Learn what differentiation in the classroom is, what it looks like, and easy ways you can increase the differentiation of curriculum in the elementary classroom!
Expert Ways to Differentiate Instruction in the K-2 Classroom
Are you looking to differentiate instruction in the classroom? Maybe you’re even wondering why you should spend your precious time differentiating. With teachers’ plates fuller than ever the last thing anyone wants to hear (myself included) is another thing added to the mix. I’m here to tell you differentiation is not another thing, it is the answer to do all the things.
As a new Kindergarten teacher, I was overwhelmed by the vast differences in ability in my classroom. Some kids came in reading full books and writing stories, while others were focusing on reading and writing their own names. Both levels of ability are great for Kindergarten and I was having difficulty managing what each student needs to be successful.
At first, I started what the books said to do: a one-size-fits-all approach. Behaviors escalated, I felt horrible because kids weren’t learning and my classroom was a mess. Kids weren’t putting stuff away, they weren’t paying attention and fires were everywhere.
That’s when I took a step back and asked my kids what they needed. I also noticed when they were being successful. What was different about that activity? Eventually, I made tasks more open-ended and integrated choices throughout our classroom routine. With explicit systems and structures in place, students felt safe to take risks with their learning and get the materials they needed to be successful.
What Is Differentiation?
Differentiation is adapting a lesson or activity to meet the various needs of learners within your classroom. Reading Rockets defines differentiation as: “the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom”. Differentiated instruction is not a new idea. In fact, it was first brought into the realm of teaching as early as the 1950s! When teachers differentiate instruction in the classroom, they are able to meet the needs of an individual and work within a student’s zone of proximal development (thank you Vygotsky). Take a deep dive into differentiation and the difference it can make in the lives of your students here.
Why You Need to Differentiate Instruction in the Classroom
Teachers need to differentiate because our students are unique individuals who interpret the world in their own way. The curriculum comes in a box. It is a one-size-fits-all attempt at education. Quality differentiation increases student voice and choice. It is a powerful movement within the classroom that encourages students to self-reflect and take charge of their learning. Differentiation increases student participation and student agency as through the process students are encouraged and supported to discover themselves as learners. Read more about the effectiveness of differentiated education and strategies to use in your K-2 classroom.
Differentiated instruction is not only beneficial for student learning but also for teachers. By tailoring their instruction and materials to meet individual student needs, teachers can create a more engaging and inclusive learning environment. Students are more likely to be motivated and actively participate in their learning when they see that their needs are being catered to.
Differentiated instruction allows teachers to personalize instruction and provide additional support to struggling students while challenging those who are ready for more advanced material. This approach promotes student growth and achievement, as each student receives the appropriate level of challenge and support.
Differentiation and Inclusive Classrooms
Differentiation and inclusion may be considered “buzzwords” in education but they are still the key to student success and teacher sanity. That’s right, when teachers differentiate instruction in the classroom not only is it easier for the students but it’s easier for them too! While closely related, the ideas of differentiation and inclusivity do need to be thought about separately when being intentional with classroom planning.
First, let’s talk about inclusive classrooms. An inclusive classroom builds a relationship with each student as an individual and works to meet his or her needs while valuing their culture and family. Currently, in the United States, many laws attempt to support an inclusive model in the classroom. The term “inclusive classroom” is most commonly used when referring to integrating students identified with special education needs into the general education classroom but a true inclusive classroom supports all students of various identities and their families. Read more about strategies for an inclusive classroom here!
Think about it like this: an inclusive classroom is where everyone is a valued member and represented while differentiation allows all students to access the content and curriculum. A slight difference that makes a big impact!
Differentiated Teaching and Instruction
At its core, differentiated instruction is a personalized learning experience. It is important because through differentiated instruction students are heard, valued, and operate at their appropriate level. Differentiated instruction is a key component of any inclusive classroom, and supports learners below, on, or above grade level. There are key features to an inclusive classroom (including differentiating instruction). You can learn more here about how to create an inclusive environment and value all your students. It also goes beyond grade-level expectations and looks at each student as an individual with strengths and weaknesses.
When teachers differentiate instruction in the classroom, they personalize instruction and provide additional support to struggling students while challenging those who are ready for more advanced material. This approach promotes student growth and achievement, as each student receives the appropriate level of challenge and support.
Differentiated Instruction in Classroom Management
When teachers differentiate instruction in the classroom they often jump right to the curriculum thinking: how can I modify or enhance this lesson to meet the needs of my students? While differentiating the curriculum is an important step, it is really differentiating the classroom systems and routines that can make a profound impact on all students.
As a teacher with classroom and special education experience in grades spanning K-5, the most effective classroom management strategies centered around three big ideas: relationships, access, and accountability. All key components of differentiation!
When building my classroom, I focused on wide paths for walking along with making tools for learning visible and accessible. Students always have access to a variety of math manipulatives, drawing materials, and a variety of spaces. We find a balance between coming together as a class for lessons, reflecting on our learning, and moving around the classroom independently making choices that benefit us most as individual learners.
Differentiate Instruction in Math Class
Asking you to differentiate instruction in the classroom can feel like a big ask. I promise it will change both your and your student’s lives! When thinking about how to differentiate instruction in math class it is helpful to think of the developmental progression as concrete, representational, and abstract (also known as CRA). When working with a new mathematical concept, all students begin in the concrete stage: they need to see the objects physically. As the students grow, they can represent the meaning with other things, such as drawing dots for ice cream cones to solve a word problem. Finally, students enter the abstract stage where they can solve problems mentally and use numbers to represent problems meaningfully. Read more about CRA and evidence-based practices here. To differentiate instruction in the classroom during math view each lesson through the CRA lens. What concrete objects do I have for students to use? How will students represent the problem? How will my abstract students apply their thinking to larger problems? Being critical of your lessons and taking a little extra time to plan is a key part of differentiating instruction in the classroom.
Differentiate Instruction in Reading Class
I’m sure you’re wondering how you can differentiate instruction in the classroom when teaching reading! Especially in Kindergarten when many students arrive not yet reading and there can be expectations to sit and read independently for upwards of 30 minutes at a time. Engaging whole group instruction with visuals and movement is a great way to differentiate instruction in reading class. Also, be creative with book bins! For your students who are not yet reading independently, balance books with self-correcting activities in their book bins. To differentiate reading instruction, pull small groups with targeted phonics skills. These lessons can be as short as 10 minutes for each group because they are in addition to your whole group lessons. Small groups can be a challenge. Be sure to check out some proven classroom management strategies to improve your small group instruction and improve your ability to differentiate in the elementary classroom.
Hands-Off Ways to Differentiate
You are so incredibly busy in the classroom! If differentiating feels like just another thing its more likely to fall to the wayside, despite its importance. Effective differentiation centers around systems that are integrated in your classroom environment. When you give children choice and time to reflect on their learning, they are able to make the best choices often differentiating for themselves. Simple changes such as always having math manipulatives available or providing multiple types of writing paper for all students provide powerful impact to differentiate instruction in the classroom without daily teacher preparation.
More Resources to Differentiate Instruction
You are off and running to differentiate instruction in the classroom! Choose a strategy and give it a try. Be sure to check out more resources below.