Early Childhood Education

Mixed-Age Grouping in Early Childhood Education


Mixed-age grouping in early childhood education is defined as “placing children who are at least a year apart in age into the same classroom groups in order to optimize what can be learned when children of different as well as same ages and abilities have frequent opportunities to interact” (Katz, Evangelou, and Hartman, 1990, p. 1). Mixed-age grouping is also known as heterogeneous, vertical, ungraded, nongraded, family grouping, and cross-age tutoring. In the current literature, the terms multiage grouping and multiage classroom appear more often than others.

Educating children in mixed-age groups has a long and uneven history in the United States. According to Stone (1996), the practice emerged out of necessity, in the one-room schoolhouse of the nineteenth century. It has been reconsidered periodically for various reasons such as during times of rapid expansion of public education enrollments and small school consolidation in the 1940s and 1950s. Briefly reintroduced during the reemergence of interest in progressive education in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, interest subsided again when the “back-to- basics” movement provoked concern with school achievement and standardized testing. Today, mixed-age grouping is accepted in many sectors of the educational community as a viable alternative way of grouping children for learning.

The actual extent to which mixed-age grouping is practiced is difficult to ascertain but, as evident in the number of publications, meetings, and internet-based information available, it appears that interest in it remains fairly strong worldwide (Ball, 2002). It should also be noted that approaches to early childhood education that emphasize the concept of community, such as Maria Montessori, Steiner (Waldorf Education) as well as the Project Approach, recommend mixed-age grouping of children in the classroom.

Discussion of the potential risks and benefits of mixed-age grouping often proceeds from one of three perspectives: as (1) an innovative practice, (2) an alternative to standard practice, or (3) a reflection of the preference of those involved. Although the selection of alternative educational practices is possible in some settings, in many developed countries as well as in rural or developing communities, mixed-age grouping is in fact the only option available (UNESCO, 1988). Most of what is known about the practice of mixed-age grouping comes from studies conducted in contexts of preference rather than necessity. It is conceivable that the experiences of students and teachers in mixed-age groups within a context of necessity are different from those of their counterparts in contexts where the practice has been chosen out of preference. Understanding of the characteristics of both contexts, preferential as well as obligatory, is needed to arrive at a complete understanding of the phenomenon.


Sociological Factors

Certain characteristics of contemporary society provide the background for recommending mixed-age grouping in early childhood education. First, the demographic trend of fewer children per family leads to early childhood experiences deprived of frequent opportunity for mixed-age interaction within the family. Second, children spend increasingly longer periods of time in the company of peers starting at an increasingly younger age. Most classes are composed of same- age peers as it is common practice that early childhood settings place children in groups according to strict chronological criteria. Furthermore, most state licensing regulations governing preschool and child-care institutions are specified according to the ages of those being served. In this sense, children have increasingly large proportions of experiences with same age peers for extended periods of time. Employing mixed-age grouping in early childhood education can provide opportunities for young children to come into contact and interact in a context that is characterized by diversity of knowledge, ability, and experience, much like a natural setting for human development.

Discussion about the philosophical and practical nature of mixed-age grouping, including benefits and risks, usually takes two different perspectives: application and research. Teachers and other educational practitioners with firsthand experiences with mixed-age classes tend to be enthusiastic about its benefits. One of the rationales often cited by supporters of mixed-age practices is that putting children together in mixed-age groups emulates real life, creates conditions resembling natural environments and leads to learning more and feeling better about classroom experience. Numerous anecdotal references, school-based reports, classroom evidence, and internet sites attest to the high regard for mixed-age grouping by those who practice it.

Those who recommend the adoption of mixed-age grouping in early childhood education today base their position on principles of individual development, the interactive nature of learning structures, principles of teaching young children as well as assessment, retention and promotion practices. Two international organizations are devoted to the promotion of mixed-age grouping; the Multi-Age Association of Queensland in Australia (see Volume 4) and the Jenaplan Schools Association that, while based in the Netherlands, represents mixed-age schools in various other countries. In North America state initiatives such as those implemented in Kentucky, Oregon, and British Columbia promote the idea of universal mixed-age and nongraded schooling for young children.


Individual Development

Age segregated or age-graded approaches to grouping children in preschool and primary school settings are justified on the normative assumption that all children of a given age are more like each other than they are like younger or older children at least in terms of development and capability. However, this normative assumption ignores what we know about how children actually develop and learn. In an era of increased attention to individual needs and aptitudes, it is questionable to subject children to schooling experiences that are narrowly defined, focused on whole group instruction, and indifferent to the wide range of individual differences typical of a group of young children.


Learning Structures and Mixed-Age Tutoring

Individual characteristics, variations in development, and experience comprise the rich context within which interacting and learning from peers contributes to human development. The zone of proximal development as formulated by Lev Vygotsky along with the experimental work conducted in this area in the last twenty-five years supports the idea that mixed-age grouping provides an appropriate social context for cross-age tutoring. The teacher’s role in fostering a climate in which both tutor and tutee benefit from the interaction is crucial to the success of the practice.

Additional support for mixed-age tutoring comes from understanding the role of modeling processes on teaching and learning in group settings. Having opportunities to observe and interact with more capable peers who can exhibit more mature, higher levels of organization in their behavior is a potential benefit for younger children (Gaustard, 1994). For the tutor the benefits can be seen in the effort to organize and represent material already mastered to an even more integrated conceptual level as the need will arise, and from having to develop critical and higher order thinking skills. For the tutee, the opportunity to observe, model, and interact with more capable peers enhances learning by optimizing the breadth, or the cognitive distance between interacting peers, of the zone of proximal development.


Principles of Teaching Young Children

All aspects of development during the first seven or eight years of life are characterized by a wide range of individual differences. By providing children with the opportunity to interact with peers who vary widely in their competences and abilities, early childhood classrooms can become more responsive to individual differences than classrooms organized along strict chronological criteria. The heterogeneity of a mixed-age class also is likely to reduce the teachers’ temptation to conduct whole-group instruction and to have all the children in the class at the same levels of achievement. Children in mixed-age classrooms can also benefit from the continuity of their relationship with caring adults that enhances the quality of their experience.


Assessment, Retention and Promotion

Retention, promotion, and assessment of progress take on different meanings in the context of mixed-age groups from the standard same-age context. The expanded notion of what individual development means, given the wide range of competences found in young children, reduces the pressure to make school- placement decisions along single grade narrow achievement criteria. According to McClellan, mixed-age grouping could be considered a “lifeline to children at risk” in that it can promote strong social competence development and improved self-concept, both important prerequisites for adapting to the demands of school.

Other scholars, however, caution against the assumption that mixed-age grouping works as an inherently effective practice and that the definition and purpose of it largely determines the degree of benefits it yields for students (Kinsey, 2001). Simply mixing the ages in grouping young children does not guarantee the potential benefits. Instead, developmentally appropriate practices, cooperative learning structures and integrated approaches to curriculum must all be employed as tools that work well with mixed-age grouping (Katz, 1995). The teacher has a major role in setting the stage for the benefits to occur and the potential risks to be minimized.

As a practice focused on continuity, community, and interaction, mixed-age grouping seems highly appropriate as a context for fostering life-long disposition to learn and democratic education. In mixed-age groups, the emphasis is placed on community as much as individual development.


Research Studies

Research evidence about the value of mixed-age grouping in early childhood education focuses on two types of questions. What are the effects of this practice on students? Which pedagogical factors account for positive effects of mixed- age grouping? These pedagogical factors might include organizational factors and teacher preparation.

Recent reviews of research on the effects of mixed-age grouping on student performance have examined studies drawn from different age and grade levels and including matched comparisons of multigrade vs. single grade classrooms as well as random assignment studies. Evidence of cognitive and noncognitive effects were analyzed and overall findings suggest that, at least in the cognitive development domain, students from mixed-age classrooms do not differ significantly from students in the single-age classrooms. In the area of noncognitive development, differences were found between the two groups that were not considered significant and did not necessarily contribute to achievement. It is difficult, however, to generalize these conclusions to younger children given the considerable methodological differences among the studies reviewed (Veenman, 1995, 1996). At the least, there is no evidence to suggest that student learning in mixed-age groups suffers as a result.

In another review of the same literature, Mason and Burns (1996) interpret research evidence in a way that does not favor mixed-age classrooms. Even though they agree with Veenman’s conclusion that the noncognitive effects were larger than the cognitive effects, they argue that overall a negative albeit small effect was found for the mixed-age grouping. In particular, the overall quality of teaching was found to be lower than in the single-grade classrooms. Mason and Burns point out that some of the ill effects of poor instruction resulting from decisions to create mixed-age classrooms for administrative purposes were offset by the selection of strong students to be in these classrooms. Evidence from longitudinal studies (Pavan, 1992) further suggests that for some children the experience of mixed-age interaction must be long-term before any effects can be observed.

Combined, such studies suggest that the effectiveness of mixed-age classrooms depends on a number of characteristics such as instructional grouping structures, classroom management, and peer tutoring (Guiterrez and Slavin, 1992). Time, funding, as well as administrative support seem to be crucial for the success of mixed-age classrooms. Because teaching in a mixed-age group setting requires “unlearning powerfully held notions about how children learn” (Miller, 1994), the teacher is embarking on a task that has the potential to initiate significant change within the individual and within the school. Such efforts require the support that administrators and principals can provide in order for teachers to successfully experiment with the myriad of changes that likely follow in other areas. The association between mixed-age grouping and an openness to change and inquiry is when an organizational plan becomes a philosophical decision.


Future Directions

Mixed-age grouping in early childhood education is an example of a potentially good practice in need of extensive detailed research. This is an instance in which informal evidence of the value of mixed-age groups gathered from practitioners tends to be positive and they practice this form of grouping with enthusiasm. In contrast, research studies that can analytically and systematically document the processes involved are difficult to carry out. Part of the difficulty is due to the fact that performing randomized experiments, which could provide cause and effect indications, would be unethical as well as impractical. In addition, it seems that teachers of mixed-age classrooms are implementing a variety of other teaching and interacting practices that can compound the effects of the group’s age composition. In other words, many different variables appear to be at work in the mixed-age grouping phenomenon.

Most of what is known today comes from work carried out in classroom settings of children in beginning elementary years. A research focus for the future might focus on the effects of mixed-age grouping practices on younger children and their experiences in child care and “educare” settings. Given the persisting demographic trends, children could potentially benefit from spending some of their group care time in mixed-age groups. Although this is common practice in early childhood services in other cultures, for example, Italy (Gandini and Edwards, 2001), to date there are no known studies documenting the benefits or risks of such practice.

Our interpretation of the information available this far is that one should not employ a reductionist perspective of “unpacking” the process-product elements of this practice. Instead, it would most likely be helpful if the focus of research efforts is on understanding the mesosystem of classroom ecology. Research on mixed-age grouping should focus on the complexity and richness of the interactions of children of different and same ages fostered in an educational environment that values relationships in a community of learners.

Further Readings: Ball, T. (2002). The nongraded continuum. Free to learn. The Journal of the Multi-age Association of Queensland; Both, K. (2003). Jenaplanschools in the Netherlands and their international relationships: An overview. October 2002. Wingspan 14 (November), 16-27; Gandini, L., and C. Edwards, eds. (2001). Bambini: The Italian approach to infant/toddler care. New York: Teachers College Press; Gaustard, J. (1994). Nongraded education: Overcoming obstacles to implementing the multigrade classroom. OSSC Bulletin 38(3/4); Katz, L., G. (1995). The benefits of mixed-age grouping. Urbana, IL: ERIC Digest; Katz, L. G., D. Evangelou, and J. A. Hartman (1990). The case for mixed-age grouping in early education. Washington, DC. NAEYC; Kinsey, S. (2001). Multiage grouping and academic achievement. Urbana, IL: ERIC Digest; McClellan, D. (1994). Multiage grouping: Implications for education. In P. Chase and J. Doan, eds., Full circle: A new look at multiage education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinenman, pp. 147-166; Pavan, B. N. (1992). The benefits of nongraded schools. Educational Leadership 50(2), 22-25; Stone, S. J. (1996). Creating the multiage classroom. Tucson, AZ: Good Year Books; Veenman, S. (1995). Cognitive and noncognitive effects of multigrade and multiage Classes: A best evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65(4), 319-381; Veenman, S. (1996). Effects of multigrade and multiage classes reconsidered. Review of Educational Research 66(3), 323-340.

Demetra Evangelou and Lilian G. Katz