Homeschool parents and teachers who work in unique settings often are faced with the challenge of teaching children of various ages in the same block of time. This challenge stretches the teacher to provide quality instruction, engage all students regardless of their age, and effectively assess the learning that has taken place. Here are a few tips for achieving these goals, while staying sane.
This is an important first step. Recognize that what you are doing is challenging, but that it will get easier with time. Give yourself the opportunity to learn from your experiences.
Having a plan of attack before you get started is key. For some teachers, this means implementing organizational systems, such as a workbox system. You may want to check out this great post from Confessions of a Homeschooler for details on how to create and implement the workbox system. Make sure to have a few “early finisher” activities that are appropriate for the various ages of your students. Be sure that each child knows the classroom (or homeschool) routine – where does the paper go when it is complete? How should the student get the teacher’s attention when they have a question? Where can the materials be found?
Do Activities Together, but Vary the Assigned Work and Extension Activities
All students will benefit from listening to a story, conducting a science experiment, watching an educational video, or viewing a demonstration. They will have fun together and learn about the same general topic. Older students will likely retain more information, although it will probably surprise you how much your younger students remember just from being exposed to advanced material. You can vary the assigned work and extension activities.
Here’s a brief example. If I am teaching a science lesson about the states of matter to a Kindergartner, 2nd grader, and 5th grader, we might watch a brief video that defines the terms “solids,” “liquids,” and “gases.” Then we might experiment with water by freezing it and boiling it to observe its changes. The Kindergartner would draw the water in each stage and through dictation or invented spelling, label each picture with a word (such as “ice,” “water,” and “steam.”). The 2nd grader would draw pictures as well, and label each picture with the terms “solid,” “liquid,” or “gas” and define these terms. He/she would then think of other common solids, liquids, and gases, and draw/label these as well. The fifth grader would further extend this activity by using vocabulary words to describe the basic changing states of matter (condensation, melting, freezing, evaporation), draw the molecular state of each state of matter, and use books or the Internet to research and define the term “plasma.”
Enlist the Help of Older Students to Mentor and Teach Younger Ones
Utilize older students to your advantage. To know that a child has truly mastered a topic, observe them in a teaching role. Occasionally buddy up your students as “big buddy/little buddy” to allow older students the chance to teach or assist the younger ones. For an older child to teach a younger one about place value, the older student must really understand place value himself. Younger students love learning from and imitating their older peers/siblings. This will free up you to work with individual students on their specific learning goals. Be sure not to overuse this strategy – your older students need to be given plenty of opportunities to work on their own grade-level material and to be challenged. Be sure the find the balance.
Maximize Independent Work Time
Students benefit from and need time to work independently. Don’t feel guilty about asking them to do so! Younger students have shorter attention spans and will need more frequent transitions and breaks, but they, too, can be taught independent activities. Make sure that students of all ages are taught several independent activities so that you know they are completing quality activities while you work with the other kids one-on-one or in small groups. This may be a nice time to integrate technology into your day, such as a listening center or math fact review game online. Once students can read and write independently, your options really open up.
Stagger Start Times and Schedules
If you homeschool, do not feel obligated to have all of your children working during the same school hours. Perhaps your younger children start at 8am when they are fresh, and receive 1 ½ solid hours of instruction before your older children begin their school day. Or maybe you have a child who still naps, leaving you some quality one-on-one time with your older student/s.
If you do not homeschool, you can still make schedule-adjustments to maximize your support. You may choose to have all of your students work on the same subject at once (with varying levels of teacher support), or you may have them working in different subject areas so that some students are working independently while you deliver direct instruction to other students.
There are some great advantages to teaching in a “one-room schoolhouse” style. It builds a sense of community and family between kids of different ages. It keeps things fresh and fun. It gives older students the chance to review topics in a safe setting, and it gives all students the opportunity to learn advanced skills. It encourages kids to help each other. It may be challenging to work with multiple ages at once, but it is also highly rewarding.