Mixed-Age Preschools?

askateacherCould you discuss the pros and cons of mixed-aged preschools vs. schools that separate the kids by year? The benefits and detriments of having 2-year-olds in the same environment as 5-year-olds, the challenges and the opportunities that this presents to both the child and the teachers… —Jedd

While a lot of daycare centers go with the all-the-kids-in-one-big-group model, there aren’t many preschools that really embrace the mixed-age approach (Montessori schools are often notable exceptions). I’ve never taught in a school that didn’t have classrooms separated by age (though, see below). It’s a shame more schools don’t go that route, because putting different-aged kids in the same classroom is a GREAT idea.

Lev Vygotsky’s theory of Social Constructivism is one of the foundations of how we approach children’s learning these days. The approach looks at all learning as happening in the context of social interactions. Learning is most effective (so the theory goes) when you’re trying to accomplish something and someone who knows more than you is there giving you little hints and encouragements (known as “scaffolding”)—allowing you to succeed, through your own efforts, at something that’s hard for you, and thereby raising your own performance level. Social constructivism is a great framework for teachers to think about how they’re guiding kids’ learning. But usually there’s only one or two teachers and a whole roomful of kids—the teacher can’t scaffold everyone simultaneously.

And that’s where mixed-age (or mixed-ability) groupings come to the rescue. Older children scaffold younger ones. Younger children look to older ones as models. A smart teacher knows how to set up relationships amongst the kids so that they’re ALL teaching and ALL learning from each other all the time. And it’s not just the younger ones who benefit from the older; older children learn by being models for the younger ones. It’s win-win.

It’s also a useful model when we start thinking about inclusion of children with disabilities. “Children who have difficulty relating to same-age peers are often better able to achieve and sustain satisfying contact with a younger or older child” (Katz & McClellan, 1997). “Difficulty relating” could be because of a disability, or could just be because a child is shy—it doesn’t matter. Having a room full of kids at different ages means no one has to feel judged for “not measuring up”—they can all find people they relate to in different ways.

Research on outcomes for children in mixed-age groupings is extremely positive, particularly in terms of socio-emotional development. And research on what skills young children need to succeed in elementary school (and beyond) put socio-emotional skills right at the top of the list. Communication, self-regulation, attention, relationships… That’s what kids need to be learning in preschool, and it’s what mixed-age classrooms are best at teaching.

In terms of challenges for children and teachers? Yeah, it’s a bit more of a challenge. Think of siblings of different ages. There are all sorts of conflicts because of the differences in their needs, and it makes things tricky for the kids and for their families. But that doesn’t mean that over the long haul it’s not worth it. On the contrary, The skills you learn dealing with people who aren’t exactly like you are the skills you need to go out and, you know, exist in the world.

To approach it from another angle, let’s remember that, historically speaking, the way we divide kids up by age these days is WEIRD. Through most of time, and in much of the world today, kids are taught in mixed age groups up to (and, in some cases, through) high school. Splitting up kids by age came around with the industrial revolution, when we were excited to systematize everything. And when you think about it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We KNOW that kids develop at different speeds from each other, and at different speeds in various areas of learning, and that those differences aren’t indicative of intelligence or anything else.

A way that I like to think about it is that ALL classrooms are mixed age classrooms—especially in preschool, where the difference between 3-years-1-month and 3-years-11-months is enormous. But even if you had a room of children all born the same week, there’d still be huge variations in development and ability. One of the arguments against mixed-age classrooms is that it’d be too hard for the teacher to make adaptations for each child’s ability-level. But I argue that ALL teachers (especially early childhood teachers) should always be doing that anyway. “Single-age” classrooms make it easy to pretend you don’t have to adapt curriculum; mixed-age classrooms force teachers to confront a curriculum issue that should be confronted anyway.

When I taught at Pacific Primary in San Francisco, the classrooms were all divided by age, but there was a lot of mixing of groups—children visited other classrooms frequently; ages played together outdoors; at the beginning and end of the day classes consolidated; kids of all ages would hang out together in the “sun room.” And in my personal experience, the benefits of those mixed-age contacts FAR outweighed the challenges. It wasn’t even close. Putting kids with groups of different ages was effective and fun and interesting and stimulating. It was part of the school culture, and when I started working at another school, it felt weird that we weren’t mixing the ages from time to time.

So, yeah. Mixed-age is not without its challenges, but I strongly support schools finding ways to make it work.

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Do you have any experiences with mixed-age preschools? Tell us in the comments!

And if you’ve got a question to ask a preschool teacher, submit it here!

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