Differentiation: Time to rethink our approach?

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Differentiation for pupils, including those with SEN, is important – but it does not have to be all-consuming for the teacher. Daniel Sobel and Sara Alston discuss some simple adjustments to our thinking and teaching

Callum is a sweet boy to speak with one-on-one, but he just does not like lessons, except for music.

He is at least consistent and predictable in the way he distracts his peers and annoys the heck out of his teachers. He is told off by everybody throughout the day.

There is a second application for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) in the pipeline and the education psychologist has written some advice for the teachers. None of the staff have been able to implement the very long list of tips – or they have already been doing some of these things for months already without success.

I must confess that whenever I start speaking about best practice in inclusion, I am quickly conscious that my audience may be internally raising their eyebrows and thinking: “Here we go again, giving us yet more work!”

I get that inclusive teaching potentially represents itself, when you think of the quantity of students who need various adaptations and “special attention” across a whole lesson – as a long and arduous struggle up a mountain.

Sara Alston and I are currently working on a book about how to do this “inclusive classroom” thing without the pain. It is based on seeing the lesson as a series of manageable chunks, or as we say “phases”.

Our goal: to maximise the inclusion with the least effort, time and stress. This is hard to do if you think of the lesson as one long marathon with loads of differentiated points along the way for lots of different children.

Instead, it is easier to think of the lesson as a series of routines and priorities that become meshed in good practice that can be useful for all children.

Take for example the first phase: entering the classroom. We tend to think of this as a small point, but for the more challenging and vulnerable children this is where it can all go right or wrong.

We are not looking for an extensive “entering the class” differentiation plan, but some simple and quick routines. For example, let’s give Callum a “hello” as he comes through the door and some praise for a “role” he has helping the other students to settle and making sure everyone has the right equipment. The purpose of this time and stress-free intervention is to begin every lesson positively for Callum and that can have an impact on the way he “feels about” the lesson he is about to experience.

“Getting it right” in inclusion usually has one simple metric: enabling the pupil to engage with the lesson – preferably confidently and calmly. This being the case, we need to think about setting them up for a series of small successes throughout the lesson.

Here is the list of six phases and their priorities that could actually be seen more as a series of routines that are good for many students (and which only require minimum time input).

You could also read this list as a roadmap to successes throughout the class experience for your most vulnerable and challenging children.

Phase 1

Transition, entering the classroom and preparedness to learn:

  • Consider what happens before they come in, including the attitude of the teacher: supporting rather than penalising children and starting on a positive note.
  • Seating plans and starting routines: simple and clear, removing uncertainty. Includes the use of visual timetables.

Phase 2

Settling the class and starting to learn:

  • Making the implicit explicit by using visual prompts or “now and next” cards.
  • Routines around listening and supporting active engagement, such as using fiddle toys.
  • Every student knows what “I’m ready to learn means” in this classroom.

Phase 3

Delivering and receiving instructions and whole-class engagement:

  • Making sure the message you communicate actually arrives by giving effective instructions which reduce barriers of misunderstanding, such as providing written as well as verbal instruction.
  • How to utilise prompt questions effectively to avoid confusion, for example by avoiding vague, unclear statements that are open to interpretation and confusion.

Phase 4

A whole class of individuals working:

  • Make writing and production of “work” more accessible and avoiding the dreaded “boredom by worksheet”.
  • Manage the distractions and interruptions, including working in silence versus “self-talk”.

Phase 5

Individuals fitting into a group of learners:

  • Balanced groups of students accounting for the demands of social and academic skills, guided by the use of explicit roles and rules for working together.
  • Managing sensory and concentration level issues and their impact. For example, is this group too loud or not loud enough for the child?

Phase 6

Finishing learning and assessment:

  • Enable the child to identify learning through self and peer assessment and to clarify understanding through over-learning.
  • Providing a clear end to the lesson with pre-warning and clear routines and leaving the room calmly with praise and positivity.

Callum’s plight

Now let us rethink the story of Callum. We start by getting him into the classroom calmly, things start better. Key to this is getting Callum calmly from the playground (phase 1). He is met at the door from the playground and helped to come through the building to lesson, thus reducing the sensory overload of the corridors and allowing him to be talked through what will happen in the lesson to come.

He has a clear routine while the class settles (phase 2). He hands out books and other equipment which makes him feel valued and allows him to scan the room for “dangers”.

The whole class visual timetable reminds him what to expect during the lesson. Callum uses a whiteboard to record his ideas during the whole class engagement so he does not forget them, which reduces his shouting out and also stops him fiddling with other things.

He knows that he will be asked something at some point in the lesson and the teacher tries to pre-warn him of when that might be (phase 3). As he is calmer, more focused and feels more secure and valued in the room, Callum is able to tackle individual or group tasks with just minimal checks from an adult who ensures his understanding of the task and provides him with a task management board.

In Callum’s case this is a list of the tasks to be completed (used by numerous others in the class as well) with a little sketch by it to make it easier for him to identify the task without having to “fully read” the list. This helps him stay on task.

He enjoys ticking off the different tasks as he completes them as this reassures him that he is making progress and is doing the “right thing”. It also means that he does not need to constantly get adult reassurance by shouting out and enabling him and others to focus better. Also when he loses focus, he is able to use the list to refocus himself without disrupting others (phase 4/5).

At the end of the lesson, an adult checks in with Callum to help him identify a positive from the lesson in order for him to start the next lesson feeling confident and secure (phase 6).

Already a bit more palatable? There is no big “differentiation piece” here as you might expect. There is a whole book’s worth of explaining to add to this, but for now we can reflect on these phases and our priorities throughout the lesson.


There is a jarring message for some in our conclusion: not every SEN child needs the entire lesson specialised. This is a radical departure from the norm and the expectation.

There are two reasons for this, as we have stated above. First, a particular child may just need a very simple quick adjustment here or there, while another may just need a different bit of the lesson adapted and so on.

Second, our teachers simply do not have the time or ability to differentiate everything throughout the whole lesson.

In the end, it boils down to good routines and practices that do not take up much time but are rich in maximising student engagement and that sense of “I belong and can be successful in this class”.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for Headteacher Update on our website via http://bit.ly/20YDhq5
  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO who also works as an SEND and safeguarding consultant and trainer at Inclusion Expert.

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