This post originally appeared on the blog Conversations from the Classroom.

Do you have diverse learners in your classroom? Are some students way ahead of others? Maybe you have students with special needs or limited English. Now what?

Trying to accommodate different ability levels and individual student needs at the same time can seem overwhelming, but there are techniques that can make it more manageable.

In this post, I’ll give you a few tips to handling a variety of needs in the same classroom. Here are a few tricks that helped me as an elementary special education teacher:


This is a no- brainer for teachers in the lower grades. If you teach PreK through second grade, then 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 completely depend on what is appropriate for your group’s age, interests, and subjects being taught. If I was able to utilize centers while teaching a college course, then I’m confident that you can make it work in your classroom too!

What I mean by the word “centers”, though, 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.

Your groups could look something like this:

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

Breaking the class down into smaller groups gives you the opportunity to more accurately tailor the assignment to their needs.


Grouping students by ability level can help you to provide a lesson better suited to their needs, but it is important to switch up the groups often. Try periodically mixing the groups up by interest, learning style, personal choice, or even randomly so that no student feels “stuck” in any one group.

My groups changed weekly and were different according to subject level. In other words, whatever group students were in for reading had nothing to do with their math group. 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!


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.

Our job as teachers is to coach them in the right direction. We challenge them, provide assistance if necessary, and encourage them to push further in their learning.


Tiered instruction goes hand in hand with centers and student choice. A tiered assignment is basically the same lesson or standard taught with different tasks.

When working on the Days of the Week and Months of the Year with my self-contained students, I used different activities to address my objective. 

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, some stamped, and some traced, while others were able to just copy the words without help.

All of the 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. You can get my Days of the Week Sample for FREE and try them out!       

I hope you’ve found my tips on differentiating instruction helpful. If you decide to try one out, I would love to hear how it went in. If you have any additional tips that might help a novice teacher, please share it with us!

Make sure to go check out my store, Exceptional Thinkers for more resources for diverse learners!

And you can follow Exceptional Thinkers for new products, discounts, updates, and freebies. Here’s where you can find me:

Teachers Pay Teachers

Keep teaching. Keep learning.
Christy from Exceptional Thinkers


Exceptional Thinkers: Teacher-Author on TpTChristy from Exceptional Thinkers has taught for 9 years, with most of her teaching experience in elementary special education. Christy has had the privilege of teaching everything from a preschool autism program through upper level college courses. Currently, Christy is home with her two busy boys and teaches education courses at a local community college.

Having taught such a diverse and wide range of students, Christy has found that a keystone of learning is having student-centered instruction, no matter the age or ability level. Students should be actively engaged in their academic activities, so Christy gives her students choice within the classroom, with opportunities to actively pursue the lesson at their own pace.

When Christy began teaching children with severe disabilities, she quickly realized that she wouldn’t be able to use the textbooks provided by the school. She spent lots of time modifying and recreating materials that were more appropriate for her students. Christy wondered if there were other teachers working with low functioning students who would benefit from the type of resources she was creating for her students. When Christy finally discovered Teachers Pay Teachers, she decided to start up her own store. She wanted teachers to have access to materials that she didn’t have in her early years of teaching special education.

Today, Exceptional Thinkers offers many materials that Christy used in her own classrooms. She is currently working on a line of life skills resources and will continue adding new materials for diverse learners. If you’re looking for resources and ideas for special education or students with varied needs, follow Exceptional Thinkers on TpT. You can also connect with Christy on InstagramFacebook, and Pinterest.