When we hear the word differentiation, many of us automatically think about developing instructional activities that are appropriate for a student's learning ability. However, how many people think of behavior when they hear the word differentiation?
Let's think about some reasons why differentiating instruction is a good practice. Well, it supports the student at his learning level, without the work being too easy or too difficult. It ensures a student is getting necessary building blocks needed to understand larger concepts or skills. It provides a safety net for students. It increases students' engagement. It gives the educator a clearer picture of what the student is truly able to do. It can encompass a student's specific learning style. Gosh, the list can go on and on. We differentiate instruction for students because it helps them find the most success in the classroom.
So, why don't more schools differentiate discipline? There seems to be a widespread belief out there that specific rules must be put in place, and if those rules are broken, specific consequences must be enforced for each infraction, regardless of who committed it. So, by golly, if Joey talks while the teacher is talking, he MUST get a detention! That is the consequence for breaking that specific rule!!
Come on! Seriously? Our society doesn't even run that way! Sure we have laws, but does the exact same thing happen every time someone breaks them? How many of us have been let off with a warning after being pulled over for speeding, and how many of us have been slapped with an expensive ticket? How many times do we see different sentences for people who have committed the same crime in our judicial system?
Students walk into our classrooms with differing experiences and backgrounds; therefore, we cannot expect them to assimilate to school expectations in the same way. For example, my stepdaughter, who has been raised in an environment that somewhat shares similar norms as school (we practice traditional manners, we speak respectfully to each other, we have basic "rules" we follow, we are generally not loud when we're home together etc.). Additionally, Aubrey gets tons of love and all her basic needs are met. (I'd argue that many other so called "needs" of hers are met, too!) So, if Aubrey was caught stealing something from somebody's lunch bag, I would expect a different, perhaps harsher punishment on her than if the child (Let's call her Mary) who comes from poverty steals something from somebody's lunch because it may be the only thing she gets to eat when she goes home.
Now, am I saying that Mary shouldn't be punished? No, I'm not saying that at all. However, how is giving Mary a standard "stealing consequence" such as detention going to teach her not to steal, or more importantly, help fix the reason she wants to steal? This is when an educator needs to have those thoughtful conversations with Mary, talking with her about stealing, helping her think about the perspective of the child she stole from and how he may feel, what a better solution to her problem could be, and what an appropriate consequence to her actions may be.
Aubrey and Mary have two different sets of social understandings and backgrounds, just as they may have two different levels of learning ability. It shouldn't be okay to only differentiate their learning needs and not their social needs. The outcome of any discipline situation should be to help the student grow in her understanding of how to make better choices...not to see how badly can we punish her into doing better.
Please know that I am not saying their shouldn't be common consequences for anything. For example, the students help us each year create the consequences for not turning in their nightly homework. While we have to stick to those consequences, we also need to be ready to step in to help support those students who have a harder time meeting those expectations due to situations out of their control. We don't want to lower our standards for students because they have exceptional struggles in their lives, but we do need to be ready to meet their specific needs, socially and academically, and not be set in our thinking that everyone should be able to do the same thing behaviorally and should suffer the same consequence when they don't.
The book Learning to Trust by Marilyn Watson and Laura Ecken does an excellent job sharing ways teachers can handle discipline in a more differentiated, learning approach. I can't lie...I'm a big fan of fiction and sometimes struggle reading nonfiction books, even on topics I'm passionate about; however, I loved this book! It's basically a teacher's day-to-day interactions with students in a downtown Lousiville school as she takes on this approach to discipline! I highly recommend it!
When making decisions involving your students in the classroom, remember: what's fair is not always equal, and what's equal is not always fair.