Classroom, Elementary, High School, Junior High

How to Differentiate the Learning Environment in Your Classroom

I have to start this post off by admitting that I am one of these teachers that scroll Pinterest for hours looking for new and exciting ways to dress up my classroom. Yes, I am that teacher that others hate because I have themed classrooms, labels everywhere, and sayings like “believe in yourself!” all over the walls.

I am fully aware that my classroom is one that people either love or hate – there is no in-between. That being said, not only am I decorating it according to my needs as the teacher, I’m planning for it to be functional for my students.

I consider the classroom to be myself and my students’ learning space, and I want for all of us to use it together, respect it, and find it functional.

There are a ton of ways teachers can differentiate content, process, product, and learning environment. In this post, I’m going to focus specifically on learning environment.

When we discuss differentiating the learning environment, what we’re talking about is how the classroom works, how it feels, and where and how students complete their work. There are a bunch of ways you can help your students work in your classroom and understand the best environment for themselves.

Below are some of my favourite strategies and tips for differentiating learning environment:

Discuss different ways to work with your kids

Talk to your students about what type of learner they are. We are all different and prefer different things in order to succeed. None of these are “right” or “wrong”.

For example, I am someone who needs music or the television on in order to complete my work.

I think this stems from childhood, when I wanted to make studying and completing homework fun, so I did it while doing something I considered “fun”.

Now, I need noise to concentrate, otherwise I start getting anxious and every little sound (like my stomach grumbling or a car driving by) will distract me and cause me to completely pause what I’m doing to start something else.

I am well aware, however, that I am not the majority. Most students I ask prefer a quiet room to work.

I talk about these kinds of differences with students all the time and ask them what sorts of things help them learn.

Many students like to chew gum, or sit on the floor, or play with fidget tools. These are all fine by me, as long as they’re being responsible and staying on task.

in general, keep the classroom quiet

As I noted above, some people prefer to have background noise in order to work, but many more need a quiet setting.

I am very strict about having a quiet room with my students, and I make it very clear why. I always want to ensure everyone is being respectful of one another, and a quiet room is respectful for those who cannot concentrate in noise.

If you’re still mastering classroom management, something like a Yakker Trakker is great for monitoring noise. Or, you can get online noise trackers like these bouncing balls.

I also use our class rewards system (I use ClassDojo) with our quiet work, so when the class is too noisy they loose a point, and when they work great, they gain a point.

For those students who like background noise, I am more than okay with them listening to music or a podcast while they work. This is what I do, after all.

create different work centres

This can be hard to do as class sizes get larger and schools don’t expand to fit all the kiddos.

Wherever you can, try to set up various centres in your classroom where kids can work in different spaces and/or know what tools will be available to them in certain spaces.

You can even plan some of these with your class. I had a class one year who wanted to create a “focus corner” behind our jacket cubbies. This seemed like a weird time-out/cave area to me, but they loved it and would use it if they wanted a quiet space to work alone.

In my classroom, I always like to have a cozy reading corner where kids can read or work, a “calm down corner”, a quiet work cubby, some various tables for group work, and at least one standing desk.

Additionally, I also set up our “tech corner”, a learning tools cupboard, and a section of that class with all our school supplies, so that students can access these with ease.
I always want students to feel like full participants in the classroom, so they have access to basically everywhere and everything (with the exception of my desk).

use alternative seating

Not all students thrive sitting in a desk all day. Not a surprise, I know. I give students the example of myself, I love a huge, empty table where I can spread everything out. I also like a hard, wooden chair (bonkers, I know).

I always ask the kids how they like to work, and I get a ton of different answers. Some like to lay across the floor, others like to stand, many like to be moving around, some like sitting on cushions, and so on.

In my own classroom, I have lots of cushions on the floor in our reading corner, plenty of hokki stools, disco sits, an egg chair, standing desks, tables, and, of course, student desks. I would love to also get a couch, but we don’t have the room right now, maybe one day.

I love giving students plenty of options. When I am talking to the class, I expect them to be sitting in their desks, or at a standing desk, but when it’s time for them to complete work, they can choose what works best for them.

allow students to work in various areas in the school

Whenever you can, let students work in various areas in the school. Even in a quiet, well-managed room, students may still dislike being around others during some activities.

For example, many students don’t like to use speech-to-text in front of others and prefer to do it elsewhere.

I will allow students to work just outside the room in the hallway, or in any other room where there’s supervision. The library always works well, a resource room, or an empty classroom if there’s an adult to accompany them.

use routines

Rolling in and just flying by the seat of your pants is going to cause a lot of students a lot of anxiety.

Even students who don’t really need a routine or schedule, still benefit from one.

Have a visual schedule at the front of the room and go through it with kids. Check things off as you go through them through the day.

Additionally, make sure your students know the basic routines you use for daily activities.

They should know how to line up, how to transition between tasks, your expectations during things like centres, independent work, and so on.

When something out of the ordinary comes up, like a field trip, be exceptionally clear with your expectations. In fact, be stricter than you think is necessary to avoid any issues.

I don’t ever want to have to get upset or have to discipline a student, especially during a fun activity like a field trip. So, I make my expectations apparent beforehand and ensure we have extremely clear structures in place (from where they put their lunch bags, to how to sit on the bus, to how to hold their water bottles).

make the classroom functional

Your classroom should be full of everything (that you have access to) students need to find success, and they should be able to use these when necessary.

It’s ideal to have an area in your classroom where students can access physical tools such as fidgets, lap lizards, disco sits, and so on so that they can grab these when necessary.

Making learning tools accessible all the time allows for all students to try them out (the first week or so may have you instilling rules around who gets to use things first) and then use the things that work best for them. Some students won’t need anything, and others may require several.

Having tools out all the time also take the stigma away of a teacher bringing them something to use – they may feel different and not use it, even if it would help.

Additionally, it’s great to label things as well as post pictures. I have a label on all of our school supplies bins which has both the word and an image, so all students know what is inside.

I also post pictures of how our tables, bookshelves, and so on should look when they are organized. This way, students can put things away and just reference the picture to ensure everything is neat, tidy, and functional. This is great for building their independent skills. It’s also been great for me as I no longer find myself having to tidy up after the kids at the end of the day.

What do you think? Did I miss anything in this list? Is there anything else you have in your own classroom that works wonders? Let me know in the comments below!

Enjoyed this? Here are some other blog posts on Katie is a Teacher you may like:

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