Cash in on Learning: What’s So Different About Differentiation for the Gifted?

Richard Cash EdD, FSP AuthorNow that “differentiation” has become a common term in the general lexicon of education, we need to differentiate the practice of differentiation. The idea of differentiation has a long history in general terms. In the 1930s, as the reach of public education broadened to include more than just the elite, it was found that some students had academic needs beyond those provided in the general curriculum. These “gifted” students, it was said, required a “differentiated learning experience” to ensure their continued academic growth.

More recently, Carol Ann Tomlinson, professor of education at the University of Virginia, led the charge for using the methodologies of differentiation in all classrooms with all children. The implementation of differentiation has a profound effect on meeting students where they are at in the learning process (readiness), getting students engaged in learning (interest), and focusing instruction on how students like to learn (learning preferences). This is all accomplished through the content (what we teach), process (how students come to own the information), and products (how students show what they have learned).

DifferentiationForGiftedLearners from FSPWell, if differentiation is now considered a practice to address all learners’ needs, we should make sure that when we differentiate for gifted students we implement specific practices that are effective with these students. This is exactly what Diane Heacox and I did when we wrote Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics. We suggest that the essential characteristics of differentiation (content, process, and product) can be adjusted to meet the needs of gifted students through:

  • advancing the levels of the content through interdisciplinary concept development
  • advancing the levels of the process through embedding sophisticated levels of thinking
  • advancing the levels of product creation by requiring authentic products for authentic audiences
  • advancing student involvement in the learning

Examples of advancing the levels of the content through interdisciplinary concept development:

  • Link course work through concepts that are relevant to the life of the student
    • Power
    • Conflict
    • Desire
  • Use essential questions that seek answers for the betterment of humanity
    • In what ways has power influenced our lives?
    • How do systems support or undermine certain power structures?

Examples of advancing the levels of the process through embedding sophisticated levels of thinking:

  • Use complex problems that require students to work collaboratively
    • Activity: Consider a local issue that includes the struggle or complexity of power. What’s the issue and what recommendation can your team make to solve the problem?
  • Develop student thinking by teaching critical reasoning strategies and creative thinking tools
    • Activity: Analyze the similarities/differences of lead characters in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and define a common principle of power that links them all together.

Examples of advancing the levels of product creation by requiring authentic products for authentic audiences:

  • Create products that have value to others:
    • After the study of myths, legends, and folktales, create a new myth, legend, or folktale that represents the benefits or responsibilities of power and produce a book for younger students.
    • Make a report to the school board and school district after a public meeting that shares representations of the distribution and sharing of power.

Examples of advancing student involvement in the learning:

  • Require students to act within the discipline as a disciplinarian using scholarly disposition, being:
    • Open- and fair-minded
    • Inquisitive
    • Flexible in thinking and acting
    • Interested in seeking out reason
    • Immersed in acquiring more information
    • Respectful of and expecting diverse points of view
  • Allow for the study of topics of interest not addressed in the core content
  • Develop advanced levels of self-regulation
    • Goal setting
    • Monitoring
    • Reflecting

Keep in mind that there are also three critical practices that must be incorporated into the education of gifted students:

Critical Practice #1: Accelerated Pace

Pace is related to the instructional practices and management within the classroom environment. For advanced learners, instructional pace is increased or accelerated by spending less time on developing background knowledge, offering fewer examples on how to do particular methods, and providing less teacher-led practice. Students are expected to develop independence more rapidly than in the regular classroom setting.


  • Move students toward taking greater responsibility for their own learning by using the techniques embedded within the Teaching and Learning Continuum (TLC).

R Cash TLC differentiation graphic (c) Free Spirit Publishing

Critical Practice #2: Sophisticated Levels of Complex Thinking

Complexity is defined as the levels of thinking used by the students within the learning activities. For advanced learners, activities require them to use more sophisticated levels of higher order thinking (analysis, evaluation, and synthesis), creative thinking, critical reasoning, decision making, and problem solving. Situations are more abstract and infuse greater levels of ambiguity. Students are expected to perform within the course using various formulas to find answers. There is a greater need for students to work together and be able to clearly and succinctly communicate results. In most cases, complexity is considered the breadth of thinking and doing within a discipline of study.


  • Utilize the higher levels of thinking and require students not only to answer such questions, but also to ask those levels of questions.

© Free Spirit Publishing and Richard Cash-Complexity Graphic (

Critical Practice #3: Increased Discipline Knowledge and Practice Through Depth

Depth is related to the degrees to which a student explores the content and develops a greater understanding of the discipline. For advanced learners, the content offers greater abstractions of the concepts and connections to other content areas. Students will learn and use the principles (rules) and theories of the discipline. In advanced courses students will investigate topics that have authentic applications in real-world situations.
(c) R Cash Depth differentiation graphic (c) Free Spirit Publishing

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

Suggested Resources
Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics by Diane Heacox and Richard M. Cash. Find ideas on meeting the needs of gifted students in many diverse classroom environments. Offers ideas on a progressive program model, how to address the Common Core State Standards, how to design a true honors course, meeting the needs of twice-exceptional learners, facing the challenges of diversity, using the co-teaching method, and more.

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Guest Post: Caring for the Caregiver

By Dr. Elizabeth Reeve (with Elizabeth Verdick)

Elizabeth Reeve, M.D.

Elizabeth Reeve, M.D.

Your 13-year-old daughter just spent 45 minutes in the bathroom doing her hair while texting her friends in anticipation of her first big middle school dance. She’s focused on how she looks and wants to make a big impression tonight. Down the hall, your 18-year-old son with autism emerges from the other bathroom after a shower, having once again forgotten to wash his hair. He’s wearing the same clothes he had on before he took his shower. You notice the stain on his shirt from last night’s dinner. You approach him with a stack of clean clothes and instructions to return to the shower to wash his hair.

His response? “There is no reason to wash it now because it will just get dirty again later.” He’s logical. He doesn’t much care about his appearance or the impression he makes. And he’s reached the legal age to vote, but he still needs more supervision than his younger sister does.

worried or Nervous from Cloveapple on wikimedia commonsRaising a child on the autism spectrum brings a lifetime of challenges, ones you never expected, ones that keep you up at night wondering, “Will my child ever have the skills to live independently?”

I should know. I have a 25-year-old son with autism still living at home. Although he has managed to go to college and is on track to graduate from a two-year technical program, he likely will never drive a car, has never gone on a date, and relies on the family as his primary social network. He continues to need constant support and prompting to successfully negotiate daily living. On the other hand, he is independently using public transportation, can stay at home alone happily doing household chores and entertaining himself, and is always willing to pitch in and help with a family activity or project. A day does not pass when I don’t wonder about his future and what will happen to him when I am no longer here to help care for him.

Having a child with autism is a journey I did not choose, but I’ve accepted it by relying on a blend of love, humor, pragmatism, pride, advocacy, and hope. As I’ve seen throughout my career as a child psychiatrist, many parents of children on the autism spectrum face the journey in much the same way. Often, in the beginning, there is an unsettling inkling: “Is something wrong with my child?” Fear and confusion may delay the pursuit of a diagnosis. BotMultichillT_Adams_holds_his_three-year-old_son_while_(BCBA)_therapist_assists wikimedia commonsBut eventually the diagnosis comes, and with it strong emotions such as anger, panic, disappointment, sadness—and even a sense of relief, because there is finally an explanation for the child’s unusual behaviors. Time and again, I’ve watched parents receive their child’s diagnosis and push all their emotions aside because there is no time to properly grieve. Life becomes a full-throttle process of negotiating the many treatment plans and options, therapies, and educational programs.

Hope propels us forward. We hope they will learn to talk, to allow hugs, and to say “I love you.” We hope they will be able to learn in a school environment, make a friend, manage the emotional upsets, and gain a measure of independence. That hope is a gift, one that is essential for continuing the journey of raising a child who has special needs.

Hope isn’t enough, though. And hope comes and goes. It is interrupted by waves of sadness that must be acknowledged. We need that time to grieve—if sadness is ignored, we are left with feelings of helplessness and despair. Most studies suggest that 25 to 45 percent of mothers of children with developmental disabilities have clinically significant symptoms of depression.

EFMP_energizes_exceptional_education ASD  by BotMultichillT wikimedia commonsIf you’re raising a child with autism, your primarily role is to be a caregiver. Because autism is a disorder that affects development, children on the spectrum fall behind in areas such as communication, social skills, emotional self-regulation, and self-care. Milestones are reached more slowly; some aren’t reached at all. The grief that a caregiver feels is real and comes most often at times when expected growth and development fail to occur.

My patients’ parents often tell me that the shift from elementary school, where the environment was more predictable, to a larger middle school is a very difficult transition that reawakens feelings of sadness. Suddenly their child with autism looks more obviously different. The “neurotypical,” or developmentally typical, students experience a sudden growth in social skills; their friendships and peer relationships become more complex, and they place more importance on appearance, status, and popularity. In comparison, kids on the spectrum may still be struggling with basic friendship skills and managing intense emotions. Parents ask me, “How can my child possibly fit in now?”

Students_Leaving_Central_High_School_by Adam63 wikimedia commonsAnother wave of sadness may hit these parents as their children enter high school. Neurotypical teens are talking about dating or where they want to go to college; limit-testing and risk-taking behaviors are more the norm. Milestones such as getting their first job and learning to drive become major goals. But what about teens on the spectrum? They may be far from ready to date or drive. Even for high-functioning children with autism, routine activities such as driving may be out of reach for them. Parents may worry whether their child will be able to graduate and live away from home someday. The whole family feels these losses, and each family member may deal with them differently. I’ve seen fathers grieve differently than mothers. I’ve seen younger, neurotypical siblings struggle with guilt as they reach milestones that their older sibling with autism has not.

The grief and guilt are normal. Allowing yourself to be sad or scared is a necessary step on your parenting journey. The recognition of this sadness doesn’t mean you have “given up” or “lost hope” for your child. And it doesn’t mean that things won’t get better. Your child is growing older but likely hasn’t outgrown the need for treatments and specialized services. Collaborate with experts to determine what is within reach for your child, and go from there. Keep that sense of hope alive. My son is working with a community-based job placement program that specifically helps adults with autism find jobs that will work uniquely for them. I cannot imagine how he could effectively seek a job with an agency that did not clearly understand autism and its implications for his day-to-day needs.

yoga_poses_stylized_clip_art_open licenseYour coping strategies are unique to you. One parent may cope by joining a support group, while another may increase exercise and relaxation. Many parents report that yoga, journaling, talk therapy, or prayer can help. Coping strategies such as increased social isolation, excessive alcohol use, or dropping out of previously enjoyed routines and activities are warning signs that you may not be responding well. Research shows that the mental health of a disabled child is correlated with the emotional stability of the caregiver. In other words, your child relies on your strength and support. If you find yourself using poor coping strategies, seek out more or better resources for yourself and your family.

Coping with autism is full of challenges. There will be times of sorrow but also moments of joy, closeness, and laughter. My journey with my son is not done. Over time I have come to understand that this journey will never be finished, but I cope better now than I did in the past, and I’ve learned to accept help—all the help I can get!

SurvivalGuideKidswithASDs2Elizabeth Reeve, M.D., is coauthor of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents), wherein she contributed her medical knowledge and her experiences as a mother of a son who has autism. She is a child psychiatrist at HealthPartners in Minnesota, and her clinical work focuses primarily on children and adults with developmental disabilities. Elizabeth was named 2012 Psychiatrist of the Year by the Minnesota Psychiatric Society for her dedication to sharing her expertise as a teacher and a mentor. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Elizabeth Verdick © by Free Spirit Publishing

Elizabeth Verdick

Elizabeth Verdick is coauthor of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents), in which she wrote from the perspective of a mother with a son on the spectrum and a passionate advocate for kids and parents in the autism community. She has been writing books since 1997, the year her daughter was born. These days she writes books for babies, toddlers, teens, and every age in between. She especially loves creating new board book series—the first books in the Happy Healthy Baby™ series are now available. The Toddler Tools® series helps young children and their parents cope with those tough times and transitions that happen every day (like naptime and bedtime). Elizabeth lives with her family and five pets near St. Paul, Minnesota.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Earth Day Giveaway

This month we’re giving away four books you can use to help students become contributing citizens and community members:
Earth Day Giveaway FSP

How to Enter: Leave a comment below telling us how you use or would use Free Spirit’s service learning resources.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks that you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry. Entries must be received by midnight, May 2, 2014.

The winner will be contacted via email on or about May 6, 2014, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim the prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered by, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Winners must be U.S. residents, 18 years of age or older.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Counselor’s Corner: Three Schoolwide Ways to Celebrate Earth Day

Earth Day Network logo Eartg Day 2014Earth Day 2014 is April 22. Earth Day offers a great opportunity to spread awareness about simple things we can do to make our communities cleaner, more environmentally friendly places.

Ramp Up Recycling
In honor of Earth Day, my middle school is having a friendly competition among the three grade levels (sixth, seventh, and eighth). Each grade is trying to recycle as much as possible during the month of April. Recycling bins labeled for each grade level are in both the cafeteria and the main hallway so that students can add their recyclables to the appropriate containers. Each day, student council volunteers weigh the recyclable materials and add to the grade-level totals. The grade with the most recyclables by weight at the end of the month wins! This competition not only encourages students to recycle, but helps raise awareness about how many items they could be recycling rather than throwing them in the trash each day.

Turn Your Trash into Cash
Many programs exist to help your school earn money for “trash.” Items that can be recycled for cash for your school include electronics, wrappers, paper, bottles and cans, and other recyclable items. NEA_recycling_bins,_wikimedia commons open licenseAndrea Burston, an elementary school counselor in North Carolina, implemented a program through Terracycle that allows her school to earn money for waste. At one of my previous schools, we used Paper Retriever to earn some extra cash for materials we were already recycling. Cartridges for Kids is another organization that gives schools money for recycling old electronics, cell phones, ink cartridges, and more. If you’d rather donate items for a charitable cause, seek out local organizations—such as domestic violence shelters, animal shelters, or organizations supporting veterans—that accept recyclables.

Have a Spring Litter Sweep
Clean_Up_ the World wikimedia commons by Fitgym open licenseAs the weather gets warmer, it is the perfect time to clean and beautify your school. Enlist the help of students: Provide them with work gloves and trash bags so they can pick up trash around the building and outdoors. Also, encourage them to recycle items when possible during the litter sweep. Having students participate in beautifying the school grounds will give them a sense of ownership of their school. They will be less likely to drop a wrapper or other trash on the floor or outdoors if they know how hard they worked to clean it up.

These simple ideas will help you get your whole school involved in being cleaner and greener!

What are you doing on Earth Day (and every day) to make our planet better?

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Guest Post: Where Have You Gone, Jackie Robinson? Today’s Real Sports Heroes

by Brad Herzog, author of the Count On Me: Sports series

BradHerzog FSP AuthorApril 15 is Jackie Robinson Day. You’ll find every uniformed player, coach, and umpire in Major League Baseball wearing #42, the number worn by the man who ended nearly eight decades of baseball segregation by becoming the first black major league player of the modern era on April 15, 1947.

One of my first books, published nearly two decades ago, ranked and profiled the 100 most important people in American sports history—from Babe Ruth and Arnold Palmer to the inventors of everything from the jump shot to the point spread. Jackie Robinson topped the list—and it wasn’t even close. He wasn’t merely a significant sports figure; I think he ranks as one of the most important Americans.

Billie Jean King 1966 Italy wikimedia commons Italian Public Domain open license

Billie Jean King, 1966

It used to be that the sports world was often ahead of the sociological curve, acting as an agent of progressive change. When Robinson integrated the national pastime, he caused millions of people to confront race prejudice—seven years before Brown v. Board of Education and seventeen years before the Civil Rights Act. A generation later, tennis star Billie Jean King was a leader in the movement to empower women both athletically and financially. Even tragic moments, like basketball star Magic Johnson’s announcement in 1991 that he had contracted the HIV virus, enlightened a large part of the population for whom sports are such an intimate part of life.

So in the 20th century, sports had the power to transform. But something has happened in the past couple of decades. Perhaps the explosion of money and advertising has replaced courage with a certain conservatism, but big-time sports now seem to be lagging behind.

Jason_Collins_Brooklyn_Nets_2014 wikimediacommons flickrbot photo

Jason Collins

Recently, college football star Michael Sam and pro basketball player Jason Collins made headlines simply by going public about their sexuality. Courageous? You bet. “Progress!” everyone shouted. But really? In this day and age, the fact that a gay athlete is news would seem to be an indication that male team sports is only now coming out of the Dark Ages. And the rampant whispers among participants and observers that the NFL “might not be ready” for an openly gay player are somehow considered acceptable. Can you imagine if someone said such things about an “openly Catholic player” or an “openly Hmong player?”

And yes, a national discussion about bullying followed the revelation that Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin left the team after being the victim of a “pattern of harassment” by teammates. But beyond the locker rooms, hasn’t that national discussion been going on for years? These days, nearly every elementary school strives to be a no-bullying zone. Pro football players are only now getting the message?

Here’s the thing: When it comes to acceptance, when it comes to perspective, when it comes to modeling behavior and showing how the sporting scene can produce touching moments that transcend the scoreboard, youth is leading the way.

As I write this, just yesterday in Minnesota, a high school student named Mitchell McKee won a state wrestling title. In attendance was his father, who was battling lung cancer and had desperately wanted to be around to watch his son compete. But this story is about the losing wrestler. After being pinned by Mitchell, Malik Stewart stood up, hugged his opponent, then walked over to Mitchell’s father. He congratulated him. He embraced him. He told him to stay strong. The crowd responded with a standing ovation. “I knew his dad was pretty proud,” said Malik, who was only seven when his own father died from cardiac arrest. “I just did it straight from the heart.”

Trinity Classocal and Desert CHapel logosJust the day before, in California, Trinity Classical Academy beat Desert Chapel High School to win a sectional basketball championship. But the real winner was karma. With his team up 23 points and under a minute to play, Trinity’s Beau Howell entered the game. Beau is autistic. He had never scored a point. His teammates fed him the ball, and he missed a couple of easy shots. His opponents rebounded the ball . . . and gave it back to Howell. He missed a shot. He missed again. An opposing player guided him closer to the basket. And with seconds left, Beau Howell swished it. He raised his arms triumphantly, after which he was immediately swarmed by his teammates. Will he ever forget that moment? Will anyone who was in attendance?

And “openly gay” Michael Sam’s teammates at the University of Missouri? They knew he was gay. They supported him. They loved him. And last year they had the best season in school history.

So while it’s easy to suggest that sport has somehow lost its power to transcend, we need only turn our attention to the moments far from the spotlight and close to the heart.

Have you encountered sporting gestures in your life? Please share your stories in the comments.

CountOnMeSportsLogo_RGBBrad Herzog is the author of more than thirty books for children, including more than two dozen sports books. For his freelance magazine writing (including for Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Kids), Brad has won three gold medals from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Brad travels all over the United States visiting schools as a guest author. He lives on California’s Monterey Peninsula with his wife and two sons.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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