We’ve talked about relationship building as being key in everything we do. Children learn best in an environment where they are happy, relaxed, and connected to others. Children thrive in the context of relationships that are responsive, consistent, and nurturing.
Now we must focus on meeting each child’s individual learning needs and style. Differentiating instruction means adjusting or changing the lessons and its goals to meet a child’s individual needs. All children have the same learning goals but the instruction varies based on the children’s interest, preference, strengths, and struggles. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.
There are fours ways to differentiate instruction:
- Content: what children need to learn
- Process: activities in which the student engages in to learn the content
- Product: culminating projects that ask the student to practice, apply, and extend what he or she has learned
- Learning environment: the way the classroom is set up to meet each child’s learning style
Differentiated instruction allows us to individualize our teaching to the needs of the children. We need to differentiate to allow all children in our classrooms the opportunities to enjoy learning to their fullest potential.
The most important first step is building the relationship, to get to know each child. Does the child prefer certain toys, games, centers? Does the child bond with one staff member over another? How does the child interact with the learning environment? Where does the child excel? What areas does the child possibly struggle in?
Once you have gathered enough information to help guide your instruction, you should start planning the differentiation process. Intentionally join in the child’s play. The 3-year-olds are building with blocks in the block area. Offer the children various construction blocks and observe them playing. Ask them questions as they play: Why are you making this tower? How many blocks have you used? What colors have you used? Why?
Some children will struggle to make a tower of more than five blocks. Others may start putting different towers together to make a large wall. Allow them to do this, and even offer them other materials and toys for them to integrate if they choose.
Some children may not be interested in building walls or towers. In that case, offer them other ways to work with blocks:
- Counting: Ask the students to make groups of two blocks, three blocks, four blocks, and so on. See what number they can reach by grouping the blocks.
- Counting and attributes: The grouping might also be two blocks of the same color or three blocks of the same size. Ask, how do you know the size of a block? Is this block bigger or smaller than this other block? How do you know?
- Storytelling: Start a story and let the child develop it—for example, “Many years ago, in this tower, lived a ___ (witch, fairy, girl, boy, monster, robot… let the child choose)”—and then provide prompts for them to continue expanding on the story.
- Use the blocks to construct beds for dolls, or assign the blocks different roles—turn them into microphones or mobile phones, or even make a family with the blocks.
Differentiating may take time for teachers to master. However, in order for each child to reach the stars, we must meet each one where he or she is at. Take time to know your children. Plan and be prepared. Identify where each child currently is and the likely next steps that the child needs to work on. Plan how to scaffold the child to progress him/ her to the next level. The benefits for each child are well worth it!