Differentiated Instruction

Using Formative Assessment to Differentiate | Setting the Stage for Differentiated Instruction | Meeting Children Where They Are | Knowing What to Do Next | Differentiating in TK/K Combinations | Classroom Example Snapshots

Each student that walks into your TK classroom brings their unique experiences and has their own learning needs and learning pace. An individualized approach is critical to ensuring your students are reaching their highest potential. As you plan for the individualized and differentiated instruction that address the needs of all TKers, you can consider the various strategies, content and activities that meet your students needs across the continuum of learning. 

Examples strategies for differentiated instruction include:1

  • flexible grouping that considers the strengths and room for growth of all students;
  • exploration/hands-on centers or stations where students are responsible for their learning;
  • directions that are short and concise;
  • questioning techniques that enable answers based on each student’s readiness and comprehension; and
  • student as well as teacher initiated tasks and projects that provide for hands-on learning.

The following webinar gives practical tips on how to meet the needs of each child in a transitional kindergarten classroom.

Teachers may need to look at breaking skills down into sequential steps and varying:

  • the time for individual students to complete tasks;
  • the content and degree of support;
  • the scaffolding based on the student’s assessed need; and
  • approaches to supporting self help and social emotional competencies.

Observation and assessment of students' skills and progress are key components of differentiated instruction. For more resources to support assessment, please see the assessment section.

Using Evidence from Formative Assessment to Differentiate Instruction

Intentionally using assessment to differentiate instruction will help your young students succeed in transitional kindergarten, and build the strong foundation that will ultimately prepare them for meeting the kindergarten standards. Evidence from formative assessment leads naturally to differentiated instruction and flexible grouping. Based on evidence from formative assessments, you can meet children where they are, adding just enough challenge so that a task goes a bit beyond what your student can already do.

Linking Formative Assessment and Differentiated Instruction: A Powerful Combination


Setting the Stage for Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction in any classroom can be a challenge without the right planning tools. As transitional kindergarten teachers plan to incorporate differentiated instruction into their daily schedules it may be helpful to remember these key points:

  • Well-established expectations, routines, and signalsbuild the essential foundation for learning.
    Is it more important for a child to have free exploration, or is it better for her teacher to take the time to play a “game” that will reinforce or extend her learning? If the child is currently struggling with self-regulation, she might benefit most from free exploration where the teacher can observe her interactions. If the teacher has been working on sequencing events and the child continues to struggle with the concept, this might be the best opportunity to provide additional instruction.
  • Brief, tightly focused, highly engaging interactions with small groups or with individual children are typically more effective than longer, more comprehensive sessions.
  • At times, child-guided experiences, in which children learn through their own exploration and/or interaction with peers, are the best context for children’s learning. At other times, adult-guided experiences are more effective. Teachers need to be prepared to use their ongoing assessment information to make difficult decisions about what is most important for individual children at any given time.
  • It is important to talk with children about how each of us have different skills and interests, and that each child will have opportunities for special times with the adults in the classroom as well as times with other children in small and whole group activities learning wonderful new things.
  • A rich environment with a wide variety of accessible materials helps make differentiated instruction possible.

Meeting Children Where They Are

As a TK teacher, you understand the importance of a developmental approach to instruction. TK teachers work to ensure that each child is working in his or her “zone of proximal development”.2 The ZPD is just the right gap between what the child can do independently and what the child is newly learning. Formative assessment provides evidence and guidance in finding the “zone” for each child. The goal of differentiated instruction is to provide scaffolding, or temporary support, to guide children from what they already know to what they can do next.3 Teachers can then gradually remove the scaffolding, reducing the support as the child begins to master the skill and prepares to move on to his or her next step.


“Teachers possess an extensive repertoire of skills and strategies they are able to draw on, and they know how and when to choose among them to effectively promote each child’s learning and development at that moment… Those strategies include, but are not limited to, acknowledging, encouraging, giving specific feedback, modeling, demonstrating, adding challenge, giving clues or other assistance, providing information, and giving directions.”

Source: NAEYC Position Statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice, pp.18-19

Knowing What to Do Next

Once you identify the gaps in some students’ understanding, determine that others are right on target and discover that others might benefit from additional challenge, the focus becomes deciding what to do next to meet their needs.

Many children need to back up a bit to fill in missing concepts or correct misconceptions in order to move to the next step. As you decide which strategies you will use to scaffold and guide your students to fill in the gaps in their learning, you will be able to get them back on track to meeting their goals. The documents cited in the Formative Assessment section of the website, (California Preschool Learning Foundations, Vols.1-3, and the Alignment of the California Preschool Learning Foundations with Key Early Learning Resources) can help in these decisions. The documents also provide guidance in identifying possible next steps for student who would benefit from additional challenge or acceleration.

TK/K combo classrooms

Differentiated instruction is a critical aspect of meeting the individualized needs of TK and K students in a combo classroom. Because TK offers the gift of time, the teacher is able to move through the curriculum at a pace that meets student needs, guiding social development, fine and gross motor skill development, as well as academic development. Students can be flexibly grouped to allow teachers the opportunity to support children to meet specific objectives. These groups are not static and may be reconfigured often, dictated by observation and/or assessment of children’s progress.



Questions to Guide Differentiated Instruction Planning or Reflection

  1. What is/was my goal with this instructional sequence, activity, experience or exploration?

  2. How will I/did I use formative assessment to gather evidence about the student’s response to my instruction?

  3. What do I know about my students now?
    • Which children have gaps in their conceptual understanding or skills?
    • Which students are on-track and ready for the next step in the learning progression I have identified?
    • Which students might benefit from accelerated instruction?
  4. What is the next developmental step for the student/s with identified gaps in their understanding and how will I scaffold their new learning to promote success?

  5. How am I going to/did I address these identified needs through my differentiated instruction? Will I/Did I meet with the student individually or in a small group, and will I/did I:
    • adjust the pace of instruction?
    • pre-teach to provide the foundation for success in learning the information as presented/benefit from the planned experience, etc.?
    • need to reteach?
    • restructure my lesson or activity to build missing concepts or to correct misconceptions to meet the developmental needs of the students?
    • provide additional practice because the student/s have the basic concept, but just need additional opportunities to use the knowledge and skills?
    • accelerate/extend learning because the student/s are ready for the next steps and will benefit from more challenging experiences?
  6. When and how will I assess the impact of my instruction?

Click here for a printable document version of the above questions

Differentiated Instruction: Classroom Snapshots

Note: The following snapshots assume only one adult is present. If two adults are present, the challenges of providing differentiation are eased somewhat.

  1. Based on classroom assessment, the teacher decides that several of his students would benefit from pre-teaching related to the vocabulary and concepts to be introduced in an upcoming anchor text. He decides to meet with those students for a few minutes during the free exploration period for the three days preceding the introduction of the new book.

  2. During recess, the teacher gathers four leaves/twigs/pebbles and calls together a couple of students who are struggling with one-to-one correspondence. She spends a few minutes checking their conceptual understanding of one-to-one correspondence. She decides they understand the concept, but need more practice. She then provides additional opportunities for counting and recounting the items, then asks each of them to find five more for her.

  3. The teacher has identified four students who have strong blending skills and decode confidently. They are ready to read more challenging decodable text. To build fluency, the teacher calls them from their center assignments and reads with them for a few minutes several times a week.

  4. An embedded assessment focusing on an instructional dialogue about subtraction reveals serious misunderstandings. During center time, teacher calls the students together for additional instruction to clarify misconceptions about subtraction and build conceptual understanding.

  5. Several students are struggling with oral blending. The teacher decides to work with them during a few minutes of their exploration time. To engage the students, she carefully selects engaging words related to their interests for blending practice and then sends them back to continue their independent exploration.

Click here for a printable PDF version of the above snapshots



1 California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (2011). Transitional Kindergarten Planning Guide: A Resource for Administrators of California Public School Districts. p. 22.

2  Vygotsky, L.S. Mind and Society: The Development of Higher Mental Processes.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA (1978).

3 Heritage, Margaret. Formative assessment: What do teachers need to know and do?  Phi Delta Kappan, 89, No.2 (2007).