4 Ways to Differentiate Lessons in Inclusion Classrooms

In the midst of a lesson, an inclusion teacher (or co-teacher) is often considering two different needs for each of their students: (1) the strategies to implement so that each student reaches their Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals, and (2) the accommodations to provide so that each student accesses and comprehends the current lesson. Inclusion teachers must use a variety of approaches in order for their students to successfully achieve their individualized goals and master the daily lesson objectives. Here are 4 approaches to add to your repertoire.


TIME: 5-10 minutes of targeted direct instruction

USE: Useful for remediation of foundations skills students may have missed in prior years or for enrichment of skills students quickly master

IMPLEMENTATION: Often used as a warm-up prior to the lesson or an extension immediately after the lesson in the following ways:

  • Teacher 1 – As a warm-up, review strategies for foundational skills with the whole class. This targets missing skills for those who need it, and improves fluency with the skill for those who already have mastered it.
  • Teacher 2 – During the warm-up, pull a small group of students to the back to teach a mini-lesson on a prerequisite skill they need in order to master the objective for the day’s lesson.
  • Teacher 1 – Teach the content at a basic level to the entire class.
  • Teacher 2 – After the initial lesson, pull students who can use additional practice to the side and re-teach the material they just learned so they can continue practicing.
  • Teacher 1 – While the majority of students are continuing the main lesson practice, pull a small group of students who quickly mastered the material and teach an advanced, or next-level, skill in a mini-lesson.

KEY IDEA: Any mini-lesson should relate to instructional focus of the unit or directly tied to the students’ IEP goals. Mini-lessons should focus on foundational skills necessary for demonstrating mastery of the lesson objective.



TIME: Length of the lesson

USE: This strategy differentiates according to scaffolded objectives. It gives the inclusion teacher extra time to work with students who need additional support and guided practice to master the concept.

IMPLEMENTATION: Co-teachers first determine and plan the “layers” within the daily lesson, ideally no more than 3 layers. Then one teacher continues to move students to the higher layers of content while one teacher remediates and provides additional opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery of the lower layers.

Consider the following example: Students will be able to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators.

  • Layer 1 – Making it simple to find the common denominator with all of the denominators being multiples of 2 and no denominator over 10. This would ensure that students can perform the calculation at a basic level, regardless of having limited multiplication skills.
  • Layer 2 – Adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators with a wide range of denominators.
  • Layer 3 – Moving to application of the computation.
  • Teacher 1 – Teachers Layer 1 to the whole class. When students have completed a set number of questions correctly, they move to another station (physically or in their work) and begin Layer 2 problems.
  • Teacher 2 – Remains with students working on Layer 1 work. Teacher either reteaches or leads additional guided practice. Students then have an opportunity to demonstrate mastery again.
  • Teacher 1 – Focuses on the Layer 2 and Layer 3 stations, possibly having a student leader support the Layer 3 station so that the teacher can primarily support students on Layer 2.
  • Teacher 2 – Continues working with students on Layer 1. If all students master Layer 1, then both teachers shift up a layer.

KEY IDEA: Teachers continue to move students to higher levels of content and ensure that students are able to move on when they are ready to do so. This allows teachers to spend their energy where it is needed the most.



TIME: 15-20 minutes or duration of guided practice and independent practice

USE: Both teachers address misconceptions in the moment and both teachers assess the data of the whole class in order to determine strategic next steps

IMPLEMENTATION: Teachers will need to have practiced quickly analyzing student misconceptions and determining their next steps in the moment.

  • Teacher 1 – Teaches whole group lesson and Teacher 2 circulates to determine any initial student misconceptions.
  • Teacher 1 & 2 – Briefly (1 minute) confer and Teacher 2 shares initial observations.
  • Teacher 2 – Pulls small group of students who need the most support to the side and reteaches the foundational skills for the lesson.
  • Teacher 1 – Circulates during guided practice, coaching and correcting errors and observing for trends in misconceptions.
  • Teacher 1 & 2 – Briefly (1 minute) confer and share trends observed.
  • Teacher 1 – If needed, brings class back together to address a whole-class misconception. Then, directs class to begin independent practice and takes over small group from Teacher 2.
  • Teacher 2 – Circulates during independent practice, giving small bits of feedback and observing for what will need to be retaught the following lesson.
  • After the lesson, both teachers collaborate on data for all students and determine next steps for the following lesson.

KEY IDEA: It is important for both teachers to have a clear picture of what all students are able to know and do by the end of a lesson. This helps both teachers take ownership of the data for the whole class and determine strategic next steps for scaffolding content and small group instruction.


TIME: Whole class period

USE: This is best when teachers have already taught a lesson and students are familiar with the material, but need additional practice in order to master the content.

IMPLEMENTATION: This will take time to prepare on the front end, but the systems and content can be used many times once centers are set up.

  • Students are placed in homogeneous groups according to IEP goals or current level of understanding on the lesson objective.
  • Tell students that they will not go to all of the centers and tell each group which centers they will visit. Create a remedial center, an enrichment center, and then several practice centers that each vary in their level of rigor.
  • Assign students to the centers that make sense for them and create an indicator for each center they visit to assure that all tasks are completed.
  • Determine which of the stations need to be “teacher directed” and which can run without a teacher present.

KEY IDEA: By having the entire class in small groups, each student receives more differentiated instruction.

Since students have very different levels of ability, prior knowledge, and rates of mastery, we must build in ways to meet their tiered needs within each lesson. Using different instructional approaches allows us to more effectively meet the varied needs of our students.

meghan thompsonMeghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.

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