A Quick Guide To Scaffolding and Differentiation

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Lynn How

Lynn is the Editor at Teacher Toolkit. With 20 years of primary teaching and SLT experience, she has been an Assistant Head, Lead Mentor for ITT and SENCO. She loves to write and also has her own SEMH and staff mental health blog: www.positiveyoungmind.com. Lynn...
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What if teachers had a better understanding between scaffolding and differentiation?

Scaffolding and differentiation are educational concepts that I regularly see confused in our schools, especially when it comes to supporting learners with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities).

What not to do…

I have heard of some teachers suggesting that pupils need ‘exposure’ to their year group’s curriculum, regardless of suitability to their actual need. This school of thought is both damaging to pupils’ self-esteem when they are unable to achieve objectives and wastes valuable learning time.

These pupils could have been working on a small step target more appropriate for their needs through a personalised curriculum. Conversely, pupils may be provided with a differentiated objective when actually, they would have achieved the same objective as their peers with the correct scaffolding. Limiting learning is the last thing teachers want to do.

Here are my definitions of the two concepts:


  1. When an activity is scaffolded, pupils work towards the same objective as their peers with extra support.
  2. Use scaffolding when a pupil is able to meet the same objective as their peers with amended support which is needs led.
  3. Pupils are provided with small steps or ‘chunks’ of learning.
  4. Pupils may also be provided with other ‘just good teaching’ strategies, such as word banks, visuals to support and further modelling or support from an adult.
  5. These simple yet effective steps, enable pupils to achieve the same outcomes as their peers.
  6. If only significant or full scaffolding would enable the pupil to meet the same objective as their peers (e.g. the task is basically completed for them or they are required to copy answers with limited understanding), then the objective is not appropriate for that pupil.
  7. When scaffolding strategies are not working for a learner, then differentiation (which may lead to a personalised curriculum), is more appropriate.
  8. Scaffolding should still enable pupils to work towards independence in learning.


  1. When an activity is differentiated, pupils work towards a different objective within the same lesson.
  2. This objective may be more academically challenging or less, depending on the pupil.
  3. Use differentiation when a pupil is not able to meet the same objective as their peers, even with extra support and scaffolding.
  4. Pupils who need differentiation due to SEND needs, are likely to be about two years or more behind their age-related expectation (ARE), in a subject.
  5. For example, in English, there is little point in a pupil learning about speech punctuation when they have not mastered full stops and capital letters. In Maths, multiplication is a step too far if the pupil still needs to work on number bonds to ten.
  6. Differentiation should still enable pupils to work towards independence in learning.
  7. Just because a pupil needs differentiation in one subject does not mean they automatically will in another.
  8. Differentiated learning will still need scaffolding in many instances.

The image and article (Manderson, 2017) illustrate the difference brilliantly, with the differentiation section showing how outcomes can be affected by our preconceived expectations (although still wholly appropriate for many pupils with additional needs). The scaffolding section illustrates how many learners can be well supported with a little extra support to achieve the same outcomes.

Strategies and resources

10 Differentiation Strategies + Resources by @TeacherToolkit

Individual pupils

As with most educational concepts, it is down to professional judgement for individual pupils.

Hopefully, your school has enough learning support assistant coverage to be able to manage these personalised curriculums and any scaffolding and differentiation when they are required. Pupils who require significant scaffolding and/or differentiation are likely to be on your school’s SEND register. If not speak to your SEND coordinator.

Extra funding is available through the educational healthcare plan system (EHCPs) for high-needs pupils.

Now you have this perspective of scaffolding versus differentiation, do you need to reflect on practice in your school to enable more successful outcomes for all learners?

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