How do teachers prepare their students and their classrooms for differentiated instruction?

Page 10: Organize the Classroom

School roomGenerally, a well-organized classroom helps a teacher and her students to make the best use of instructional time. Traditionally, teachers organize their classrooms with the goal of providing largely whole-class instruction. In this teacher-focused environment, the teacher’s desk is often in the front of the classroom and the students’ desks are aligned so that the students can easily see the teacher. However, in a differentiated classroom, while keeping in mind the five keys to good room arrangement, the teacher should consider more-flexible options so that she can work more effectively with different groups or individuals. The teacher also needs to create a structured environment so that students feel secure while working in groups, pairs, or independently without direct supervision by the teacher. To create this structured environment, the teacher should address how to make the best use of:

  • Floor space
  • Bulletin boards and wall space
  • Materials storage

Floor Space

When they plan how to arrange the furniture, teachers need to consider how they will provide instruction and what arrangement will work best to achieve these goals. In a differentiated classroom, this will most likely require multiple furniture arrangements that support different types of instructional activities (e.g., whole-group discussion, small-group instruction). The table below outlines some general guidelines for arranging key pieces of furniture in a differentiated classroom.

 Considerations for Furniture Arrangement in a Differentiated Classroom
Teachers desk

Teacher’s desk

  • Not in a central location but out of the way*
  • Away from students’ desks

Students desks

Students’ desks

  • Arranged so that the teacher can walk around and monitor students
  • Options that address individual’s need for space or close proximity to peers
  • One group of four to eight desks for students who need to work independently (e.g., students who prefer to work alone, students who get overstimulated and need down time)
book shelf

Storage (e.g., bookcases, filing cabinets, shelves)

  • Ample storage for a variety of materials and supplies
  • Easily accessible and do not require walking through work areas
  • If frequently used, located in a convenient location (e.g., next to work area)
  • If not frequently used, located in an out-of-the-way location (e.g., a corner)

students around table

Small-group work areas

  • Tables (rather than individual desks) to promote collaboration
  • U-shaped tables to promote discussion among students
  • Area rugs for use with younger students


  • Visible to the teacher
  • Out of the way so as to not distract other students

Adapted from Tomlinson & Imbeau (2010).

* Note: In a differentiated classroom, teachers seldom use their desk during instructional time.

As in any classroom, safety is critical, and objects should not be placed in high-traffic areas. Additionally, teachers should consider how to arrange the classroom to accommodate students with special needs. For example, students who use certain devices might require close proximity to an outlet, while students with visual disabilities might need to be seated close to the board during whole-group instruction.

Materials Storage

storage boxes Because students will be working in different grouping formats and on a variety of tasks, teachers should store materials in a location that students can easily access without disrupting others. Below is a list of suggestions that teachers should consider when storing materials and supplies.

  • Use storage bins or boxes to organize supplies.
  • Identify place(s) in the room where students turn in completed homework, anchor activities, center activities, classwork, etc.
  • Identify places in the room where students obtain materials for each activity.
  • Clearly label storage containers as well as places to obtain or turn in work (pictures or text may be used for younger students who are unable to read or for English language learners).
  • Create folders for students to store work that is not yet completed (different color folders can be used for different activities or subject areas).
  • Have multiple pencil sharpeners and trash cans.

Bulletin Boards and Wall Space

With a variety of activities occurring in a differentiated classroom, teachers can make good use of wall space and bulletin boards to provide helpful information to their students. Some items might be posted for the entire year, while other items might change according to what the students are learning about or working on. Teachers might want to post items such as:

Classroom rules
Procedures for different activities
Information about assignments (e.g., due dates, criteria)
Student assignment charts
High-quality work samples accompanied by rubrics (from the past and the present)


Teachers should consider leaving a wall blank in one area of the room. Students who are easily distracted or become overstimulated by visual stimuli might find it easier to work in this area.

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