Creating Flexible Environments to Help ALL Students Learn

by | Sep 11, 2018

Flexible grouping is the key to a successful differentiated classroom. Productive group work is an essential tool to extend and enrich the learning of the students and meet their individual needs.

Our job as educators is to make sure that we have looked at every student as unique and very special. We must teach to individual students’ strengths and maximise the potential for every student. We want children to be connected, unique and powerful. By placing them in flexible groups, these groups can be changed as assessments are given and the teacher sees the readiness levels have changed.

It is important that all students are educated in a safe, secure learning environment.. Students become aware of their successes, which promotes self-confidence and independence. They take pride in individual accomplishments and also work cooperatively with others toward learning goals. Students set higher standards for themselves.

The research is clear that well-structured flexible group work is one set of strategies that teachers can use to effectively meet the needs of ALL students in a heterogeneous classroom (Slavin, 1989, Cohen, 1994, Johnson & Johnson, 1993).

If you don’t use flexible grouping, it is almost impossible to differentiate instruction. That is, trying to vary instruction without grouping students according to their various entry points to learning would not be successful.  A common problem is that teachers haven’t been empowered with high-quality strategies to equip them with the sophisticated range of skills and curriculum formats necessary to get the most out of flexible group work. For teachers who are most comfortable with direct teaching via whole class delivery of instruction, moving towards small groups and flexible grouping can be a very daunting and intimidating task.


Creating a Learning Environment for Small Groups

It is important to establish expectations for procedures and routines before any kind of grouping can begin. The goal in designing the classroom to be conducive to small group work is to design a structure that allows the teacher to interact quickly and easily with all students.

By changing your classroom environment, you can deliver more content in a meaningful way and have your students understand and retain more. What physical structure will work best for you?  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Decide on a physical classroom desk and table arrangement.
  • Will one room arrangement work, or will teachers need to have options for multiple arrangements, depending on the group activity required?
  • How will the class be rearranged when necessary? What will be required to accomplish rearranging the classroom?
  • What routines and skills are necessary for students to learn to have the class run smoothly when we deviate from the traditional row arrangement? Have students practise moving from one room arrangement to another.
  • Use a signal, either a hand gesture or a sound, to notify students of time remaining until a transition, then use the signal again when the transition needs to occur. Before any transition, remind students of behavioural expectations.

If your flexible grouping includes the use of learning centres, areas in the room should have clear, distinct, physical boundaries if space allows. For example, there could be a work area, art area, computer centre, etc. In addition, the workstations need to be physically accessible for all students. Furthermore, learning environments should be organised so that visual and auditory distractions are minimised.

Take a look around your classroom and what do you see?  Faded bulletin boards that have not been changed in months? Stacks of books piled on shelves and gathering dust? Or do you see a kid-friendly environment that is invitational to learning? Your students are guests in your classroom – how do you prepare for guests in your home? You make them feel welcome.  Strive for an environment that embraces flexible grouping – that is fresh, alive and full of vitality!

Factors to consider:
Teachers need to determine how to group students based on the following:

  • Ability
  • Pre-assessment for readiness
  • Interests
  • Class discussions
  • Personal profiles
  • Learning styles
  • Multiple intelligences
  • Alone, in pairs or in groups

Planning Guide for Instructional Grouping

Identifying Purpose:
What is your purpose/rationale for grouping?


  • How many groups will you have? How many students in each group?
  • How long will students are working in their assigned groups?
  • How will groups rotate? How often? Schedule?
  • How will you set up the group areas in your classroom? Materials?
  • Will you keep activities permanent or change?

Materials and Instruction:

  • Will you have a teacher-led group? If so, what will be your instructional emphasis for this group? Will all students rotate through your group?
  • Describe what materials and resources you will use for each group…


  • How often will you assess student’s progress in groups and adjust groupings? What will you use for this criteria?
  • How do you plan to keep track of student work? Assessment? Record-keeping?


  • Will students have something to do if they finish their group activity early?

Procedures and Management:

  • Describe how you plan to introduce grouping to your students.
  • If you are working with a group, how will you insure that you are not interrupted?
  • How will you facilitate smooth transitions when students rotate?
  • Describe how you will assign group activities (menu, contract, checklist, etc.).
  • How will students be asked to keep track of their work (in progress and/or completed)?


Flexible grouping techniques


Overview – students group themselves by numbers, colours, stickers, deck of cards, etc.

Implementation – this method is helpful if you want equal size groups.  It makes a good mixer activity for students to work together spontaneously.

Example – distribute coloured chips, playing cards or place stickers on student work.  They need to find other students with the same colour, suit of cards or sticker, to work with.


Overview – students with similar readiness levels on a specific task are grouped together.

Implementation – Use this method when you want students to work with others at similar readiness levels, as determined by teacher observation or informal assessment to determine their entry point of learning on a specific task.

Example – students need content that is appropriate to their instructional needs. Be flexible in placing students in these groups. For instance, a student may meet with one group that is focusing on phonics at a certain level and another group for comprehension or fluency.


Overview – this involves student choice based on their interest of a certain topic or activity.

Implementation – student interest is motivated by choice for learning about a topic.

Example – in a unit about oceans, one group choice might be to describe your favourite day at the beach and illustrate it. Another group may prefer to focus on the kind of fish in the ocean. Another group may choose to read a book and do a response journal and share with each other what they learned. Re-sort the groups jigsaw-style so that all students learned about facts about the ocean, fish and favourite times at the beach.


Overview – teacher balances groups heterogeneously to include leaders, followers, recorders and reporters based on student social skills.

Implementation – each student has a different role to perform that is different from one another in order to complete a group task.

Example – preparing to share information about the task with the larger group – one student might read, another one takes notes, another records the discussion in pictures and one is the reporter for the group.


Overview – students successful in completing certain kind of tasks are grouped together.

Implementation – enables students to use their strongest modality/learning style.

Example – students who are visual learners are grouped together to create a storyboard of the story that was read.  Others might work on a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the main characters of the story.

Knowledge of subject

Overview – students with specific knowledge of a given subject or topic are grouped together.

Implementation – students share information and gain new insights and background knowledge about a topic to become more proficient in that area.

Example – when studying ancient Egypt, some students could focus on their knowledge of pyramids, food and family or rulers and leaders of the time.


Overview – students who are lacking a specific skill or who need more work in a specific area are grouped together.

Implementation – teachers design interventions to teach a certain skill for those who need it.

Example – there could be a focus on maths concepts or operations, or a phonics review or steps in the scientific method.

Student choice

Overview – students are provided an opportunity to group themselves.

Implementation – students are allowed to choose their own group, especially when success is not dependent upon choice. This works best when used as an enrichment activity to build upon the total group, teacher-directed lesson.

Example – as an extension to a unit on the Frontier Wars, display several different titles of books about the conflict. Let the students choose and then they form literature response groups to discuss.


Management ideas to consider

The keys to successful flexible grouping in your classroom are carefully designed procedures and routines. Take these procedures one step at a time and be sure that you model clear expectations for the students so that they clearly know what they need to do and how to do it.

  • Always monitor groups by floating and asking questions. Help students troubleshoot. Refrain from giving solutions.
  • Use a clipboard as you move through the room to monitor student performance.
  • As students are working in groups, write notes to them on sticky notes to provide them with quick feedback without interrupting the group process.
  • Appoint jobs in the groups for each group member (e.g. Leader, Recorder, Time Keeper, Timekeeper, Organiser).
  • With students, develop expectations for working in groups. Create a rubric of criteria and have each group assess themselves at the end of each group work session. Then go around the room and agree or disagree with the groups’ self-assessments. (Possible expectations: On Task, Sharing Ideas, Cooperating, Using Time Wisely).
  • Keep in mind the attention span of your students, and design group or independent work accordingly – pacing is critical!
  • Use specific “anchor activities” to engage your learners, so they experience success and you can focus on meeting individual needs.
  • Make sure your directions are clear, succinct and presented in multiple ways, if necessary.
  • Create management signals and processes for your students to work independently while they are waiting for help from you.
  • Scaffold increasing responsibility for your students.
  • Constantly evaluate your procedures and routines for greater clarity.

Strategies for Effective Group Processes

  • We will start and stop on time.
  • Practise respect for yourself and others.
  • Come prepared to do your part.
  • Be a good listener.
  • No put-downs.
  • Make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak.
  • Critique ideas, not people.
  • Stay on task.
  • Let people finish talking without interruptions.
  • Help others when you can.
  • Do your personal best.

What Constitutes Effective Small-Group Instruction?

  • Uses assessment data to create lesson plans and determine the groups.
  • Keep groups small, preferably three to four students to a group. Sometimes it might even be appropriate to have pairs.
  • Groups are flexible. This means that groups change as students grow, test out of a curriculum section, choose activities based on the type of activity required, etc.
  • Instructional materials are geared toward student readiness levels when activities are not based on differentiating by process or student profile.


If you are interested to learn more from Kathy Perez, her books The New Inclusion: Differentiated Strategies to Engage ALL Students, The Co-Teaching Book of Lists and 200+ Proven Strategies for Teaching Reading are all available from Hawker Brownlow Education right now. Kathy will also be presenting at the 2019 Hawker Brownlow Education Thinking & Learning Conference, so secure your spot today!

Kathy Perez Kathy Perez has over three decades of teaching experience from the early childhood level through to graduate school. She is a professor of education, educational consultant, author and motivational speaker, specialising in instructional strategies and creative approaches to literacy and professional development. Read more articles by Kathy Perez

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