Differentiation in PE: Being Responsive to Our Students’ Needs

“How can we organize and design activities to support students of various backgrounds, readiness and skill levels and interests in Health and Physical Education?” This is a question I receive often from my student teachers as they begin to explore and discover the complexities of teaching health and physical education during a time in our society that finds us teaching in schools and communities that are more diverse than ever before.


Students gathered togetherStudents playing in gymStudents playing basketball

Our Students are coming with various prior learning experiences in HPE related to their cultural, gender, ability, interests, and opportunities. Teachers need to prepare and plan a quality and inclusive learning environment, one that allows all students to develop the motivation and confidence to engage in physical activity whether they are beginning their physical literacy journey in the elementary grades or making progress through their middle school and high school experience. A one size fits all approach does not support all students in HPE.  We need to be responsive to all students’ needs in HPE as their health and well-being depends on it! Differentiated Instruction (DI) is an effective approach.

Differentiation is simply a teacher attending to the learning needs of a particular student or small group of students, rather than teaching a class as though all individuals in it were basically alike.” (Carol Ann Tomlinson)

The four components of Differentiated Instruction include:

  • Content – what is to be learned
  • Process –  how students acquire information
  • Product – how students demonstrate their learning
  • Learning Environment – where and with whom students learn

Let’s explore each of these components of Differentiated Instruction in relation to teaching HPE:

  1. Content – Help students identify areas of deficiency in movement skills and physical fitness while modifying the learning process to meet students’ needs; build on their strengths and provide multiple opportunities for formative assessment. LEARN, PRACTICE, DEMONSTRATE, More PRACTICE
  2. Process – Use a variety of instructional strategies, effective questioning, and flexible groupings to ensure learning is appropriately outlined for each student. DI strategies such as Tiering or Cubing with station-centered activities provide choice and modifications for gradual skill building, in turn building confidence, increased motivation and movement competence
    • Tiering or modifying activities provides multiple ways in which students can learn, practice and demonstrate movement skills or fitness skills according to their own readiness level, ability and interests. “Challenge by Choice” allows students to self-regulate and self-monitor their progress. For example, in a circuit/station format students can choose their challenge.
      • To develop balance and landing skills Power Jumps or Speed Skater Leaps

Power Jumps PosterSpeek Skater Leaps Poster

  • Develop upper body muscular strength  Wall pushup, Modified pushup on knees, pushup from feet, Spiderman pushup as seen in the image below

Spider Man Push Up

  • To develop manipulative (carrying skills) dribble a basketball while stationary, in a forward straight-line motion, weaving through cones, in pairs mirror your partner’s movement while both dribbling
    • Cubing involves selecting several activities to develop movement skills and/or fitness skills and a dice. For example, a cubing Yoga Circuit can include 6 different stations, #1–6 with various postures. In pairs, students roll the dice and move to the designated station number to try a posture and hold for a designated length of time. Repeat.
      •  Grade 4:  Movement Competence Strand with focus on specific expectations of movement strategies
        • B2.3 apply a variety of tactical solutions to increase their chances of success as they participate in physical activities
          • Individual activities: establish a breathing rhythm when swimming, use a video showing tricks and moves with a skipping rope to learn how to break down a new move into simpler steps
          • Target activities: choose a larger target for optimal success
          • Net/wall activities: assume a ready position that will allow them to be ready to move in a variety of directions to defend a space
          • Striking/fielding activities: throw or kick the ball away from fielders
          • Territory activities: help their team keep possession of the ball by making short passes to teammates in a keep-away game or by changing directions quickly when dribbling a basketball) [IS, CT]
      • Grade 5: Living Skills Strand with focus on specific expectations of personal skillsConversations Observations and Product Chart
        • Use self-awareness and self-monitoring skills to help them understand their strengths and needs, take responsibility for their actions, recognize sources of stress, and monitor their own progress, as they participate in physical activities, develop movement competence, and acquire knowledge and skills related to healthy living
          • Active Living: monitor progress to- wards fitness goals, noting improvements or lack of improvement and making changes as needed; note how physical activity makes them feel, particularly when they are experiencing stress
          • Movement Competence: describe how knowing their strengths and areas for improvement can help when they are learning new skills
          • Healthy Living: describe some of the factors or situations that cause them to experience stressProduct – Employ several assessment strategies such as conversations, observations, or products for students to demonstrate what they know in a variety of ways. Included below are several assessment tasks to triangulate data of student achievement of learning expectations from the Ontario Elementary 2015 HPE Curriculum.
        • Listed are several assessment strategies for HPE adapted from OPHEA’s Inquiry Based Learning in Health and Physical Education Resource.
  1. Conversations



    • Conference
    • Interview
    • Questioning
    • Small group discussions; e.g. think, pair, share; 2 stars and 1 wish
    • Large group discussions
    • Quick debriefs after a game or within a physical activity circuit
    • Observation of game sense in a game e.g., moving into open space to support team mate, communicating effectively to teammates
    • Student journals
    • Student/peer assessment of a movement skill or fitness skill using a 4 point checkbric – emerging, developing, competent, accomplished
    • Physical demonstration of performance of a chosen movement skill or fitness skill
    • Video or audio recording
    • Photograph or series of photographs to demonstrate phases of a movement skill
    • Report
    • Presentation
    • Pamphlet or Public Service Announcement


  2. Learning Environment – Consider ways to create a student centered, physically and emotionally safe environment that is relevant to your students’ lives.
    • Get to know your students’ interests, previous experiences, and goals related to HPE.
    • Co-construct success criteria with your students to ensure the learning targets are clear and transparent to them.
    • Understand the context in which you are teaching so that you can be culturally relevant and responsive to your students’ needs

Pause and Reflect:

How do you organize and design activities to support students of various backgrounds, readiness and skill levels in Physical Education?


One Response

  1. Carolyn,
    I would enjoy a chance to speak with you. i am a member of the Iowa Physical Education Leadership Standards Committee and want to help teachers in our profession help ALL students. We have just installed our standards this year. I am looking to have an informal chat with one who shares our same thoughts.
    Craig Johnston
    Central Springs High School
    Manly, IA 50456
    Cell-563 380 1110

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