Strategies for Differentiated Instruction in Elementary Classrooms: A Beginners Guide

No two students are the same and no two students learn exactly the same way. That’s why a one-size-fits all approach to teaching is likely to leave some students bored and unengaged. Thankfully there are educational approaches, like differentiated instruction, that help ensure the best learning experience for all of your students.

Differentiated instruction, also known as differentiated assessment or differentiated learning, is when educators tailor their teaching to meet individual needs of all their students. This helps create the best possible learning outcomes by adapting your lesson plans to help meet the needs of all your students, no matter their starting point.

In this post we’ll learn more about differentiated instruction strategies, how to implement this in your classroom, and common challenges to this approach. Let’s get started!

Understanding Your Students

Importance of knowing your students' needs

Differentiated instruction happens in the classroom but starts well before then. It’s important to know where your students are starting from so you can prepare beforehand to adjust to everyone's needs. The more you know about your students, the better you can help them and adjust your content, process, and classroom setup to suit their needs.

How to gather information about your students

If you are teaching any grade other than kindergarten, you have the opportunity to connect with the previous grade level teacher to understand the specific needs of individual students and learn what works best for whom.

But sometimes there isn’t a chance to get good information on students before you get them in your classroom. In these cases, you can observe classroom behavior and communicate with parents to form your own baseline for student needs.

Creating a Differentiated Classroom

Now that we’ve covered student prep, let’s talk about classroom prep. Since your class is going to spend the majority of their time in your classroom, it makes sense to think about how it's arranged to best engage them.

Below are three great examples of how your classroom setup can help you use differentiated instruction.

Creating a learning center

Learning centers are designated areas of the classroom where pairs or groups of students work on a specific task. You can set up a larger learning space with multiple stations of the same activity or stations with different activities so students rotate through at a specific time.

To prepare your learning centers, gather materials needed, write clear instructions, set expectations, and be sure to leave time in the schedule for cleanup.

Splitting up your class into learning centers and other activities gives you the opportunity to engage individual students, pairs, or groups who may need additional or specialized support in your lesson plan. These centers also enable you to provide different types of activities around the same subject lesson to help students who learn differently have an opportunity to engage with materials in a way that best suits their needs.

Differentiated instruction with technology in the classroom

Your learning centers can also include technology to help give students another engaging way to learn. Not only do students love using technology, but it also helps prepare them for the role technology will play in their life.

Kodable’s programming games for kids is one great example of this. Our self-paced learning allows students to learn on their own while getting helpful hints from fuzzBuzz when needed. Kodable also comes with 80+ classroom activities for teachers that can be used in learning centers, groups, or teacher-led activities. Interested in bringing Kodable into your classroom? Try our free educator plan today.

Creating flexible groups

Flexible grouping allows you to cluster students together based on their readiness, interest level, or learning style. This is important to differentiated instruction because grouping students with similar capabilities allows you to give each group dedicated time depending on their needs.

For example, a high achieving group may need less instruction than another classroom group. With flexible grouping you spend more time addressing specific skills needs of one group versus another.

For differentiated instruction these groups work best when they are created by a teacher but they can also be created by students. Groups can last for a day, a week, or for a longer period of time. However if groups are created based on student readiness levels it’s important to be tactful when creating them so as to not hurt classroom morale.

Differentiated Instruction Strategies

Tiered Assignments

Tiered assignments, also known as tiered instruction, are parallel tasks given to student groups depending on their readiness level. This learning strategy allows you to give students the right level of activity that engages them and helps them learn without being too challenging to frustrate them. Walking this fine line of tasks that are not too easy or difficult helps promote success and instill more confidence and motivation for students going forward.

Learning Contracts

Learning contracts are documents created between you and your students that detail what students are responsible for at the beginning of a project or course. These contracts often include behavior expectations, learning objectives, and student reflections to be done once the activity is over. These contracts give ownership over learning to the students and can help motivate students to be more involved in their learning.

For differentiated instruction, learning contracts allow you to help students create goals that are best for their individual needs. Depending on student readiness the same activity can have different contracts for different students to help them all feel empowered and motivated to engage and learn.

Choice Boards

Choice boards give students the freedom to decide what learning activities they want to do. By giving students the opportunity to choose from a number of activities, they can pick the activity that they are most interested in and therefore be more motivated to participate in. You can see more choice board examples here.

For different learning you can use choice boards to give students different methods of exploring the same material. This way students can select the learning activity that they are most interested in while still learning the overall lesson objective.

Curriculum Compacting

Curriculum compacting is a differentiated instructional method that involves providing additional materials or opportunities to students who have already mastered the majority of the outcomes or objectives of an upcoming lesson. Using a pre-assessment, you can identify these students and replace or amend their resources appropriately.

Compacting is also ideal for students who may not go into an activity knowing all the skills but who are quick learners and will need additional material to continue being engaged. These activities can be self-directed learning or can involve mentoring other students who are still working on the main activity.

Differentiated Classroom Activities

Strategies for managing a differentiated classroom

Start small, then grow - Trying to introduce differentiated learning for every subject all at once is a recipe for frustration for you and your students. Instead, envision your dream differentiated classroom and then work backwards to slowly incorporate small changes on a regular basis so students can become accustomed to them over time.

Use an anchor activity - Having a primary activity to engage a large group of students can help give you time to help smaller groups of students. Depending on your differentiated strategy this anchor activity can also be what you base your lesson plan on.

Keep a routine - As an elementary teacher you know how important routines are. The same holds true for differentiated learning. Have a similar routine so how activities start, groups are announced, work is turned in, and every other step that’s a repeatable process.

For more tips and tricks when it comes to managing your classroom, check out our full guide on classroom management strategies.

Collaborating with colleagues and parents

Colleagues who also use differentiated instruction can be a great source of support and inspiration when it comes to best practices. They can also be a great resource to leverage when you need a shoulder to lean on after a tough day in the classroom.

Clear communication with parents about differentiated instruction can help avoid misunderstandings and help align at home and in class instruction.

Assessment in Differentiated Instruction

Assessment techniques

Pre-assessments, in activity assessments, and after assessments can all be used to help you better use differentiated instruction in your classroom. Pre-assessment helps identify students that may be ready for curriculum compacting or students that may need additional support during a lesson plan. Assessments during an activity can help gauge how well students are picking up the objective of your lesson. Meanwhile post-activity assessments help you see how well students retain information and how much you need to adjust future lesson plans. 

Grading in a differentiated classroom

Differentiated assessment involves determining a rigorous, but comparably appropriate expectation, for student achievement based on the type of support a student needs. For students who did not require any accommodations to accomplish the activity, assessment is normal. But for students who needed accommodations, report that grades reflect performance on a modified expectation.

Providing feedback to students

Just like differentiated instruction adjusting to the needs of every student, differentiated feedback helps students depending on what feedback will be most effective for them. This feedback can take place before, during, or after an activity and can be verbal or written.

Check out our full guide on assessment tools for elementary teachers to understand how effective assessments fit into your cirriculum.

Common Challenges of Differentiated Instruction

Challenges in implementing differentiated instruction

It can be frustrating when you put a lot of effort into a new classroom activity and it doesn’t go well. Keep that in mind when you start implementing these new strategies in your classroom! Don’t let a bad day or start discourage you from keeping your plan to slowly make your classroom a differentiated learning center.

How to overcome challenges

Clearly communicate with students, parents, and your colleagues. This can help prevent challenges but also work through any that come up during your implementation. When in doubt, or if questions continue, getting support from your administration and other teachers who use differentiated learning can help provide a roadmap to follow.

Common misconceptions about differentiated instruction

Differentiated learning does not mean adjusting your teaching to only support students who are high achievers or students who are struggling. It is a teaching approach that empowers you to build your learning plans around the needs of all your students, regardless of their starting point. This doesn’t mean that particular groups of students will get more or less attention, but that you will craft your teaching around helping all students regardless of how they best learn.

The importance of differentiated instruction

Your classroom is a tapestry of diverse learners, each with their own abilities, backgrounds, and ways of processing information. This presents you with the challenge of catering to a wide variety of learning needs. Differentiated instruction is important because it gives you the ability to meet students where they are, keep them engaged, and provide support where it’s most needed. By differentiating instruction, you can help keep students curious and learning instead of disinterested in material.

Differentiated instruction is also important because it’s not just a teaching strategy for you but a mindset that helps you recognize the unique strengths and needs of all your students.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) vs Differentiated Instruction

Both UDL and differentiated learning are rooted in the idea of recognizing meeting the needs of all of your students. However there are some slight differences between the approaches that we’ll dive into.

UDL is a broader framework and philosophy for teaching, while differentiated instruction is a method that falls within that framework. UDL focuses on designing curriculum, materials, and assessments from the get-go in a way that addresses the diverse needs of all learners, right from the planning stage. For instance your classroom might provide options for accessing information: visual aids, audio explanations, and hands-on materials. This caters to different learning preferences and needs, making the learning environment inclusive from the start.

On the other hand, differentiated instruction is the practice of tailoring your teaching methods and content to meet the individual needs of students who are already in your classroom. It's about adjusting your teaching strategies based on ongoing assessments and observations. For example, during a reading lesson, you might assign different books to different groups of students based on their reading levels, ensuring that each group is appropriately challenged.


On the surface differentiated instruction sounds simple enough: adapt your teaching to best meet the needs of all of your students. But now you see that a lot of preparation goes into putting this plan in action.

Here are a few of the key differentiated instruction ideas we talked about today:

  • Start by understanding your students to know who can benefit from this approach
  • Use your classroom setup to help create a differentiated learning environment
  • Manage your classroom by keeping a consistent routine and clear communication
  • Use different differentiated assessment techniques to track progress
  • Communicate your vision to avoid major hiccups and to overcome common challenges

By reading this article you are already on your way to using differentiated learning to help your students achieve great things. Be sure to ask for help from your colleagues and administrators when you need it and don’t let bumps in the road stop you from creating your ideal classroom.

Innovative teachers who use differentiated instruction also tend to try new classroom technology to help prepare their students for the future. Kodable helps teach K-5 students the basics of computer programming in a fun and engaging way. Create your free account today to see if Kodable makes sense to add to your classroom.