This past week there was a lively discussion on the list serve about managing a mixed-age group. Anyone who has found themselves in a room of children with a wide age range has experienced the difficulty of keeping everyone engaged. I’ve compiled eight suggestions below from members on how to do just that.
1. Throw out the spaces in between.
The easiest time to lose control of a group of children is when you are transitioning from one activity to the next, as member Eve Kodiak said, ” it is the spaces between the events that are the trickiest places in any class. So don’t have any.” Member Liz Hannan elaborated “I think of it all as a magic show.” If you plan your program as one big song and dance, there is never any time for kids to get distracted while you turn around to set something up. It takes a little planning ahead of time, but the gentle, engrossing flow that you will create is more than worth it!
2. Keep it short and sweet.
Member Wayne Potash likes to break his classes into short segments of ten minutes each. At the end of the ten minutes, the children earn either a happy or a sad face and at the end of class more happy faces means a reward. He’s found that the shorter activities help the kids focus and the rewards keeps them looking forward to the next opportunity to earn a reward.
3. Teach pieces with layers
Member Nancy Schimmel suggested using a piece with multiple parts. “Teach the younger kids a simple ostinato on recorder or whatever, and the older kids more difficult parts.” She recommends Pete Seegers’ Foolish Frog as a perfect example.
4. Give those big kids a job!
Nancy and member Tim Seston both suggested assigning leadership roles to the older kids in your group. Assistant teachers can be of great use when teaching separate parts. Tim even took it a step further, suggesting “splitting the class into two groups with [the older] students taking a lead role. Then have each group design a concert programs of their favorite songs.” Give them guidelines, such as number or type of songs, or assign some. Member Joanie Calem recommends books by the Amidons for some songs and activities that the older kids would pick up relatively quickly, and then be able to turn round and teach to the younger ones.
5. Over Plan!
Member Amy Conley shared a few tips about getting through this particularly hard winter with cooped-up kiddoes, “catching them by surprise is always good” and paying attention to what really interests them is important. Have a few physical activities planned, like games and treasure hunts, and don’t be surprised if, like Amy, you do about half of what you have planned, stretching out the stuff that really works.
6. Help them help themselves.
As member Patricia Shih reminded us, sometimes a problem of focus can be solved by simply separating kids who can’t stop talking. I’ll often suggest before a group activity that if anyone is standing near someone who makes it difficult to focus, that they can move now, and spare themselves and their friends from getting in trouble. I’m often surprised and pleased with how many kids are willing, when given the opportunity, to help themselves make better choices.
7. A little self-direction goes a long way.
Members Joanie Calem and Patricia Shih both suggested independent projects for older and possibly antsier, students. A few ideas might be making up choreography to a song, writing their own song, or even making their own music video. “Research projects” on favorite stars has proved a popular treat for Joanie’s students. So much so that it’s become a reward for the end of the year!
8. Praise the good!
The American Youth Soccer Organization’s coaching policy is based on the idea of positive reinforcement. Praising children for their good decisions or focussed moments, no matter how minor, can have a major effect. Member Kim Wallach uses a similar technique in her classroom. She said, “try praising the behavior you want to see wherever you see it, as soon as you see it, by name.”
These are all tried-and true methods, and should you ever find yourself with a group of kids with a wide range of ages, you’ll be glad for them!