Preschool Learning: How to Approach Differentiated Instruction

Shemmicca Moore
Shemmicca Moore
Director of Secondary Instruction; Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Gardner-Webb University
A male teacher reads to a group of preschool children.

Research has consistently shown that from birth to five years of age, a child’s brain develops most. Differentiated instruction programs and early childhood education programs alike value this research. It has been stated that children’s brains are like sponges during this period, soaking up everything that is presented to them. This stage allows them to function as explorers, in that they manipulate the world around them through sight, touch, and sound to satisfy their curiosity of how things work.

Very seldom will you find a toddler who is afraid to grapple with new content and learn new things. In fact, I would assert that under the right circumstances, it is during this phase of development that we are most likely to see the most significant similarities among children as it pertains to learning academic content. When we explore the nurture in terms of academics that each child receives before enrolling in a preschool program, the largest disparities in learning are revealed.

Based on the value that is placed on academics in the home, preschoolers enter school highly prepared, adequately prepared, barely prepared, or not prepared at all. Therefore, teachers must address the differences in learning that these groups of students will have as they enter their preschool classrooms. Time has revealed the best method of managing varying learning abilities and achievement levels among students is through differentiated instruction.

What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is presenting a curriculum utilizing varying teaching strategies and styles to meet individual learning needs. It is the method used when the goal is to ensure that all learners are growing academically. One of its most important functions is leveling the playing field by meeting learners and growing them to a level of concept mastery. In essence, every academic lesson that is deemed effective should be heavy-laden with differentiated practices to meet the needs of each learner.

How Are Preschool Students’ Learning Needs Different from Elementary Students’?

“Typical” preschool students are still at a point in their lives where they are working on language acquisition. Their learning needs are varied, sometimes as simplistic as letter and number recognition and expanding to broader concepts such as word and object association and counting as far as they can go. Expanding their vocabulary and associating names with everyday items are major components of learning in preschool.

In addition, they are discovering how to effectively communicate their needs and wants in acceptable manners. Therefore, being in learning environments designed to increase exposure to numbers, letters, and academic vocabulary is critical to a preschooler’s language development. It is imperative that they are exposed to terminology that supports becoming productive learners and citizens.

On the other hand, typical elementary-age students have developed linguistic skills to communicate clearly. While they need support in advancing their vocabulary, they have surpassed the emergent stage of first language acquisition. Elementary students examine spelling patterns, develop complex writing pieces, orally defend their academic decisions, and read and analyze leveled text. In addition, they have surpassed number recognition to solve basic equations.

The need to develop independence is also part of the growth process for preschool-age children. Preschool students must learn to independently complete tasks such as using the restroom alone, preparing their snacks and lunch for consumption, fixing their clothing, and transitioning between teacher-directed lessons. They must learn that the adults in the classroom serve in the capacity of a guide. In elementary school, the teacher is less likely to hold the student’s hand while they discover independence in the learning environment.

Elementary students are at a different phase in their learning needs. They are comfortable transitioning between tasks and taking care of their personal needs, such as meals and restroom breaks. Taking ownership of their learning is expected and consistently reinforced. The expectation to submit assignments promptly, keep up with due dates, and do their part in collaborative groups is the norm. During the elementary learning process, students begin to transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

Although the aforementioned learning targets are where the “typical” learners are in their development, students in each group surpass expectations and others struggle to meet them. The difference in performance levels among students dictates the necessity for differentiated instruction. It is a must to ensure that our preschool students are prepared for the demands of learning in the elementary setting.

How to Approach Preschool Curriculum with Differentiated Instruction

Know Where They Are

The first step teachers should take is to find out where their students are academically. Differentiation instruction in preschool cannot occur if you assume all students are on the same level. Just as students enter into preschool with differing socio-economic backgrounds and life experiences, they also have a variety of exposure to learning academic content. Therefore, teachers should not begin a lesson indicating their students’ knowledge on the topic.

It is necessary to conduct a formative assessment to determine which students have mastered the concept and those that struggle. Once the level is determined, place the students into groups with peers who match their skill level and instruct from there.

Tap into Their Interests

Preschoolers are energetic and like movement while learning. Once each child’s skill level has been determined, the teacher should use the teaching strategy of utilizing materials that interest the learners. Placing children into groups without incorporating engaging teaching techniques has proven to be futile for most early learners.

The utilization of dance, singing, and art to reinforce skills have historically been effective with preschoolers. Find out which of these mediums most interest your students and incorporate it into your small group lesson. In addition, allow them to tackle the content by using their interests to display their learning.

Know Their Early Learning Preferences

A major component of teaching is knowing your students’ learning preferences. Often, teachers interchangeably use the idea of learning preference and interests when they are planning for instruction. The problem with this is that our interests do not always align with how our brain best processes information.

For this reason, it is necessary to observe the students in the learning environment. Teachers should take antidotal notes on how their learners process and retain information. This information can be utilized in conjunction with students’ interests to plan effective, targeted lessons for preschool curriculum.

Want to make an impact on preschoolers in the classroom? Explore our early childhood education programs and begin today!

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