12 Easy Ways to Put a Creative Spin on Differentiated Instruction

By Shannon Anderson, author of  Mindset Power: A Kid’s Guide to Growing Better Every Day

12 Easy Ways to Put a Creative Spin on Differentiated InstructionDifferentiation can be daunting. In your classroom, you probably have some kids who know the material before you even begin and others who need your close attention through the content. Fear not! Meeting every student’s needs doesn’t have to mean that you make an individualized plan for every kid for every lesson. You can add some creativity to ratchet up the level of challenge for students who need a different way to practice or demonstrate their learning. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of looking at the input and output choices you allow students to try.

Often, a preassessment of some kind will help you to see which students can take on higher-level opportunities to deepen their learning. Here are 12 ways to allow those students to take a different approach, while benefiting themselves and their peers in the process.

1. Impose a Structure

Putting specific criteria on a project or task can encourage students to do some creative problem-solving. For example, you could tell students to write a story; but if you tell them to write a story without using any one-syllable words, you instantly make this task more challenging and force students to use synonyms and bigger words. Or, maybe you ask students to explain a math concept, but they have to do it through a text conversation between two people.

2. Contact Experts or Mentors

Allow kids, with parent permission, to contact experts in the area they are studying. They can conduct supervised email or Zoom interviews to learn something related to what the class is learning. Then, they can share that information.

3. Research Different Views

Can students tell a story or report on something from an opposing point of view? Or can they poll or survey students or members of the community to find out the various viewpoints on a topic? Could two or three students choose viewpoints and conduct a debate in front of the class, using evidence to back up their arguments? (For example, when studying nutrition, what would be the arguments for and against banning sugar? How would a sugarcane farmer react? A dentist? A doctor? Kids?)

4. Gamify

Whether kids come up with the questions and answers to a digital game, such as Kahoot, or create their own gameboard and pieces for a sit-down game, have students develop a game to practice the key vocabulary and concepts of whatever you are studying. Part of the challenge for students is figuring out how the skills will be practiced during gameplay and what strategies will help someone win.

5. Prioritize

Have kids come up with the top 10 essential things to know about a topic. Then have them explain why these are the essential things to know. For example, if students are learning about telling time, kids have to come up with a list of the foundational information and then justify why those skills are crucial to understanding clocks and time.

6. Role Play

Have kids write a script that demonstrates what the class is learning. They can then act out their role play in person, with props and costumes. Or they can use an app to create characters on a screen who act it out. Examples include acting out a moment in history, demonstrating metamorphosis or the food chain, or even role playing a social and emotional learning lesson. Another spin on this activity is to have students create a newscast. Kids can become news anchors and can add content-related commercials between segments. Or, how about conducting a mock podcast interview?

7. Explore Career Paths

Have students take their learning to the application level and discover as many careers as possible related to what you are teaching. Have them choose one or two of these careers and find out what training is involved and why the job is important to your community or the world. Students could even contact someone working in the field, or they could find videos and articles about doing this kind of work.

8. Get Artsy

Could students write a song or poem about what they’re learning? Could they create a work of 2-D or 3-D art (models, maps, habitats, etc.) to represent the content? Can they create a stop-motion video that teaches about the concept? Is there art already out there that is inspiring and could be shared and explained?

9. Create Choice Boards

Whether digital or on paper, a choice board can allow students to explore a topic and show mastery or learning in the ways they most enjoy. You could require that students complete a “tic-tac-toe” or certain number of options on the board. Some choices could be taking an online quiz, reading an article, identifying the main idea of a story, watching a video tutorial, completing an online lesson on IXL or Kahn Academy, or even doing pencil-and-paper practice.

10. Get Graphic

How can kids use graphic organizers to represent the information on a topic? For example, they could create a Venn diagram to compare and contrast information, make a graph to show data, record information on a spreadsheet, create a flowchart for a process, or provide a timeline on a person’s life. There are also many apps and websites where kids can make eye-catching infographics online.

11. Regroup

Can students work on a topic with a partner or small group? Could they pair up with an older student or a student from another classroom? Could they work with someone online in another school?

12. Share with an Audience

Have students share their learning with an audience, whether this audience is your class, another class, the school board, a group of parents, or a group or club in the community. Could your students provide a Super Saturday or after-school session on the topic for younger students?


No matter how you offer these types of creative choices, your students will love helping come up with ideas! That saves you time and challenges your students to think about learning in new ways that promote real-life skills and applications. (You may need to come up with a learning contract with goals and expectations at first, to provide accountability.)

The brain loves novelty, so providing students opportunities such as these will engage and excite them. Next time you have a group of students show mastery on something before you’ve even begun your instruction, share some of these ideas with them to extend and deepen their learning!

Shannon Anderson, M.Ed., authorShannon Anderson has taught for 25 years, from first grade through college level. Her career highlight was being named one of the Top 10 Teachers who inspired the Today Show. Shannon is also the author of many children’s books and a national speaker. She was named the JC Runyon Person of the Year for her work helping kids with social and emotional issues through her writing and speaking. To find out more, you can visit: shannoisteaching.com.

Free Spirit books by Shannon Anderson:

Mindset PowerY is for YetPenelope PerfectCoasting Casey

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2021 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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How Can We Create Gender-Inclusive Classrooms and Communities?

How Can We Create Gender-Inclusive Classrooms and Communities?By Afsaneh Moradian, author of Jamie and Bubbie: A Book About People’s Pronouns

We want children to feel loved and accepted from the beginning. But once they head off to communal play areas (child care, preschool, the playground), other children may comment on what toys and activities are okay for girls and for boys. Peer pressure is powerful, and comments like these are one of the first ways young children start to feel “different.”

When peers make comments about a child’s chosen item or activity being for girls or for boys, it’s important for the adults present to make it clear that the child isn’t doing anything wrong and that everyone is free to play with any toy or participate in any activity. For example, imagine one child says to another, “You can’t play with that. Trucks are only for boys.” You can respond by saying, “Actually, everyone can play with the trucks. There’s no such thing as boy toys and girl toys.”

To reinforce this idea and create gender-inclusive spaces, we first have to consciously drop our own assumptions related to gender and toys, no matter how ingrained they may be. Even though we know that any child has the right to play with any toy, there’s a general assumption that boys want to play with trucks and girls want to play with dolls, for one example. This assumption can lead to adults directing boys toward trucks and girls toward dolls, thereby teaching children to internalize these ideas.

Here are some things to consider when letting go of gendered assumptions:

  • Are you deciding what you think children should do or play before asking what they are interested in?
  • When children choose a toy or activity that isn’t what you expected, do you disapprove of their choice or have negative thoughts about it?
  • Are you able to refer to a child using they/them without the child having to remind you? Do you have any negative thoughts about using gender-neutral pronouns?

In answering these questions, hopefully you can begin to recognize these thoughts and assumptions in the moment. It is important that adults keep from expressing their gendered assumptions in looks and words that teach such assumptions to young children.

Here are a few more strategies for creating a gender-inclusive classroom and community.

Teach children not to assume a person’s gender from their appearance. Share your name and pronouns before asking a child their name and pronouns as the standard introduction in your classroom. It’s up to adults to set this up so the group starts off interacting and communicating using accurate names and pronouns, rather than leaving it up to children to assume how to refer to their peers.

When planning a dress up area, it’s important to include costumes and materials that are not assigned to a gender, such as animals and cashiers. Please don’t assume that the girls will want to dress up as princesses instead of princes or knights. Also, don’t be surprised if the boys choose to give the princess costume a try.

Try not to steer children in creative play and artistic expression. These areas of play can also be limited by gendered assumptions. Too often, adults suggest or steer children toward an area of play or toward colors and materials for artwork based on the child’s gender. It’s difficult to catch ourselves in these moments, but gender inclusion means giving space for children to express themselves in ways that may or may not conform with our expectations.

As adults, we need to stay on the sidelines and watch young children experiment, play, communicate, and socialize in ways that fit their individual personalities and development. When children see us there, ready and waiting to help, to support them, and to celebrate who they are, they’ll gain confidence in themselves and trust themselves as much as they trust us.

If we can catch ourselves when we fall back on gender assumptions and stop ourselves from making gender-based comments, we can create gender-inclusive classrooms and communities that are free of gender-based bullying and marginalization.

Afsaneh MoradianAfsaneh Moradian has loved writing stories, poetry, and plays since childhood. After receiving her master’s in education, she took her love of writing into the classroom where she began teaching children how to channel their creativity. Her passion for teaching has lasted for over fifteen years. Afsaneh now guides students and teachers (and her young daughter) in the art of writing. She lives in New York City.

Free Spirit books by Afsaneh Moradian:
Jamie Is JamieJamie and Bubbie book cover

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2021 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Enter to Win Books for Bullying Prevention Month!

Enter for a Chance to Win Books for Bullying Prevention MonthIn honor of National Bullying Prevention Month, we are giving away books that teach kids about friendship, social skills, and empathy. One lucky reader will win:

To Enter: Leave a comment below describing how you help kids develop social skills and empathy.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry. Entries must be received by midnight, October 22, 2021.

The winner will be contacted via email on or around October 25, 2021, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim their prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Winner must be US resident, 18 years of age or older.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2021 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Creating an Inclusive and Welcoming Preschool Classroom

By Molly Breen

Creating an Inclusive and Welcoming Preschool ClassroomDepending upon your setting’s process for enrolling new students, you may have a window of insight into the lives of the children who will soon walk through your doors or you may begin the year with very little information. However, to create a personal and thoughtful welcome for your new cohort of learners, it is critical to have some information about the kids who will be members of your class community. For children with specific diagnoses, disabilities, or neurodivergences, this is especially important! And for all children, ensuring that they feel safe and seen in your setting helps build a solid foundation for trusting relationships.

Here are some ideas to help you set a tone to welcome all children:

Prior to the school year beginning—or prior to the start date for a new student—send a letter or email communication to the child and their family sharing a bit about yourself as the teacher and asking questions to get to know them. Questions can be general: “How does your family like to spend time together?” or “What is important to know about you right now?” Or they can be more specific: “Do you/does your child tolerate noisy environments well?” “Do you/does your child like rough-and-tumble play?”

For children with a specific diagnosis or Individual Education Program, make sure that you take time to read through all documentation and schedule a meeting with the family and the team to understand the child’s needs and the goals of the IEP. In addition to this meeting, I like to have a conversation with the family about their child’s gifts and the things they love most about their child. In my experience, when young children are born with a disability or get a diagnosis for a developmental disability in their early life, parents spend a lot of time talking about all the challenges for their child and potential challenges for the teacher. Remember to celebrate the whole child—including the challenges that come with their physical, developmental, or cognitive disabilities.

Create an inclusive classroom and school environment that reflects the lives of the kids and families you serve. This ensures that all children, regardless of ability, can benefit from and learn within the same space as typically developing children. A couple of great resources for inclusive classroom designs are:

Once you have laid the groundwork for connection and understanding, that key ingredient—the children—becomes the most important element of your welcome. Your students will take cues from you—those they feel, hear, and observe—on how to be in your classroom and with their peers. You don’t have to be an early childhood special education teacher to create an inclusive welcome for your students (although that expertise is invaluable and, if it’s available to you in your setting or through your district, you should definitely seek it out!), but you must be intentional in your approach:

  • Make sure your classroom library reflects the cultures, languages, abilities, and experiences of the children you serve.
  • Decorate your room with images of your group of children and their families along with children’s artwork. Consider a more minimal decor at the start of the year and let the children’s work and images become the primary feature of the room over time.
  • Read and talk about different abilities during your group learning time. (This might be the most valuable learning of the year, even with all your wonderful curricular planning!)
  • Modify as you go. There is no way to predict a perfect setup, a perfect plan, or the perfect group of children. As you become familiar with the children in your group, modify plans to be responsive to the needs of all.

It’s okay to learn alongside your students about compassion, empathy, and welcoming friends with differing abilities; as adults, we don’t have to have all the answers. In my experience, students are often some of my very best teachers. So reflect and refine as you go, and that magic from the start of the year just might hang on through the last day of school.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2021 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Is It Teasing or Bullying?

By Judy S. Freedman, M.S.W., and Mimi P. Black, coauthors of Ease the Tease

Is It Teasing or Bullying?When a child says, “I’m being bullied,” parents and educators are right to take these words seriously. Research has shown that targets of bullying are more likely to suffer from chronic stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and physical illness. They are also more likely to resist going to school and to suffer academically.

When the source of the hurt appears to be verbal rather than physical, it’s common for adults to wonder whether the child is being teased rather than bullied. Conversely, a limited understanding of the distinction can contribute to an unfortunate misuse of the bullying label. So, what is the distinction between teasing and bullying, and how might it matter?

Some view the difference as a matter of degree. But since teasing and bullying require different approaches, we feel there’s a clear and important distinction: teasing has escalated to bullying when it is deliberate, repeated, and unchecked.

Cruel and hurtful teasing involves making fun of someone. It includes ridicule, name-calling, putdowns, verbal insults, and gesturing, as well as annoying actions. Cruel teasing also includes exclusion.

Verbal bullying includes repeated and persistent name-calling; hostile teasing and taunting; slurs regarding race, sexual orientation, and religion; and abusive remarks that are sexual in nature. Bullying often begins as mild teasing, as the bullying child searches for a vulnerable target. Once the child gets a rise out of a target, the teasing usually escalates and becomes more intense and persistent.

Fortunately, most kids can confidently handle teasing on their own when they are empowered with helpful tease-easing strategies. But when the problem and the hurt persist, it’s time for adults to help.

When a child approaches you with their concern, it’s best to use an active listening approach. Thank the child for trusting you, and ask open-ended questions to gather details about the situation. Either ask the child directly or be alert for any clues that the child feels unsafe. It’s crucial to assess the child’s feelings about their physical and emotional safety because when a child feels unsafe, intervention is a must.

In your conversation, determine what, if any, strategies the child has tried to address the situation on their own. Have they exhausted their known alternatives? If not, offer to be their role-play partner as they practice effective strategies and strengthen their tease-easing muscles.

Your guidance and support are deeply valuable, including when you overhear teasing between children. But keep in mind that most teasing happens out of earshot of the adults who can best intervene in those situations. Because of this, children who witness teasing are in a powerful position. How can they be encouraged to go from being bystanders to being upstanders?

Kids are highly influenced by the attitudes of others their age, so why not tap into the powerful, bullying-busting power of peers?

We suggest weaving upstander responsibility into the fabric of your classroom culture.

In group discussions with younger children, help them define what teasing is and how it affects others. Young learners in particular are sometimes unaware that their words are hurtful.

As part of class team-building efforts, consider inviting children to design an expectations poster. You can prompt ideas for expectations by posing questions such as, “If you were being teased, what would you want your classmates to do?”

Remind children that they are a team beyond the walls of the classroom, and so the expectations still apply. Appeal to their desire to model good behavior for younger children.

Time spent on empathy-building skills reaps outsized rewards. Take advantage of this month by leading class discussions around bullying and teasing, and remind children that  in their classroom every month is Bullying Prevention Month.

Judy Freedman | credit: Michael Lee PhotographyJudy S. Freedman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., is a licensed clinical social worker with more than thirty years of therapeutic and educational experience with children, adolescents, and adults. During her more than two decades as a social worker in elementary schools, she created the Easing the Teasing program, which empowers kids with essential skills and strategies to handle teasing incidents, and which was the basis for her parenting book Easing the Teasing: Helping Your Child Cope with Name-Calling, Ridicule, and Verbal Bullying (Contemporary Books/McGraw Hill). She gives presentations and workshops to parents, educators, mental health professionals, recreational personnel, and students. Judy received the Illinois School Social Worker of the Year Award in 2011. She lives in the Chicago area with her family.


Mimi P. BlackMimi P. Black, Ph.D., is a psychologist, bullying prevention specialist, and actor. She has published articles on several developmental psychology topics and given invited addresses on bullying prevention to school administrators, faculty, parents, and students. For more than 25 years, she has played countless roles in various media as an on-camera and voice actor. Mimi has worked on both sides of the camera in the development of children’s educational television programs. She lives in the Chicago area with her family.

Ease the TeaseJudy and Mimi are coauthors of Ease the Tease

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2021 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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