The Case for Multi-Age, Integrated Early Childhood Classes

As an educator and school director, I am constantly seeking ways to better meet the individual needs of all of the learners in our classrooms.  In every class, we find a variety of learning styles and, in early childhood classes in particular, a variety of developmental levels.  I have researched, attended seminars, spoken to colleagues and learned that the answer is as old as the one room schoolhouse.  Each individual child can best be reached when we acknowledge that more than one developmental level and social ability exists in one age group.  Each child can be reached when more than one level of abilities is taught in one space.

Formal education in this country began in those one room schoolhouses where students of many ages learned in one space.  Students moved ahead based on their individual abilities.  As the country became more populated and more students enrolled in school, that system didn’t work anymore.  Students needed to be divided into smaller groups.  It seemed logical to divide the students into groups based upon their ages.  There are exceptions to those divisions.  Some children may skip a grade and others may repeat a grade but, by and large, age division does hit the median of abilities.  The question before us is whether or not it is beneficial to just hit the median or should we be striving to reach a broader range of abilities?

Integrated, or multiple-age classes, are beneficial to students in a number of ways.   By widening the range of ages and abilities, teachers have to get even further out of the “one size fits all” box.  While one size rarely fits all learners at any age, it is especially true in the early childhood years.  It is not unusual to have a class of 2 year olds in which some children can use scissors effectively and are beginning to write while others are not yet ready to hold scissors or writing implements.  Children who can work ahead aren’t always given the opportunity to do so while those who are challenged may struggle to keep up.  At the end of the year, some children may be promoted from that class to the next without having mastered particular skills.  If the skill sets that are developmentally appropriate for more than one age group are taught in the same space, the children can go from one teacher to another based on their ability for each individual task.  Teachers will be better able to reach the outer limits of a child’s ability and ensure that each student’s abilities and challenges are communicated to the teacher preparing the students for kindergarten.

Multi-age classes allow for more opportunities for students to learn from each other and model skills, both academic and social.  Children not ready to write can watch while their friends do so.  Children can help each other recognize numbers, letters or words.  Younger children can observe the example of older children who may sit longer for a story or be more confident explorers in their classroom.  Socially, multi-age classrooms in early childhood have been shown to foster a variety of friendships and help build self-esteem.  A class that spans two years allows for new, younger students to initially follow and then become the leaders themselves.   Older children learn lessons about patience, empathy and building friendships based on mutual interests rather than just on age.  Children who have had the chance to be models of academic and/or social skills will be more confident and, therefore, more ready to enter pre-k or kindergarten prep classes. 

Classes consisting of more than one age group are also more reflective of the society in which we live.  When you take children to the playground, they need to negotiate play with children of a variety of ages.  A group of playmates in a neighborhood are rarely the same age.  As children enter middle school, high school, college and the workplace, they will be increasingly placed with others of their ability and age becomes less and less important. 

In our quest to reach and challenge every child, we look forward to finding ways to further integrate the classes and meet the academic & social needs of each individual at The Early Learning Center of Temple Shalom. 

Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
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