What it Really Means to Meet a Student Where They Are

Schools claim to offer differentiated instruction to meet their students’ needs and learning styles. But at Chicago City Day School, it’s baked right into the daily routine. Learn how.

Your child has a unique learning style and is successful when engaged individually or in a small group. To a certain extent, this is true for every child. As parents, we typically call this “meeting each child where they are,” and we even practice this at home by parenting each child according to their own needs.

When this approach takes place in a school, teachers call it “differentiated instruction” — and it’s very important for successful educational outcomes, says Aimee Iwersen, Curriculum Director with Chicago City Day School, a JK-8 independent school on Chicago’s North Side.

“Differentiated instruction recognizes that every child learns differently. It helps create an environment of trust and confidence for the child. It helps them feel safe to explore and take risks — and it builds a trusting relationship between the child and their teacher,” Iwersen explains.

In a typical classroom environment, however, meeting each child where they are academically and emotionally is a challenging — if not impossible — task for a teacher. “In a room of 30 students, doing small group work while monitoring the independent work of the rest of the students is not typically possible,” Iwersen says. “At City Day, we keep classes small, and we break them into even smaller groups during the school day to allow teachers to give students focused attention.”

A curriculum designed to meet students where they are

City Day’s curriculum is rigorous, designed to give students the core knowledge and critical thinking skills they need to succeed at top high schools and beyond.

To help their students meet the challenges built into the curriculum, educators at City Day have created a teaching structure that allows them to differentiate. This structure is part of City Day’s daily routine, from first grade through eighth grade.

“It’s at the heart of our curriculum at City Day, and it’s actually built into our schedule,” says Iwersen. 

Here’s how it works. At City Day, the core subjects of language arts, reading and math are scheduled to coincide with a special class, like music, art, drama, or “tech,” City Day’s creative design program. Half of the class exits the homeroom to attend the special class, while the remaining half is split into two small groups of three or four students. Each group works with a teacher and students engage with their work according to the learning style in which they excel.

When the first half of the class returns, it breaks into groups and the second half of the class attends the special.

“A wonderful thing about this is the groups are fluid and flexible,” Iwersen says. “A teacher is continually assessing and monitoring progress on an hourly basis and we can change and move according to a child’s needs, down to the level of the work and the child’s learning style.”

This unique curriculum structure supports all City Day students and is especially effective for students at the youngest ages who are developing a love of learning, says Page Dow, who teaches first grade at Chicago City Day School. She adds that there’s plenty of room within the individualized structure for young learners to try various learning styles, from visual to auditory to tactile learning.

“The curriculum structure is one of my favorite things about our school,” Dow says. “The entire philosophy is designed with that flexibility, which is so important. We know that if something is not working for a child, they will not remain motivated. If it’s too difficult, they experience frustration. If it’s too easy they aren’t engaged. So we have that flexibility to help them find their sweet spot and really foster that love of learning.”

Small groups through middle school

As students grow, they continue to benefit from the individualized and small group structure.

“In a small middle school class, you may have students working at three different levels of math. One may be working on pre-algebra, while another is doing algebra and a third doing geometry,” Iwersen says. She adds that social studies groups are larger to facilitate the nuanced discussions necessary for the subject matter.

When students work so closely with a teacher, they’re better able to engage with the content, and they learn the most important values that serve as a foundation for the City Day education, Iwersen says.

“What’s built into our curriculum is the understanding that we are all working on different things and making progress in a way that works best for individual students. We are not a competitive school,” she says.

“We set high expectations for all of our students, and we provide the attention and support they need to meet or exceed those expectations,” Dow adds. “We help our students understand that they are achieving at the rate they need to be.”

And, through a curriculum that was designed to foster maximum communication between students and teachers, children learn how to advocate for themselves and speak up when they are struggling.

“Students learn how to evaluate their own understanding and communicate that with their teacher, which is a big, important skill to have when they get to high school and college,” Dow says.

Authentic differentiated instruction

By meeting students academically and emotionally — and with a curriculum that is truly designed for differentiated instruction — educators at Chicago City Day School help students learn at their own pace and according to their own learning style, Dow says.

“This is truly the best way to foster a love of learning,” she says. “By encouraging them and showing them success and support, we help them maintain engagement and excitement about school and learning. It also allows us to push them and challenge them to maximize their abilities. That’s why we structure our days the way we do.”

The result is a confident student who is self-aware and empowered to advocate for their own lifelong learning needs, Iwersen says. City Day graduates are prepared to move on to attend top high schools throughout the Chicago area.

“It’s wonderful to see their confidence grow and the progress they make at their own pace,” she says. “It’s fantastic to see their pride, even when they just learn a new letter. They know it’s a big deal, and we love to see them take real pride in their learning and growth.”

Learn more about Chicago City Day School. Visit chicagocitydayschool.org.

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