Five Tips for Individualizing Learning Throughout the Day
José was a sweet, charming child in my class during my first year of teaching. José’s artistic skills led him to run a nice little business drawing illustrations of cartoon characters for his classmates—for a small fee, of course. He won every drawing contest he entered and was selected to illustrate the cover of the school parents’ manual. Whoever sat next to José during the day would eventually break down in tears of laughter. I never heard what he whispered in their ears, but it must have been good. José was also obsessed with basketball. Each day after a game, I pretended to understand the basketball terms he used as he gave me the play-by-play of the game. José also had an identified intellectual disability. Academically, he was behind his peers and his Individualized Education Program (IEP) required accommodations to simplify his work and allow him extra time to finish. It made me think…wouldn’t it be great if all children had individualized goals and support to reach those goals?
Today, when I think of “individualization” or “differentiating instruction,” I think of José. As helpful as his IEP was in helping me support José’s individual needs, it didn’t celebrate all his gifts, talents, and abilities. I learned what made José special by observing him and talking to him.
To best address each child’s needs and support their skills we must first observe children closely and spend time with them to develop an authentic, caring relationship.
By this time in the school year, you have likely gotten to know each child in your class very well. You know which child needs time to adjust to changes in the schedule, which child is the natural leader who takes charge in group experiences, and which child will get so engrossed in building or creating that she seems to forget the other children around her.
Much of what we do in early childhood classrooms naturally lends itself to individualizing learning, like allowing children to choose which interest area to play in and how to play in it, deciding how they participate in large-group meetings (some children sit with their legs crossed like pretzels, others choose to lie on their bellies, while still others prefer to sit in a chair or stand nearby), and how they use art materials to create. When you work to address a wide range of skills and abilities in your group, you consider and plan for children’s individual differences. These differences include variations in gender, temperament, interests, learning styles, life experiences, culture, language learning, and special needs.
These individual differences are explored in great detail in Chapter 1 of The Creative Curriculum for Preschool, Volume 1: The Foundation in the section titled “Individual Differences.”
Here are 5 ways you can address the wide range of skills and abilities children demonstrate throughout the day.
- Offer choices. Encourage children to participate and explore in the way they prefer. Some children may prefer to work individually, with a partner, in a small group, or in a large group. Or, if there are children in your group who are sensitive to sensory experiences, allow them to use tools or wear gloves when exploring sensory materials like sand, potting soil, or gak. Even when meeting with children virtually, offering choices shows that we value their independence and preferences.
- Plan for possibilities. As you plan an activity to share with the children, think about how you can adjust the activity in the moment for children who need more time, more support, or experience with concrete materials to understand the concept. Also consider how you will scaffold the experience to challenge children who are advanced learners.
- Empower children to document their learning. Digital child portfolios are a wonderful addition to teachers’ classrooms, replacing large, dusty boxes of notes, artwork, writing samples, and photos. Let’s not forget that the power of a child’s portfolio lies in her selection of what she is proud of and her reflection on her learning. Talk to children about how and why you take notes, photos, or videos of their work. Invite children to share what they would like to include in their digital portfolio and periodically ask them to review photos or videos. Ask them what skills they would like to continue to develop. Encourage children and families to capture and share observations of learning at home as well. This helps families notice and celebrate their child’s evolving skills and abilities!
- Encourage community support. Children are usually very aware of their skills and those of their peers. In my classroom, José was always asked to help draw a complicated animal for other children! Celebrate each child’s expertise and encourage them to support children who could benefit from their help. Share examples of children’s work in virtual sessions to celebrate successes, even at a distance. You could model this openness about asking for help, for example, by inviting the classroom dancer to teach you his signature dance move.
- Provide a variety of learning materials. At this age, most preschool children benefit from having a collection of concrete objects to manipulate and explore. For example, it’s easier to describe the properties of an orange when you’re holding a real orange, instead of a plastic orange or a cartoon picture of a smiling orange. In your physical classroom, evaluate the materials in each interest area. Are there puzzles for children with different ability levels? Books about topics that interest the children in a variety of reading levels? Are there blocks that are easy for young preschoolers to grasp and stack as well as blocks that are sturdy enough for older preschoolers’ elaborate buildings and machines? For at-home learning, help families identify materials they already have at home that they can use to support these skills. Building with empty food containers or clean recyclables, identifying letters on food packages or junk mail, writing with soap on the tub during a bath, sorting laundry, and helping to wash dishes are all easy (and free!) ways for families to support their child’s learning!
Daily Resources for Observation
Teachers are constantly using their observations to thoughtfully analyze each child’s knowledge, skills, and abilities and respond appropriately. Individualization is hard but important work. This is why we have built individualization into The Creative Curriculum for Preschool and The Creative Curriculum for Kindergarten through the Intentional Teaching Experiences, the daily resource at the heart of a teacher’s targeted small-group instructional time. On each Intentional Teaching Experience you will see the Teaching Sequence that shows how to tailor the activity for children with skills at each level of development and learning.
Applying the Teaching Sequence
Each Teaching Sequence translates the progression of the primary objective from the Objectives for Development & Learning into instructions for teachers.
In the digital Intentional Teaching Experiences, the names of the children in the class are shown next to each level of the Teaching Sequence, making individualizing in the moment that much easier!
Demonstrating Your Commitment
Offering developmentally appropriate experiences is certainly important for supporting all children’s learning and development, but the real magic happens when we effectively individualize learning, using what we know about each child to provide the most engaging experience for them. Each child, just like José, deserves to have their individual learning needs and preferences respected and addressed thoughtfully. Individualizing experiences to address a wide range of skills and abilities demonstrates your commitment to supporting children’s development and learning in all areas, building on each child’s strengths and supporting their individual areas of potential growth.