How to Differentiate Instruction for Diverse Learners

Learn how to differentiate instruction for diverse learners with these tips from a special education teacher.

Teaching a group of diverse learners can be a challenge. Students with disabilities are often grouped with gifted students. What’s a teacher to do?

Maybe you already know how to differentiate instruction and are looking for a few new tricks. Or maybe you’re feeling stuck and don’t know where to begin. Either way, you’ve come to the right place.

Sometimes teachers feel overwhelmed working with diverse learners. Students with disabilities often require more attention, while gifted students become bored without appropriate enrichment. And let’s not forget the majority of the class who fall within the average range. Each of those students has their own needs and interests too.

How can one teacher address all of those individual needs? Read on for a few teaching tips to start off in the right direction.


Incorporate centers into your routine for diverse learners.

books with title using centers with diverse learners


Learning centers are common in the lower grades, especially in special education. And if you teach preschool through second grade, chances are that you’re already using centers.

But what if you teach older students? Is it appropriate to use centers with older students? My answer is…YES.

How you use centers will depend on what is appropriate for your group’s age, interests, and the subject you teach. Believe it or not, I sometimes use centers while teaching at the college level. I’m confident that you can make it work in your classroom too!


Actually, what I mean by the word “centers” is really just more than one activity going on at one time. Instead of completing tasks one by one as a whole group, try doing them in small rotating groups.


Here’s an example of center activities. It’s a great way to differentiate instruction:


Group 1: Direct instruction with the teacher

Group 2: Independent work at desks

Group 3:  Research for an upcoming project on computers in back of the room

When you break students into smaller groups, you can more accurately tailor the assignment to your students’ needs.


Use Flexible Grouping For Differentiated Instruction.


Grouping students by ability can help you to provide a lesson better suited to their needs. However, it’s important to switch up the groups often if you use this approach. Periodically mix the groups up by interest, learning style, personal choice, and sometimes randomly so that no one feels “stuck” in any one group.


Personally, I changed my groups upweekly and were different according to subject level. Whatever group that students were in for reading had nothing to do with their math group. Since we switched it up regularly so there really wasn’t any one “high” or “low” group.


The students seemed to enjoy mixing it up and it kept things fresh and interesting for everyone. Give it a try… It isn’t as hard as you think!



Let Them Differentiate Their Own Instruction. Offer Choices When Possible.

Offering choices for diverse learning. whiteboard with differentiated instruction options

Give students choices in how they want to learn. This allows them to become more motivated. A motivated student is an engaged student.


Provide a variety of assignments that meet the content standard you’re working on. Allow students to choose their lesson task.


“One way to boost confidence is through empowerment. Introducing lots of choices for writing tools, varying activities that strengthen a specific handwriting goal, or even the line sizes of primary paper. Having a wide range of resources readily available welcomes students with the freedom to choose.”

Ultimately, our job as teachers is to coach students in the right direction. We challenge them, provide assistance, and encourage them to push further in their learning.


Design Tiered Assignments for Students with Disabilities.

tiered instruction activity: same lesson, differentiated tasks


Tiered instruction goes naturally with centers and student choice. Tiered instruction is essentially the same lesson or standard taught with different tasks.

In addition to our daily circle time activities, I also had my students practice writing the Days and Months as a morning independent work task. Some students cut and paste the letters while some stamped, and some traced, and others were able to just copy the words without help.

All students were working on the same standard, but the lesson was modified for their individual needs. These activities can be found in my TPT shop. These activities are no-prep and great to have on hand for morning work, early finishers, sub plans, and even homework. 

days of the week freebie resource with options for differentiated instruction
days of the week resource with options for differentiated instruction

Ultimately, it’s essential to differentiate activities in the classroom, especially in special education. Our students are unique people with individual needs. Some may have sensory issues while others have autism or other special needs. It can become exhausting for teachers, but there are tricks to make it easier.

I hope you’ve found my tips how to differentiate instruction helpful. If you have any additional tips that might help a novice teacher, please share it with us in the comments below!

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