Benefits of Multi-Age Programs

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In the U.S. most programs for children tend to be limited to children who are all close to the same age – for example, the children in a kindergarten class all turn five somewhere between Sept 1 of that year and August 31 of the next year. But some programs (like Montessori schools, Sunday school programs at churches, or scout troops) are multi-age, with a broader age range. (For example, I teach a multi-age STEM enrichment class for ages 3 – 7). Here’s why I love them:

Benefits of Multi-Age Programs

  • Knowledge 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, (like using the potty or drawing a picture of a dog), they may not even be aware the younger child is observing and absorbing. But children love to learn about what other kids are doing.
    • 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. The imaginary play is also richer as the older ones give ideas to the younger ones and have to figure out how to articulate those ideas so the younger one can play along.
    • 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.)
    • Resources: 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. 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.
  • Individualized curriculum, tailored to children’s unique skills, not just their age
    • 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.”
    • Some kids are really advanced in some areas and a little behind in other areas. Being in a multi-age classroom makes it more likely that they’ll find peers to fit in with in both those areas.
  • Children may 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.
  • 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.
  • A more cooperative, caring learning environment.
    • Older kids learn to be patient, nurturing, responsible. (With guidance from adults!)
    • Role-modelling. The older children learn how to set a good example. “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)
    • In group time, I find that the younger ones are better at sitting still and focusing because they see the older kids do so. The older kids like to show off their knowledge and can often answer the questions the younger ones ask – this builds confidence for the older ones and the younger ones are more excited to learn things from the big kids than they are to learn from a teacher!

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