I have two children: one is 7 years old and in first grade and the other is 10 years old and in fourth grade — but they are in the same class this year. They attend a small private school near our home where the children are grouped into multi-age classrooms where children of different grade levels learn side by side. There is a Primary program for children in Pre-K and Kindergarten, an Elementary program for children in grades 1 through 4, and a Middle School program for children in grades 5 through 8.
This is our first year at this school, and our first experience with multi-age classrooms. As a parent of (previously) struggling learners, I absolutely love this method of learning. My children went from performing below grade level, and in need of special accommodations in the public school, to performing at or above grade level within just a few months of the multi-age classroom environment. My children also look forward to going to school and come home happy and relaxed — which is the complete opposite of our public school experience.
Multi-age classrooms are most common in Montessori schools, although there is educational research that supports multi-age classrooms due to the academic and social benefits it provides.
Children in multi-age classrooms experience a variety of benefits that children limited to their own grade level may miss out on. Some of the benefits include:
Children are encouraged to support one another and learn from one another in multi-age classrooms more so than a traditional, single-grade classroom. Older children will often assist younger children with tasks that are difficult for them, which give the older children a sense of responsibility and importance. Younger children are often more eager to learn from an older child, and listen more intently to the child than to an adult.
Improved Social Development
The only time in our lives that we are separated based on our age is during our school years. When we move into our adult lives and into careers, we're grouped (more or less) according to our abilities and interests. In a multi-age classroom, children learn social skills that are based on a community, where people are not all the same and things are not always equal.
When children are interacting with other children of varying ages, they have been shown to develop a stronger sense of themselves and increased confidence. They develop the belief that they are capable of learning new things and are not afraid to try something new, even when it requires thinking outside the box.
Groupings Based on Ability
In a multi-age environment, the curriculum is taught to the group as a whole, but they all may be working at different levels based on their abilities and interest in the various subjects.
My children recently completed a unit on plant and animal cells for science. While my first grader is not expected to know how to spell the vocabulary words without help (mitochondria, vacuoles, etc.) he did learn what each of the cell parts are and could explain what they do just like my fourth grader. In a public school, children are rarely grouped according to ability anymore for fear of embarrassing anyone who is performing below average. When everyone is always working at their own level, there is never any shame — children just learn different subjects at different speeds.
Children Revisit and Expand on Topics at Various Levels
As children master concepts in a multi-age classroom, they are often able to advance to a more intense study of the material where a deeper level of understanding for the subject matter takes place. The typical single-grade classroom will only cover each topic at an overview level before moving on to the next topic in order to follow a predefined curriculum based on the child's age level.