Differentiate your plans to fit your students [P-4]


Know thy students:



  • Establish clear grouping structures
  • Structure time to meet with individuals or differentiated groups
  • Establish systems that hold students accountable for producing tangible work while you help others
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What does it look like when you put it all together?

Illustrations are grouped by the proficiency that they best bring to life.

We would like to communicate our deep appreciation to these teachers who are allowing us to learn from their experiences.


While it is important to always consider learning modalities, it is equally important that we include a modality only when it helps us in achieving our objective.


You would not engage, for example, in a kinesthetic activity simply to be kinesthetic, but you should always keep the different modalities in mind so that you can include them when they do make sense. Rather than creating a lesson for each modality, make sure you plan lessons that rotate through the modalities, or that incorporate multiple modalities. In addition, students will need exposure to all modalities since standardized tests will generally be given without any regard for a particular student’s needs or preferences.


Most students can, and must, learn in several different styles. The key for us is to avoid relying too heavily on any one style, often the one with which we are most comfortable. Some of us over-rely on the modality in which we ourselves learn best, thereby unintentionally favoring students who happen to share the same learning style. The strong visual learners among us will likely include many visual aids in our classrooms. While that is great for our visual learners, it neglects our other students.


Try to identify your own preferred learning style: Do you prefer for a waiter to read you the daily specials (auditory) or to see them written on a board (visual)? Can you follow books on tape (auditory) or do you need to see the words on paper (visual)? Would you rather someone tell you how to find the office down the hallway (auditory), draw you a map (visual), or actually walk you there (kinesthetic)?

Be aware of your own predominant learning style so that you can compensate for any over-reliance that occurs.


Differentiation is not a euphemism for lowered expectations. As expert Carol Tomlinson explains, differentiated instruction is not merely asking struggling students “easier” questions, and advanced students “harder” questions. Nor is it about offering struggling students low-level multiple-choice tests, and advanced students higher-level essay questions. Why not? Because all students across the spectrum of performance levels require and deserve complex, engaging work.


The quality of assignments is always more important than the quantity of assignments. Differentiation requires recognizing that students are at different starting points while still working to move each student dramatically forward from that starting point. All students should be given access to the same core content, and struggling learners should be taught the same “big ideas” as their classmates, not given watered-down content.

Differentiation is not just more work for advanced students; it is providing opportunities for more complex exploration/application of skills to those advanced students. Remember, differentiation means pushing every student to his or her maximum potential.


Many of us are afraid to try differentiation because we fear the chaos that might ensue (how can I consider centers, we wonder, if my students misbehave when they working independently at their desks?). Others of us experiment with differentiation but lose confidence when the first few attempts feel chaotic and out of control.


Differentiation does not have to be chaotic. While there may be additional organizational systems to think through, differentiation involves purposeful activities and movement of students. If your procedures and behavior management systems are intact, think about ways to extend those existing policies to incorporate any differentiated activities. If they’re not, shore them up before attempting differentiation.

For more assistance on how to make differentiation manageable, click here


Many of us know and accept that our students are at different levels and have different needs, but we are understandably genuinely overwhelmed by the idea of differentiation, don’t know where to begin, and may not realize that there are simple modifications that would make differentiation work.

Let’s be frank: new teachers should not focus on high-effort differentiation strategies for their first few months in the classroom. New teachers should feel solidly comfortable with the basics of effective planning while beginning to identify some low-effort modifications that they can make.

Start small with low-investment techniques that won’t demand too much time and energy. A good starting place is to give students options on assignments (products) to pique their interests. Another manageable entry is to start experimenting with different content for homework and/or class assignments by sub-groups (begin with low, medium and high performance groups). As we gain more confidence and facility, we can gradually move from whole class to subgroups to individualized differentiation.


The most important thing to remember is that just because you may feel like you can’t differentiate everything for everyone doesn’t mean you can’t differentiate some things, for some students.

Small steps that have been taken before you:

The “What Do I Already Do?” Checklist (You might be pleasantly surprised to see that you are already differentiating in small ways!)

Some teachers bravely master the ability to differentiate with entry-level strategies but resist challenging themselves to progress to the next level. If you suspect that you (and your students) are ready for more advanced strategies, check out the following two tables. If you’re already successfully implementing many of the low-prep strategies, push yourself to experiment with some of the more advanced techniques. If possible, connect with an exemplary teacher for a classroom observation and/or interview to help guide your growth. (Note that examples of these strategies are included in the tools section, and through the P-4 web pages.)

Low-Prep & High-Prep Differentiation Strategies


The understandable starting point for many of us experimenting with differentiation is to create student groups and present them with content/product/process choices (a logical place to start). But differentiation, taken to its fullest potential, offers much more substantive individualization possibilities.


Fully maximizing the potential of differentiated instruction requires obsessing over data trends and aligning differentiation strategies accordingly. It demands ongoing data analysis and the flexibility to continuously shift approaches as students grow (at different rates and in different subject areas). Differentiation is most effective when rooted in data about objectives that students have and have not mastered. A tracking system is often the foundation of a differentiated classroom, as it allows you to strategically put students in heterogeneous or homogenous groups, or pull a small group of students aside for additional support.