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Using Differentiated Instruction to Reach All Learning Styles

Use Differentiated Instruction in your children’s ministry to meet kids’ individual needs to help them maximize their learning potential.


How would you feel if you broke your arm and the emergency room doctor handed you a bottle of aspirin and said, “Take two of these and go home and rest”? And as you pondered this bizarre treatment, you notice that the person on the gurney next to you is having difficulty breathing. You watch, amazed, as the doctor prescribes very same treatment — two aspirin and rest. So no matter the health problem, aspirin and rest are the answer in this emergency room.

As patients, we’d be outraged.

Here’s what actually happens during doctor visits. The doctor listens to the patient, assesses the patient’s needs, decides with the patient on a treatment plan, and helps the patient implement that plan. When it comes to practicing medicine, it’s just not possible to assess different patients and decide they’re all alike — or to treat them as though they’re alike.

What kind of teaching diagnosis do you practice? When we have an “aspirin and rest” approach in Chris­tian education, we miss great teaching opportunities. Are you guilty of assessing a group of children and deciding their emotional, spiritual, and intellectual abilities or interests are the same?

To counter this error, the world of education has developed an educational philosophy called Differentiated Instruction. Differentiated Instruction is about meeting kids’ individual needs to help them maximize their learning potential. It’s a method of education that challenges kids to make discoveries through their interests, unique abilities, and varied learning styles.

Know Your Children

It’s common for teachers to view children as a group, but this eliminates tons of opportunities for us to connect personally with kids and discover what their lives are like. Here are simple ways to get to know your kids individually.

Be the doorstop.

As children arrive, plant yourself at the door and smile. Ask each child a specific question related to life outside your classroom: “What’s something big that happened this week?” “On a scale of one to five, how was your weekend why?” Such questions give you a glimpse into the backgrounds of your children and help you plan lessons according to what’s going on in their lives.

Give an interest inventory.

An interest inventory is generally just a few simple questions to help you learn what kids like to do. Your inventory can be as formal as a questionnaire or as informal as finding out what kids want for their birthdays.

Test the waters.

Before you begin a lesson, ask kids questions about the day’s topic: “What do you think angels do?” “How can you get to heaven?” Never correct a child during this pre-assessment time — just use these questions to gauge what your kids understand.

Differentiate Three Ways

As you relate to your kids, you’ll form ideas about how you can best design your lessons based on what you know about the kids.

There are three points to remember as you differentiate your lessons. Kids learn and understand more when they’re ready to grasp the topic you’re teaching, when they’re curious and interested in learning, and when the lesson is designed to teach them in the way they learn best.

1. Are they ready?

To maximize kids’ learning, make sure your lesson closely aligns with their skills and understanding of the topic. This can be challenging because of the vast differences in children’s spiritual maturity. Some children may be new to the “church thing,” while others have grown up in church. Maximize learning, regardless of kids’ backgrounds, with these strategies.

Observe

As you teach a lesson, watch for different levels of understanding — you’ll see it in kids’ faces and hear it in their questions. When you move into the application part of your lesson, remember which kids understood the lesson and which didn’t. Ask kids different questions according to the level of understanding they displayed. Ask foundational questions of kids who didn’t seem to understand to help them grasp concepts better. “Why does God want us to obey him?” Ask more advanced questions of kids with a good grasp of the topic. “What happens to our relationship with God when we don’t obey?”

Ask

Use open-ended questions with more than one possible answer. These types of questions allow kids to make discoveries on their own based on their personal experiences. They also serve to connect your lesson to kids’ unique backgrounds, and they invite kids into a discussion. So instead of asking questions that have a “yes” or “no” answer, use questions such as, “What would you have done if you were in Daniel’s situation?”

Partner

Pair kids with different backgrounds. If you have a child who’s a new Christian or new attendee, ask a more “established” child to partner with him or her. Don’t make a big deal about why you’ve paired kids, just encourage them to work together and get to know one another. They’ll learn from each other as they grow closer to Jesus.

2. Are they interested?

You’ll see a dramatic change in what kids understand and remember when they’re motivated to learn. And kids are motivated to learn when topics and learning processes interest them. Different kids want to learn about different things. Alison, whose parents are divorcing, will likely show more interest in a lesson about God’s presence and comfort. But Jackson, who’s moving, might like a lesson on Jesus’ friendship. The good news is you can reach different kids with different interests in the same lesson. Here’show:

Be enthusiastic.

When you’re enthusiastic about what you’re teaching, kids will mirror your enthusiasm. It’s contagious. Be excited they’re there. Be joyful about God’s work in your kids’ lives. Show kids how exciting it is to learn about Jesus and grow closer to him.

Engage kids.

Have you ever walked into a room and thought to yourself, I don’t want to be here, then totally checked out mentally? That’s what happens with kids if their classroom isn’t an exciting place to be. Stock your closets with age-appropriate games and toys. Decorate in a kid-friendly, exciting theme. Use a “kid filter” to examine your room as if you were a child. What’s exciting? What’s boring? How can you fix it so kids want to be there?

Differentiate.

Focus on different facets of a lesson or topic to help kids get what they need out of it. Alison and Jackson may have different needs, but you can ensure that they’re both interested in your lesson by addressing their needs. Help Alison see that God will comfort her just as he comforted Joseph. Help Jackson see that God is our best friend because he gave Joseph friends in jail.

3. How do children learn best?

Factors affecting kids’ learning might include the physical environment, their ability to work with others, the types of activities they enjoy, or how they use their senses to learn. Children learn best in a variety of ways and under a variety of conditions.

Variety

Offer different ways to explore one topic. Set up learning stations kids can choose from, such as a writing station, an art station, a listening station, and a hands-on station. If your curriculum gives two optional activities, use both, and let kids decide which one they’ll do. If you can have several activities going on at once, be intentional about varying the types of learning experiences you provide for your children. Learn about kids’ learning styles — auditory (learn through listening), visual (learn through seeing), and tactile or kinesthetic (learn through doing) — to create experiences in your classroom that address each style.

Ambience

Your environment matters. Some kids excel in a quiet room with soft lighting. Others thrive in vibrant colors and music. If possible, create different environments in your room. Provide cushions, soft lighting, and muted colors in one corner. Colorful posters, fun beanbags, and quiet music can go in another area. Offer manipulatives, such as clay, blocks, and puzzles in another area of your room. If it’s not possible to set up each environment at once, simply create different experiences in one lesson. The key here is variety.

Big Picture

Be a facilitator. It may seem overwhelming to have different activities going on at once. Don’tworry — you don’t have to be involved in each station or activity. Give directions, then let kids make discoveries on their own. Your role is to make sure kids are on task, to answer questions, and to equip them to make discoveries.

By using Differentiated Instruction concepts, you can customize your teaching, reach kids where they are, and create a high-impact learning environment. Your kids are worth it!

Differentiated Instruction Lesson Example

Here’s a sample of what a Differentiated Instruction lesson looks like in your classroom.

An Appointment With God

Topic: God is with us.

Opening: Play a high-energy game that gets kids interested in the topic.

Bible Exploration Stations

  • Music: Sing key verses to music kids enjoy.
  • Art: Use different media to express feelings about the passage.
  • Drama: Create a skit based on the passage.
  • Teacher-Led: Dig into the passage with kids and apply it to their lives.

Wrap-Up: Kids present projects or do an activity to internalize and respond to what they’ve learned. Teacher checks for understanding.

Differentiated Instruction Classroom Management

When children are doing different activities at once, you may initially experience a few challenges. Use these pointers to keep your classroom well-managed and running smoothly.

  • Use anchor activities. Set up specific activities for kids to work on when they’re finished with other learning experiences, when they arrive early, and before they leave. For example, you might have kids work on a progressive mural of what they’re learning during the quarter or semester.
  • Provide alternative activities. When you differentiate your classroom, you’ll never hear, “I’m bored!” There are always different activities to do. Help kids select activities that match their interests and keep them engaged.
  • Create written instructions. Children like to know what they’re supposed to do. Never let that be a question. Writing a quick list of instructions for children will help them stay on task, and it’ll free you up to take care of other issues. Post the instructions in multiple locations for kids to refer to.

Scott Kinner has been equipping and training children’s ministry volunteers since 1999. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

For more great articles like this in every issue, subscribe today to Children’s Ministry Magazine!


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