Are multi-age classes a bad idea for our youngest children?

My wife discussed this new study past weekend with me and it’s quite fascinating. To be clear: the title of this post is something the researchers Ansari and Pianta published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly don’t actually state in their paper, but based on their research it is a question one could ask.

What is their research in brief:

  • This study examined heterogeneity in treatment effects of a coaching intervention.
  • We focus on the classroom age diversity as a potential moderator of treatment.
  • Coaching effects for children were greatest in classrooms with less age diversity.
  • The intervention had no benefits for children in classrooms with greater age diversity.
  • These differences were attributed largely to the role of classroom instructional quality.

So: coaching teachers to have better results worked, unless there was classroom age diversity? To be clear: this doesn’t say as such that multi-age groups in preschool are a bad idea as such. The study discusses a specific coaching intervention MyTeachingPartner and noticed that the effects of this intervention differed based on the differences in the age-composition of classes. And even if you look a bit closer there are is still one positive effect noticeable for the language (more specific the vocabulary) of four-year olds if they are in the same group as five-year olds, but this seems to be an exception to the rule that on average multi-age groups less good. The only way it can be compensated seems to be when the teachers are well-trained. I wrote compensated, not to have a positive effect. So, to conclude, read this excerpt from the conclusion:

Regardless of the underlying reasons for the lack of MTP impacts for children in age-diverse settings, these aforementioned findings are particularly important in light of emerging studies done in preschool programs that serve children of different ages, which have documented only small associations between classroom quality and children’s school success (e.g., Keys et al., 2013; McCoy et al., 2015; Weiland et al., 2013). That is, one potential explanation for the smaller than expected benefits of classroom quality in the existing literature is the age composition of classrooms, which requires continued empirical attention given the rising number of 3-year-olds attending preschool programs across the country. When taken together, what these results suggest is that PD interventions, including the MTP program, should put greater effort in recognizing the challenges that come with teaching in classrooms with greater age diversity. Considering that the majority of schoolteachers feel ill prepared to provide children with differentiated instruction (Manship, Farber, Smith, & Drummond, 2016), one potential target is helping teachers provide children with learning opportunities that match their needs, interests, and mode of learning. An important first step, however, is developing the tools necessary to measure these practices (for further discussion, see: Burchinal, 2017).

Abstract of the study:

Heterogeneity in treatment effects of MyTeachingPartner (MTP), a professional development coaching intervention focused on improving teacher–student interactions, was examined for 1407 4-year-old preschoolers who were enrolled in classrooms that served children between the ages of 3 and 5. On average, there were no consistent impacts of MTP coaching on children’s school performance, but there was evidence of moderation in treatment effects as a function of classroom age diversity, defined as the proportion of children who were not 4 years of age. MTP coaching improved children’s expressive vocabulary, literacy skills, and inhibitory control in classrooms that served primarily 4-year-olds and were less age diverse. These effects were in large part due to MTP causing improvements in teachers’ instructional support that in turn was more predictive of children’s skills in less age-diverse classrooms. Results also indicated that the nature of age diversity did not matter; a greater number of 3- or 5-year-old classmates equally reduced the benefits of the MTP intervention for 4-year-olds. The sole exception occurred for receptive vocabulary, in which case, MTP was most effective in classrooms with a larger number of older (but not younger) children. Taken together, these results suggest that under the right circumstances, the benefits of professional development that improve early childhood educators’ teaching practices can also translate into benefits for students.


One thought on “Are multi-age classes a bad idea for our youngest children?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.