Teaching Using Differentiation

Differentiation within a classroom refers to methods a teacher uses to adapt instruction to fit the needs of a variety of learners. Not all learners are the same, so as teachers we must create situations that help our students learn at a variety of levels.

Differentiation is the tool teachers use to create an equitable classroom. N. Dosani states that, “Equality is giving everyone a shoe; Equity is giving everyone a shoe that fits.” In the end, if we treat everyone the same, we are not giving everyone the same opportunities to learn and grow. Differentiation is making sure everyone is given learning opportunities that are a good fit for them. But how can a teacher with many students realistically provide individualized instruction for each of them? Read below for tips and ideas.

Teachers can adapt classroom instruction in 4 different areas:

Content: The substance of what is being taught

Process: The way an activity is completed

Product: The outcome or end result of a specific assignment or project

Environment: The set up of the classroom and the way in which material is presented

Adaptations that can be made in each area:

Content: Giving students leveled reading passages, differentiated spelling lists or vocabulary words, using leveled math programs for math fact memorization, meeting with students in small groups and teaching individualized lessons

Process: Vary the length of time or the criteria for a specific assignment, give varying amounts of support to students completing the same assignment, offer hands-on manipulatives or visuals to assist learners as needed, have individualized agendas where some students do more or less work as they learn any specific concept

Products: allow for variety in the end product of an assignment (as long as the assignment meets given requirements), give students options to express understanding of content, allowing students to work in small groups, partners or individually on projects (this can affect the process and product of an activity)

Environment: Provide seating options that meet the needs of active students and students who need calm and quiet, have multicultural materials throughout the room, provide a place where students are comfortable asking for help and sharing new or unique ideas, create routines that allow students to get help as needed (even if the teacher is unable to help immediately)

These methods can create a setting where more students are able to succeed and learn throughout the year. There are some common issues that arise as teachers use differentiation in the classroom. See below to learn about barriers that prevent differentiation and learn possible solutions.



In order to meet the needs of individual students, educators must have a solid understanding of the student’s skill levels and understanding. Data-driven education is crucial to student learning, but overassessing can be harmful. Testing takes up precious learning time and tests don’t always give the whole picture.

Students may take a test on the computer and do poorly because of the technology, not the content. Students may feel test anxiety and do worse on a test because they are nervous or do not take their time.

Another issue is when we focus too much on tests, we only focus on what is measurable. There are many aspects of learning (especially in elementary education) that are very important, but not tested. When we only focus on test scores we miss out on really important aspects of learning like motivation to be a lifelong learner, creativity, social/emotional skills, work ethic and problem-solving strategies just to name a few.

Also, it can be difficult to determine when to teach at the level the student needs and when to teach the students what they need to know for the grade-level test. I really struggled with this as an English Language Development Teacher. I wanted my students to get exposure to the difficult questions that they would see on the end of year tests, but I also really wanted to help fill the learning gaps from prior years and help students improve from right at their level.

Possible solutions:

Just being aware of the issues that can arise can help teachers to adjust their focus and teaching. This awareness can help educators make more informed judgments on what tests are the best to use or what activities might teach non-measurable skills along with those important from testing.

Another way to combat some of these issues is to have frequent, short, routine tests. This gives the educator more data, but the routine helps students feel less testing anxiety and the tests themselves take up less time (because the procedure is practiced frequently). Teachers can also use data collection sheets (I have them here for math curriculum or here for data in general FREEBIE) as a way of assessing during learning. This way there are multiple data points to refer back to, but less time is wasted on assessing (if teachers have accurate ways of tracking progress, they can use some student practice as assessment).

Balancing the difficult job of preparing students for rigorous tests, while also helping them learn in a way that is meaningful to them can be tricky. As educators trust your judgment and make sure to make time to review content as well as teach grade-level content and beyond. It can be a struggle balancing time, but exposure to challenging academics and reteaching important foundational skills is part of differentiation. Making time each day or week to review and teach new content is a great way to up the rigor in the classroom, without leaving students behind.

Also, remember that content is only one way to differentiate. All students can be working on the same assignment, but teachers can offer more assistance to students who need extra help.

Classroom Management


Differentiation means students are doing a variety of things. It can be difficult to monitor behavior with lots of different things going on in the classroom. Especially when classrooms incorporate cooperative learning, flexible seating, individualized behavior plans and schedules, and teaching using centers/small groups.

Cooperative learning can cause issues if one student does all the work or all students are off task. It can also be a problem if students have different ideas or are having a hard time sharing the work. It can be difficult if it is used too much because this learning style is easier for some students than others.

Flexible seating can be difficult if students all want to use a specific seat. It may be okay for one student, but not good for another. There may be times in the day where assignments can be easily accomplished in any seat and other times where more traditional seats are required. As an educator, it can be difficult to predict when it will be a good solution, and when it is not.

Individualized behavior plans and schedules: It can be very difficult as a teacher if you have too many behavior plans to keep track of or a variety of schedules. Keeping organized with all the little individuals in your class and not allowing behaviors to monopolize learning time can be very tricky as educators try to meet the needs of all their students.

Teaching in Small Groups: This can be so helpful to run interventions in the classroom, but then you find that by the time your group has their assignments out, you’ve helped the 4 people in other groups who have had issues and you introduced the lesson, it's already time to switch groups. How can you help a small group, when everyone needs you all the time!

Possible Solutions:

Set Clear Expectations: Especially during group work. Give each student a specific job, use rubrics for behavior and assignments, and have a clear set of simple rules that are enforced consistently and posted in the room.

Practice Classroom Procedures: Students should follow routines automatically. They should know exactly who can use what seats and when it is appropriate to move around. They should be able to transition quickly from one activity to another with very little wasted time. As a teacher, if the procedure ever isn’t being followed, stop, and have the students practice it the right way until it becomes habitual.

Be careful, as a teacher sometimes redoing the procedure a few times became the procedure. Reviewing expectations for procedures as students are waiting in line or before the procedure takes place can help with this, also having consequences as a class or for individuals who do not follow the procedure can help to eliminate having to waste too much class time practicing the procedure.

Teacher Organization: Just as your students need differentiation to meet their needs, educators must recognize they must find ways that work for them (even if it is different from their colleagues). Have a general behavior plan that works for you and most of your students. If you find a few students need individual behavior plans, make adjustments, if you find you can’t keep up with these plans, adjust again. Using online programs as timers and behavior trackers can be very helpful. If you notice there is a particular time when you are overwhelmed helping students, set a procedure to help get back in control. Be creative in finding solutions that work for YOU to organize data, group work, and allow for you to have time to complete needed tasks throughout the day. Check out my teacher organization bundle for helpful resources.

Small group organization: Be realistic about how much time you need to teach in a small group and allow for that much time. Use small group time to teach concepts that are much better suited for small group instruction than whole group instruction. Make sure the other students have clear expectations and procedures so they can get help from other students and not need help from you. In my classroom, I related center time to a construction area when driving. We talked about if a person speeds when they are in a construction zone, they get a more expensive ticket because it is more dangerous. My students knew that if I had to be interrupted to give consequences during small group time, the consequences were going to be bigger because it was our extra special time to get work done during the day.

Give Engaging Assignments: In the end, differentiation brings more autonomy in the classroom and helps students learn more effectively. When done correctly, it will increase student motivation to learn and cause a culture of learning and acceptance in class. Students should prefer learning this way. This can be a tool to use with management. Start the year with the whole group doing similar activities, slowly add in differentiated pieces to instruction, and let students know that it is a privilege. As students are given engaging work on their level, they will be less likely to misbehave because they will WANT to do the assignment. Differentiation sets students up for success.

Preparation Time for Teachers


This issue is pretty straight forward. Teaching is so time-consuming already, who has time to create different assignments for groups of students? With meetings during every break, taking time for students during lunch and lesson planning, duty, parent communication, and community involvement, how do teachers do it?!

Possible Solutions:

Use a curriculum you trust and enjoy teaching to differentiate. You don’t have to create new things for every assignment, find a curriculum that does that for you. Check out these resources that are all differentiated and will work for any grade in elementary school and junior high.

There are also many online resources that easily differentiate for students and can be great for fast finishers and centers. Many schools pay for specific programs, but if not, there are lots of free options out there too.

Make specific notes and lesson plans. This can be a lot of work at the beginning, but if you have clear notes from year to year, you can reuse resources that worked and make small changes to improve year by year.

Pick a few things to improve at a time. Don’t try to change everything all at once. Make a few small changes, that take minimal extra work, evaluate, adjust, and then continue. I would often fall victim to becoming over-excited after a day of teacher training and try to change everything all at once. Take good notes, make a plan, and implement small changes.

Related Questions

What does equity mean in education?