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Designing and Implementing Differentiated Instruction for Preschool Classrooms

Classroom Development

1/7/2022 | Erin Weisman

“You never taught us this!” For many teachers, the instinctual response to this accusation is, “I did, you just didn’t pay attention”. We as educators often grumble and commiserate about the pervasive shrinking attention-span in today’s students. I suggest a different approach. I believe it is our responsibility to design a curriculum that is both accessible and engaging to as many students as possible. Of course, every learner has moments or even entire days during which focusing feels like a heavy burden. However, when their teacher sets a precedent for honoring their learning needs, they are more likely to show up to class with mutual respect. They trust their teacher to help them lighten that load.

In popular science, there are four basic learning styles: Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Reading-Writing. We were once taught that each of us falls into one of these categories. For some, experiencing new information through a Visual format like a set of graphs and diagrams yields the most effective content assimilation. For others, hearing (Auditory) content is more useful. Those who favor Kinesthetic practice prefer to engage in hands-on learning experiences, and Reader-Writers are drawn to the text representation of the lesson. What we now understand, is most people are capable of all four learning types but have a predominant style. This is how lecture-style learning continues to invade our classrooms – even those as young as preschool. 

Teaching can be a deeply overwhelming job. The stakes are high every day we walk into our classroom, and because of this, we often rely on “tried and true” teaching methods. In this article, I ask you to question: are my students memorizing or internalizing? When we engage in lecture-style learning in early childhood classrooms, we encourage memorization. Say what I say; understand how I understand; here is the entirety of the content. Memorized content lives in our brains’ short-term memory. 

In contrast, internalized information shifts from your working to long-term memory because your brain has constructed its understanding based on connections, experiences, and lingering curiosity. It is important to remember that every person (teacher and young friend alike) comes to the classroom with a different perspective. When we ignore perspectives that are different from our own for the sake of exact memorization, we miss out on crucial opportunities to deepen and diversify our understandings.

The Iris Center defines differentiated instruction as “an approach whereby teachers adjust their curriculum and instruction to maximize the learning of all students.” Use the following strategies to support every student in your class.

Support Connection-Building

People internalize information more effectively when they feel connected to the content. For young children, encouraging connection-building with new information sparks an interest in learning more. When you introduce a new idea, offer opportunities for students to share their initial thoughts. This is a moment for your young friends to pinpoint personal connections with the new information, and find connections with their peers.

Document these connections and allow them to influence how you design curriculum around the subject. For example, in my classroom we learn about Chanukah every year as we are a Jewish school. This year, when I brought my Chanukah artifacts to our full-group gathering, my young friends were drawn to the candles. Each friend shared a personal experience with candles in response to meeting the Hanukkiah (celebratory candle holder). Some of their stories were Chanukah-specific, but many were not. Now, weeks after the last candle burned out in our class Hanukkiah, the children are still drawn to candles. We are exploring the diverse global traditions involving candles, as well as the diverse candle practices within our small class community.

Offer Multi-Sensory Access Points to New Content

When you sit down to design learning experiences, make a list of every physical sense. An effective unit of learning in an early childhood classroom includes an activity or experiment that engages each sense. This strategy will serve as extra support for educators: Perhaps your busiest students were extra wiggly during the art project and it did not yield the results you were expecting. Spiraling the information from that activity with a cooking center will provide a new opportunity for internalizing the same information in a different way. 

During our Chanukah exploration, we read Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins. This book is long and includes some upper-level concepts such as trickery and riddles. Reading this kind of book is only developmentally successful when we offer multi-sensory access points to it. I read it every day for an entire week, but each time, I offer a differentiated approach. I use varied, animated voices for each character to help my young friends follow the dialogue. I encourage reading comprehension and gross motor engagement when I ask friends with out-stretched legs to wiggle their feet every time Herschel fools a goblin. I light real Chanukah candles along with Herschel to instill the concept of passing time and to teach emergent addition… Every year my four and five year olds successfully engage with this book because they are engaging with their whole bodies.

Weave in Diverse Assessment Strategies throughout the Unit

When we see the word assessment many of us think of end-of-unit testing. However, in the early childhood classroom, heterogenous assessment should occur throughout. Focus on formative assessment rather than diagnostic assessment. Unlike diagnostic assessment, formative assessment gauges learning as it happens.

For example, at the beginning of your unit, when you offered an opportunity for your young friends to share their experiences, you utilized a formative assessment strategy. “What do they already know?” You can document this stage of learning with a mind map or dictation blurbs. 

When your students benefited more from a cooking experiment than an art project, you utilized a formative assessment strategy. “What are their strengths?” Document this stage of learning with photographs and collecting primary work samples.

We as educators learn more from formative assessment than diagnostic assessment. Throughout a unit, I constantly want to know if my students are memorizing or internalizing content. A quiz or worksheet will not tell me that answer.

Use Assessment Data for Reflection

When your young friends’ passion for a line of inquiry is dwindling, gather all of this multi-medium documentation together. This is the moment for reflection.

Which activities were most engaging? Why? Which senses did they activate?

What developmental skills did we strengthen? How? Are there areas that require more support in the next exploration?

Where is this inquiry leading? What questions did this unit inspire? Which question will spark the next line of inquiry?

I ask myself these types of questions at the end of every day, but they are most important at the end of a unit of learning. Self-reflection is a practice without ego. It is a practice of patience, resilience, critical thinking, and kindness. Sometimes our lesson plans are a great success. Sometimes they go in a completely unexpected direction. Sometimes they simply flop. Take time to reflect on all three types of experiences to more effectively design a curriculum your students will internalize.

Make no mistake, full-group gatherings with Herschel do not look like a group of four and five-year-olds sitting perfectly still and listening. This is not the measure of a successful story time. These explorations differ with every reading and with each friend. There is no such thing as the perfect lesson. Our goal as educators is to offer many differentiated learning opportunities so the students who were not successful with one lesson, can find success in another.

Erin Weisman has taught in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Copenhagen, and is currently in Washington, D.C. She is always working to honor and prioritize her young friends’ perspectives when learning in the classroom. Her favorite student compliment was from a child who said, “Good for you, Ms. Erin!” when she finished a big salad at the lunch table.

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