Matt Homrich-Knieling January 18, 2023

3 Ways to Support Teachers with Differentiation for Diverse Learners

Matt Homrich-Knieling

Writer and Educator

As a first year teacher, I walked into my pre-service professional development meetings with such optimism and energy. With ideas for lessons and projects swirling in my mind, I was ready to put all of my teacher education preparation into practice. 

When I received information about my soon-to-be students, much of my optimism and excitement was replaced with panic and insecurity. 

The immense pressure and responsibility of educating youth, which had previously motivated my desire to become a teacher, quickly felt debilitating: How was I supposed to assign reading to students whose reading levels varied from first grade to eighth grade? How was I supposed to facilitate discussions with students who didn’t speak English? 

These are questions that weigh on so many teachers. As such, school leaders have an imperative to ameliorate these anxieties by providing context-specific differentiation support for their teachers.

Keep reading for ways to support your teachers best practices for differentiating instruction!

What is differentiation?

Put simply, differentiation is the way in which teachers attempt to meet the individualized and diverse learning needs of their students. 

In education, we often think about differentiation in three categories:

  • Content: By differentiating content, we provide different entry points into academic content. This might be offering a text at several reading levels, translating texts into students’ home languages, or defining vocabulary through a written, verbal, and visual definition.
  • Process: By differentiating process, we provide various means of engaging with the academic content. This might mean creating reading groups to support students at different reading levels, allowing students choice in research topics that engage their lived experiences or cultures, or creating learning stations that allow for small group and tailored activities.
  • Product: By differentiating product, we allow students to demonstrate their learning through different outcomes. This might mean adapting rubrics to meet diverse student needs or creating options for final projects that emphasize various learning needs or styles.

How to Support your Teachers’ Differentiated Instruction

Set realistic expectations

One of the most important ways that school leaders can support teachers in differentiating their instruction is by creating realistic expectations and a supportive culture. Despite the pressure that teachers feel, it is not feasible that educators will meet 100% of each students’ needs, 100% of the time, 100% of the school year. When teachers feel the pressure to meet such an unattainable goal, they are likely to burn themselves out trying or giving up entirely.  

Many teachers will even avoid asking for help or support when there are such realistic expectations, because they don’t want to appear to be a failure or incapable of doing their job.

As a first-year teacher myself, I recall moments of feeling like a failure by my inability to develop lessons that always met all of my students’ learning needs. The feeling of failure most often led to self-isolating rather than seeking support from my administration.

Instead, school leaders can set the clear intention that teachers need to support their students’ diverse needs, alongside an explicit grace that some days differentiation is more successful than others. This shift in school culture alleviates some of the urgency for perfection, which opens up space for teachers to think more clearly, take more pedagogic risks, collaborate, and ask for help.

Create school-wide differentiation initiatives

Differentiating looks different in each school because each student population comes with a diverse set of needs. School leaders can support differentiation by developing school-wide, common strategies that are aligned with their school’s particular needs.

This might look like collaborating with your school’s special education and social work teams to conduct a big picture overview of student needs each year. By reviewing IEPs and 504 Plans, test scores, feedback from teachers, and more, school leaders can identify the high level needs of their students. 

With this understanding, school leaders can choose 2-3 differentiation strategies that align with their school’s specific needs. This takes some of the burden off teachers to be solely responsible for developing strategies, creates a common language throughout the staff, and allows for more targeted opportunities for support. School leaders could provide on-going professional development around these strategies throughout the school year and even seek the support of teacher leaders to mentor their colleagues around these common initiatives. 

Develop teacher-specific differentiation initiatives 

Creating school-wide differentiation initiatives works on the macro-level, but on the micro-level, there are likely to be outlying student needs within individual classrooms. This is where school leaders can support teachers in developing their own classroom-level initiatives.

Following a similar process as the school leaders, teachers can review their own rosters to identify the specific needs of their students. From there, school leaders can support their teachers in identifying the gaps between the school-wide differentiation initiatives and both their student rosters and their academic subject area. 

For example, a teacher might recognize that they have a significant proportion of the school’s English Language Learner (ELL) population on their roster, and as such, the teacher might identify 1-2 differentiation strategies that will support their ELL students. 

Differentiated instruction is, no doubt, an overwhelming task. Nevertheless, students deserve access to an education that is accessible, appropriately-challenging, engaging, and humanizing. By creating a culture of support and realistic expectations, along with developing strategic school-wide and classroom-specific initiatives, school leaders can start to take the teeth out of differentiation, and instead, reignite the excitement and energy around creatively meeting students’ needs! This is the level of support that I wish I had as an early career educator, and the support that all teachers and students deserve.

Looking for more tactics to support your teachers while helping them avoid burnout? Tune into our recent webinar on Best Practices for Differentiated Instruction.

Watch the Webinar