself permission to ask to select a different book or to take the book home to read with an adult. She treats herself kindly through her mindful choices.

A Student in a Mindful Classroom

Of course a mindful teacher’s pedagogical skills are spot on: That isn’t the issue. Anyone can provide multiple entry points for students. All of us can take ongoing anecdotal records, write learner profile narratives and develop performance-based assessment. The challenge is finding ways to do that so that students aren’t sorted because of the scaffolding. When assignments or expectations differ among students, there is always a possibility of students being unkind to each other. Being mindful of the danger that scaffolding can function as ability groups keeps the mindful teacher on her toes.

Teachers have a handful of tools to help students become aware and accepting of difference. Class meetings are a viable tool for opening discussions about accepting differences. Students can have opportunities to work cooperatively, so they can experience firsthand that everyone has something to offer. Giving children venues to discuss how they feel about the work they are doing in the classroom, whether anonymously or not, is yet another possibility. Students may have surprisingly thoughtful insights. Students are well aware of the academic and social hierarchy. But being at the top of the hierarchy heap does not provide a “pass” for opting out of being kind. Kindness needs to be the anchor upon which all interactions are based.

Insisting that a student treats himself kindly may help that student widen his lens to kindness. That is a big leap in thought, but little by little kindness begets kindness. Outwardly modelling kindness by incorporating language such as “Be patient with yourself” and asking questions like “How does that make you feel?” cultivates self-awareness and eventually self-compassion. A mindful teacher encourages students to check in with themselves. The hope is that children will internalize the language of mindfulness until it becomes self-talk. The goal is that students habitually ask “Is it kind?” and self-correct if it isn’t.

A Mindful Classroom, Always a Work in Progress

There are tools and resources to refer to and reflect upon to move toward mindful practices in a differentiated classroom. Most of these resources speak to these practices as a means to an end: impulse control, anger management and lowering anxiety. While these are all worthwhile, kindness is the seminal goal. In a book called Sitting Still Like a Frog, the author presents valuable activities for practicing mindfulness. The Responsive Classroom model also resonates with a mindful approach idea. However, a mindful classroom takes the concept of community a bit further. In a mindful classroom, children make important choices about what to learn, whom to learn with, how to learn and where to work. All of these decisions are made with a keen eye towards being kind to herself and the members of her class.

Educators need to set the expectation that it is not enough to provide exemplary units with different points of access. We need to set the bar higher for ourselves, our students and our schools. As well, we need to expect students to do more than just go for the A. Good grades should be gravy, secondary to working kindly with each other.

There is always room for more kindness. Kindness should determine the way we treat individuals and the way we run our classrooms. Kindness is an essential ingredient of a differentiated classroom, most specifically because our classroom contains a wide swath of humanity and is a microcosm of the world outside of our classrooms. The habit of cultivating mindfulness and particularly kindness are ones that we hope student carry with them throughout their lives and bring into the world outside of school. Mindfulness is a place to start.

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HaYidion Differentiation Fall 2017
Fall 2017