As a special education teacher, you are tasked with the important job of differentiating instruction to meet the unique needs of each of your students. This can seem overwhelming, but there are many easy ways to differentiate instruction that will not only benefit your students, but will also make your job as a teacher more manageable.

What is differentiation? 

Differentiation is an instructional strategy that involves modifying the content, pace, or process of instruction to meet the needs of individual students. When differentiating instruction, special education teachers take into account the different learning styles, abilities, and interests of their students. Differentiation can be used for students with learning disabilities, English language learners, and in the general education classroom. In other words, all groups of students can benefit from learning in a differentiated classroom.

Why is differentiation important for the special education teacher?

Chances are, if you're reading this – you already know how differentiation is important for special education teachers because it allows them to meet the needs of all students in the classroom. One of the biggest challenges is that you can be working with as many different student needs as number of students.

What are different ways to use differentiation in the classroom? 

Small group instruction and flexible assignments are two effective ways to differentiate instruction. Special education teachers can use flexible grouping for small group instruction to provide more targeted and individualized lesson plans. Maybe one group benefits most from direct instruction with extra support, while the next group will complete activities with the use of technology. Flexible assignments allow a group of students of different abilities to complete tasks based on their own strengths and interests.

Differentiation can be used in a variety of ways to create diverse classrooms. One way to differentiate instruction is to provide different levels of support to different students. For example, one student who is struggling with a concept could be given more one-on-one attention or additional practice problems. Another student who is already proficient in a concept could be given more challenging problems to work on.

Another way to differentiate instruction is to provide different types of materials to different students. For example, a student who is a visual learner could be given a picture book to help them understand a concept. Or maybe they are listening to a read aloud with the whole group and answering comprehension questions with a visual support, such as a graphic organizer. A student who is an auditory learner could participate in concept development during math class, then move to educational technology with audio to interact with the lesson material.

What are some tips for getting started with differentiating instruction in the classroom?

Utilize hands-on learning activities: Learning centers are a great way to provide differentiated instruction because they allow students to work at their own pace and on material that is at their level. By setting up learning centers in your classroom, you can target the needs of all of your students.

Create differentiated assignments: Another easy way to differentiate instruction is to create assignments that are geared towards the different learning styles of your students. For example, if you have a student who is a visual learner, you might create an assignment that requires them to create a poster or PowerPoint presentation.

Use technology: Technology is a great tool that can be used to differentiate instruction. There are many websites and apps that offer leveled material that is perfect for special education students. By incorporating technology into your classroom, you can easily meet the needs of all of your students.

If you're reading this far, you may be experiencing a variety of emotions – maybe you agree with that incorporating differenitation is a good idea, but then thinking to yourself – Who has extra time to plan for all these individual needs? It's the biggest challenge teachers of all grade levels are facing.

One of the easiest and most effective ways to add effective differentiation is to incorporate student choice. This could be achieved by using choice boards with a variety of resources and options for students to interact with the learning content. As the special education teacher, you can offer a several student learning activities and students can choose how they will participate.

This could look like the same lesson being presented in a small group using direct instruction, as a PowerPoint presentation students can listen to independently, interactive technology (i.e.: Zearn, Boom Cards), independent learning centers (i.e.: task cards), or an adapted assignment (i.e.: student binder or file folders with visual cues).

This blog post has so many ideas and options, so I highly recommend tackling ONE idea at a time. Maybe adding Boom Cards is an easy first option to meet the majority of students needs (student interest, visual support, additional time on task). Then you can set a goal to add another option each quarter or semester until you've built up a collection of differentiation strategies and activities.

Differentiation is a great way to help all of your students succeed in the classroom, and it can be especially helpful for special education students. When you take the time to differentiate instruction for each student, they are more likely to feel successful and be motivated to learn. Differentiation can help you create a positive learning environment for everyone!

Ready for more differentiation ideas?

Check out these blogpost with real-life examples of how to add differentiation to your instruction!

Hi there.

I'm Jennifer!

I’m Jennifer and I was a special educator in the elementary school setting over the past decade. I entered the classroom every day dedicated to making learning inclusive AND engaging.

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