Benefits of Multi-Age Classrooms

multi-ageAs fall rolls around, you may be looking for a preschool, or scheduling other activities for your little ones. One thing you may encounter is preschools with a “multi-age” classroom, or activities with a wide range of ages: where some programs are limited to children born within a few months of each other (age 2 – 2.5), others are open to children from toddler to kindergarten (age 2 – 5).

The advantages to close age groupings is that all activities can be tailored to the exact developmental capabilities of that age group. My kids have had lots of great experiences in these types of programs.

But, I also like to be sure my kids have exposure both to formal / facilitated programs that are multi-age and to opportunities for free play with kids of wide ranging ages. I think there’s a lot to be learned in these experiences.

A Historical / Evolutionary Perspective

Historically, children were more likely to be from large families, sharing a home with siblings of a wide range of ages. In the U.S. today, we tend to have much smaller families. Amongst women born in 1935 (parenting from approximately 1955 – 1985), 37% raised four or more children. Of women born in 1960, only 11% had four or more children. In 2010, only 9% of households had three or more children. (20% of kids are only children.) So, children used to have a multi-age experience in their own home, and are much less likely to have that now.

Also, through much of human history, we have lived in small tribes or, later, small towns. With a small community, there are only so many children, so it’s likely that those children represent a wide age range. Think of rural “one room school houses” that might serve 15 children ranging in age from 5 to 18. So, in the community, formal education and informal play was almost always ‘multi-age.’ Now we put thirty 5-year-olds in one room for kindergarten. Or, in recent years in the Seattle area, we had one “freshman campus” school that was for 9th graders only – putting approximately 1000 kids of the same age into one building. In The Benefits of Mixed Age Grouping (1995), Katz wrote “Although humans are not usually born in litters, we seem to insist that they be educated in them.”

So, historically, most kids have interacted with kids of all ages. Currently, many kids spend most of their time with their age cohort. Is anything lost by doing that? Here’s an examination of some of the benefits of multi-age education and play.

What is a multi-age classroom?

A class where students range in age, with an age span of 2 or more years. Typically, children stay in the classroom for a few years. For example, in a multi-age preschool serving ages 3 – 5, children typically enter at 3 and are the younger ones that year, then stay on for a second year as the older ones. In their second year, they may attend more days a week than they did as a 3 year old.

The goal of a multi-age classroom is heterogeneity. You want a wide range in experience, knowledge, skills, and interests. The teacher uses a variety of techniques, including individual work, small groups, and large group exercises to ensure that each individual child is receiving an education that is stimulating and effective while not being overwhelming.

Note: in this post, I am not referring to an accidental multi-grade classroom, where due to budgetary constraints, space limitations, or a limited student population, multiple ages of kids have been thrown together in a classroom with a teacher who may or may not be prepared to handle this. I’m talking about intentional multi-age programs where the curriculum is set up to maximize the strengths of the diverse grouping.

Benefits of Multi-Age Classrooms

  • Knowledge-Building and Skill Development: Younger children learn from older children. Older children reinforce and deepen their own understanding of a topic or skill by teaching it to the younger kids. This knowledge is passed on in a variety of ways:
    • Unintended modelling – when an older child is just doing something they want or need to do, not attempting to teach (like using the potty or drawing a picture of a dog). The older child may not even be aware the younger child is observing and absorbing. “Nothing is more interesting to a child than another child who has the skills that he or she wants to acquire” (Merrick, cited in Panko)
    • Social play: The younger ones are exposed to things like better emotional regulation and more sophisticated problem-solving which helps them learn these skills earlier.
    • Casual mentoring. When an older child wants the younger one to participate in a game or activity, she will just quickly explain it to the younger one so they can have fun together. When the older one is slowed down by the younger one’s lack of knowledge, sometimes they move in to help rather than waiting for the teacher to help. (Like putting on boots so they can go outside for recess.) Also, younger children learn which classmates they can go to for help with various tasks, and may seek out their help before asking a teacher. (At one lunch, kids were given fortune cookies. All the non-readers went straight to the kids who could read to ask for a quick answer to ‘what does this say?’)
    • Intentional teaching. Sometimes teachers will ask a child who has mastered a skill to teach it to a child who hasn’t yet mastered it. (Sometimes this is an older child teaching a younger child, but it can also be the other way around, as children gain skills at diverse ages.) The learner benefits by gaining information in a way that may be more fun and more confidence-building than learning from an adult. The child who is teaching has the chance to review his own knowledge from a new perspective, and practice mastering skills.
    • If older kids give incorrect information, the teacher can correct it, and both kids benefit – the teacher has discovered the older child’s misconception, which she otherwise might not have known about and makes sure both kids know the correct info. (This can remind the younger child that we’re all learners, and we can all make mistakes.)
  • Individualized curriculum, tailored to children’s unique skills, not just their age
    • A good multi-age program is child centered. Projects and assignments are tailored to the needs and interests of the children as individuals.
    • Children are more able to learn at their own pace, making continuous progress rather than having to “wait till second grade, when we cover that.”
  • Children stay with the same teacher for multiple years.
    • The teacher gets to know the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and is better able to tailor the lesson plan to meet that child’s unique needs.
    • There is a stronger parent-teacher relationship.
    • For the child, there’s the benefit of consistency, and a sense of safety and security in the classroom which enables better learning. (Assuming the teacher and child are a good match – if not, then your child could be stuck in a non-ideal situation for a while.)
    • Benefits in year-to-year transition: youngers have less anxiety about moving up, because they can see what comes next. Olders gain confidence as they can see how far they’ve come. Big kids feel like “grown ups.”
  • Less competition / labeling.
    • In a single age classroom, it’s easy to compare kids and say that some are gifted, some are delayed. In a mixed age classroom, it may be clearer that there’s a range of development: the one who does best in math class may have the hardest time in music class, regardless of age.
    • A child who struggles more with social skills might be ostracized by their age peers, but might find companionship in the younger kids in the classroom.
  • Better for a variety of kids:
    • Better for those August / September birthdays. In single grade groupings, parents end up deciding at age 5 whether their child will always be the youngest or the oldest in a classroom. In a multi-age program they have the opportunity to be in the younger half one year, and the older the next.
    • Better for gifted children. They can be pushed to achieve their potential with an individualized curriculum.
    • Better for children with learning challenges. Challenged students may have more self-esteem because don’t always feel like “the dumb one” in the class.
  • A more cooperative, caring learning environment.
    • Older kids learn to be patient, nurturing, responsible. (With guidance from the adults!)
    • Role-modelling. The older children learn how to set a good example.
    • Less misbehavior: Students are less likely to misbehave in multiage groups than in single-age classrooms (Logue, 2006 as cited in Song, et al 2009) “When the teacher asked the older children who were not observing the class rules to remind the younger ones what the rules were, the older children’s own “self-regulatory behavior” improved.” (Katz)
  • Prepares children for work in the “real world” where co-workers are varying ages and experience levels.
  • Research consistently shows that on standardized testing, children from multi-age classrooms perform as well or better than their peers in single-grade classrooms.

Questions to Ask:

Why is the class multi-aged? If it’s for philosophical reasons – because the school believes in the benefits of multi-aged classrooms–that’s a good sign. If it’s for budgetary reasons, or limited student population, or limited classroom space – that’s not a good sign.

Has the teacher taught a multi-age class before? That’s best. Or, has the teacher at least worked in the past with children of all the ages she will have in the classroom? Or at least received training in how to do it?

How does the teacher adjust the curriculum to meet all students’ needs? You’re hoping to hear that each child’s learning is individualized… one child might be in the ‘advanced math’ group and the ‘still working on reading skills’ group. If the teacher teaches the kids as two separate grades, taking turns between the ‘third graders’ and the ‘fourth graders’, that’s not good…

Does the teacher want to be there? The majority of teachers are opposed to multi-age classrooms, often because they doubt their ability to juggle the needs of the diverse learners in their classroom. But some teachers love this environment, and are passionate about the benefits of multi-age.

Is the whole school multi-age, or just a few classrooms? It tends to work best if multi-age is the assumption at the school, and all the programs are set up to work with that plan.

How do they assign kids? It does not work well to place low-performing older students with high-performing younger students. This tends to lead to labeling of the ‘dumb kids’ and the ‘smart kids’ and the self-esteem and social stigma that come with those labels. It’s better when there’s a wide range of achievement and skills in all the kids, so diversity is valued.

What else to consider:

Even more than in a single-grade classroom, the success of a multi-aged class depends upon the skills of the teacher.

Teachers need to be well-organized, knowledgeable, and flexible. They need to do frequent and holistic assessments of learning to make sure all the students are well-served, challenged, but not overwhelmed. Teachers need to have appropriate expectations for the youngers, not asking more than they are capable of. They also need appropriate expectations of the olders, giving them challenges that help to build their skills.

As the parent, you may be more closely involved than you would be in a single-grade classroom, just because many schools that believe in multi-age also believe in parent involvement and will ask more of you. You will also appreciate closer involvement. If you have a younger child, it’s exciting to see where they’ll be in a year. If you have an older child, it’s exciting to see how far they’ve come!

Sources:

Multi-Age Education: http://arobi77.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/the-multiage-concept-explained.pdf. Collects several articles, originally published 2006 – 2011. Includes:

  • The Multiage Classroom, by Marion Leier.
  • A Multi-Aged Approach. Marion Leier.
  • My Thesis. Michelle Panko.
  • Benefits of Mixed Age Grouping. Lillian Katz. 1995
  • Interview with Tim Laner, 1998

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Multiage Classrooms in the Era of NCLB Accountability. CEEP Education Policy Brief. Song, Spradlin, and Plucker. Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 2009. http://ceep.indiana.edu/projects/PDF/PB_V7N1_Winter_2009_EPB.pdf

photo credit: theirhistory via photopin cc

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