As teachers we are constantly playing the fine line game of differentiating for multi levels of skill.  Here at The Autism Helper, we are always talking about “won’t do vs. can’t do (yet)”.  That “can’t do (yet)” refers to a student who has a deficit in a skill area resulting in different behaviors.  In Pre-K 3 I am always gaining new special education students who are turning three.  That is a huge developmental gap throughout the year.  I have peer models who are turning 4 within the year (48 months), and students who are turning 3 (36 months) but on an 18-month-old developmental level.  How do you choose/create activities that are high in expectations but aren’t so challenging that it becomes frustrating?  How do you have a work with teacher lesson when some children are not ready to stay at a table?  My answer is to pick an activity that is typically age appropriate and add in scaffolding supports so all children can access it in some way on their level.  I know, groundbreaking.  Here’s how it really works though because it can be easier said than done when you have a wide range of developmental levels, a large class, and little to no support staff.

Developmental Expectations

First, you want to look at the developmental expectations of your students so that you have a broad understanding.  There is a great Early Childhood Development Chart that came with my DAYC-2 assessment kit.  I love it because it shows developmental expectations across the five major domains: cognitive, communication, social-emotional, adaptive, and physical development.  So, for example, in the area of physical development, an 18-24-month-old typically developing child would spontaneously use circular, vertical, and horizontal strokes when drawing while a 42-48-month-old child would most likely be able to copy a square and glue neatly.  Cognitively in those areas, an 18-24-month-old typically developing child would be expected to match items to pictures while a 42-48-month-old child would be able to retell a story from a picture book.  Researching these levels can help you when planning by having multiple materials available, “alternative pencils”, and work stamina expectations.  Your older students with more skill repertoire might retell a story with visuals while a younger child in that same class could match items to the storybook visuals! ** It is very important to note that this is a chart of select developmental milestones for children from birth- 5 years.  The milestones should not be a sole indicator of normal or abnormal development rather a reference.

One Main Activity, Multiple Modes of Access

When I plan, I think of my main umbrella standard and topic and then scaffold from there.  Here is a recent example to make it more visual.  We are beginning our weather unit and I always make sure my circle time activities lead into my work with teacher time.  It is important to note that at this age we work for probably only 20/25 minutes at a time max. We also worked up to that amount.  I will be reading a story online on about Rainbows, we will review color cards and complete an interactive color sorting activity on the carpet.  We will count out and stomp the number of colors we sorted.  During work with teacher time we will create rainbows and here is where your multiple modes of access comes in. Expecting all of your children to color a rainbow or rip up tiny pieces of paper may become very frustrating.  Have bingo daubers, paint sticks, crayons, paper, and markers available and allow children to choose!  You might think that sounds completely chaotic but having students swiping materials off or running from the table would be more difficult!  You are still targeting the same skills and teaching the child to sit, complete a task, fine motor skills, color identification, and so much more!     

Additional Activities

Maybe you have a brand-new student and you are trying to pair them with positive teacher time, or maybe this student has never been in school or approached a table.  I always like to have extra activities on hand like play doh or small cars (whatever the child is interested in).  You might be worried that this will distract others or that everyone will want to use the play doh.  Simply say that we all learn differently and that they too can play with the play doh or cars once they’re finished with their work!  Sometimes our group activities are very quick, and we end teacher time with group play doh, errorless file folders, or some toys.  And that’s OK!.  They are learning valuable table time skills!

Routines and Staffing

I have also learned all of these different strategies from having to change up routines based on lack of manpower and needs of my kids.  In the beginning, I had a more experienced class and we could do multiple activities, switch groups and even go in and out of centers. As I gained more inexperienced and developmentally younger students with just me and one assistant, I had to make sure we had flexible activities.  I may have to work in between students instead of in front of a group.  I might have to have one student working on sitting with play doh while five others use bingo daubers to work on a letter.  We might finish up super-fast and need some errorless or more difficult file folders while some kids come and leave the table because their work stamina is not developed yet.  I am here to say that whatever you need to do it’s OK.  It’s ok if you feel like you were rushed, and one or two kids came for a quick 30 seconds and bolted back to the reading area.  And it’s ok if a student had a huge meltdown and didn’t want to come near your table today.  You have to think about what skills they need to build on by using a developmental chart, the Assessment of Basic Language Skills, VB-MAPP or other skills checks!  Happy Teaching! 

Gina Russell, B.S , M.Ed
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