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Individualized Instruction: Meeting the Needs of All Students Starts on the First Day of School

A teacher helps a young students with a question on his assignment.

Individualized learning can create an engaging and stimulating learning environment.

Our classrooms are filled with diverse learners, and as teachers, many of us strive to design learning experiences that respond to our students' interests and preferences. However, many of us struggle to find time to use individualized instruction in the classroom. Meeting the varied needs of students is demanding, but committing to adapt instruction comes from the belief that children learn better through the use of different modes and methods of learning.

So, what's the best way to create personalized instruction in the classroom? The first step is to start at the beginning of the school year when you are getting to know your students. This is the perfect time to have students set goals and introduce instructional approaches that can help set the foundation for the rest of the school year.

Further Reading: Inspiring Student Success Through Classroom Design

Kelly S., a fifth-grade teacher in Buffalo, New York, told me, "While it definitely takes more time planning, all of my students have specific strengths they can contribute to the classroom, and individualized instruction helps my students use these differences and develop the skills they need to be lifelong learners. It also doesn't hurt that they retain more information while enhancing their engagement in what they're learning."

Here are four steps you can take in the new school year to enhance your teaching with individualized instruction.

1. Get to Know Your Students

Kelly advises that teachers looking to individualize instruction should start by understanding what makes each student unique. She said, "At the beginning of the school year I administer a survey to find out students' strengths and learning styles, which in turn helps me to develop innovative ways to meet the needs of all students."

The start of the school year is the perfect time to get to know your students. Take this time to learn their interests, abilities, and learning styles. You can do this through an interest survey, where you ask about their likes and dislikes, what they do in their spare time, how they prefer to learn, etc. With this knowledge at hand, you can begin the process of creating and assigning topics based on interest and ability.

2. Set Individual Goals with Each Student

The second step to personalize instruction at the beginning of the school year is to help students set measurable and achievable goals.

Jen C., a middle school teacher in Lockport, New York, likes to start the school year off by having her students set SMART goals—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. By creating an individual learning plan, she has students set goals at the start of the year, check-in each semester, then have an end-of-course reflection.

According to the American Institute for Research, student goal-setting is essential because it gives students a sense of direction and purpose and can help fuel students' intrinsic motivation. Using SMART goals like Jen C. can provide a structure for goal-setting that is easy for students to understand.

3. Identify Optimal Instructional Approaches for Each Learning Style

The next step is to choose an instructional approach. There are many to choose from, all with the goal being to improve the instructional experience for the individual learner. The information I learned, and the teachers I spoke with, all lead me to believe there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to individualized learning. Depending on their students' age, interests, abilities, and class size, many teachers like to take components from instructional approaches rather than follow them down to the letter.

For example, several teachers I know like the "go at your own pace" component from the Keller Plan, which is a framework for designing personalized instruction. Another approach is to use project-based learning. This strategy is student-centered and student-driven and allows students to demonstrate their own knowledge and skills. Choice boards are a popular approach that many teachers utilize because they support students at their own individual learning needs, according to BetterLesson.

A major pain point for the teachers I spoke with was time constraints. Time, along with a large class size, makes it difficult for many teachers to personalize instruction in a traditional way. To combat this, the teachers would scaffold learning by approaching new concepts in multiple ways (modeling, breaking it down, using visual aids), differentiating the process (using audiobooks for audio learners, colorful textbooks for visual learners), and using digital tools to meet the needs of multiple learners at the same time.

Grouping students by learning style was another suggestion. Jen C. found this approach helped promote learning.

4. Leverage Available Technologies to Support Individualized Instruction

Utilize assistive technology to help meet the needs of all learners. The U.S. Department of Education states, "Technology can enable personalized learning or experiences that are more engaging and relevant." The use of tablets and computer programs can help achieve personalized instruction because it allows students to work at their own pace, as well as adapt to their skill and ability levels.

For example, the popular game-based learning platform Kahoot has student-paced challenges, while IXL makes personalized learning simple with its real-time diagnostic comprehensive K-12 curriculum.

The use of digital tools—tablets, interactive whiteboards, etc.—can help educators manage a full classroom while meeting individual needs. Educators can allow students to choose from a menu of learning experiences while all working at the same time, on the same goal, but at their individual pace.

Further Reading: 3 Reasons Why You Should Utilize Assistive Technology for Reading

The biggest challenge you will face in trying to meet the needs of all students will be in the planning. This type of instruction takes time and patience. That is why it's best to start at the beginning of the school year so you will have the entire year to learn and modify as you go. Ultimately, it's up to you to determine how your students can learn best.