4 Ways to Differentiate in a Special Ed Classroom

Ways to Differentiate for Special Ed Classrooms

By Trisha Katkin

As teachers, we are always told, “every child is unique,” and “each one is different.” And I believe that this is true.


When you are trying to handle a busy class with students that are all on different wavelengths, it can be mind-boggling to figure out how to accommodate everyone. It gets tricky when you have students of various abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

So, what can you do?


Differentiation is the process by which one accommodates students and their various needs. It’s what you do as a teacher to try and get everyone everything they need in order to be successful.

There are 4 core pros for differentiation:

  1. Every student gets the tools they need to be successful.
  2. Every student is valued as an individual with unique skills and needs.
  3. Student are given chances to demonstrate knowledge in ways that are beneficial and engaging to them.
  4. It’s a research based practice that elicits greater understanding of concepts being taught.

What are the cons?

  1. Planning is longer as you may have to create leveled lessons or be ready with flexible alternatives.
  2. Some critics argue that rigor will not be the same for all students.

Is differentiation easier said than done?


The key to differentiation is to know what type you need. Some argue about the true number of types, but here I will discuss four ways to differentiate in special ed and inclusive classrooms:

1- Content

Content differentiation begins when you think about what you want your students to learn as a result of the lesson, activity, or assignment. Once you know what the end goal is, you can alter the content of the task to best meet the students’ needs. This may mean changing the amount of problems on a test or leveling the content to meet a variety of abilities in your classroom. Content differentiation doesn’t always mean changing the task. It also encompasses changing the way the student accesses the task. This may mean pre-teaching or re-teaching a concept in small groups or giving a student a resource for them to use while they complete the task.

2- Process

Process differentiation is what the student uses to engage with the curriculum being taught. It’s what you give the student to help them “process” the concept. Ask yourself, “what does this student need to best understand this concept?” For your visual learners, you may need texts with lots of pictures, flow charts, or graphs. For your auditory learners, you may have them listen to audio books or a podcast. Helping a student get started on the project or assignment is also an example of process differentiation. Tap into your students learning styles for this type of differentiation and use it to best assist them in understanding, internalizing, and solidifying a concept.

3- Differentiate Response

Response differentiation is also known as Product differentiation. It is what the student produces in order to demonstrate their knowledge. Response types in a typical classroom may be assessments or tests, which do not allow for much differentiation for learners with various needs. This type of differentiation is when students produce types of work using their natural strengths and learning styles. For example, when given an assignment to demonstrate knowledge in a certain subject, a very visual student may be required to create a poster with lots of pictures while a kinesthetic learner may act out the same information to display their knowledge.

4- Learning Environment

When differentiating for students, changing the learning environment can be extremely effective. Consider various sensory needs when organizing your classroom. Many students on the spectrum for instance, would prefer a tidy, well-labelled classroom where visual chaos is at a minimum. Highly distractible students may need to have their desk moved closest to you or the board and away from high traffic areas. Smart lighting solutions such as light curtains or dimmer switches would be effective for sensory defensive students. Plan your classroom mindfully. Create a natural flow with your furnishings and make sure shelves are appropriately affixed to the wall.

More ways to differentiate for special ed

Want even more ways to differentiate? Get Trisha’s FREE 17-page workbook FULL of ideas, tips, and strategies for differentiating curriculum in the classroom HERE! (Great for educators and, if you’re a parent, grab it to share with your child’s teacher.)

*Trisha Katkin, a special education teacher in NH. She has her Master’s in Education and currently holds certificates in General Special Education, Learning Disabilities and Emotional/Behavioral Disabilities. She has been a guest speaker several times at the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability in their Behavioral Workshops and at the Summer Behavioral Summit. She has been featured on Autism Talk at Patienttalk.org, Kerry Magro’s autism advocate site (KerryMagro.com) and The American Autism Association’s website at myautism.org. She is a crusader for students with autism and fights to spread awareness for teachers, parents, and advocates who need help. She writes a blog at TRISHAKATKIN.COM where her posts consist of actionable step-by-step advice and tips that can be implemented immediately. Find her on social media: Pinterest | Twitter | Facebook

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Sharing is caring!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedInShare on RedditBuffer this pageEmail this to someonePrint this page
About Jodi Murphy

I am the founder of Geek Club Books, autism storytelling through mobile apps for awareness, acceptance and understanding. My mission is to use the art of storytelling and technology to entertain and educate for the social good. I am a 'positive' autism advocate, mother of an awesome adult on the autism spectrum, lifestyle journalist, and marketing specialist.


  1. Catherine Taylor says:

    This holds true for EVERY classroom!

Speak Your Mind