How To Adapt A Task’s Difficulty Level

In special education classrooms, it is common to have students with a wide range of abilities and levels. It becomes essential to be able to adapt and adjust activities and tasks to meet each student’s needs. Here are 5 tips for making tasks or activities easier or harder.

As special education teachers, we often need to adapt teaching materials and tasks on the fly. Here are 5 ways to adapt a task to increase or decrease the level of difficulty of a task or lesson.

use visual supports to adapt the difficulty

Adding or removing visual supports is an easy way to adjust the level of difficulty. Here are ways to adapt with visual supports:

  • Add in visual choices for students (Use this reading comprehension set to save time. I’ve already added in the visual choices for you!)
  • Switch the format to fill in the blanks to add support
  • Change the way the students need to respond. For example, when doing an easy reader book with my students, I will make one level that has blanks for students to write in a word, another level with words typed out for them to cut and glue in the blanks, and the third level with picture choices to cut and glue in the blanks.

Read more using this adaptation strategy in math HERE.

Modify the amount of work for students

Modifying the amount of work is an easy way to adapt the difficulty level without having to do too much prep work. Your students won’t all be able to work at the same speed or complete the same amount of work in a given time.

If you have a student who is struggling to learn addition, for example, you might have that student only complete a few problems during math centers, while another student might do a whole sheet of problems in the same amount of time. They are both working on the same skill, but at a rate or amount that works for them to be successful. This is a simple way to modify a task to make it easier or harder.

adjust the amount of staff support

Adding in or pulling back on adult supports and prompts can be an effective way to adjust the level of difficulty of a lesson. Thoughtfully assign paras and therapists to be available to students who might require more help or prompting during an activity.

The level of adult support and prompting shouldn’t be the same for all activities. You do not want to give additional help or prompting to a student who is capable of doing the task independently, but you want adults readily available to help a student who might need some extra support.

For example, during crafts, I have some students who require assistance with cutting, so there is always an adult nearby to help them when we get to that step. There are also students who need some gestural prompts from adults to stay on task and/or keep working. I have other students who can complete the whole craft activity by themselves, so I send them with all of the materials they will need to their own space to work independently.

differentiate instruction in a group setting

By working on a project or activity as a group, you can get each student involved in a way that meets their levels and is meaningful to them.

For example, we do a group writing activity using our theme vocabulary words. I will choose a student to come up with a sentence using a given word. Then I will start to write the sentence on our whiteboard. While completing the sentence, I will have each student help me in some way. I might ask one student what letter a word starts with, have another spell a word for me, and another come up and write a word or two. Then we read the sentence together as a group.

Another example of this is during morning meeting when we build a given amount with coins. I will choose an amount of money and then we work together as a group to build that amount with magnetic coins. I might ask one student to find a penny, another to find a coin worth 25 cents, and another to add up the amount we’ve built so far. Another student will then tell me which coins we still need to get to our given amount. Then we add it up together as a group.

In both examples, each student plays a role in completing the work but at their own level.

adapt how you use the materials

To adjust the expectations and skills you are working on with a group of students, use the materials in different ways. For example, I can hand out a pile of vocabulary cards to each student in the group, but assign different tasks to complete using the cards.

Ways I would adapt the expectations using the same vocabulary cards:

  • Student 1: can trace the words with a dry erase marker
  • Student 2: copy the words onto their paper or whiteboard
  • Student 3: put the words in alphabetical order
  • Student 4: write sentences using their words
  • Student 5: sort the words by the number of syllables in the word

This strategy allows each student to be engaged and working, but in a unique way that is meaningful for them.

How To Adapt A Task's Difficulty Level pin image

Having a classroom of students with a wide range of abilities and at different levels can seem overwhelming, but with a little thought and work, you can easily adjust your lessons, activities, and tasks to make them easier or more difficult to meet each student’s needs, allowing them to participate successfully.

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