Letting Quick Students Get Ahead Without Neglecting Students Falling Behind


As a new elementary school teacher, you want to nurture your students so that they can succeed. But how do you balance giving advanced students the opportunities they need without making things worse for students who are struggling? We have some ideas to help you do just that.

Not All Students Learn at the Same Rate

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2013 to 2014 school year 13% of students enrolled in public schools were receiving special education services. It's quite likely you'll have some students in your classroom with special education needs. Additionally, since elementary students are still developing cognitively and each student is different, your classroom will be filled with students of diverse backgrounds, knowledge levels, and learning styles.

Although it's a challenging task, balancing students of varying levels of ability is definitely possible. You just having to be willing to get creative and take some extra steps. Here are our tips for making it happen.

Prepare Advanced Homework & In-Class Assignments

If you have advanced students in your classroom, it can help to create more challenging versions of normal homework assignments. This way, if certain students are mastering material very quickly, you can give them work that covers the more complex aspects of the topic to keep them engaged. They will master material at a higher level that interests them. Students who aren't as advanced can do the more typical assignment.

For example, you could give advanced students independent study projects to challenge the student further. If a student has shown an interest in science, find an independent science project that could feed into their interest. In a survey that asked students what their biggest back-to-school concerns were, one student responded, ''Staying motivated enough to learn at my own pace.'' It's important to provide self-propelled students with materials that will keep them engaged.

You can also have more advanced in-class assignments available to students. These will come in handy when you're teaching a concept that some students already understand while others are still struggling to comprehend the material. While you're continuing to teach the rest of the class, you can give the advanced student an assignment to work on that will be a better use of their time than daydreaming or being disruptive.

Student working on an assignment

Have Advanced Students Help Teach

Why not make use of the students who are getting things quickly by having them help the students who are struggling? One option could be to design an activity where some students act as the teacher. Task them with teaching part of the unit to the class, including you. According to, just one of the benefits of student-led teaching is that it can ''empower a child with their learning; to show off what they know and be the one in charge, to be the one explaining it to you, their teacher. It's a sense of pride and accomplishment for the student.''

Another take on this is breaking the class into pairs or small groups, making sure that students who are catching on quickly are being paired with the students who are struggling. This will give you a chance to have advanced students use their knowledge to explain concepts to another student while the student who's behind receives individualized help.

Along with giving an advanced student the opportunity to be more engaged, there are other benefits to group work, such as students working with diverse classmates and developing their social skills.

Break Classes Up Based on Level

A 2013 New York Times article explains that, although schools had previously stopped grouping their students based on ability, the practice has started to make a comeback. The article states, ''Teachers and principals who use grouping say that the practice has become indispensable, helping them cope with widely varying levels of ability and achievement.''

Jill Sears, a New Hampshire teacher interviewed in the New York Times article, said that she designed homework and activities to fit the abilities of each group in her class, while still teaching the same material to all groups. If you have access to a teaching assistant, student teacher, or another helper, you could try something similar. Once you have a good sense of who gets the subject and who isn't quite there, divide the class into two groups based on ability (or more if you're lucky enough to have multiple people available to help you teach).

While your helper goes over the topic with the students who aren't ready to move on, you can take the topic to the next level with the students who are ready. You won't be able to start something completely new, but even just going more in-depth than usual with the current topic can nurture the thirst for knowledge.

Classroom full of students participating

Talk to the School About Moving Students to Different Classes

If the majority of your class is at the same pace and you just have one or two students who consume material quicker, see if there's another class that would be a better fit. Maybe another teacher has the opposite problem - most of their students catch on quickly but they have a couple who need more time to fully understand things.

If you identify another class that would be a good fit and it's still pretty early in the school year, talk to the principal and parents about why you'd like to have the student switch classes. They're sure to appreciate that you're looking out for the best interests of the student and just want to find a class that is the best fit for their learning abilities.

Keep in mind that, even though you have the student's best interests at heart, it could still be a difficult conversation to have with the parents. It might be hard for them to hear that their child needs to change classrooms because they can't be successful in the one they're in. Learn NC offers a few tips on communicating with parents, for example being confident and organized.

Let Advanced Students Do Other Things During Class

Let's face it. If a student already understands what you're teaching, they're not going to keep listening intently. It's more likely that they'll start daydreaming or doodling in their notebook. Instead of letting that happen, you can let the student do something more productive.

Find an activity that the student can easily do during the lesson without disrupting the rest of your class. It could be a brain teaser, or maybe you just give them permission to get started on their homework assignment early. According to a National Education Association article, the most effective types of homework assignments are ones that truly engage students. The association says some ways to make homework engaging is by making real world connections, letting students create their own assignments, and using social media, among other techniques.

You could have your advanced student using class time to put together ideas for homework assignments. They can use their creativity and will be proud that you're giving them so much responsibility. And of course this could also save you the time of having to come up with assignments from scratch.

Offer Tutoring or Other Additional Help to Struggling Students

At some point in your career you will likely face a situation where most of your students are catching on quickly but a couple need more instruction. Rather than slow down everything for them, you can keep the pace the majority can handle and offer additional help to struggling students through other means.

Teacher tutoring a student

There are several different ways to do this. While the rest of the class has a study period you could sit down with the student to go over their questions, or you could do so after class. You could refer the student to tutoring services. Or, you could give the student additional assignments or projects that could give them more practice with the concepts.

According to C2 Education, an organization that provides test prep and tutoring services, ''Studies have shown that students who fall behind in math or reading during elementary school tend to fall even further behind throughout middle and high school. That's why it's important to address any academic weaknesses - or enhance strengths - early on with excellent tutoring.'' Making sure your students get the tutoring they need now will help them succeed far beyond your classroom.

Additional Things to Consider

No matter what you try to do, there are a couple of things that are important to keep in mind.

While you want to provide opportunities to advanced students, it's important to do so in a way that doesn't discourage other students or make the advanced student feel awkward by receiving extra attention. It could be good to have a private discussion with the student to let them know what you have planned, since it will be less awkward than telling them in front of the rest of the class.

Keep an eye out for students who had been struggling but then become faster learners. The advanced students for one topic might not be the same advanced students for all of the other topics you'll be teaching. It's important to always pay attention to such changes so you're giving advanced assignments to the correct students.

By Meghan Cooney
September 2016
teachers classroom management

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