A new study states: don’t mix 3-year olds and 4-year olds in school

The press release was published earlier this week, but I wanted to wait for the actual study to be published before writing this post. I admit, also because the impact of this study could be huge. The researchers examined the effect of putting 3 year olds and 4 year olds together in one mixed-aged group and the effect for the 4 year olds is pretty nasty. And it doesn’t take much of 3 year olds. Even if 20% of the children consists of younger children there is a clear negative effect on the learning of the older children. And no: it doesn’t have a positive effect on e.g. behavior of both age groups. I checked the actual study and the insights are pretty robust. The researchers acknowledge that there always could be other elements influencing this, but I have to admit they checked a lot.

I do think this could lead to much debate…

From the press release:

Most Head Start classrooms serve children of mixed ages and that hurts the academic growth of older children, a new national study suggests.

Researchers found that 4-year-olds in Head Start classrooms that included higher concentrations of 3-year-olds were up to five months behind in academic development compared with their peers in classrooms with fewer younger children.

That’s a problem because, as of 2009, about 75 percent of all Head Start classrooms were mixed-age. Head Start is a federal preschool program that promotes the school readiness of children in low-income families from age 3 to age 5.

“Four-year-olds are often enrolled in classrooms that are less supportive of their academic learning.”“While there has been some enthusiasm for mixed-age classrooms, our results suggest there may be a significant downside for older children,” saidKelly Purtell, co-author of the study and assistant professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University.

The results may also help explain why a 2010 national evaluation of the Head Start program found that it was only modestly effective in helping the academic achievement of 4-year-olds.

“Mixed-age classrooms may be one reason that older children don’t seem to benefit as much from Head Start as do younger children,” said Arya Ansari, lead author of the study and a graduate student in human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

Purtell and Ansari conducted the study with Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor at UT-Austin.

Their results appear online in the journal Psychological Science.

The researchers used data from the Family and Child Experiences Survey, which is a nationally representative sample of 3- and 4-year-old Head Start attendees across 486 classrooms nationwide.

This study included 2,829 children who were tested in fall 2009 and spring 2010 to determine how much they progressed during that time on assessments of language and literary skills, math skills, social skills and behavior.

Findings showed that a higher proportion of 3-year-olds in the classroom was linked to lower gains in math and in language and literacy skills among 4-year-olds.

It didn’t take many 3-year-olds in the classroom to hurt the academic growth of the older children. Even when 3-year-olds composed just 20 percent of a class, the older children lost nearly two months of academic achievement in the school year.

But when the younger children made up nearly half the class, the 4-year-olds lost roughly four to five months of academic development.

“Not only did we see limits in academic growth in 4-year-olds, but we also didn’t see any academic gains for 3-year-olds who were in these mixed-age classrooms,” Purtell said. “So there was no real benefit for the younger children.”

There was no effect on social or behavioral skills for either age group in mixed-age classes.

This study didn’t look at why mixed-age classrooms hurt older children’s academic gains. But other research suggests two possibilities. One is that interacting with younger peers does not provide as much gain for older children as interacting with peers at the same or higher skill levels in math and language.

Another is that teachers modify their classroom practices to accommodate a wider range of skill levels, which leads to older children hearing content they’ve already been exposed to and feeling disengaged.

It is likely that both factors play a role, Purtell said.

Ansari said that it may not be feasible for many Head Start programs to separate children by age.

“That means we need to figure out what teachers and programs can do to foster a more cognitively stimulating environment for the older children,” he said.

Abstract of the study:

The federal Head Start program, designed to improve the school readiness of children from low-income families, often serves 3- and 4-year-olds in the same classrooms. Given the developmental differences between 3- and 4-year-olds, it is unknown whether educating them together in the same classrooms benefits one group, both, or neither. Using data from the Family and Child Experiences Survey 2009 cohort, this study used a peer-effects framework to examine the associations between mixed-age classrooms and the school readiness of a nationally representative sample of newly enrolled 3-year-olds (n = 1,644) and 4-year-olds (n = 1,185) in the Head Start program. Results revealed that 4-year-olds displayed fewer gains in academic skills during the preschool year when they were enrolled in classrooms with more 3-year-olds; effect sizes corresponded to 4 to 5 months of academic development. In contrast, classroom age composition was not consistently associated with 3-year-olds’ school readiness.

One thought on “A new study states: don’t mix 3-year olds and 4-year olds in school

  1. Very interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about the academic lags I see in too many of my homeschoolers (mostly middle and high school age) and I wonder if the mixed age classes they partake in could be part of the problem? In the past, I’ve often been surprised by how successful mixed age classrooms can feel, but perhaps they look better than they are. Of course there are so many variables when comparing homeschooled and schooled students that isolating any one variable could turn into a fool’s errand.

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