Early Childhood Education
Grouping in early childhood education refers to the ways in which young children are organized for play, learning, and instruction. How to group children is an important consideration for early childhood caregivers and teachers who aim to provide environments and interpersonal experiences that most effectively and appropriately support children’s optimal growth and development. In the United States, three common grouping schemas are traditional groupings, multiage or mixed-age groupings, and grouping for instruction.
The traditional method for grouping children in schools, early childhood programs, and child-care centers is chronological grouping or grouping by age. This method of grouping is evidenced in institutional structures (such as schools and grade levels within schools), statutory requirements (such as licensing regulations for child-care centers), and individual teacher and caregiver practice. Rationales for grouping by age are based upon the assumption, drawn from the maturationist perspective, that age is or should be the single most important factor in promoting developmental progress and positive learning outcomes. A number of common beliefs about children seem to underlie this grouping method. One belief is that children prefer to be with others their own age. A second belief is that all children of the same age have the same capabilities and the same interests. A third belief is that young children learn best when grouped chronologically because they are not intimidated by the behaviors and competencies of older children, and their developmental needs will not be ignored in favor of those of the older children.
Research aimed at providing evidence for the effectiveness of grouping by age in early childhood programs is sparse at best. Children in fact grow up in multiage groups (families) and are for the most part quite comfortable there. Further, it is well known and well documented that children, even those of the same age, have very diverse personal and cultural experiences, capabilities, and interests. And finally, a child’s potential feelings of intimidation by the presence, behavior, or skills of older children can be and indeed are ameliorated by the effective strategies employed by competent, caring, and qualified teachers.
Chronological grouping of children in early education settings appears to be of benefit to teachers and caregivers. This grouping practice allows teachers and caregivers to limit their knowledge of children and child development to the specific-age group in their charge. In addition, this practice limits both the content knowledge base required of teachers and the breadth and depth of the curriculum and experiences to be planned and implemented for the children.
Multiage grouping is known by a number of different names: family grouping, vertical grouping, heterogeneous grouping, mixed-age grouping, and ungraded or nongraded classrooms. This method of grouping is commonly found in family child-care homes and, to a lesser extent, in programs or classrooms for preschool- age children. It is rarely found in infant and toddler care or in kindergarten and primary classrooms. In a multiage group, the age-range of the children typically exceeds one year and the curriculum is not constrained by particular grade-level parameters. The practice of multiage grouping is based on several assumptions about its benefits to children. One assumption is that in such a group, which is characterized by a wider range of personalities and competencies, there are more opportunities for each child to form positive and meaningful relationships. A second assumption is that the multiage group offers a greater likelihood that children will have access to more and appropriate models of behavior and learning. These potential outcomes are particularly advantageous given that children’s development in all domains tends to be uneven, and it is unlikely that any given child can serve as an effective model in every developmental domain. In addition, children who may be struggling with a particular developmental task or within a particular domain are less likely to be ostracized and/or feel belittled by peers in a multiage group where the broad range of development and skill acquisition is evident, expected, and accepted.
It is further assumed that children in multiage groupings will advance in social development as a result of an increased expectation for and occurrence of prosocial behaviors. Children do adjust their behaviors and language when interacting with other children they perceive as younger or less competent. Prosocial behavior fosters the development of community and serves as a deterrent to unruly and aggressive behavior. As a result, there is a reduced need for disciplinary actions and enhanced opportunities for sustained engagement in valuable learning experiences.
Finally, there are assumed benefits to cognitive and language development in the multiage grouping. Opportunities to experience more challenging cognitive tasks, to hear and use more advanced language, to receive support from a more skilled peer, and to offer support in the way of teaching a less-skilled peer are more likely to be routinely found in a multiage group. These types of opportunities provide all participants valuable support for learning.
The benefits of multiage grouping are not inherent in the grouping itself but are directly related to the knowledge, skill repertoire, and actual work of the teachers and caregivers. Teachers and caregivers must create the physical, social, and cognitive structures within the classroom environment that will promote and support the desired outcomes. Children will need to be guided toward the interpersonal relationships and prosocial behaviors that are associated with the anticipated social benefits. The curriculum needs to be conceptualized and structured so as to provide a broad range of possibilities and activities that can accommodate children at various levels of interest and competence. Younger- or less-advanced children need to be taught how to recognize when assistance is truly needed and how to seek such assistance. Older or more competent children need to be taught how to provide appropriate assistance without doing everything for the less-skilled peer. Teachers and caregivers need to be alert to the potential for learned helplessness as well as the potential for overburdening the more competent child with the expectation of providing assistance whenever requested.
There are other pitfalls that may serve as potential obstacles to realizing the benefits of multiage groupings. The actual age span represented in the group must be thoughtfully determined. If too large, the benefits may be lost. In addition, teachers and caregivers should avoid creating single-age groupings within the multiage group or separating children into their respective traditional grade levels. The advantages of the multiage grouping for children’s development and learning are in large part the result of an engaging, multidimensional curriculum and meaningful interpersonal relationships and interactions.
Grouping for Instruction
Within the broader frameworks of traditional and multiage groupings is a set of options for other short-term instructional grouping practices. These options include whole class, large group, small group, pairs and triads, ability groups, and cooperative learning groups. The choice of a grouping pattern should be based on the individual needs of the children and the purpose of instruction. It is generally acknowledged that whole class and large group instruction are rarely developmentally appropriate for children in the early childhood years (birth to eight years). Small groups, pairs and triads are potentially more appropriate and effective especially when they are constructed purposefully around children’s interests, competencies, and needs, and when they are flexible as well as changeable.
Ability grouping is generally considered to be an inappropriate practice, as it runs the risk of fostering unnecessary competition in the learning environment. Ability grouping also tends to stigmatize children in terms of their (low especially) abilities and to create undesirable social barriers and attitudes. Further, ability grouping seems to be rooted in the assumption that development in all domains is simultaneous and even, and deprives all children of the rich learning opportunities inherent in diverse grouping, cooperative learning, and collaborative interactions. However, occasionally, several children have very similar instructional needs with respect to specific concepts or skills. In these cases, a short-term, ability grouping may be very appropriate as a means for meeting the individual but shared specific instructional needs of those children. In these instances, the grouping should be temporary, purposeful, and focused on a specific learning outcome.
Cooperative learning groups, whether formal or informal, provide the occasion for collaborative inquiry and effort. These types of groups can be very effective instructional strategies when they are organized around specific concepts to be learned or projects to be completed, and when attention is given to identifying the membership of each learning group. The cooperative learning group should not be an ability group, but rather a mixed group where all the children can make a contribution and benefit from the contributions of others. See also Development, Language; Development, Social.
Further Readings: Balaban, Nancy (1991). Mainstreamed, mixed-age groups of infants and toddlers at the Bank Street Family Center. Zero to Three (February), 13-29; Goodlad, John I., and Robert Anderson (1990). The nongraded elementary school. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press; Katz, Lilian G., Demetra Evangelou, and J. A. Hartman (1990). The case for mixed-age grouping in early childhood. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
Stephanie F. Leeds