Un-Scary Differentiation #1 – Culture is Key!

One of the hardest things about implementing readiness-based differentiation in the classroom is figuring out how to introduce it to students.  Sometimes we just avoid talking about it and hope the kids don’t notice.  And then inevitably we have a student who blurts out a question about why they have the longest assignment or the yellow folder and we’re stuck like a deer in headlights.   Other times we’re bluntly honest and kids’ feelings can get hurt.  If there’s not a positive culture around your differentiation, kids can feel ashamed when they get pulled into a small group or students can carelessly or bitterly make comments about people’s various levels – both of these stifle motivation and learning.  I’ve had plenty of messaging missteps with differentiation in the classroom, but have also found a few tried and true strategies that helped get things off on the right foot.

  • Have students own their needs – I taught ELA and to introduce formal differentiation and small group instruction early in the year, I would ask the class questions like, ‘Who feels like they need help with spelling?’ ‘Who loves to read?’ ‘Who thinks they need help with grammar and writing?’  After they’d all raised their hands for something, I’d follow up with, “Thanks so much for being willing to share that with the class and me!  …Who needed help with spelling again? Perfect – I agree!  So you’re going to work on spelling more!’  And then I’d go on to explain the plan or procedure.  Since the students were the ones who owned their strengths and weaknesses by raising their hands, they were more likely to be invested in whatever groupings I put them in versus if I just assign them.  Another option is having them look through their own diagnostic or assessment data and having them identify their areas for growth in a more formal way to increase their buy-in for what group or assignment they’d be working with.


  • Cushioning – Before starting a new or complicated objective, I would preface the lesson by letting them know that we were going to do something new or difficult and that some would catch on quickly and some would need a couple of extra tries before it clicked and that either was okay.  I’d call on them to be leaders at their tables if they caught on quickly and encouraged them to speak up if they needed help or were confused.  This helped the students to respond positively no matter how they progressed in the lesson and many of my typical strugglers would readily speak up and ask for help versus feeling nervous or embarrassed about not understanding.  This comfort level carried over when it was time to pull small groups, as well.


  • Truth Signs – These relate to cushioning and served as good touch points throughout the year in my class.  On small posters around the room were truths about learning like, ‘We all learn in our own ways, in our own time’ and ‘Deep learning occurs when we make mistakes and correct them.’ I introduced each one at the beginning of the year and then referred to them when I cushioned a new objective or if a student got frustrated.  Internalizing these truths helped nurture a growth mindset and boost their confidence when they hit a roadblock.


  • Transparent, flexible grouping – This is getting into structure, but is crucial to culture.  When I was speaking to people about this topic, a few were almost confused at the question because they had focused on this piece and so culture had mostly taken care of itself.  If students can visibly see their progress on class objectives, are grouped based on their progress, and those groups continually change based on progress, there isn’t a stigma because there isn’t a ‘low’ group that kids are perpetually stuck in.  More on grouping strategies in an upcoming post!

Click here to receive our blogs by e-mail!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *