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The Surprising Benefits of Multiage Programs for Kids

Mentoring, cooperative learning and more in this unique learning environment

Janelle Durham
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Published on: August 05, 2022

Group of children of different ages wearing backpacks

In the United States, 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 5 somewhere between Sept. 1 of that year and Aug. 31 of the next year. But some programs (such as Montessori schools, Sunday school programs at churches or scout troops) are multiage, with a broader age range. (I teach a multiage STEM enrichment class for ages 3–7). Here are just a few interesting benefits of multiage programs that you might not have considered. 

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 younger kids. This knowledge is passed on in a variety of ways:

  • Unintended modeling: When an older child is just doing something they want or need to do, such as using the potty or drawing a picture of a dog, they may not even be aware the younger child is observing and learning from them. But young children love to learn about what the big kids are doing.
  • Social play: Younger kids are exposed to things such as better emotional regulation and more sophisticated problem-solving, which helps them learn these skills earlier. Imaginary play is also richer, as the older children give ideas to the younger ones and have to figure out how to articulate those ideas so that the younger ones can play along.
  • Casual mentoring: When an older child is slowed down by the younger one’s lack of knowledge, sometimes they move in to help rather than waiting for an adult to help. (For instance, helping a child put on boots so they can go outside for recess.)
  • Support desk: Younger children learn which classmates they can go to for help with various tasks, and may seek out their help before asking a teacher. (For instance, at one lunch, kids were given fortune cookies. All of the non-readers went straight to the kids who could read to ask for a quick answer to what their fortune said.)
  • 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 their own knowledge from a new perspective.

Individualized curriculum, tailored to children’s unique skills, not just their age

  • Some kids are really advanced in some areas and a little behind in other areas. Being in a multiage classroom makes it more likely that they’ll find peers to fit in with in both those areas.
  • There is a broader range of information being covered, so children are more able to learn at their own pace, making continuous progress rather than having to “wait until second grade, when we cover that.”

Learning with the same teacher for multiple years

  • The teacher gets to know the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and can therefore better 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 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 normal 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 peers of the same age, but might find companionship among the younger kids in the classroom.

A more cooperative, caring learning environment

  • Older kids learn to be patient, nurturing and responsible. (With guidance from adults!)
  • Role-modeling: The older children learn how to set a good example. If the teacher asks older kids who don’t always behave well themselves to remind the younger children what the rules are, the older ones behave better.
  • In group time, I find that the younger kids are better at sitting still and focusing because they see the older kids doing so. The older kids like to show off their knowledge and can often answer the questions the younger ones ask — this builds confidence in 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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