Differentiated instruction means personalizing instruction to meet the needs of each individual learner. This can prove to be a tall task when working with larger class sizes or a wide variety of student needs.

But when accommodations and modifications are made to lessons, all students can benefit. Accommodations do not alter or lower expectations. Rather, changes can be made in the instructional delivery method to enable each student to have access to the same learning and equitable opportunities to demonstrate learning.

Categories for Differentiated Instruction

Here are 4 categories for differentiated instruction that educators can consider:

1. Content: Consider the complexity of the content in the lessons and adapt to your students’ learner profiles. 

Teachers can vary the presentation of the content through lecture, demonstrations, handing out paper copies of the resources, and using the slide decks/websites provided.

2. Process: The process of learning engages students in making sense of the content. 

Try differentiating the activities in each lesson by providing scaffolding, flexible grouping, centers, and varying the pace of the lesson.

3. Products: The final products or process-sharing in the main activity are meant to be an opportunity for students to apply and extend what they’ve learned. 

You can modify these by providing the option for group or individual work, as well as offering various levels of difficulty for the finished work.

4. Learning Environment: The learning environment refers to the way a classroom works and feels. 

Teachers can provide areas where students can work quietly as well as collaborate, use the art works and books suggested in the lessons to reflect diverse cultures, and use the artful thinking routines as a consistent indicator of an upcoming arts integration experience.

4 categories for differentiated instruction

Differentiated Instruction and the Arts

Differentiated instruction isn’t just for one type of student population. This is a method that is meant to support all learners’ needs. Arts integration and STEAM can offer a natural pairing for providing choice and voice to students.

Often, when students are participating in creative processes and activities, they are able to use their unique talents and abilities to showcase their thinking and feelings. Connecting curriculum through the arts offers a pathway for both teachers and learners to explore content through a wide array of choices.

Here are some examples of specific student populations and how they can be accommodated through arts integration and STEAM:

Supporting Students with Disabilities

There are many ways to adapt your lessons to support students with disabilities. Here are 5 best practices for adapting and using these arts integration experiences, referencing principles from Universal Design for Learning and EASE (Everyday Arts for Special Education) from the Urban Arts Partnership.

  • Give options rather than a set outcome

By providing your students with a rubric and the freedom to produce their own end product, they will surprise you with how creative they can be! This approach prepares our students for life in the real-world office place where projects are more open-ended with professional freedom. My students competing in the social media challenge were highly motivated. They were engaged in the project because they had buy-in to their creative solution.

  • Allow for wait time

I have found that one of the most difficult aspects of supervising a STEAM lesson is providing additional wait time, allowing my students to productively struggle, and ignoring my instinct to suggest a given strategy. For instance, remind your students of the tools that they have around the classroom. Encourage them to communicate their ideas or questions to a partner. However, try to avoid jumping in with guided assistance or additional prompting the moment your students begin to struggle. Having a discussion with your class afterwards about the challenges they faced and what they liked about this type of lesson can help them process it as they may be new to this STEAM approach.

  • Make it concrete, not abstract

Many students with disabilities, especially those with autism, tend to struggle with figurative language. During one lesson when my group was reading lyrics to a song, several of the students were confused by the phrase “he was as slow as a turtle”. Since then, I made an effort of previewing abstract concepts and figurative language with my students.

  • Thinking maps can be your best friends

During the initial planning stage of a project, many students need to organize their thoughts, arrange their reading notes, and visualize the bigger picture. This is especially true for students who have a difficult time with inferential reasoning. Thinking maps and graphic organizers can help bridge this divide. A flow map (similar to the step by step boxes of a cartoon) can help students recognize or plan out the steps to an experiment or research project. Another time saving tip is to ask your technology or media teacher (if your school is lucky enough to have one) to align their lessons with an upcoming project in your classroom. The technology teacher at my school trains the students to choose their own graphic organizers on the Vizzle computer program.

  • Align each students goals and accommodations with your lesson

The students’ IEPs (Individualized Education Plan) may have goals in math, reading foundational skills, reading comprehension, written language, behavior/self management, and social/emotional (among others) that could provide useful information for student groupings and the focus of your lesson. For instance, you may need to pre-teach vocabulary, scaffold and model any writing, integrate a math or ELA strategy, purposefully group students for self-management, and/or differentiate any articles based on reading level or provide a text-to-speech option on the computer for students who are reading significantly below grade level. Check with the special educator if you need a copy of any student’s IEP, have any questions, and/or would like to collaborate on planning an upcoming lesson.

best practices for ai and students with disabilities


Using the EASE Essentials: KNOW

EASE (Everyday Arts for Special Education) has created a framework called KNOW for teachers who are integrating the arts as a pathway for students with with diverse learning and behavioral needs. It’s an acronym that stands for:

Know what’s important, let the rest go. Notice, use, and create learning opportunities. One thing at a time. And.. Wait…see what happens.

Here are some practical ways to use the KNOW framework within arts integration and STEAM lessons:


Be clear about your goals for an activity. The picture you may have in your mind about how an activity will proceed may not be the same as how students envision it; if the activity’s goals are still being addressed, this is okay! Let it go! Other than issues of safety or damage to materials, exploration of materials is totally fine. This exploration could include: Painting with the “wrong” side of the brush; Playing the instrument the “wrong” way; Making the length of tape “too long”;  Putting “too much” water or paint on the paper.


In any activity, there can be many different learning opportunities. You can notice and capitalize on these as they arise in the classroom, and you can also anticipate, plan for, and even create them when structuring your lessons. • Handing out supplies is an opportunity for interaction. • Students needing and wanting supplies is an incentive for authentic communication. • Moving tables and chairs, or getting out and putting away supplies; these tasks are excellent opportunities to practice all sorts of ADL and cooperation skills. • “Failure” is an excellent opportunity to discover how the world works. The tape got stuck to itself? How can we solve that problem?


One conversation at a time! Background noise can be confusing and overwhelming. • One prompter at a time! Receiving instructions from many people at once can be confusing and overwhelming. • One focus at a time! Watching is an excellent form of learning. • One step at a time! Master the basics before trying more difficult variations.


Many students with language processing issues require time to respond to prompts. • Before we initiate hand-over-hand assistance, we are interested to see what initiative students will take on their own to engage in a task. • If a student initially rejects materials, or rejects participation in the activity altogether, s/he may come to the activity of their own accord once others are engaged in it. • This is a research project! We are interested to see how students interact with these activities, so we must give them the time and the physical space to do so. If, given the opportunity, their response is minimal or absent, this is not a failure, it’s information.


Support for Gifted/Talented Students

When integrating the arts into the curriculum, teachers can design experiences that are tied to the unique needs, interests, and abilities of gifted students and challenge them to perform more complex and sophisticated tasks.

Teachers can ask themselves: What needs do the arts activities in each lesson meet? What precisely do I want my gifted students to learn and how will I know that these activities are stimulating their growth?

The following are examples of research-based learning goals and activities that integrate the arts with the language arts, social studies, and mathematics and science curricula.


The arts can strengthen all areas of oral and written communication and, for gifted students, provide more opportunities for creative problem-solving and analytical thinking.

Reading Strategies

Enhance critical thinking. While reading a story, students draw, sketch, or paint whatever is most vivid to them. It could be a color, a mood, an image, a symbol, a scene, or an idea. In small groups, they discuss their artwork and its significance to the story, and what they think will happen by the end.

Stimulate analytical thinking and imaginative interpretation. Work with the children to create a chamber theater piece out of a short story. Ask them to select the most important scenes and explain why they chose them. Choose students to be narrators and others to speak and act the parts of the characters.

Sharpen awareness of motivation and points of view. Children choose a conflict, issue, or problem raised by the text and stage a debate, with different students assuming the role of specific characters.

Writing Strategies

Stimulate novel ideas for stories.  Provide visual catalysts (e.g., paintings, photographs) for students to imagine what happened before and after the scenes depicted.

Undertake investigative research. Children read a story of a painting that disappeared and imagine how they-the art detectives-tracked it down. Or they can write a fictional piece on how they discovered a painting and exposed the forgeries. What gave it away?

Explore multiple points of view.  As an extension of the previous activity, students could write it from the point of view of the painting, the people who had it, or the people who were looking for it.

Math, Science, and Social Studies

Science, mathematics, and art all concern themselves with the true nature of things. Are things what they seem? Should the arts depict things as people experience them or as they are? The following activities suggest ways to blend the arts with math and science in such a way that gifted students can examine real-world applications of fundamental concepts and ideas (such as distance, color, perspective, proportion). 

Studying history, geography, and other social studies subjects through the arts (and vice versa) enables gifted students to investigate topics from multiple viewpoints and in more depth. As they create vivid representations of significant events, processes, and people, they analyze, assess, and interpret the facts and images before them.

Here are some strategy ideas in each area which you can start to try:

Math and Science Strategies

Apply a scientific concept to a problem in art. Have students explore a scientific subject (such as light). Place paintings together that seem particularly suited to this subject and ask children to discuss how artists represent the science of light-its directions, color at different times of the day, its interaction with water and color, etc. Students can select some aspect of light that interests them scientifically and, like artists, think of ways to represent this visually through painting, collage, or sketches.

Analyze the nature of matter using the arts and physics as sources.  Both science and art deal with illusion-what seems to be but is not. Investigate one or more of these assumptions in physics and write an essay justifying or questioning artistic representations.

Sharpen visual perception and increase ability to estimate accurately.  Artists often test their perceptions by estimating distances and heights. How would the students calculate the height of a tree in inches? In feet? Let them devise their own system for figuring this out. They can diagram, use paintings, photographs, etc.

Social Studies Strategies

Analyze the life of a famous historical figure.  Students study the portraits of this person, musical pieces composed for them, stories told about them, and films made in their honor along with textual sources. What do visual representations tell them about this person? Students pretend to be this historical figure, choose an issue that they feel passionate about and write a speech as this person.

Apply an art phenomenon to social/historical reality.  Students act as reporters who travel back in time to cover important events in an artistic movement. They analyze a phenomenon (such as impressionism) and write a newspaper article about how this phenomenon responds to certain social, political, and historical conditions.

Investigate and analyze the contrasting views of two sides of a conflict, issue, or struggle.  Students examine the history of a specific era in the context of its art or music. Students write a position paper on one of two opposing views, as seen through their art and writing (they can also do the reverse). They create an art gallery for student work that depicts their ideas.

Support for English Language Learners

Each English Language Learner needs a different amount of support in the classroom. Modifying for ELLs generally fall within 3 components: Content, Instruction, and Assessments. Here’s how you can support ELLs with arts integration and STEAM lessons in each component:


  • Print the student resources from the lessons and give to students ahead of time.
  • Provide the graphic organizers created for the lessons.
  • Print the Key Vocabulary Terms from the lesson and add icons or images.
  • Post anchor charts from the lessons to help students visually understand content.


  • Use the videos, music, and artwork in the lessons to reteach concepts.
  • Allow students extended time when using the writing guides included in the lessons.
  • Give both oral and written directions.
  • Use the group work and pairing options during the Main Activity of each lesson.


  • Offer speaking opportunities by having students read their answers to a partner.
  • Provide options for drawing or speaking rather than writing responses.
  • Read the assessment and activity instructions orally.
  • Shorten the length of the written response on any Accelerator assessments.

supporting english language learners


All Students Deserve Differentiated Instruction

No matter the student, each child can thrive when their needs are met. It’s like unlocking a treasure chest: once you know the code, there’s so much to explore. And while differentiated instruction does take time, the strategies shared in this article can be done in conjunction with your current curriculum. With a few slight adjustments and some intentional consideration beforehand, we can support all students in and through the arts.