What are the keys for dealing with a diverse classroom and its range of abilities?

I have a fundamental issue with this question. First, it suggests that instead of discovering and understanding our students and their differences, we should instead figure out how to “deal” with them. Sounds a bit harsh, if not intolerant. The second part of my frustration over this question stems from the fact that “we” just now seem to be realizing that the student body is diverse.  I’ll give you that the ethnic diversity has increased dramatically since, say the 1950’s, but even then the classrooms were diverse. Did we really assume that at some point in time, each and every child learned the same things at exactly the same rate? The mere suggestion that this is a relatively new phenomenon is an indicator of what has been a large part of the problem with public school all along.

While God made us in “His” image, “He” certainly didn’t make us all the same! We are all different, we think different, learn different, have different cultural, economic and ethnic backgrounds and different worldviews, which give us a filtered lens through which we perceive what’s going on. All of these differences combine to make us who we are – our own unique gifts to the world. So, now we are finally waking up and realizing that we have stuffed 28 (or more) very individual young people who are all attempting to figure out who they are in the scheme of things into a small room in a completely contrived, artificial environment. And then, underpaid, overworked and under-appreciated teachers are instructed to “deal with it” and given the “keys” to do so in the form of well researched textbooks.

In his book Classroom management: Creating a successful k-12 learning community, Burden provides a wealth of strategies for teachers to use in their classrooms in managing the diversities of their students. (Burden, 2013, Chapter 8) In reading through the text, regardless of the “diversity” being discussed whether its sexual orientation, non-english speaking students, socio-economic status or any of the myriad other “differences” you could focus on, one theme stands out – find a way to make the children feel wanted, appreciated and worthy. Kids just want acceptance. So the “key” as it were, simply appears to be to provide a supportive, caring environment. We need text books, conferences, doctoral thesis’ and studies to “see” this? Isn’t this something that just about any mother on the planet could tell us?

I recently led a week long adventure day camp, the first one for our new business. We set it up late in the game and had a small group of five ranging in age from 5 to 15. This was a very diverse group. Three girls, two boys. One girl, Lisa, was pushy, whiney, bossy and just really not very pleasant and difficult for the other children to get along with, let alone like. She was, I also observed, quite outside her normal comfort zone. At first I found her irritating and struggled with how to handle her attitude. By the second day, I had to force myself to be complimentary; urging her on, offering encouragement and finding positive things to say to her. Her transformation was amazing. She was scared in this new environment and really just wanted to know she was okay there. She wanted acceptance and when she received it, she was a different kid.

In a Literacy Links article, Lisa Smith, an experienced ESL teacher, offers tips for working with diverse learners who are learning English as their second language. She reiterates the theme that is carried through Burden’s chapter on diverse leaners – know your students and offer them a safe, nurturing, supportive environment. (Smith, 2005, para. 2).

It is good to know there are dozens of effective strategies, certainly a vast pool to draw on as the need arises. But what is most important to know is that a friendly gesture; a warm, sincere welcome, and the right kind of attention might be all you need for effective classroom management. Model respect, tolerance, and above all, acceptance. A wise professor at Liberty University once said, use the 2:1 ratio. For every reprimand or negative reinforcement you must give a child, find two positive things to say to them. That’s what I did for Lisa. It was not easy, but it made a huge difference in her, me and the entire group. Try it, even if you have to work hard to find those positive things. You’ll find it makes quite the difference!




Burden, P. (2013). Classroom management: creating a successful K-12 learning community (5th ed.). Hobokin, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Smith, L. (2005). Managing a classroom of diverse learners. Retrieved from http://www-tcall.tamu.edu/newsletr/apr05/apr05d.htm