Using Differentiated Instruction in a Caring Classroom

The What, Why, and How of Differentiated Education

By Dr. Irene Oliver & Dr. Candace Poindexter

A major challenge for education in today’s increasingly diverse classrooms is tailoring lessons to students’ specific needs while meeting the needs of the group as a whole. An increase in English language learners coupled with a shift towards inclusion presents a difficult, yet inspiring, predicament for today’s teacher. We also cannot forget the “typical” students who have graced our schools with their unique strengths and weaknesses: the quiet one who loves math, the inattentive track star, the avoidant class clown. It is easy to become overwhelmed with all the differences – comparable to finding a rhythm among thirty random beats. We have all struggled to find this single rhythm, but we must begin to appreciate the individual beats and move away from trying to find one approach that will work for everyone. In the words of Howard Gardner (Siegel & Shaughnessy, 1994), “The biggest mistake of past centuries in teaching has been to treat all children as if they were variants of the same individual, and thus to feel justified in teaching them the same subjects in the same ways.” This article challenges the one-size-fits-all approach and supports the idea of differentiated instruction by addressing its challenges, benefits, and how it can be implemented to maximize learning.

Traditional Versus Differentiated Classrooms

Differentiated instruction is “a philosophy that enables teachers to plan strategically in order to reach the needs of the diverse learners in classrooms today to achieve targeted standards” (Gregory & Chapman, 2002). It is being aware of the collective needs of students in recognizing their preferences, making the right choices for optimum learning, and celebrating their diversity. In simpler terms, this philosophy recognizes that our students have different cognitive, social, and emotional needs.

Tomlinson and McTighe (2006) compare the traditional classroom to the differentiated classroom. In the traditional classroom, assessment occurs at the end of learning to see “who got it,” while in a differentiated classroom, multiple assessments are used over time to respond to learner needs. While he traditional view of intelligence considers it to be highly academic and unchangeable, differentiated instructors  focus on multiple forms of intelligence, whether kinesthetic, intra-personal, or visual-spatial.

Because they focus on one kind of learning, traditional classrooms infrequently tap students’ interests, while students in the differentiated classroom are encouraged to make interest-based learning choices. Allowing students to have more flexibility in their work also requires various instructional arrangements – as is the case with differentiated classrooms – versus the whole-class instruction that dominates traditional classrooms. In whole-class instruction, it is the teacher who solves problems for the student. In a differentiated classroom, the students and teacher collaborate and consider various methods and perspectives. In comparing these two classroom climates, the challenge lies in questioning the traditional notion of school so that teachers can help their students learn in a way that is best for them.

Conditions for Meeting the Needs of all Students

Differentiated instruction in today’s classroom embodies four components: self-esteem, caring teachers, a caring classroom environment, and caring home/school partnerships. These elements equally rely on each other in the form of a cyclical pattern, with no beginning or end but rather a continuous evolution.

Though each component is equally important in meeting the needs of students, it is not a coincidence that self-esteem is the first to be addressed. In reviewing Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs, achieving individual potential cannot occur without belief in oneself and affirmation from others. A classroom without positive expectations for each student will immediately fail to meet the needs of all students.

The caring teacher addresses student interests, attitudes, and self-concepts, which are categorized under the “affective” domain of education. Teacher attitudes to consider: Do students know that I am aware of and interested in them as unique people? Do I convey my expectations and confidence that each student can accomplish tasks, can learn, and is competent? Do I provide well-defined standards of values, demands for competence, and guidance toward solutions to problems? As a part of the affective domain, teachers should also reflect 0n their demonstration of respect and warmth: Do I learn to use the name of each student as soon and as often as possible? Do I spread my attention and include each student, keeping special watch for the student who may need extra attention? Do I notice and comment favorably on the things that are important to students?

With the students’ bolstered self-esteem and the presence of a caring teacher comes a caring classroom environment. Nurturing this environment involves modeling the Ethics of Care (Noddings, 1984); identifying students’ beliefs, interests, and attitudes; and building a caring community. Through their words and body language, teachers can model a caring attitude towards their students. In order for students to show respect for ideas and feelings, teachers must model that same respect in everyday interactions. Part of demonstrating this respect is in tailoring lessons to reflect the interests of students by way of Interest Inventories, Attitude Logs (download a sample Attitude Log), and Partners Venn Diagram. These activities are a few of the many ways in which teachers can foster a sense of respect and individuality in the classroom. The classroom environment does not exist in a vacuum; it is connected to the surrounding school and home communities as well. Strengthening the connection between school and home is encouraged by creating an environment by creating an environment in which children participate in creating their communities. Several activities can involve students in identifying and maintaining community, such as finding an everyday item in the classroom that represents it (i.e. a box of crayons represents that it doesn’t matter what we look like, we are all part of a set). Another method for students to become actively involved is hosting town hall meetings in which children learn what it means to be a part of a community and can exchange ideas. The use of classroom creeds can help build a common language based on values and beliefs of the learning community. A creed also instills a sense of pride and honor in students, and its powerful affirmations hold students accountable for their actions.

In breaking down the mechanisms of a caring classroom, it is evident that each part cannot function without the others. Understanding this model provides a foundation for differentiating content, the differentiating process, and ways to manage a differentiated classroom.

Differentiated Content, Process, and Management

To differentiate instruction, modification of content is crucial in meeting the needs of all students. Some examples that diversify the lesson include using reading materials at various levels of difficulty, putting text in audio recordings, using spelling lists that are readiness levels of students, presenting ideas through visual and auditory means, reading buddies, and meeting with small groups to re-teach an idea or skill. Actions that help students respond to instruction include tiered activities in which all learners work with the same understandings and skills, but proceed with different levels of support. More examples include providing interest centers where students are encouraged to explore more, developing personal agendas, offering manipulatives, and varying the length of time allotted for tasks (whether the student requires additional support or wishes to pursue a topic in greater depth).

Hollas (2005) suggests building relationships with students and encouraging interactions with one another. Teachers are encouraged to open pathways for students so they may construct their own meanings from the content, and to interact with the information in ways that challenge and engage.

Strategies to Differentiate Instruction in the Classroom

Though teachers are encouraged to create their own unique approaches to content delivery, this section provides effective methods for differentiated instruction.

“Frontloading” involves getting students to think about a certain topic or theme. Teachers “frontload” new information by addressing relevant background knowledge and presenting the skills, strategies, and vocabularies that will be needed. When reading from the text, read a short section aloud and invite the students to read using choral reading or informal readers’ theater. Once the text is read, allow for independent practice and set a clear purpose for reading and responding. For those who need support, call them together and provide appropriate instruction by reviewing any “frontloading” activities, addressing critical skills, assisting with reading, identifying parts that students can read on their own, and providing support in completing the activity. For students who can read on their own, review directions as needed, review class rules about reading, identify a few activities they can do when finished, and monitor as they start the activity. This example illustrates how a teacher can adjust the level of support in the classroom based on individual needs.

“Flexible grouping” enables students to move among groups in different subject areas based on their readiness levels and skills. This grouping minimizes the chance of students being labeled in a high, medium, or low group. Forming groups also allows students to collaborate and cooperate well as be actively involved in the learning process. One example of a group activity is called “jigsaw,” in which students are split into teams of five. One member of each team is assigned to be an expert on specific topics within the passage, and meets with the other teams’ members who are experts on the same topic. Once the experts have collaborated, they return to their home teams to disseminate what they have learned to their members.

In addition to instructional arrangements, teachers can differentiate by offering students appropriate challenges and avoiding the one-size-fits-all seatwork approach. Take the example of the “Westward Expansion Choice Board,” in which students are presented with choices to complete an assignment on the same topic. For instance, one student has the option of tracing the route of the Oregon Trail and describing a day in the life of a pioneer, while another student can choose to locate pictures from books/internet that shows a typical pioneer life. Despite the strategy chosen, all students should contribute to a post-reading activity. For the students who worked independently, teachers must review and assess the level of written responses to check for understanding. For those in the support group, provide additional time if needed.


The road to differentiated instruction can start with just a few minutes of planning. In just five minutes, one can survey students’ interest using an interest inventory or to find media to enhance a lesson. In five days, one can arrange the desks into collaborative clusters, use workshop activities, and plan assignments that include choices. In five weeks, one can practice the procedures for independent and collaborative work, introduce a new technological tool, or even write a grant for a new digital tool. In five months, one can start a faculty book club or establish a regular meeting time for collaborative planning. In five years, one can continue building differentiated instruction strategies, and cheerlead and coach others to do the same (Rubenstein, 2010).

Caring teachers connect with their students, help them set goals, and celebrate their achievements. By differentiating instructional and learning techniques to meet the needs of diverse learners, you will be one step closer to helping your students become true active participants in their learning. The ultimate goal of differentiated instruction is to provide a caring learning environment that will maximize the potential for student success.


Irene Oliver, Ed.D., is a professor and chair of the Elementary and Secondary Education Department at Loyola Marymount University. Candace Poindexter, Ed.D., is a professor and director of the literacy program at Loyola Marymount University.

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