Wondering what a split-grade means for your child? We've got the answers
Originally published on TodaysParent.com August 31, 2005
But children in split-grade classes (also called combined or blended classrooms) do learn. And due to limited budgets and fluctuating enrolments, you’ll find these classrooms across the country. Research shows that compared to children in straight-grade classes, children in split-grades make the same gains academically — and do even better socially. Yet, some of us still regard them with the same enthusiasm as we do head lice.
So, we took your biggest concerns to educators and experienced parents and put together this primer.
Why did my child get placed in a split-grade class? Reassure your child that it wasn’t a scheme to match the brightest lower-grade kids with the dimmest in the upper grade. Instead, most educators look for independent workers and a mix of abilities. Toronto teacher Gord Baker clued us in on placement meetings. “At our school, all the teachers rank students overall in terms of their language, math and independence. We try to balance each class with an even number of low-, medium- and high-achieving kids.” Administrators may also match children with the same teacher for two years to minimize the usual get-to-know-you period in September.
How can a teacher deliver two curricula at once? In a math class, for instance, she may teach a new lesson or do homework corrections with one grade, while the other grade works independently on another project. Then she’ll switch.
For science, she may teach the whole class a grade-four unit on light, then do a grade-three unit on magnets for the first half of the class, followed by different assignments for each grade. With this approach, a child in a split-grade in Ontario, for instance, may cover three of the five science units at his grade level (plus three from the other grade) while the straight-grade student likely gets all five.
A child in a combined class gets just as much practice with what counts in elementary school: learning skills. “I focus on teaching skills — how to do research for a project, how to conduct an experiment — more than content,” says Rob Harris, a Toronto teacher with experience in combined classrooms. “Most kids don’t remember the specifics about light anyway.”
Sometimes, administrators deliberately blend classes even when numbers would justify single-grade classrooms — that’s how strongly they believe in the benefits. In those situations, your child’s class may function like a straight-grade. Say your son’s school has two blended five/six classes and the instructors team-teach. While one teacher delivers language to the fifth graders in one classroom, the other might cover science with the grade sixes across the hall. The teachers switch in the afternoon. The five/six class may then come together for periods like music or phys. ed.
How will a combined classroom affect my child’s academic progress? The same way a straight-grade classroom should — by helping her learn the skills she needs to progress. If your child is in the lower grade, she might relish the challenge of doing assignments with older peers, as did Raena Shuster, a grade-seven student in Fort St. John, BC. “I liked it because you got to do the other grade’s stuff if you finished your work early,” she says. If any student in these classes needs remedial work, teachers should be just as open to one-on-one time.
It’s true that upper-grade children will hear some material they learned the year before, which is no problem for parents like Rosemary Fex of Oxdrift, Ont. She was in blended classes as a child and her four kids have followed in her footsteps. “I think it’s great that our children get to hear things twice,” she says. “They learn best through repetition.” If you have real concerns about your child’s progress, speak to the teacher (see Top Five Ways to Make a Split-Grade Work for Your Child).
What about the age gap? “Even a straight grade-four class in my school would include children working at a late kindergarten level to those working at a grade-seven level,” says Jim Ansell, principal at Wood Elementary School in Port Alberni, BC. Children of the same age can vary widely in their reading, language and social skills — grouping them at different ages and stages, some believe, gives them an advantage.
“Where else in life do we work only with people who are the exact same age?” asks Sheryl Parker, who teaches that senior kindergarten to grade-three class in Belleville, Ont. Her in-class rule? “Ask three, then ask me.” The older students really get to know their stuff through explaining it, younger classmates get peer role models, and everyone learns the importance of helping people. Jake Brak loves it, according to his mom, Gina: “He’s an only child so it gives him the opportunity to fill the ‘big brother’ role with the younger children.”
Worried about bullying? You’ll probably be comforted to know teachers overwhelmingly reported it was less of a concern in a blended classroom — kids of different ages seem to be less competitive with each other.
Do split-grades mean smaller classes and more-experienced teachers? Educators try to keep classes small, but as with straight-grade classes, if kids arrive after September, the split class may swell.
As for teachers, at some schools those with the most seniority get dibs on classes, and they tend to choose single grades. So although some combined classrooms have less-experienced teachers, all teachers train in how to manage them.
Some educators see split-grade classes as more work. And they are, in terms of knowing two (or more) sets of curricula, skills assessments and how to creatively deliver what children in each grade need to learn. The difference for your child will be his teacher’s attitude and dedication — the same with any class in which your child is placed.
Multi-age vs. Split-Grade Classrooms
A growing trend in public schools is the multi-age classroom, which some educators consider the ultimate learning environment because children learn at their own pace. Students aren’t separated by grades like in split-grade classrooms. Instead, they are integrated and taught according to their skill levels, and generally have the same teacher for at least two years. The focus is on continuous progress — moving from simple to complex work — which isn’t dictated by the school year.
Top Five Ways to Make a Split-Grade Work for Your Child
Often, it’s parents who are more troubled by blended classes than the children. These tips will help you (and your child) survive the school year.
1. Try to stay positive and open about the placement. If you’re not keen about the school’s decision, ask yourself why and meet with the teacher or principal so any concerns don’t fester. “Combined grades can be very positive if parents and teachers make it that way,” says Rosemary Fex of Oxdrift, Ont., whose four children have been in these types of classes. “Anything can be negative if we look for it to be.”
2. Help your child be independent. Children in split-grade classes are required to work independently more often, so encouraging self-reliance at home goes a long way. Teach your child to clear the table without being asked. Or give him a checklist of tasks for getting ready in the morning on his own — even if it’s easier and quicker for you to take over.
3. Don’t obsess about the curriculum. “Skills — like reading critically, writing expressively, spelling and counting — are more important than memorizing facts or covering every topic prescribed by the ministry,” says Marion Leier, a 34-year teaching veteran in Port Williams, NS. Don’t fret if the teacher skips a unit.
4. Get involved. Maybe you can volunteer that extra pair of hands your child’s class needs — it’ll help you see how he’s coping. Also, track his progress by following his assignments closely at home (a good strategy whether he’s in a blended or single-grade class). Or you can offer extra resources, such as books, if you think your kid is missing out.
5. Watch for trouble. A small child might feel overwhelmed by taller kids, or an older one could be teased for consorting with pint-sized classmates. When Sandrea Leroux’s grade-two daughter was teased by a grade-three student in the same class, the Crysler, Ont., mother wrote a note to the teacher, who addressed the problem right away. Sudden tummy aches or headaches are also warning signals. Ask your child if she’s concerned about anything at school. Let the school know so you can keep tabs on your child together.