Differentiation in education to help students requiring additional support

A female teacher looks over a young girl's shoulder, reviewing her work on her tablet while other pupils work independently on their own devices.

Published: May 20th, 2024

Understanding differentiation in education

Within each classroom, you’ll find a variety of preferred learning styles and ability levels. Some children will work better in quiet concentration, while others will thrive with interactive group work. A section of the class may rely on words, while others will learn best with visual clues. Some will be ready for the next challenge while their peers are still grasping the basics. As teachers know, no two children are the same. That’s why a teaching approach that works for one pupil will not necessarily suit another. 

With classroom sizes growing in recent years, meeting the needs of each student is becoming increasingly difficult. And with real-terms spending cuts to the funds used to support children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), teachers have an even greater need to adapt lessons to suit a broad range of abilities.

But how can teachers tailor their lessons to each child? Differentiation – which involves delivering lessons that suit various learning styles – could be the answer.

What is differentiation in education?

Differentiated instruction is a method of teaching which involves understanding how different students learn and offering various learning methods to suit every pupil. This differs from individualised teaching, which focuses on one-to-one support, as it instead involves adjusting one-to-many lessons to suit a range of learning styles. 

Differentiated instruction was pioneered by American educator and author Carol Ann Tomlinson, who breaks it down into four core elements:

1. Content

Content is the learning material used in the classroom. This could be an active problem-solving exercise or something to consume, like a video. 

Different children will learn more from certain content types. For example, some learners may benefit from labelled illustrations, while others might prefer having a textbook. Individual pupils will also process information at different speeds, and some content types are easier for students to digest at their own pace.

Differentiation helps teachers use a variety of content styles across a lesson so that each student can learn in their preferred way. Offering different content forms can increase inclusivity and engagement in the classroom. Students struggling with their reading may find a silent textbook task impossible, but they could successfully learn the same information via a narrated video.

Explain Everything makes it simple for teachers to diversify content in their classrooms. Teachers can add multimedia to the flipcharts they show on their ActivPanel interactive displays. A variety of multimedia helps cater to the different content needs within each cohort. Teachers can show videos, annotate images, highlight text, and much more—all on a single display and all in one lesson.

2. Process

The process is how students learn and carry out activities. This could be in small groups, one-to-one instruction, or working in pairs. 

Teachers can group pupils based on ability or mix students to encourage peer support. If grouping by ability but giving all students the same task, the group sizes could vary based on existing skills. For example, those struggling may need a larger group to complete the same task in the timeframe. Alternatively, teachers can adapt the task to suit the abilities of each set. 

By breaking off the class into groups, teachers can also offer one-to-one instruction to pupils who need additional support.

If putting students in pairs, teachers may match more skilled students with those taking longer to understand the subject. This can help the struggling student get peer support while empowering the other child. Some students learn better when playing the role of the teacher, so getting those pupils to support their classmates can help them take in more of the information too. 

Teachers can use a Promethean ActivPanel to facilitate the process for one or two groups. They can split the interactive displays into two, with multiple pupils able to work on each side of the screen. Teachers can assign students who enjoy interactive learning to conduct their tasks via the panel. 

3. Product

The product is how students show their learnings. This could be completing a test or worksheet, giving a presentation back to the class, or writing an essay.

To offer differentiation, teachers may have numerous groups deliver their own products. Teachers may want to challenge some pupils with complex tasks while ensuring that others have grasped the basics. Giving out different tests to different ability groups helps everyone report back on what they’ve learnt.

Alternatively, teachers can give pupils the power to differentiate their own learning. For homework tasks, teachers could give students the option of presenting what they have learned back in video or written form. Both tasks would have the same result but would support the unique needs of different learners.

Once again, Promethean’s interactive displays can facilitate the differentiation of products. Displays can show a variety of work – whether video, written, or visualised. Using the panel to share pupils’ findings, even in a broad range of forms, can create equity. While some students may have shown their learnings via a mind map, others may have recorded a brief explanation, and some may have written a summary. Teachers can bring all these to life in a ‘show and tell’ format in the same place using an interactive display.

4. Learning environment

The learning environment refers to the classroom, or other physical space where lessons take place. 

Teachers can move desks to aid differentiated learning. They can place desks together to encourage group learning or keep tables apart for quieter tasks. 

Some teachers may also assign break-out spaces in their classrooms. For example, there could be beanbags in the corners for relaxed learning. There could also be a quiet area where pupils can move if they need to work with fewer distractions.

Teachers can also adjust the learning environment to suit pupils with additional needs. Break-out areas can incorporate sensory equipment, which can be particularly helpful if a dedicated sensory room is unavailable in the school. Teachers can also adjust seating plans to suit each child’s needs. For example, teachers can prioritise the front seats for pupils with hearing or vision impairments.

A height-adjustable mobile stand for an ActivPanel can help teachers transform their learning environments to suit each lesson and cater for their classes’ needs. By placing an interactive display on wheels, teachers can independently move the displays to separate groups and change the layouts of their classrooms. Choosing a height-adjustable stand gives all pupils equal access to the display for interactive tasks. Teachers can alter the positioning so that it’s reachable for children of all heights and those less able to stand.

How to differentiate in the classroom

Although differentiation encourages a more fluid way of learning, it still requires planning – particularly when teaching children who require additional support. 

Strategies and lesson plans make differentiation possible.

Differentiated teaching strategies

To make differentiation work, teachers need to understand their pupils’ needs. There are various differentiated teaching strategies that educators can implement to help them:


Sometimes, the best way to understand how students like to learn is by simply asking them. 

Ideally, every teacher can talk to each student individually. However, when time is limited, teachers can make use of feedback forms on task worksheets and after activities. Teachers can then record who the activity worked best for.

Learning stations

Teachers can arrange desks into learning stations and assign tasks that suit distinct learning styles to each station. When teachers are working out what style suits their pupils, they can have groups move around the stations. Some learners will enjoy a tactile activity, while others may learn the most from a small group discussion. Teachers can use their observations and feedback from pupils to work out who benefitted from each station.

Teachers can display the Timer’s stopwatch on their Promethean interactive panels to help pupils keep track of time for each activity. 

Once teachers are familiar with their classes’ learning styles, they may choose to assign groups to specific learning stations rather than have them rotate through all of the stations throughout a lesson. This can help teachers adapt to student preferences, even in shorter lessons.

Free study

Teachers can simultaneously give structure and freedom by setting dedicated time aside for free study around a subject. Some students may pick up textbooks and read, others may draw mind maps, and others may talk about what they’ve learned. This method allows pupils to work in the way they prefer, even if the teacher is unfamiliar with the class.

Inviting pupils to use an interactive display can increase collaboration and confidence in working with others. For example, teachers can display relevant images on their displays and invite pupils to annotate what they’ve learnt. With up to 20 simultaneous touch points on a Promethean display, a large group of children can happily work together. And as Promethean displays allow teachers to save images, teachers can download and print any work if needed.

Ongoing assessments

Alongside the lessons themselves, a successful differentiation approach relies on teachers understanding how their students are progressing.

Ongoing assessments help teachers identify their pupils’ strengths and weaknesses. Teachers can then use this information to adapt lessons to cater for those who need more time on an area, while also pushing others further forward.

Regular assessments help teachers recognise pupils needing more support at the earliest opportunity. 

How to make a differentiated lesson plan

Teachers need to consider differentiation at every stage – including planning. 

Creating a lesson plan involves several steps:

Set the lesson topic

The lesson topic applies to all children. Students can learn in their own way, but they are still learning the same thing. 

Define the objectives for the lesson

There should be at least one core objective, achievable for all learners, which students may reach in different ways through the lesson activities. Other objectives may be stretch objectives, which can provide more of a challenge to students who are more adept at the topic or who pick up the material quickly.

Note any background knowledge required

If the session is calling back to any previous lessons, teachers should note this assumed knowledge in the lesson plan. 

While each pupil should meet these background needs, teachers should be aware of learners with knowledge or skill gaps (perhaps due to illness) and differentiate the lesson accordingly.

Plan the lesson contents

The main section of a lesson plan consists of the lesson’s structure, which includes any tasks students will carry out.

To include differentiation in the lesson plan, many teachers choose to split their plans into different tiers (or groups) based on the potential different learning pathways. By dividing classes into tiers, effective differentiation can become a more realistic goal for teachers with large classrooms. 

One way of approaching this plan is to begin with what’s possible for the most advanced learners. This will inform the lesson for one of the tiers. Teachers can then adapt some of the elements (e.g., individual tasks) to suit the needs of others and create new tiers. 

Teachers can tweak their lesson plans to suit specific learning styles, as well as differentiating for different learning abilities and any additional support needs.

Why differentiation is important

Differentiation gives more students the chance to benefit from each lesson. Catering to individuals’ needs increases social and academic inclusivity. 

When students require additional support, a one-size-fits-all method will rarely suit them. Differentiation allows teachers to adapt lessons so that every pupil has the best opportunity to learn, whatever their needs.

Promethean’s interactive displays offer teachers the flexible tools they need to deliver differentiated lessons. To find out more about how Promethean can help you achieve differentiation in the classroom, schedule a free virtual demo with us today.

Recommended articles:

Differentiation in teaching FAQs

What is differentiated instruction?

Differentiated instruction is another term for differentiated teaching. 

It involves understanding how different students learn and adapting lessons to suit all students’ individual learning needs.

What is an example of differentiation in the classroom?

Differentiation in the classroom usually involves students either approaching the same task in diverse ways or carrying out different tasks entirely.

An example of differentiation could be one group of students independently writing an explanation of their findings while another set may complete a more structured worksheet. 

What are the four pillars of differentiated instruction?

According to teacher and author Carol Ann Tomlinson, the four pillars of differentiated instruction are: Content (learning material), Process (how students carry out learning), Product (how students show their learnings), and Learning Environment (usually a classroom).

Differentiation involves adapting these pillars to suit a range of learning styles and educational needs.

What are tiered lessons?

Tiered lessons are when a teacher differentiates a lesson around tiers, which are groups of pupils with similar learning needs.

A tiered approach involves structuring lessons according to these distinct groups. While every pupil is learning the same thing, teachers adapt aspects of the lesson to suit each tier’s ability level and preferred learning style.

For example, one tier may focus on an advanced area while another will learn the fundamentals of the same topic.

How can differentiation in education help students who require additional support?

Differentiated learning can help students who require additional support because the methodology enables them to work in the way that works best for them. It also helps teachers adapt their lessons according to their pupils’ needs.

With differentiation in place, teachers can adjust their lessons to suit each child and their individual needs. Those who need additional support can benefit from adapted learning methods because teachers will have considered their needs in each lesson plan.

How can Promethean support differentiated instruction?

Promethean’s interactive displays can help teachers differentiate content by making it easier to introduce multimedia on their displays. Teachers can play videos, highlight text on screen, and annotate images. They can also invite students to use the displays, which encourages interactivity.