Individualized Instruction


The current catch phrase is “no child left behind.” The phrase is quickly adopted, but the implementation is difficult. No child will be left behind if the individual learning needs of the child are met. Each child is unique and individualized programs can increase student success. Children have diverse learning styles, learn at different rates, have varying socioeconomic backgrounds, and have diverse intellectual strengths. Individualized instruction is especially effective in working with at-risk students (Hamby, 1989). The two major facets of this teaching method are learning and motivation. Both of these facets recognize and build on the uniqueness of each child.

Individualized Instruction Is Needed

Special education requires individualized education plans, but standard education programs do not. Dropout statistics show that numerous so-called normal students are not succeeding because they are not treated as individuals (Stainback & Stainback, 1992). By not recognizing the unique learning needs of students, these students do not have the opportunity to achieve their potential (Pugach & Warger, 1996). Because they do not learn like everyone else, they often see themselves, as do their teachers, as failures.

What Is Individualized Instruction?

The best way to understand individualized instruction is to look at how it is used in special education. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) provides the foundation for learning. The IEP is developed as a collaborative effort of students (when appropriate), teachers, parents, school administrators, and related services personnel. Many schools are using IEPs with students who score below grade level on standardized tests (Schargel & Smink, 2001). Unfortunately, most regular teachers do not have the time to provide IEPs for all their students.The most effective way to learn something for the first time is to connect it to prior knowledge. In order for the teacher to know each child’s knowledge level pre-testing, questioning, and observation are used. The educational philosophy of constructivism has as its basis the ability of learners to give meaning to new learning based on their prior knowledge (Caine & Caine, 1991). Active, experiential learning is vital to the construction of new knowledge. Some of the instructional strategies that encourage knowledge building are:

  • problem-based learning and reciprocal teaching;
  • peer tutoring;
  • cooperative learning;
  • hands-on learning;
  • journaling;
  • projects;
  • role play;
  • simulation; and
  • inquiry (Switzer, 2004, p. 196).

Motivation is particularly important when working with at-risk students. There are three elements of motivation: positive value, clear connection between behavior and consequences, and a belief that success can be achieved with the available skill and resources.

Expected Benefits

Individualized instruction provides the opportunity for students to learn at their own pace, in their own way, and be successful. At-risk students who would probably drop out of school, stay and graduate. Alternative schools have found individualized instruction valuable. The City-as-School Program (CAS) in Buffalo, New York has had 65% of their students earn their high school diplomas (Schargel & Smink, 2001, p. 178). The Free Options program at the Borough Academies in New York City has had a graduation rate of 86%.


Caine, R. N., Caine,G. (1991). Making connection: Teaching and the human brain. Alexandria,VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Hamby, J. V. (1989). How to get an “A” on your dropout prevention report card. Educational Leadership, 46 (5), 21-28.

Pugach, M., & Warger, C. (Eds.). (1996). Curriculum trends, special education, and reform. New York: Teacher College Press.

Schargel, F. P., & Smink, J. (2001). Strategies to Help Solve our School Dropout Problem. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Stainback, W., & Stainback, S. (1992). Controversial issues confronting special education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Switzer, D. (2004). Individualized instruction. In F. P. Schargel & J. Smink (Eds), Helping Students Graduate: A Strategic Approach to Dropout Prevention (pp. 225-233). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.