Encouraging Differentiation

The Role of School Leaders

Inclusion Rules by Paula Kluth
Educators in leadership positions are critical members of collaborative teams and serve as the philosophical backbone of an inclusive school. It is very hard—but not impossible—to provide all students with an education that is appropriate, challenging, engaging, motivating and inclusive if administrators are not aware of the tools and practices needed to grow an inclusive school. As part of this commitment to inclusive schooling, administrators must become supportive of and knowledgeable about differentiated instruction.

Creating Differentiated Classrooms: What Can a School Leader Do?

Teachers will not feel comfortable making changes in their instruction, working in innovative ways with colleagues, or taking risks with the curriculum and service delivery if they feel these changes will be ignored or viewed in a negative way. On the other hand, dramatic changes in both teaching behavior and student learning are possible when administrators communicate support and empowerment to educators and encourage innovation. Administrators wanting to encourage teachers to stretch and modify their teaching approaches can do so by encouraging role sharing, providing planning time, and supporting internal staff development.

Encourage Role Sharing

One of the easiest ways to differentiate instruction is to change some of the roles and responsibilities of the adults in the building (Schwarz & Kluth, 2007). Consider the following scenario:

Ms. Rincon served as a paraprofessional in an inclusive sixth-grade classroom. It was her responsibility to make sure that three students with learning disabilities stayed “on-task” and followed through on the classroom teacher’s directions. Throughout the day, she often sat in the back of the classroom and listened to Ms. Goddard, the classroom teacher provide instruction (e.g., lecture, question the students, read aloud). When Ms. Goddard stopped the whole-class piece of the lesson in order to give students time to work on their own or in small groups, Ms. Rincon split her time among the three students she was assigned. She moved from one desk to the next to answer questions and re-teach elements of the lesson. If the three students were working efficiently, Ms. Rincon sat next to one of them and supervised that particular student’s work.

While on the surface, Ms. Rincon’s activities may appear to be appropriate, some critical questions might elicit a different reaction and prompt us to consider how a shift in roles and responsibilities can inspire more differentiation in the classroom:

  • What could Ms. Rincon be doing during those times when “her” students are already on-task and engaged?;
  • How can Ms. Rincon’s talents be used to support a wider range of learners?;
  • How can Ms. Goddard collaborate with Ms. Rincon to change her own role in the classroom?; and
  • How can the two adults work together to give all students a more challenging, meaningful, and appropriate education?

To answer these questions, consider this revised scenario:

Throughout the day, Ms. Rincon has many different roles and responsibilities. During whole-class instruction, she often teaches alongside Ms. Goddard. Since she does not know the content very well, she contributes by writing down key points or by taking visual “picture” notes on the chalkboard. This helps to boost the comprehension of students with learning disabilities and others in the classroom who profit from both hearing and seeing the content. When it is time to read aloud to the students or to have them read aloud, the adults break the class into two groups so students are working in smaller groups and having more opportunities to share. When students are working on their own or in small groups, Ms. Rincon checks on the three students with identified needs before moving on to question, support, and direct other learners in the classroom.

If no particular student appears to need help, she moves from student to student and asks each a “challenge” question that Ms. Goddard has created. When the student answers the question, Ms. Rincon records the response on her clipboard so Ms. Goddard can use the data to assess what learners in this class know and what they still need.

In order to make the types of changes described in this scenario in your building, begin by assessing what the different adults in your building do and do not do on an average day. Ask the following questions:

  • Do all adults take responsibility for all students?
  • Do all adults feel comfortable providing support to all students?
  • Are any of the talents of the adults in this building being wasted?
  • Are teachers working together to meet the needs of students?
  • Are we duplicating roles and responsibilities where we should be delegating and distributing roles and responsibilities?

Discuss responses with staff members and facilitate a conversation about how adults can work together to teach all learners more effectively.

Provide Planning Time

If teachers are to take significant steps to change their curriculum, teaching strategies, and instructional materials, they will need support from colleagues and administrators alike. One way to increase the possibility that teachers will get such support is to put structures in place that will encourage the exchange of ideas and the giving and receiving feedback; a team meeting is an example of such a structure.

Team meetings are especially critical when teachers work in classrooms where students with and without identified disabilities are receiving instruction together. In these instances, more than one adult is likely responsible for the education of learners in the classroom. Whenever possible all of these adults need regular time to meet weekly. For those groups who cannot find time to meet weekly, longer monthly sessions can be used to engage in long-term planning while other types of tools and structures can be employed for daily and weekly communication.

If money is an issue (and it typically is), administrators must look for creative solutions to planning. You might, for instance, seek grant money to support your new collaborative model, solicit volunteers for certain non-instructional activities to create small windows of meeting time (e.g., lunch duty, recess supervision), partner with businesses to get funding for substitute teachers, or ask support staff (e.g., social workers, therapists) to cover classrooms while small groups of teachers collaborate.

Educate From the Inside

While many school districts and individual schools look to the “outside” for staff development opportunities, differentiated instruction is one topic that may be best left to the insiders. While some staff development may be necessary or desirable, much of the teaching and learning of specific techniques can happen between staff members of a faculty or of a district. Many teachers are already implementing differentiated instruction techniques and may be quite willing to share what they know with others. The benefit of “learning within” is that teachers who learn from their colleagues can try new strategies or techniques and go back to their “instructor” for follow-up questions or to collaborate to develop new ideas.

One district implemented an in-house teach and learn model by designating one of their staff development days as “learn a new technique” day. Every teacher had to choose from a menu of ten different differentiation ideas including project-based instruction, tiered lessons, compacting, station teaching, learning agendas, cross-age tutoring, unit contracts, flexible groupings, interest groups, and big-idea questions. These teachers then spent the day learning about the technique or structure and planning how to use it in their own classrooms. Each teacher then committed to teaching the structure to at least two colleagues before the next staff development day. Therefore, by the next staff development day, each teacher was responsible for integrating their chosen strategy into their classroom in some way and for sharing it with fellow teachers. On the second staff development day, teachers who found great success using their new techniques were asked to present to a larger group of their colleagues. All of the presenters shared videos of their lessons and gave tips on how to use the techniques across grade levels and content areas.


Schwarz, P. & Kluth, P. (2007). You’re welcome. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.