Early Childhood Differentiation In Classroom Organization

Written by: Elizabeth Paradis and Sara Phelan

I. Introduction- Personal Stories Related To Early Childhood Differentiation In Classroom Organization

Story #1 -Reading Street Curriculum and the Levels As They Pertain To Differentiation
In my school we use Reading Street as our reading curriculum. This was my first year using this program. This program is differentiated by advanced, on-level, and strategic intervention levels.. Now that I have used this program for a year I have noticed some parts that do not foster differentiation well. The day to day lessons are set up as whole group, then break down into small group (levels), and then back to whole group. The one part that I think is missing in this program is the chance to have mixed groups. Part of my educational philosophy is that students learn from each other. With Reading Street's break down of small groups and the activities that accompany them it is hard to mix them up. Many students from different groups like to be mixed. All students have strengths in one area or another and mixing the groups leads to a well rounded classroom of learners.

Story #2- Physical Space of the Preschool Classroom
When I walked into my classroom this year for my first year of teaching, I was astonished. Classroom materials were everywhere! There was sawdust all over everything because the wood floors were just redone and many of the shelves were not covered. My classroom was a mess! Not to mention, it was already after August 1st because the floors took so long. Before I was able to set up the classroom, I had to clean everything. After I washed down all of the shelves, walls, curtains, and manipulatives, it was time to set up the physical space of the classroom. I set up my classroom in centers. Our preschool is a developmentally-based program that focuses on integration. Keeping this in mind, I created the centers so that they were very organized. I wanted students to be able to find materials and know where to put them away. For this, I added pictures to each container of the materials that should go inside. I made sure all materials were at a three to four-year-old child's level of reach. I organized all of the noisy centers around each other. For example, the creative play center, puppet center, and building center are noisy centers, so they are next to each other. The math center, art center, science center, and writing center are quieter centers, so I placed them away from the noisy centers. I organized my classroom so that it is easy to get around and move from center to center. I introduce concepts and themes during my Circle Time when all children are on the rug. After that, the students have free play at centers, where they learn through play. During Centers, I work with small groups of students on either a math activity or a language-based activity. I use flexible grouping so students of all abilities are able to work together at different times. Providing preschool students with an organized center-based classroom promotes differentiation as it relates to physical space.

II. Definitions

What is differentiation?

Hall, Meyer, and Strangman (2003) state that "To differentiate instruction is to recognize students' varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning and interests; and to react responsively. Differentiated instruction is a process of teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. The intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student's growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is and assisting in the learning process" (p. 3).

A helpful article on grouping children of differing abilities. *Heterogeneous Groups

What is the difference between differentiation and individualism?

Individualism by definition is: the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant. Differentiation by definition is: discrimination between things as different and distinct. When thinking of these concepts in terms of education, differentiation is the teaching of students who are grouped according to ability or interest and individualism is when you teach to the specific child (Gould & Vaughn, 2000). Individualizing instruction is when you meet an individual student's needs. For example, if you have one student who is functioning at a much higher level than all the others or at a much lower level than the other students, individualizing instruction would be when you plan instruction indivudally for that student. DIfferentiation is focused more on group instruction.

What is classroom organization?

Classrooms can be organized by learning centers. "A learning center is a term used to describe a self-instruction learning activity that has been placed in a clearly defined area of the classroom. It can be used in any subject and generally includes objectives, instructions, and evaluation" (Multigrade School Education, 2004). Learning centers are activities where students work independently. They can be created in all subject areas and can be differentiated.

Classrooms can be organized by subject area resource centers."A subject area resource center is an area where student resources related to a specific subject area are located" (Multigrade School Education, 2004). For example, specific resources related to a science activity may all be located in a well-marked area of the classroom.

*Questions to ask yourself when organizing your classroom:
  • What types of activities normally occur in my classroom?
  • What types of activities would I like to occur?
  • How can I facilitate students’ grouping activities?
  • Do I meet separately with individual students or small groups?(Multigrade School Education, 2004)

Set up space for quiet/individual work, whole-class teaching, pair-work, group-work, computer work.

Classroom organization must be flexible to suit different kinds of activities. Furniture and equipment should be arranged according to the different areas of the classroom you will have and the centers you will have. Take into account the noise level of the center areas as well. For example, the computer center would be good to place near the quiet/individual work area because they are both quiet.

There are usually many different activities going on at the same time during differentiated instruction. The teacher needs to organize the classroom so that all differentiated activities can take place at the same time with minimal disruptions and constant supervision by the teacher. No students should be out of view at any time (Multigrade School Education, 2004).

III. Concepts to explore

-Classroom organization pertaining to:

Physical space

Arranging Desks and Classroom Space/Centers:
Physical space begins with the outlay of the classroom. There needs to be a variety of work space. The students should be able to transition from individual desk space to tables/groups of desks for group work. Depending on your teaching style; you can set up the room as clusters of desks or tables for small group and for whole group discussion you can organize desks in a circle or horse shoe shaped pattern. To individualize or differentiate you can set up learning centers.
A Scholastic article states that "Teachers consider the physical environment to be 'another teacher' and in the sense that it can motivate children, enhance learning, and reduce behavior problems, environment really is an extra teacher" (2011). Classroom Organization Physical environment

Curriculum Organization for Whole Group and Small Group:
In early childhood education, curriculum is often centered around a variety of visual, auditory, tactile, and linguistic areas. Based upon these aspects of curriculum teachers set up various stations to accommodate differentiation. Some of these stations could include a quiet reading corner, a large table for cooperative projects, spaces for wet or messy projects, computer center, and individual work areas. This of course is all contingent on the amount for classroom space you have. In my second grade classroom I tend to use buckets to put differentiated activities in because I have a lack of classroom space. For individual space I use clip boards for them to take to an area of the room to work.

Bulletin Boards/Wall Hangings:
Basic bulletin boards are not enough. Bulletin boards should be interactive and functional. For example, a bulletin board should be used as an interactive word wall in which students can manipulate the words and use them as needed. An activity that they could use the bulletin board for would be to alphabetize weekly vocabulary words or to arrange words into complete sentences. One or two bulletin boards should be used to display students work.

Storage of Materials and Supplies:
Curriculum materials and supplies should be easily assessable. Bins should at a reachable level for the students. Materials and supplies should be well organized and students should become familiar with the system within the first few months of school to establish a routine. This will give you a classroom that can run itself and prevent delays, disruptions, and confusion. Students should not be spending valuable learning time waiting for materials or supplies (Scholastic, 2011).

Environmental Preferences (temperature, lighting and noise level):
Every student has had that day in the classroom when the temperature outside is scorching and all they can think about is jumping in a lake or pool. These are the days that it is hard to get the students to concentrate. Teachers need to realize that the temperature in the classroom can effect how the students learn. Students need to dress accordingly with their own preference. Lighting can also be a factor. Many students these days have sensory issues that cause them to have trouble when the lighting is not cohesive with there learning styles. Teachers need to create well lit and dimly lit areas in the classroom. Bright light can make some students restless. Noise levels need to be kept in check. When using a listening center provide the students with headphones and ask them to use a certain voice when reading to each other. As educators we are consistently dealing with Individualized Education Plans that have many stipulations and accommodations for our students. Students tend to perform better academically and are better behaved when these environmental preferences meet their learning styles (Scholastic, 2011).

Classroom organization that fosters learning:

In an article by David Pedder (2006); he writes about the Learning How to Learn Project (LGTL). This article discusses "organizational conditions of schools in which teachers are successful in developing pupils' knowledge and practices in LGTL" (pg 172). Pedder writes about how teachers values can alter their practices in the classroom. This includes classroom organization.

One way of creating organization in the classroom that fosters learning is by establishing routines. Establishing clear routines assists in setting a positive tone for behavior so that students know what is expected of them. Following is a list from Koki, Van Broekhuizen, & Uehara (2011) of strategies for teachers to use as a guideline when establishing routines:
  • Give children a clear understanding of the expected tone of the classroom.
  • Name, define, and reinforce desired student behaviors.
  • Develop an arsenal of strategies and model them.
  • Set up routines that show that self-control is important, such as wait time.
  • Negotiate and clearly display predictable consequences for blurting out so that students can’t claim ignorance of the rules.
  • Have students start over whenever there is a communication breakdown.
  • Challenge the class to be disruption-free, especially when the class is very excitable.

    Prevention and Intervention for Effective Classroom Organization and Management

Students in the Early Childhood classroom need a lot of time and opportunities to practice the routines. They need the routines and expectations modeled constantly and they should be provided with plenty of opportunities to experience success with the classroom routines. An organized classroom with known routines helps foster learning within the classroom.

Social/emotional environment

Emotions Trump Learning:
A teachers' behavior toward a student can often shut them down or build them up. Every teacher has a bad day, a bad week, and even a bad year. As professionals we are supposed to rise above the bad times. If a teacher has a bad attitude about the class, an individual student, or even teaching in general; this can have a huge impact on how the students learn. Babad (1993) states that teachers have to "provide equal educational opportunity, unequal treatment must not be given to different groups of students" (pg 364). Teacher's experience/interests can also affect student learning. (For example, if a teacher really enjoys social studies, the students will tend to be more interested.)

Home life can impact on the students ability to learn- positively or negatively. In today's society home life can be very complicated. While some children grow up in a home with both mom and dad, the situation may be anything but happy. Then there are the households torn apart by divorce and those that are headed by same sex parents. As teachers we need to make sure that we become familiar with the students' home life so that we can understand where they are coming from. For example, my second grade class had a project on their heritage. The students needed to bring in a food from there country as well as a visual that they worked on at home. One boy in my class, who lives part time with his dad and step mom and part time with mom, was unsure if he would have anything to bring in. On the day that the project was to be presented he told me that he was unsure if he had anything prepared. Needless to say there was miscommunication between households and he had everything he needed. This situation can often leave a child feeling lost and helpless. Furthermore, I have a preschool student whose father passed away at the young age of 23 years old. After the boy's father passed away, his mother became involved with a boyfriend who drank a lot and became dangerous when drinking. At four years old, this student's world already does not make sense to him. He often comes into preschool crying, afraid to let go of his grandmother. He is craving attention. As his teacher, I need to provide him with the positive attention and nurturing environment that he desires so that he feels comfortable in the classroom and is able to learn and make friends.

Students Have An Impact on Each Other Through Student to Student Communication:
With differentiation, students need to be grouped appropriately according to social and academic needs. Some students, especially those with speech needs or social deficiencies, need to be grouped either with model students or similar students depending on the activity.Also, keep in mind that grouping should be flexible. Grouping students according to level can be helpful in some cases but it is beneficial to the students to have mixed grouping.

What Students Seek From School:
  • Affirmation- Am I going to be okay here?
  • Contribution- Can I accomplish significant things? What contributions can I make? Can I make a difference?
  • Power- Can you show me how this classroom and the work I have to do give me power in my life?
  • Purpose - Can you show me how this work helps me become who I want to be? What is the purpose?
  • Challenge -Can I take a risk to attain a goal that right now seems out of reach? Will you help me do this?
(Tomlinson, 2003, p.16)
As educators, we need to take these questions into account as we set up the curriculum and establish our own attitudes and teaching styles for our classrooms so that we can meet students' social and emotional needs.


How Student Behavior Can Be Affected By Classroom Organization.
-Student behavior can be triggered when the students cannot easily access curriculum materials.
-Some students cannot handle a room that is filled with "stuff" because it leads to sensory overload.
-Being too close to others can be an issue in terms of personal space. Some students may become nervous or anxious when sitting in close proximity to someone else. Students need a good amount of space to move around.
-Students tend to act out when the work is not differentiated and they hit their frustration level.
Keeping students interested is half the battle. Curriculum compacting for gifted students is important. Curriculum compacting is eliminating repetition, minimizing drill, and accelerating instruction...so that gifted students can move to more challenging material. On the other end of the spectrum, students who are struggling may feel that they are not good enough or "smart" enough. Teachers need to keep common learning goals in check and praise those students for the goals that they reach. In order for students to reach the same goals they may need to take different paths to get there. As students needs are met, inappropriate behaviors in the classroom will hopefully decrease (Tomlinson, 2003). Differentiation

IV. What have we learned from our research? What can we give to practitioners to implement in the early childhood classroom?
From our research we have learned that it takes a lot of time and preparation to truly differentiate your classroom but it is worth it. In the beginning of the year teachers need to take the time to acclimate the students to the routine of the classroom. Make sure that everything is at their level, labeled, and easy to access. This will enable students to become independent in the classroom in terms of materials and tools. It is important to create an environment that is comfortable for learning, that is interactive, and diverse.

Creating a welcoming social and emotional atmosphere in the classroom is the job of the early childhood teacher. Students at this age-level must have these needs met to feel comfortable with the teacher and classmates. One of the most important points to remember when teaching young children is that they do not always need to be grouped by academic strengths. Early childhood students benefit from being grouped according to their social and emotional needs as well. When children are young, they are still learning how to behave in a group and how to behave socially in the classroom and in the world. They need lots of experiences and practice with social skills. The teacher needs to be a positive role model to his or her students so that students learn what is socially appropriate and what is not. Early childhood teachers must not only differentiate academically, but they must also be sure to meet their students' individual social and emotional needs. One way of doing this is by building these goals and objectives into academic lessons. Furthermore, we need to teach our students that it is more than acceptable to have a bad day, but we must deal with our bad days in appropriate ways. Students must learn strategies to deal with their emotions. Giving the students these positive experiences early on provides them with the social skills they will need in life.

Classroom organization can either promote good behavior in students or it can foster inappropriate behavior if there is a lack of good organization. Classroom materials must be easily accessible or students will become frustrated because they either cannot find what they need or they will have to wait in long lines to get the materials they need to complete their work. Place commonly used classroom materials (scissors, glue, pencils, erasers, markers, etc.) in easily accessible places with clear labels. Be sure that there are clear pathways within the classroom to easily get these materials when they are needed. Teach students where the materials go and what containers they go in, and be sure that they always put these materials back where they belong when they are finished using them. This way, other students will know where the materials are. Students enjoy predictability.

Students' senses can easily be overloaded with a crowded and busy classroom. The best advice I can give for teachers is: know your students. Some students enjoy a busy classroom with lots of wall hangings, materials hanging from the ceiling, and colorful bulletin boards all over. Some students do not. In some students, this type of classroom can actually promote inappropriate behavior. Organize the desks and chairs in a way that meets the needs of your learners and change them as needed. Watch and observe the way students move around in your classroom to determine if changes need to be made.

Last, be sure that student work is differentiated appropriately. Keep the same unit goals for all students, but differentiate the way your students meet these goals. One student may meet a goal by writing a play, whereas another student may meet the same goal by drawing a picture. When curriculum materials are not differentiated and individualized appropriately, students tend to act out. They may hit their frustration level and develop an attitude of "I'm not doing this anymore" or "I can't do this, so why should I try?" Some students may already know the material being taught. Challenge them to move to the next level with the material. Always remember that students should not be forever labeled as "low," "medium," and "high." Use flexible groupings within the subject areas so that you are differentiating appropriately for each student. The most important piece of information I can give after researching is: know your students and know that when they are so young, their needs and interests are constantly changing. The teacher needs to always be on top of these things so s/he can differentia te fo r each student through classroom organization.


Babad, E. (1993). Teachers' Differential Behavior. Educational Psychology Review. Vol.5, No.4

Gould, A. & Vaughn, S. (March 2000). Planning for the inclusive classroom: Meeting the needs of diverse learners. Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice, 3(3), 363-374.

Hall, T., Meyer, A. & Strangman, N. (2003, September 23). National center on accessing the general curriculum: Differentiated instruction and implications for udl implementation. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/system/galleries/download/ncac/DI_UDL.pdf

Koki, S., Van Broekhuizen, D., & Uehara, D.(2011). Prevention and intervention for effective classroom organization and management in pacific classrooms. Retrieved June 2, 2011, from http://www.prel.org/products/products/prevention-intervention.htm

MultigradeSchoolEducation. (2004). Classroom organization i. Retrieved June 2, 2011, from http://www.ellinogermaniki.gr/ep/muse/

Pedder, D. (June 2006). Organizational conditions that foster successful classroom promotion of Learning How to Learn. Vol.21, No.2, pp. 171-200

Scholastic. (2011). Classroom organization: The physical environment. Retrieved June 2, 2011, from http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=4134

Tomlinson, C. (2003). Differentiation. Retrieved June 2, 2011, from https://docs.google.com/a/worcester.edu/viewer?a=v&q=cache:klCJ1L_LnJcJ:www.dmusd.org/district/file/openFile.aspx?fileID%3D10982+differentiation+and+behavior+in+students&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEEShwX_9C08fFANzxwIc4wK0iEfbBIIl85CERffQXRnVu50GMesYyjkwBzVDwPXWFWZym-r0oPhBdbopm6wvF5JQv_hgbgY-Epk9uGbrK_4NWg1MIyFjAfCxtbfWTN-DwVKUjYNKY&sig=AHIEtbSH-6H9ZSkaU1bmLidvpw_yNus-0w&pli=1

Tomlinson, C. (2003). Fulfilling the promise of the differentiated classroom: Strategies and tools for responsive teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Updated on 6/16/2011