Ready, Set, Go Get Started with Differentiated Instruction

Understand why differentiation is important, but not sure where to start? Click through to learn how to get started with differentiated instruction! differentiation | elementary | ontario | teachers | student

So if you understand the concept and benefits of differentiated instruction for the students in your classroom but are not sure where to start then hopefully this post will help you to set the stage and get started with differentiation. If you are still wondering what differentiated instruction is, please read my post on Explaining Differentiated Instruction first!

Differentiated Instruction

My biggest motivation for differentiated instruction is my students with different learning needs.  This started with teaching ELL students and continues within my classroom walls.  In my time as an ELL teacher going into others’ classrooms, there were many times that the DRA assessment would level the ELL student and then all other materials would be given to the student at that level.  This was always a problem for me as a teacher.  These students were not cognitively working at a grade one level and many of them were at grade level in their home language just not in English.

They knew what time it was but couldn’t communicate that understanding to you in English.  That didn’t mean that they needed to learn how to tell time.

I watched too many students disengage with work, or pretend or hide that they didn’t know what to do in a classroom, because they didn’t want to look stupid in front of their peers.

For me as a teacher, this is my main motivation for differentiation.  To allow the students who need the modifications or accommodations to get them without making them feel dumb or stupid or lose face in front of their peers.

If we really want differentiation to work we need to understand that in some way we need to set up routines, and a culture in our classroom where students understand that everyone is working on a different level and that there is more than one way to meet a goal.

Set the tone

In your classroom, you need to model that there are many pathways to success.  Showing students multiple ways to do things is critical.

Don’t Judge a Kid by His Reading Level

There are many many times where a student may struggle with reading but have amazing potential and cognitive abilities.  Learning to access these is a key component to differentiation.  We need to stop associating a students’ ability to read with their ability to think.  By building on the strengths of the student we can help them access far more material. Reading is a complex task involving many skills, understanding which part of reading will help you to better differentiate.  But if your task assesses other subject areas how can you accommodate for the weakness in reading?



If you have multiple students doing multiple tasks at once in your classroom, then you need to have solid routines set in place that describe how students function and work within your classroom.  It makes it much more difficult to just make it up as you go when you don’t have a structure or a framework to rely on.  At the beginning of each year, or again later in the year when I feel that some of my routines may be slipping, I revisit this list I made.  I use this every year to remind myself of how I want my classroom to run.  Check out my free routines pack here 

Classroom Management

This is another important skill that you must firmly establish before you begin to differentiate your instruction.  There is no way that I could have 30+ kids all doing different types of tasks without good classroom management strategies.  Incorporating ideas from a growth mindset, whole brain teaching, brag tags, and many more classroom management tools were all strategies I began using this past year.  Many different strategies will work but whatever strategy you use for classroom management you need to be confident, consistent and firm.  I may be open to a variety of learning opportunities.

Build Independence

This is another area that may take some time to establish.  It is the number one excuse for why teachers cannot embrace inquiry and cannot do centers and therefore cannot differentiate.  All most all students can gain some independence skills.  I set the expectation that students should be able to work independently we work together to establish the routines and the expectations that will allow them to be successful.  For example, in a writing conference, I ask students to identify when they feel their writing will be done.  We negotiate a reasonable timeline for completion.  Then they are trusted to complete their work.  But guess what some of them don’t do anything and complete nothing.  Well, building this skill often requires that students experience safe failure. (For more information on why I believe students should learn how to fail, read my blog post!)

Create opportunities for Safe Failure.

Safe failure is an important feature for my students.  I set reasonable expectations for my students and prepare an environment for them to work independently.  However, then I need to trust them to do what I have asked them to do.  However, some of them need to learn that when they do not use their time wisely they will fail to meet the deadlines.
This is a failure.
Yes, they fail, acknowledge they fail but make them reflect on this failure and identify why they failed and make a plan to not fail again.  Students don’t learn from failure, they learn when they are helped to bounce back after failure
Tweet: Students don’t learn from failure they learn when they are helped to bounce back after failure, for some students this may take a few times and you may need to reset and realign their goals.  For these students, it is baby steps but when they experience success after this failure then they will see that success feels better and is achievable.  When you trust that your students are capable of learning, being independent, and letting them fail safely then you have a recipe for great differentiated instruction.
Remember this is a hard one for parents to swallow. It is probably a good idea to let parents in on this shift in your approach that you are setting expectations and that together your job is allowing them to fail safely and to coach them through it.  Knowing that failure at the beginning will help prevent failure at the end because failure is a part of learning that should be embraced.




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