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Differentiated Instruction for Special Education Students

What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is a framework for teaching that enables teachers to know their students well so that tasks and learning experiences can best meet every student’s individual needs.  Special education teachers that use the differentiated instruction for special education students create lessons based on various assessment measures. Differentiation can not truly take place until teachers know their students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles.

By knowing students well, teachers are then able to make content accessible to all students through the use of different instructional strategies.  Teachers may also may plan around grouping students that have similar abilities and interests, or they may build heterogeneous groups to allow students to build upon other’s strengths.

Teachers can differentiate content, process, product, and learning environment based on the information that they have gathered from assessing their students (link to getting to know your students).   


The idea here is that the teacher needs to differentiate the content to offer various activities for students.  For most, content is grounded in grade level curriculum and grade level standards (i.e. Common Core State Standards).   Those students that aren’t familiar with the lesson material at their current grade level can complete lower level tasks so that prerequisite skills can be covered prior to the start of the lesson.

This is a powerful method for supporting students with learning disabilities in accessing general education curriculum who may have gaps in content knowledge.   In a standard-based classroom, it may make sense to cover pre-requisite standards from previous grade levels that will aid the student in being ready to engage in the grade level material.


Visual, kinesthetic, auditory content can easily be combined to deliver a more vibrant and vivid learning experience. Offering support based on individual needs can be a huge plus here.  

Tiered learning assignments and tasks are a great way to vary the process of how the student accesses the content.  Also, providing audio books, pictorial supports, or manipulatives are other great ways to differentiate the process for students.


A thing to keep in mind here is that every student comes with their own learning style and therefore teachers should not get stuck in having students put pencil to paper to demonstrate what they have learned.  Teachers should consider how they can give students with learning disabilities the opportunity to act out, verbalize, use pictures or drawings, or technology as a way of demonstrating their knowledge around a topic.

Learning environment

Differentiated instruction also focuses on the creation of an optimal learning environment. Having a flexible classroom layout is very important, and using various arrangements and furniture types is an extremely good idea.  Breaking students into multiple groups and giving them access to learning centers, can be a great way to keep students engaged in learning.

Differentiation Supports ALL Students

Each student has a unique set of learning needs, especially students with learning disabilities.  Because of this, it is important that special education teachers have a good grasp on what differentiated instruction is and how it can be implemented to support students who require special education services.

Students with disabilities frequently have  instructional needs that are overlooked by educators, but by using differentiated instruction, we are allowing all students to have access to the same learning outcomes as their non-disabled peers.

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