Building Time Management Skills in a Differentiated Classroom

Differentiating instruction for students based on readiness, interest, and learning style is a powerful way to make learning personal and effective. Research shows that giving students options in how they engage with content and skill practice often results in an overall increase in engagement and growth.

When I made it a point to shift my middle school classroom to a fully differentiated model, I put in the hard work to create student-driven activities and experiences for my diverse population of learners. 

There were exploratory projects, fascinating articles, student-created podcasts, curated video clips, gamified practice, and even virtual field trips. My classroom literally had something for everyone. But there was a problem: students were struggling with the time management skills associated with a choice-driven learning environment. 

Missing Differentiated Work Is Still Missing Work

Despite all my efforts to diversify the learning opportunities in my classroom, a significant number of my students weren’t completing their work.

I racked my brain to figure out why and came up empty. Students had more than enough time and an abundance of resources available to get their work done in class. I was constantly working with students individually and in small groups to facilitate their engagement with the content.

Based upon my interactions and observations, I knew my students were understanding the big ideas I was setting out for them. Learning was happening and the students were both engaged and excited about it. However, when it came time to assess their work, I found that an alarming number of submissions were routinely incomplete or missing.

The Time Management Struggle

Wanting to know why the efforts in class were not translating to actual, assessable products, I came up with a plan to generate some data. I gave my students daily schedule grids that broke down their fifty-minute class period into five-minute increments. Students were expected to use these schedules to plan out how they were utilizing their class time. At the end of the week, I compared what students reported they were doing in class with the products they turned in.

The results were interesting. The purposeful act of scheduling each day was enough to help some of my students increase their productivity. In discussions about the process, students stated that the schedule made it easier to see how much (or how little) they were actually getting done. More importantly, students affirmed that the schedules helped them make decisions about how to manage their class period to be able to complete their selected work options on time.

Unfortunately, there were still students who were falling short. They were honest about how they were using their time in class, but they still were not completing enough of the differentiated classwork options to provide me with the tangible evidence I needed to formally assess them.

Speaking with these students, a common theme emerged. Despite making appropriate activity choices and progressing through the unit objectives, these students regularly found themselves getting to a point each week where they ran out of class time to complete the work they had left to accomplish. It wasn’t a case of not wanting to be successful, it was a case of students not having an effective time management plan.

The Power of Reflection

This was when I had my “Aha!” moment. I went back to my student schedules and added spaces for purposeful reflection. Each day, students would still complete a schedule grid, but they would also respond to two questions about the week’s activities and their plans for tackling them. The whole process would take less than five minutes a day, but the payoff would prove to be game-changing!

Each day’s questions were tailored to help guide students towards successful weekly outcomes:

  • Monday - Students were asked to set a goal for the day and also identify the biggest challenge they had on their plate for the week.
  • Tuesday - Students would evaluate whether or not they achieved Monday’s goal and then set a new goal for Tuesday.
  • Wednesday – Students evaluated the most challenging remaining task for the week and set a goal to start addressing it.
  • Thursday - Students self-assessed what work or practice (if any) had been completed away from class and evaluated whether more personal work time would be needed before Friday’s class.
  • Friday – Students conducted a self-evaluation of their own efficiency and set goals for improvement in the following week.

By adding these reflections into the scheduling process, students were now actively monitoring and evaluating their own time. The reflections provided launching points for dialogue about time management decisions, successes, and struggles.

In a matter of weeks, work rates steadily climbed. I had a differentiated classroom that, finally, was firing on all cylinders.

Differentiation can be a really empowering experience for students. As teachers, it is important that we not only provide the scaffolds to support students with content but that we also support key skills like time management that are required to be successful.

Sheldon Soper is a New Jersey middle school teacher with over a decade of classroom experience teaching students to read, write, and problem-solve across multiple grade levels. He holds teaching certifications in English, Social Studies, and Elementary Education as well as Bachelor's and Master's degrees in the field of education. In addition to his teaching career, Sheldon is also a content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting focused websites. You can follow Sheldon on Twitter.