Meeting Students' Needs: Differentiation Tips for Teachers

Meeting Students' Needs: Differentiation Tips for Teachers

If you're child isn't in special education they are missing out.

Yeah I know how that sounds but hear me out.

A mentor teacher once told me, "Every teacher should be trained in special education, and every student should have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)." This statement hit me hard because it's so obviously true—no two children learn alike. The variations in students' strengths, struggles, learning experiences, history, optimal learning times, preferred communication methods, social learning styles, and optimized environments are vast.

Who wouldn't benefit from an IEP, and what teacher wouldn't gain by being trained to meet or at least identify how to optimize their teaching for most students' needs?

Now, I'm not dismissing or being casual about the very real stigma and segregation that can come with a disability label. Ableism is ingrained in our culture, particularly in schools and classrooms.

But just imagine the inclusivity that could occur by recognizing everyone's learning differences and celebrating them—a dream, right?

However, I think a more realistic starting point is to focus on what teachers can do right now to make their instruction and classroom supports cater to as many diverse learning needs as possible.

As a teacher, I understand the gut-wrenching fury you might feel reading that statement. We are underpaid, under-resourced, and expected to save the world as it is.

Yet, the point here, and in much of my recent work, is to pose the question: Is there a better way we could approach instruction and organization to make our jobs easier and learning more effective?

About a month ago, I started collecting resources and researching neurodiversity in the general education classroom. I'm shocked at the neglect shown to teachers in preparing them for the diversity of the brain or the potential impact of large-scale trauma (such as COVID).

Most of my knowledge on inclusion, diversifying learning spaces, and using culturally relevant teaching has come from post-grad studies, personal interest, and my own experiences of being disabled and facing other disadvantages in the classroom.

Some argue that undergrad is for "basic" studies. I counter with, "How useful is understanding the order of kingdom, phylum, class, order, genus, species in my everyday job?" It's not, unless I get into a debate with one of my kids about exoskeletons again.

While some had the privilege of attending great teacher prep programs, many of us did not.

For teachers who want it, here are a few tips I use to make my classroom as inclusive as possible. These and a ton more are provided in my Neurodivergent Toolkit click here


I ensure my students stay engaged every 1-2 minutes (for younger classes, it's 45 seconds to 1 minute). Whether it's through repeat-after-me, call-and-response, thumb dials, tasking, or posing a question, I create minimal opportunities for their minds to drift.

Tasking Instead of Asking:
- I employ various methods such as whiteboards, thumb dials, partner discussions, finger counting, sitting down/standing up, and heads down/up to involve all students in responding to questions.
- For those unfamiliar with tasking, it involves posing a question and having the entire class perform a task to answer it. For example, "Draw or write on the whiteboard an organic shape" or "Whisper the answer to number 3 to a partner."

Use of Interactives:
- I incorporate discussions, group work, Kahoot, student teachers, pointing, shouting out, charades, and even pairing my information-carrying words with sign language or movements to prevent my students' minds from wandering.

 During Directions:
- I request students to give me a thumbs up when they complete a step. Breaking down each direction into manageable steps, I ensure understanding, and if I notice a student is "lost," I'll say, "Give me a thumbs up when you have your pink paper in front of you."

Name Tagging:
- When addressing a specific student, I use their name and ensure I have their attention before providing explicit instructions on what they need to do.

Organizing the Lesson:

For lesson organization, I follow a method called cue, chunk, chew. If you haven't read Zaretta Hammond’s “Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain,” I highly recommend it. This book introduced me to cognitive load theory and the cue, chunk, chew approach. Without delving into technicalities, let me outline the main points and how you can implement it:

Cueing the Brain:

- I signal the start of my class by using the same 10-deep breath video. This pairs visuals and sound with the physical act of breathing, and I consistently use the same video. This not only provides a "soft start" but also informs the brain that it's time for Ms. Wheaton's class, activating all areas of the brain storing information related to me and my class.

- Cueing also involves pre-loading a lesson with key ideas and connecting them to prior knowledge. After the breathing exercise, I always ask, "What do you remember from the last time we were together?" Following this discussion, I introduce a leading question and key ideas, asking students where they have encountered those words or phrases before. I cover 1 or 2 important ideas that students need to understand for today's learning.

Chunking Information:

- I break down the information into bite-sized pieces and then engage the students with the new content. The short-term memory can only absorb about 15-20 minutes of information before needing to rest and process—this is where chewing on the information comes in.

Chewing on Information:

- Students "chew" on the information through a processing activity, practicing/experimenting with new skills, or a reflection activity. For reflection activities, I utilize question prompts and word banks that students create.

In summary:

- Engage students every 1-2 minutes.
- Task instead of ask.
- Use cues, chunking, and chewing.
- Consider reading Zaretta Hammond's "Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain."

These tips and more are included in the Neurodivergent Bundle linked here.

Contribute To The Discussion:
- What are some ways you engage learners?
- Which tip above do you want to try? Why?
- Have you tried one of the tips before? How did it go? What did you learn?"

Back to blog

1 comment

I really want to try a visual timer that I can use to respect short term memory capacity in the classroom. Whenever a phone or ipad timer rings its jarring to the students, being able to see the progress of a break or learning time will definetly help with transitioning.


Leave a comment

    1 out of ...