10 Ways To Differentiate In The Classroom

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How can we successfully meet the needs of the children we teach?

Differentiating to a wide number of pupils of different abilities in a classroom can cause some of us to break out in a cold sweat. I know, I have been there.

The class that made me realise that it was possible, albeit with some planning and creativity, was Reception to Year 4 in one class. They had an ability range from P6 to ‘old skool’ L3. I survived a complex classroom, and you can too, by approaching the situation in a creative way.

Top Ten Tips for Differentiating

1. Change your thinking

This is crucial when differentiating effectively. You have to change the way you view planning.

Instead of looking at diversity as a threat or a mountain, see it as a challenge. Teaching such complex classes can be a really exciting time in your career. It hones down to your ability to do the one thing we all love: to teach.

Getting to the end of the week knowing that your plans worked and watching that learning happening is a buzz so enjoy it. I much preferred my complex classes to the times when it was ‘easier’.

2. Target the majority and differentiate around

The way I planned was a bit like a detective. I would work on a topic that was relevant to the majority of pupils i.e. if I had more Year 4s than Year 1s we followed the Year 4 curriculum. Then I would look for opportunities to tackle the outcomes from other year groups or Key Stage by finding relevant topics that I could cross map in.

My success criteria were aimed at a rough three levels within the class so with green being what they could all achieve and what I was aiming for my bottom ability learners to do, the orange one for my middle group and my red for the most able.

3. Use flexible groups

My table groups changed depending on the activity. Apart from my EYFS learners, my seating plans were not fixed.

Sometimes I had tables that were roughly of similar levels, they were made up of mixed year groups, at other times they were the opposite. Where they sat depended upon the activity we were doing and how I had been able to cross map other objectives in.

The added bonus was that, as pupils didn’t have a set ‘seat’ and were used to moving around, there was no sense that one table or group was weaker than any other.

4. Use any support staff wisely

It is tempting to think that any Learning Support Assistant or Teaching Assistant support should target the lowest ability pupils. Don’t. Or at least, don’t do it all the time.

It does nothing to help with independence and can also make that pupil/group stand out. Plus, some of your lowest ability learners would benefit hugely from increased teacher input as well. So plan for using support in a creative way ensuring that you target your time, and their time, with learners in the most strategic way possible.

5. Use a toolbox of additional activities

When you have such a diverse group, there will be times when the timings in the lesson for completing their work simply does not all nicely tie in to all finish at the same time.

A toolbox of targeted activities is a great way of teaching either key skills or outcomes. These may target what you couldn’t address in the main teaching. These activities will need to vary from group to group but once learners know the routine they can be independent.

Setting up the toolbox does take some hard work to begin with as there is no fixed way of doing it and it does totally depend upon the needs of each class. However once you have tried it a few times it does get easier. The philosophy behind the toolboxes I used was based upon Division TEACCH strategies for supporting learners with ASC needs.

6. KISS (Keep It Short and Simple)

Try not to overthink differentiation.

Sometimes the simplest, and quickest, of ideas are the best such as a task board to break down what a pupil needs to do in a lesson so that they can tick them off as they go, or the use of symbols like Widgit that can support learners in accessing materials you are using.

7. Know your pupils

To differentiate well you need to be aware of who you are differentiating for.

Differentiating by outcome just isn’t an option. Why not?

Learners who have answered one question when the rest have completed ten hasn’t been differentiated for. That learner should be able to answer ten questions that have been differentiated to their needs. To do this you need to know your pupils well and be clear about what you want them to achieve.

8. If at first you don’t succeed…

Differentiating is a craft and one that takes practice. You have to learn to be flexible, to use a range of strategies and have methods you can pull out the bag when you realise it is going wrong. There is no magic key just the desire to know that your learners need it.

9. Don’t plough on regardless

Be bold. If the way you are differentiating an activity isn’t working, stop.

Why? Simply because if the learner isn’t learning then what is the point? Ok, so it might be on your planning but grab a pen and annotate the changes you have made. You don’t need to replay the whole thing just treat planning as the working document it is and adapt it.

10. Ask and share

Accept that you won’t always have the answers and ask for support.

Twitter is a great way of connecting with others and seeking a bit of support. There are too many EduTwitter groups but you can find links here on Teacher Toolkit. Equally share what you do for the resource you have made. The experience you have had will benefit someone else somewhere.

And finally…

Is differentiation one of the ingredients for great teaching? There is no right way to differentiate.

The only way is what works best for that individual pupil at that specific moment in time. Ensuring they are making progress is the key.

Helen Woodley

Helen Woodley is a primary trained SENDCo currently working in a large KS1-4 Pupil Referral Unit in the North East of England. She spent 3 years studying Theology in Durham; Helen has worked in a wide variety of special school settings, including all age schools. She has a wealth of knowledge about SEN systems and the importance of every teacher being equipped to support the variety of SEN needs within their classroom. Helen has recently completed her thesis and completed her Ed.D at Newcastle University. Outside of teaching, she collects animals and has dreams of running a rescue centre!

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