Center Based Learning to Promote Differentiation in a Preschool Classroom

Beginning Story

Meet Willie. He is 4 years old. His parents are from Columbia. Willie's father speaks English and Spanish and Willie's mother speaks only Spanish. Willie knows a few words in English. It is Willie's first day of preschool. Willie has never been away from his mother. He is painfully shy and looks lost in this large classroom. Willie's teacher is instantly thinking: How will he communicate? How will he learn best? What things interest Willie? Will he be a visual learner? Where is he academically compared to his peers?

Now imagine what Willie is thinking: I don't know anyone. How will these kids know I want to play? My mama says school will be fun. I don't understand what my teacher is saying. I like the block area over there but will the kids play with me. I feel lonely.

Now think how will the preschool teacher and Willie learn best from each other? What should they do? This is where differentiation steps in to help.


Many preschool teachers struggle with ways to meet the needs of all the learners in their classrooms. While keeping the physical space, social environment, and emotional environment of the classroom appropriate so all students can learn at their highest potential. These teachers struggle because students in their class range from age three, with a developmental delay that gives them a developmental ability of a fifteen month old, to a student who is a typically developing five years old that missed the kindergarten cut off by days. These teachers also have students with physical handicaps, behavioral issues, and sometimes a variety of other needs in the same classroom. How do these teachers get their students to understand the essential concepts while keeping the interest of all students and creating high expectations for all learners?

Key Terms

Differentiation, in terms of instruction, involves altering the implementation and design of lessons and activities so that the needs of all of the students in the classroom are met. Through differentiation, students use different pathways to explore and learn, while taking away the same essential ideas and understanding on the topic. Tomlinson (as cited in Subban, 2006), defines differentiated instruction as a philosophy of teaching that is based on the premise that students learn best when their teachers accommodate the differences in their readiness levels, interests and learning profiles (p. 940).

Center Based Learning takes place in the classroom when students move through areas set up that are designed to stimulate students' learning as they explore and investigate. Children learn through a multi- sensory approach, using sights, sounds, feeling, gross motor, fine motor skills and more to address all learning styles. It is important for learning centers to incorporate a variety activities designed to stimulate all of the senses. Learning centers provide students with an opportunity to learn and explore independently, as well as interact with their peers. Teachers should incorporate a variety of activities that encompass all of the six preschool developmental domains; English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science and Technology/Engineering, History and Social Science, Health Education, and the Arts. These six areas are designed to guide learning in the preschool years and help to build a strong foundation for learning in the future. These domains along with the strong social and emotional aspects of preschool build a clear foundation for the students and further education. Students play and learn during center based learning and build this foundation through multi-sensory hands-on learning that takes place with the emotional and social interactions during this learning process.
(For more on the six Preschool guidelines check out Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences)

Emotional environment is important to help the students learn and feel comfortable in preschool. A well organized emotional environment is one where students, parents, and teachers can openly communicate their wants and needs because: “the physical environment is safe and orderly”; “adults show respect for children’s needs and ideas and talk with them in caring ways;” and “ parents feel respected and are encouraged to participate in the program.” (Koralek, Newman & Colker,1995, p. 1–6). If a student does not feel safe in the preschool environment then they will not be able to learn and group, academically, socially, and emotionally. The teacher in a preschool classroom has to help meet all the emotional needs of the students so that they can all learn. The teacher needs to guide the students to feel safe and felel they can communicate their wants and needs to the adults and students in the room at anytime.

Social Environment is the way students interact with each other. "Human social environments encompass the immediate physical surroundings, social relationships, and cultural milieus within which defined groups of people function and interact." (Barnett & Casper, 2001, p. 465). Preschool student interact and learn through play. They learn how to play together, sharing, take turns, and building on each other's ideas which is cooperative play. Their social environment needs to be one of cooperative and consideration of the other students and adults around them. For more information on developing good social and emotional environments in preschool and at home check out Center on the Social and Emotional Foundation for Early Learning

Physical Space, as defined by Koralek,et al (1995) from their study of childhood development regarding physical space in an early childhood classroom, means that the space must be safe and orderly. The physical space of the classroom must contain a variety of toys and materials that stimulate the learner. Physical space in an early childhood classroom must allow children to be able to select materials and activities that appeal to their interests. This promotes independence by allowing the students to be actively involved in their classroom.

The Physical space of a preschool classroom is constantly evolving to meet the needs of the students and themes being taught. A good classroom is set up to accommodate these changes. The example of a classroom set up below is an example that has many areas small and large that can be altered to accommodate these changes. Students and teachers can find individual, small group, or large group areas to learn and play. This helps provide many different opportunities for differentiation to take place in a variety of different situations.

The tables in the example above can be used for a variety of situation such as playing games, small group learning, teacher directed activities, or snack table. Housekeeping may also change many times to be a pizza shop, flower shop, laundry mat, etc. These are just a few examples of classroom set up and changes that can take place in a preschool classroom. For other examples preschool arrangements or area ideas check out Preschool Classroom Arrangement

Literature Review

Differentiation has been the latest trend for school systems for the past decade. More and more school districts are trying to provide professional development and training for teachers so they can use this practice successfully in their classrooms. Current research states that there needs to be a common core set of standards for all students. Mass Common Core standards This way teachers are ensuring that all students are provided with an equal opportunity to achieve (Lipson & Wixson, 2009). From preschool all the way up through the secondary grades, differentiated instruction is considered what is necessary for students to make the appropriate gains in order to adequately acquire the curriculum.

There are four student traits that teachers must address in order to assure that all students are learning effectively and efficiently. These traits are: readiness, interest, learning profile and affect (Tomlinson, 2003). In terms of student readiness, teachers must know about their students’ prior knowledge and life experiences. This includes their students’ views on school particularly certain subject areas. Teachers must also know what interests their students. Teachers need to put effort into discovering what their students like to do and what their passions include. This helps the teacher to connect interests to the content he/she must teach and also aides the teacher in selecting small groups or projects. When the students are interested they will enjoy what they are learning and this will heighten their achievement (Tomlinson, 2003). Another trait is the student’s learning profile. This includes their style, culture, gender and intelligence preference. Lastly, the fourth trait is the affect. Affect is how students feel about themselves in school. This encompasses the students’ positive or negative feelings about their work, their classroom and what they can add to the classroom dynamic. Tomlinson believes that teachers need to strive to understand their students’ emotions as well as their understanding for students to reach their highest potential (2003).

Taking into account all these four-student traits, teachers must attempt to determine how to best deliver instruction. The teacher is in charge of designing the best learning environment for their students. A major part of the learning environment is the classroom design. Depending on the age group, the class size, the amount of teachers and support and the shape of the classroom teachers have a tough job on their hands trying to figure out how their students will learn best in their classroom. By weighing in all these components teacher can try to eliminate disengagement or obsessiveness that some students may take part in and try to have their students engage fully according to the content, task or text (Kelley & Clasusen-Grace 2009).

One way to best deliver instruction to children is incorporating learning centers. Learning centers should involve all six developmental domains that include: Language Arts, Mathematics, History and Social Sciences, Science, Engineering and Technology, Health and Art. The activities in the learning centers should be hands on, multi-sensory and provide opportunities for children to interact with each other. Arquette believes “when children work with their peers in centers, and they have the opportunity to use more oral language than they would often do in the regular classroom” (2007, p. 4). This helps children build up their language development and encourage speaking and listening to each other.

Another positive way that learning centers help to differentiate instruction is that all students are involved. Well constructed learning centers can support and challenge all students if there are a variety of activities in a center so all children can participate in learning the key concepts (Arquette, 2007). Early childhood teachers are aware that some children developmentally may need more support than other children so the supports are provided to all children. This way the children have the support if they need it, while other children may model what to do in the center without a particular scaffold (Brown, Bergen, House, Hittle, & Dickerson, 2000).

Learning centers are beneficial to the students’ learning styles, readiness and interests but they take much planning and communicating. Teachers, administrators, parents, therapists, and paraprofessionals need to work as a team to help reach the academic and social potential for all the students (Brown et al, 2000). There needs to be collaboration to make sure that the centers are being effective and the students are grasping the knowledge and skills that are needed to learn particular concepts. All teachers (general and special education) need to work together to address informal assessment measures to check for understanding for each center. Extensive planning is a necessity for the learning centers to produce the best learning possible.

Differentiation should be occurring at the preschool level. By incorporating center-based learning along with small group instruction, preschool teachers can begin to group children by readiness, interests and learning style so that all children begin to learn actively and with engagement. By giving children choices, students of all abilities and readiness levels can become more driven to do more reading, listening, speaking and writing (Arqutte, 2007) Students are making choices in their learning and this leads to independence and confidence.

Practices in the Classroom

Differentiating the students' learning process during center based learning is an effective way to differentiate for the variety of students a preschool teacher can have in their classroom. Students are already working and learning in a variety of ways, in different groupings, and making chooses based on their own interests. This is a great time to build on a subject matter to reinforce basic concepts or to add additional information based on individual learning profile and using these to help reach each student’s highest potential.

Center time encompasses all of the developmental domains through a multi-sensory approach, while building the students social and emotional skills in the classroom setting. During this time students may be working independently, with another student, in a small group, or with a teacher. They are able to chose their own area of play and build skills based on the activities the teacher creates in each learning area. Teachers may set up spaces differently for different students and different expectations are established based on the student’s current abilities.

During center based learning students are playing throughout the room. A class that is learning about letters and print will all be learning about this concept but learning in each center is differentiated to provide for students needs, interests, and abilities. Some students might be running a restaurant in the housekeeping area. These students are working on writing and reading skills through the activities they create in the restaurant. A teacher could provide order pads and pencils so students can write orders. Menus may be available with and without pictures for students to read/pretend to read what they would like to eat and place their order. Serves can also use the menus to copy the printed words. Recipe books in this area also work on reading skills while students look at them to find items to cook for their customers. White boards can have specials for customers to choose from or students can write their own specials for each day. In another area of the room a student maybe working at the computer playing letter game. One student at the writing table is making her own story using the word/picture cards that are provide. She draws her own pictures and copies the words from the cards. While another student at the writing table is stamping letters on to cards and exploring what the letters look like when they are printed. Three students work at the art table with an adult on shaving cream letters, tracing the letters from cards, writing their names, or copying what the adult is doing. Two students are playing a game of memory with upper case letter cards and two other students play memory with upper and lower case letters. One student listens to a book called Alphabet Fire Engine at the listening station, and children in blocks build with letter blocks or long and short lines that can also be made into letters, throughout this center the teacher has the letters made with the lines on display for children to copy. Finally a student at the science area has tubes that are filled with a variety of objects and letters. He asks a friend to join him and together they play a game of I Spy as they find the different letters in the tubes. All of these students are learning a basic understanding of letters and building on what they already know. They are all challenged to do more with letters and they will have opportunities to visit different areas to try different activities. The teacher will have different expectations for the students in each area, and the content they use in that area may also change slightly to fit their abilities. The students are all engaged and interact together which not only builds their letter knowledge but also their social/emotional interactions. Students work in a variety of areas and as they move throughout areas they build knowledge of the different domains. These experiences not only build letter knowledge but they set the foundation for learning that will take place in future grades.

Challenges that Arise

When it comes to successfully implementing differentiated instruction into their classrooms, teachers face many challenges. Differentiated instruction is a fairly new concept and some question whether the benefits of this approach outweigh the time and effort that is demanded of teachers who wish to use this approach successfully within their classroom. Many educators, however, feel that differentiating instruction is very important and is beneficial to all students, regardless of abilities.

One major challenge that arises with this approach is the actually implementation of differentiated instruction within the classroom. There are many factors that affect this. Time constraints are often challenging for teachers who use differentiated instruction within their classroom. Teachers' jobs require a great deal of time and energy as it is, so the idea of being responsible for constantly creating various activities and avenues for students to explore may seem overwhelming to some. Many preschool classrooms incorporate center based learning that involves students using a multi-sensory approach. Teachers are responsible for designing learning centers that focus on the important developmental domains. Many integrated preschool classrooms consist of students with varying degrees of disabilities. It may take a large amount of time for teachers to plan and create activities that will be stimulating and engaging to all of their students. According to Corley (2005), "The challenge is for teachers to ensure that the needs of all learners are equally valued and equally served"(p. 1). In addition to meeting the needs of the students, many teachers may also have more to consider if they have students with challenging behaviors. Every student has the right to learn, however it is the teacher's duty to ensure that students are not hindering the learning of other students. Where as much of the exploration within learning centers happens independently, teachers may need to create specific rules and guidelines to help prevent opportunities for behavioral outbreaks to arise.

A major component of differentiated instruction involves the teacher needing to constantly observe their students and keep record of their strengths and progress. A factor that may influence time constraints is the number of students that the teacher has in the classroom. These days' class sizes are growing and growing. With some teachers being responsible for over twenty students, it is very difficult to differentiate to meet the needs of all of those students. Teachers with such large numbers of students may not have enough time to successfully plan instruction for all of the students as well as monitor their progress without the help of more staff in the classroom.

Another challenge that can arise with differentiating instruction may be based on the resources that are available in various schools. Some low income schools may not have access to some necessary resources that would be beneficial to the students. Limited access to resources may hinder teachers' abilities to provide meaningful differentiated instruction for all students. Teachers may have to be very resourceful in trying to find creative new ways to frequently change and design activities using the materials that are accessible to them.

Another major topic is change in the classroom dynamics. Tomlinson (as cited in Subban, 2006), stated, "that there was a need to investigate teacher resistance to new models catering for academic diversity, as well as considering teachers’ perception of classroom management in the light of these changes. Classroom management appears to arise as a disquieting factor when changes are implemented – this phenomenon requires greater research since proponents of the differentiated instruction model believe that classroom management issues will decrease if teachers implement the model efficiently, yet there remains disquiet about a loss of control among teachers" (p. 942). In terms of learning centers, students move around the room independently or while interacting with peers. In some rooms, student interaction can get loud or as some teachers may fear, creates the appearance of chaos. Again, it necessary for teachers to implement rules and to regulate the room in order to create smooth transitions as students move about the classroom.


To return back to our student Willie and his preschool teacher for a moment, it is now the end of the school year and Willie and his teacher have learned a great deal from each other. Willie's teacher has learned that Willie has been in Columbia and has brought in souvenirs, which he was so excited to share with his classmates. This gave Willie the confidence to talk in front of his peers. Willie has also learned his numbers, while his friends learned them in Spanish. Everyone in the class was learning something new. Willie also loves to play with blocks and this helped him to build props with his peers to act out stories.

Willie's teacher also learned that Willie and his peers learned from each other. Instead of always worrying how he is doing, his teacher let him work in small groups with children of different readiness abilities. The language she heard from all the children was amazing. Willie's teacher also learned that auditory aides along with visual aides helped all children learn better, for example, using a special clean up song and songs to signal transitions to other activities. Both of these people learned so much from each other and the other children in the classroom.

In conclusion, differentiation can be done in any classroom. It just takes time, energy, planning, and most of all patience. By examining each child's readiness, learning style, and interest, teachers can create environments where all students can feel accepted, feel proud, and feel they are contributing to their own learning.


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Barnett, Elizabeth & Casper, Michele. (2001, March) A definition of "social environment". American Journal of Public Health, 91(3), 465-465, 1/2p.

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Drecktrah, M., & Genisio, M. (1999, November 4). Emergent literacy in an early childhood class: Center learning to support the child with special needs. Early Childhood Journal, 26.

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Koralek, D., Newman, R., & Colker, L.(1995). Caring for children in school-age programs: A competency-based training program. Teaching Strategies Inc (1). Washington, DC.

Lipson, M. Y., & Wixson, K.K. (2009). Assessment and instruction of reading and writing difficulites: An interactive approach.(4th ed) Boston: Pearson Education Inc.

Subban, P. (2006). International Educational Journal. Differentiated instruction: A research basis, 7(7), 935-947.

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

Authors: Julie Depasse, Christine Gaspar & Jenna Salvadore (updated 6/25/11)