A couple of years back The Atlantic published a powerful piece on how the modern preschool environment is crushing kids, forcing them to work more, but ultimately learn less. Society is so caught up on the technicalities and it wants to see from education and so obsessed with means testing for aptitude and ability that we are forgetting one of the key premises of education: to integrate children into society and teach them essential social and emotional skills. School isn’t just about learning the ABCs and 123s, it is about developing the whole child, holistically, and cognitively speaking. There is now converging research that demonstrates that children of a preschool age need to develop the ability to self-regulate their behaviour and emotions in order to succeed later on at school. Studies have shown that the early years are critical for optimal development, with preschool attendance around the world having shown positive short and long-term effects in classrooms right around the world. So much so, that an independent report released in Australia last year by education ministers argued the most impactful reform Australian education could see would be to enable greater access to quality education provided by early learning centre.
One strategy for addressing this is to have children participate in a kindergarten program before they are ‘of kindergarten age’ ie. kindergarten for four-year-olds. But for teachers used to working solely with five or six year olds, juggling a classroom of children of all three ages can be challenging. There is a rather noticeable difference between a four-year-old starting kindergarten and a five-year-old doing so, and teachers can often easily tell the difference in classroom abilities between their five-year-old students – who are able to focus for longer periods of time and have developed a greater sense of independence – and their four-year-old students, who still need a lot of support in basic tasks, including going to the toilet and tying up shoelaces.
At the most basic level, the main difference between the ages (and this is factoring in that all children reach developmental milestones and different times, of course) is that many children will not reliably perform a task when asked until closer to five years of age. It makes it difficult for K4 teachers who are teaching classrooms with multiple ages, therefore, to know what kinds of activities they can safely do in the classroom, and gives them huge uncertainty over whether tasks or activities will be practical, fun and effectual.
In short, teachers should feel confident about teaching the Kindergarten curriculum in this kind of scenario, but should always leave more open-ended opportunities for dramatic play and other more artistic pursuits. Most children at this age enjoy singing, rhyming, and making up words, so allow lots of room for song and music throughout the day. Creative play is key at this particular developmental stage, and children love activities that revolve around imaginary/creative play. Children learn through play, and all curriculum politics aside, this is really all that your four- to five-year-olds should be doing. At this age, children should be running, hopping, throwing and kicking, climbing, and swinging – with ease, too.
Reading, however, is an area where you will find that differentiation is key. One great way of addressing the gap in reading skills is splitting the classroom into groups, and having your teaching assistant plus students’ parents come in to help read to the different groups. Surprisingly, maths and science are less difficult in terms of dealing with differing abilities. That being said, differentiation will still help. Four-year-olds are typically drawn to numeral identification work, and five-year-olds are often drawn working with games and simple addition activities. Though four-year-olds mightn’t be ready to read for a few more years, they will likely start to recognise symbols such as letters and numbers, and this is what you want to encourage. What you want to avoid at all costs is having the younger kids so challenged that they give up because they find themselves frustrated, which is often what leads to behavioural problems.
What is interesting to note is that the entire Montessori education approach focuses around mixed age groups. Instead of grouping students in classes of roughly the same age, Montessori students work together in classrooms of ages 18 months – three years, three to six years, six to nine years, and nine to 12 years. Why? Reasons range from ‘preparation for the real world’ to empowering leadership to child directed progression, and more diverse learning opportunities. Who decided that grouping children together in 12 month blocks was best? There are brilliant advantages to mixed age classrooms, and Montessori is a demonstrable example of how and why it works.
It is important you are meeting the curriculum needs of all students in the class, so ensure you aren’t so concerned with the four-year-olds that you neglect the curriculum needs of the older children. Remember that actually, the older children can be used as role models, and to support the younger students, which also helps them to develop greater bonds with one another and gives the older students ownership of the classroom and greatly builds their confidence. Also, prepare to be surprised, sometimes you will find the youngest students to be as talented if not more so than the older ones, meaning you may find it difficult to challenge them alongside their peers.