The Mythology of Learning, Part 3
Differentiate or Accommodate? Exposing the Myth.

By Susan Baum, Ph.D., Marcy Dann, M.A., BCET,
Cynthia Novak, Ph.D.,  Lesli Preuss, Ph.D.

May, 2009

Elizabeth is a curious young girl whose intensity and adult-like interests often set her apart from age-mates. Her natural curiosity and passion for particular topics feed her desire for knowledge and inquiry. Indeed, her parents report, “Elizabeth is never bored.” She reads above grade level and has a love for poetry. Her writing and math skills far outweigh those of her peers. However, due to her advanced ability, Elizabeth often feels socially isolated and has difficulty getting along. She has some auditory processing problems, as well, and often needs help with note taking plus more time to complete work.

Christian can build anything with Lego™ bricks, excelling in tasks that require engineering and design. Although his skills in science and math are also superior, Christian experiences great difficulty reading and putting his ideas in writing. He tends to be easily frustrated and lashes out at others angrily when he is having difficulty with his schoolwork.

George has a passion for political science. After reading the Communist Manifesto several times, he is becoming curious about how communism influenced Russian literature and vice versa. George has AD/HD and never seems able to concentrate or complete his assigned class work.

Each of these youngsters presents a learning profile recognized as twice exceptional. Traditionally, teachers have attempted to meet learning needs like these by initiating accommodations to help students compensate for their academic and behavioral challenges. 

Exposing the Accommodation Myth

Professionals and parents alike have been led to believe that with appropriate accommodations in place, 2e students will excel. Unfortunately, that is a myth – perhaps the biggest of all the myths we are addressing in this series of articles on twice-exceptional students. Although most of the energy in school meetings centers on providing accommodations, practice reveals that accommodations focus mainly on meeting grade-level objectives while ignoring gifted potential. Furthermore, the manner in which accommodations are carried out is often insensitive to the fragility of 2e students, causing social and emotional consequences.

Over the years at Bridges Academy, we have recognized that the emotional overlay of being gifted while encountering academic challenge prevents many of these middle school and high school students from seeking out or using the accommodations recommended for them. Our 2e students reveal that before coming to Bridges, they often refused accommodations, explaining their dislike of being treated differently. They tended to view their accommodations as unjust, and they questioned why they should be given learning “privileges” that were not afforded to all students. Some students even demanded an explanation as to why accommodations would not be considered a form of intellectual cheating. Likewise, their insecurity about what they were not able to do led to feelings of inferiority, especially when their areas of weakness were publicly noted. Furthermore, when the spotlight is on the weakness or achieving a grade-level competency, then high-level potential fades into the background or becomes invisible altogether. Bridges teachers understand the emotional fragility of 2e students brought about by having to deal with both ends of the spectrum simultaneously.  

An Integrated Differentiated Approach

At Bridges, we take the students’ learning needs seriously. Rather than providing specific accommodations for individual students, we prefer to address learning needs through the use of an integrated differentiated approach. In this model, all students are exposed to research-based practices while being offered choices to reach academic, social, and behavioral goals. Differentiation [as explained by Carol Ann Tomlinson elsewhere in this issue] provides options for all children with regard to the  the following  dimensions:

  • What they learn
  • How they learn it
  • How they demonstrate their learning
  • Where they learn best (environment).

Tomlinson refers to these dimensions as content, process, product, and environmental differentiation. In other work, she further explains that students’ learning profiles, readiness levels, and interests inform the choices offered to them in a differentiated classroom. Because our students’ learning needs reflect both gifts and weaknesses, we provide a learning curriculum that is dually differentiated as we modify content, process, product, and environment accordingly. 

Content Differentiation

At Bridges, content differentiation is based on both readiness (instructional level) and on student interest. All classes offer challenging curriculum that encourages higher-level thinking to assure that these bright young minds are intellectually engaged. However, not all students in a particular grade are at the same readiness level in particular subject areas, nor do they have the same levels of interest in any given content area. To address these differences, we offer content differentiation. It includes, but is not limited to, providing students with:

  • Multi-level resources to access information
  • Placement into advanced classes
  • Special talent-development classes.

In addition, we often provide options for inquiry within the curricular unit to allow for student interests.  

Process Differentiation

Process differentiation refers to the strategies we use to support student learning. These strategies are purposely designed to align with a student’s:

  • Learning style
  • Gender
  • Cognitive and expressive styles
  • Multiple intelligences.

Teachers use a variety of instructional strategies to provide instructional support to students. Among these strategies are lecture and discussion, multi-media approaches, simulations, role playing, small group work, use of manipulatives, and experiential learning. In addition, teachers make technology, visual organizers, and untimed testing opportunities available to all students as needed. 

Product Differentiation

At Bridges, we see product differentiation as an opportunity to develop the talents of our students. By giving students options to express what they know in a way that aligns to their talent areas, we get to see our students engaged, thoughtful, and productive. For example, in the middle school, teachers offer project choices that appeal to the musician, the artist, the writer, and the engineer, to name a few. In the high school, students often design multi-media presentations that integrate their talents and interests. These projects provide one form of assessment among many in an integrated differentiated approach.  

Environment Differentiation

Finally, we offer modifications in the learning environment. Because we have the luxury of small class size at Bridges, we can arrange the physical space and the furniture of the classroom to support varied attention levels and learning styles. We encourage students to seek a spot (a soft chair, desk, or floor space) in the classroom where they are best able to pay attention. If they need to pace back and forth in order to stay engaged, they are allowed to do so, whether they are working independently or in a group. Fidgets (something to keep their hands busy) are readily available to all students to help them stay focused. Any student can put on headphones, use other technology, or even leave the class to work in a quiet setting if necessary.

In short, at Bridges we have replaced the traditional delivery system of accommodations with a dually differentiated approach. We gain a thorough understanding of the needs of our 2e students so that we can reduce our focus on individual accommodations. In fact, this approach readily allows teachers to offer options to all of their students in terms of content, process, product, and environment.  

Comparing the Two Models

Consider the fate of the three students introduced at the beginning of this article. Depending upon the philosophy of the educational setting in which they find themselves, these students will spend their days in very different ways. Let’s look at how they would fare with both the accommodations approach and the integrated differentiated approach. 


  • Accommodations Approach: Due to her learning difficulties, Elizabeth would be removed from honors classes to relieve the pressure on her to excel. She would be asked to record lectures and discussions that take place in class, and she would receive extra time to complete tests and assignments, continuing unfinished work in the resource room.
  • Integrated Differentiated Approach:At Bridges, Elizabeth’s teachers offered class notes to her and to all of her classmates. The notes were also posted on the teachers’ websites. Note taking during lectures became less of an issue because her teachers reduced the length of lectures and varied the presentation of content for all students. In addition, Elizabeth was accelerated in math and was invited to participate in the talent development writers’ group, with the goal of having her poems published. Because she has found peers who share her interests, Elizabeth has made friends, especially with the other writers. She is thriving emotionally as well as academically.


  • Accommodations Approach:Christian would have been allowed to use the computer keyboard instead of having to write by hand, and he would have been asked to leave the room to go to the computer lab to complete assignments. Likewise, during reading, he would have gone to the library to use audio books to complete assignments. Because he excels in math and science, Christian would be excused from those classes once a week to attend social skills classes and remedial reading. 
  •  Integrated Differentiated Approach: Christian, along with all of the other students in his class, is allowed to use a keyboard to complete his assignments and has access to videos, audio books, and other resources in the classroom library. His teachers develop a menu of options from which all students choose a culminating project. Aware of Christian’s talents and interests, his teachers make sure to include the option of constructing three-dimensional models. Christian’s social skills issues are addressed during class meetings and advisory where all students focus on developing emotional intelligence and social awareness. Because Christian is spending more time in his areas of strength, his levels of frustration have dropped and he has gained the respect of his peers as someone who excels in math and science.


  • Accommodations Approach: George would be placed on a behavioral contract to address inattention and incomplete assignments. He would be required to sit near the teacher to help eliminate distractions. His on-task behaviors would be tallied; and when he completed the required amount of work, George would be allowed time to pursue his interest in communism.
  • Integrated Differentiated Approach: Because the teachers at Bridges know that all students engage most fully in learning when they can work in an area of interest, the teachers made it a priority to find George a mentor to help him pursue his passion for the complexities of political systems. They encourage George, as well as all of his classmates, to integrate their in-depth interests into whatever topics they are studying. In addition, the teachers encourage students like George to work independently, at their own pace and level of complexity. As a result, George is no longer seen as a behavioral problem, despite his diagnosis of AD/HD. On the contrary, his intellectual energy and level of engagement inspire both faculty and peers.


Differentiation, as we’ve redefined it, works because the learning needs of 2e students are met in a proactive way. When all students are afforded options in content, process, product, and environment, the need to be singled out with an accommodation becomes obsolete. Students in the strength-based model have the best chance to develop to their highest potential with a vision of what they can be. Such students have been shown to be resilient and goal directed when making decisions both in school and in life.

All of the authors of this article work at Bridges Academy in the following capacities: Susan Baum is Director of Professional Development, Marcy Dann is an Educational Therapist, Cynthia Novak is the Middle School Director, and Lesli Preuss is the School Psychologist.

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