By interacting with others who are developing at other levels students reinforce learned skills and tend to absorb more advanced concepts from older students. Additionally, they learn crucial inter-social skills and experience important feelings of responsibility, validation, and competence. Meanwhile, teachers acquire a broad range of skills in teaching a diverse group.
Despite these many benefits, however, mixed age groups come with some challenges. Some teachers struggle with the increased demands of attending to a differentiated group. They may benefit from additional classroom support and access to a wide range of resources. There are several strategies that may help teachers get the best out of their special group. Here are a few:
1. Get to know your students. Become acquainted with their likes and dislikes, their personalities, and their differing levels of ability. The more you know your students the easier it will be for you to create the activities, tasks, assignments and lessons that engage them best.
2. Value their individual needs. To the best of your ability, define your teaching goals by the abilities of your students rather than their age. If you are able to value the different stages and paces in your classroom, your students will be more successful, and your job, less stressful.
3. Allow older students to assist younger students. The benefits are multifold: the older student gets an opportunity to reinforce his/her own skills while learning social responsibility; the younger student benefits from the guidance, and also benefits from a sense of community. In addition, the teacher benefits from getting “assistance” while everyone is learning something valuable.
4. Consider each lesson topic from multiple angles. Your lessons should take all age groups and abilities into consideration. Instead of planning separate lessons for separate age groups, gather age-appropriate material geared towards the same theme or subject. Worksheets for a lesson on the life of ants, for example, may include a sheet of fill-in-the-blank ant-related sentences for older students at the early reading level, and a worksheet of matching pictures to ant-related words for students still grasping the first skills of reading.
5. Plan games and crafts that everyone can enjoy. Games and crafts are excellent opportunities for all students to relax, learn through play, release stress and increase confidence. Assign leadership roles to older students or think of ways to make their specific tasks more challenging.
Flexibility is the key in a mixed-age setting. In addition to planning flexible lessons and activities, be flexible in your attitude. If things are not going as planned, it is important to know when to relax or apply a different approach. There are many resources available in books and on the web that can assist mixed-age teachers. Montessori resources, in particular, may be of great use.