Differentiation and Classroom Management

When was the last time you did something you were really bad at? I recently attended a Zumba class (dance cardio) for the first time. If I had to describe the experience in 3 words: exhausting, confusing, and most of all humiliating.

Blaring music signaled the start of class as the instructor skipped to the front of the room. She jumped right into complex dance moves. Arms were flying, legs were tapping out complicated rhythms. I watched intently and tried to copy her smooth movements with my awkward body.

As class proceeded, without fail, the very moment I’d begin to feel like I might have this move figured out, the instructor would switch it up and start something new. Everyone was going left in perfect synchronicity. I was going right.

To make matters worse, the teacher did next to nothing to help out a lost soul like me. There were no counts or cues as to what might be coming next. In a way, I felt abandoned. My shame started to fade slightly towards anger, and I wondered if there was any way out of this without looking even more stupid than I already felt.

Needless to say, the experience opened my eyes. How often are we that instructor, happily jiving with the kids that “get it?” How often do we brush off the kids who can’t keep up? Shrugging them off with comments like “Well if he’d do his homework he’d probably know what’s going on in class.”

What is Differentiation?

Differentiation is defined as the process of assessing students’ readiness, grouping them based on that readiness, and then delivering content within each group’s zone of proximal development. In other words, as teachers we should be giving each student something that challenges them a little bit, but not so much that they become frustrated and quit. (I was way out of my zone of proximal development in Zumba class.)

I think it’s fair enough to go ahead and admit that this is a huge ask for an exhausted teacher in an overfilled classroom. I’m not writing this to demand that you become Superman and create 5 lessons in one for every topic you teach.

What I am going to ask, though, is that you start thinking of simple ways that you can move in this direction. As you read on, I’m going to try to convince you that differentiation can change your life when it comes to classroom management. Maybe differentiation isn’t something you stress out about as a first year teacher or someone who is teaching brand new content, but as you grow and become more comfortable, you can play with some new ideas.

If you’re starting to differentiate from scratch, one really great place to start is with Blooms Taxonomy. Look for ways you can level your content and expectations based on these categories and you’ll be well on your way to at least some success.

Something I’ve Tried

One differentiation strategy I’ve tried is transforming one of my units into a self paced “flipped classroom” situation. This unit contains 5 topics of gradually increasing difficulty, each building on the last. I taught the first topic to the entire class (monohybrid crosses), and then gave a quiz. If a student passed the quiz with 80% or higher, they were allowed moved on to the next module. For each of the remaining 4 modules, I had an instructional video, a practice worksheet, and a quiz. The 80% rule remained true throughout the remaining modules.

If a student scored below 80% on the first quiz, they were required to stayed on that topic. Conveniently, I had several resources prepared to support them. For the first time in some of these children’s lives, they were not left behind. They were given all the time they needed to master this content, and they were not shamed for their needs. I cannot describe to you the joy of the moment, sometimes 5-6 days later, when some of these kids finally got it. Seeing their faces light up paid me more than my salary ever could.

As the unit progressed, the speedier students naturally grouped themselves into “teams” of similar ability levels. They worked together through the steps, teaching one another as they went along so that everyone in the group would successfully pass the quiz.

As I was completely freed up from “whole group” instruction, I was able to spend my time helping anyone with anything. In the end, and this is the kicker, I only assessed students up to the level that they achieved within the modules. Yes, some of my students never made it past the first topic, but they did master that topic.

I am extremely aware that high stakes testing can make it feel almost “wrong” to let a student get by without mastering the complete standard, but isn’t partial mastery better than none at all? Maybe just getting a few of the vocabulary terms down pat is good enough today for a child who usually checks out completely.

Download the Ultimate Guide to Classroom Management in Middle School in PDF format here.

Differentiation and Classroom Management

Now this isn’t necessarily a blog about instructional strategies. If I had differentiation all figured out, I’d probably be a millionaire. Instead, I’m here to convince you that even the tiniest sprinkling of differentiation might be able to seriously alleviate some of your classroom management woes.

It’s an age old tenet of classroom management theory that kids would rather be BAD than STUPID. As busy teachers, we forget how important this fact is, and more importantly how much it’s affecting the management of our class. Thinking back to my Zumba fiasco, I can certainly relate. Phrases like “This instructor sucks.” or “I really don’t like dancing anyway.” sprang into my mind as ways to take the focus off my own lack of proficiency.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and take a guess. Is the behavior problem kid in your class good at school? Is he an A student? Or does he struggle with reading? Is she slower than everyone else?

Just like me in Zumba, this child is most likely faced every day with the choice to try and be embarrassed, or to not try and to find other ways to earn the acceptance of their peers. Even if this child is acting very tough, I can almost guarantee that they are ashamed. They want to experience the feelings of success and proficiency. They want the adults in their life to be proud of them. But so far, that has been inaccessible to them.

If you’re having a really tough time with an entire class, try to take a day and only give work that’s accessible to ALL students. Find an assignment that everyone can do without help, and praise them when they complete it. Here’s some tips based on what’s worked for me.

Things Not to Do:

  • Group work
  • Assignments requiring multiple steps
  • Projects requiring fine motor skills
  • Anything involving reading comprehension

All of the above force students into situations where they may not be able to succeed. If you’ve got a student or a class that constantly feels like a failure, they’re likely going to respond by turning the class into a game. A game is more fun than a feeling of failure. 

Things To Do:

  • Coloring
  • Copying definitions
  • Worksheets leveled a few grades down

All of this might sound a little babyish and really lacking in rigor, but boy does it work. I’ve never seen a group of kids working so intently as the day I gave a terrible class a list of words to define. To up the ante, I promised to email parents of students who completed the work. For the first time in a long time, some of my worst behavior problems had a clear path to earning my and their parents’ praises.

As promised, I sent the emails. I spoke highly of the student and asked the parents to pass on my praise for their diligent work. Some of my baddest kids came in the next day beaming as they told me how proud their parents were. “My mom and dad wouldn’t stop kissing me all over!” one said, barely faking his annoyance.

Another benefit to this day of doable work will give you a chance to step out of the role of Answer Giver. I use opportunities like these to spend time sitting down with my students and building relationships. Not having to spend the entire time talking about content gives me a chance to learn more about the child. 

And if it’s just one kid and not the whole class that’s struggling, feel free to give just that child a separate assignment. Make it sound important. Say, “I found this worksheet I’m thinking of using some of the questions on a quiz. Could you solve it for me first and tell me if you think it’s hard enough?” If it’s easy they’re going to be so impressed with themselves. Show them that you’re impressed too.

Conclusion

“No. Not this kid.” you may say. “No matter what I give him he’s going to act a fool. “ I implore you. Just try it.  If you can’t take a whole day for the class, try giving just that student or group of students some work that’s leveled a few grade levels below. Meet them in their zone of proximal development.

Sometimes, behavior gets out of hand simply because our students can’t find any other way to enjoy the class. And everyone enjoys feeling smart. If you make a clear path for your students to success, they’re guaranteed to at least try it. Throw in some differentiation and see if your classroom management improves!


I am compiling all the blog posts in this series in an E-Book. If you feel that PDF format will be easier to read, or you’d like to donate to my efforts in supporting new and struggling teachers, please:

Download the Ultimate Guide to Classroom Management in Middle School E-Book

or

Read more blog posts on classroom management.

More Helpful Links on Differentiation:


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Laney Lee
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Published by Laney Lee

I'm an American expat in Abu Dhabi seeking new ways to support teachers. I currently teach grade 7 science, run a Teacher Pay Teachers store, and am writing a book on classroom management.

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