Differentiated instruction allows us to tailor our teaching to the needs of individual students. Is it possible to offer very young children differentiated learning contexts and challenges? Does it involve too much extra planning, materials, or space?
From my experience, it’s not only possible but absolutely necessary to give these young students the chance to enjoy the learning experience fully. We need to offer learning contexts, tasks, and activities that carry the appropriate challenge and involve the child’s interests. We must also set reachable skills development goals, so that every child can participate in the learning experience feeling self-assured.
How to Begin
To decide when and how to differentiate your teaching approach, techniques, and strategies, you need to get to know your learners and, from there, plan your lessons accordingly. Here are some guidelines:
- First, decide on the learning context. For example: Will all the children be in the same space—the playground, the classroom, the science lab? Will you ask them to sit at tables, on a carpet, or will you allow them to walk around?
- Second, observe the children carefully. Notice the decisions they make while playing and, when possible, ask them why they’ve made a particular decision or choice. Also observe how they relate to one another. If they’re playing with another child, how are they playing? If not, why? For example, is one child “teaching” the other how to play? Or are they both learning from each other and making decisions together? Also, watch how they interact with the learning environment and the materials—if they use the materials with proper care, if they creatively give the materials different uses. Lastly, notice how they use their oral language and how they react to written language, if applicable.
- Once you’ve collected enough information to make a decision about how to approach each child, start planning the differentiation process.
2 Examples of Differentiation
3-year-olds using blocks in the classroom: Offer the children construction blocks and observe them playing. Ask them questions like these 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 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: Using a tower you build with a learner, or a small group of learners who seem ready for this step, 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.
5-year-olds using planting materials and tools in the playground or classroom: A good question to get started working on this topic is, How do we know if a plant needs a bigger pot or a bigger spot to live in? Invite the learners to observe plants in pots in the classroom or outside on the grounds and figure out if the plant needs to be transplanted to a bigger place. This gives you the chance to work on the different parts of a plant and their functions, what a plant needs to grow and why, and what each resource provides the plant. You can also teach about the soil—the texture, smell, and color, and even the composition.
To differentiate the tasks you offer the learners, it’s important to interact with them while they walk around and observe the plants.
- Ask the learners interested in the topic to touch the plant and name the different parts they can see. Then ask what part of the plant is in the soil (roots), what those are for, how big they are, and what color they are.
- If a number of students show that they know enough about the parts of the plant, ask them to choose a label (that you’ve prepared beforehand) with the name of each part of the plant, and ask how they were able to read the labels, to check if they're aware of their decoding and reading process.
- Some children may not be interested in manipulating the plant and the soil, but they might want to draw a diagram of the plant or make a representation using modeling dough or clay. Later, the other children who were able to read the labels can place them on the diagram and show their peers how to determine where to put each label.
- For those who might be ready for deeper research work, ask them, What color is the plant? Why do you think this is? And from there, make a list of the different hypotheses the children come up with and develop an inquiry-based project.
- Children love to connect their learning with music, so ask them to come up with a simple song that includes, for example, the parts of the plant, the needs of the plant, and how to take care of the plant.
Differentiating learning opportunities so that children can have an effective and inspiring developmental experience shows the commitment of the school and the teachers in respecting the children and addressing their needs, interests, and skills development with equity.
While differentiation isn’t as difficult as it may seem at first, it’s a good idea to start small. Choose a task or one part of a task to differentiate the activities or questions. Give yourself the chance to learn how to handle this together with the children. They will guide you. Trust yourself and trust your learners.