September 13, 2013

Group Dynamics

Now that the school year is underway, your child is most likely settling back into the routine of his classes. Whether he is in elementary school and works primarily with one teacher throughout the day or is in middle school and moves from class to class, there is a fairly high likelihood that he is being grouped with other members of his class for certain academic subjects. Grouping students accomplishes many positive things: it allows students to work more closely with each other and with the teacher who is leading the group; it gives a great opportunity for differentiated education while still allowing the same material to be covered; and, often, it puts a student with other students who are of similar ability in a given academic area.

If you consider a group as a subset of the larger class of students, imagine how much easier it is for an individual student to share ideas and have in-depth discussions when he has fewer students with whom he has to interact. This is, not surprisingly, particularly true of shyer students and those with less confidence; they are much more likely to share in a smaller group than in a larger one. For students with attention issues, a smaller group can provide fewer distractions and also allows the teacher to give that student the individual attention and accommodations he may need. A smaller group can also allow the teacher more time to conference with each student (say, during the revising and editing phase of writing a report or research paper) and check in more frequently with students who need a bit more reassurance.

Small group

Another related advantage of smaller group instruction is that it allows for differentiated instruction more easily than does a full class of students. Carol Ann Tomlinson defines differentiated instruction as, “…the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom.” She goes on to describe the four areas where differentiation can occur in the classroom- content, process, products, and environment; individualization or differentiation can be more easily accomplished in all of these areas when a teacher has fewer students’ needs to address at any given time.

Finally, grouping may be done according to ability in a given subject. Whether through previous performance in class or on tests, an initial assessment, or through a combination of factors that inform the teachers’ decision, a student may be placed in a leveled group (this most often occurs in Reading, Language Arts and Math in elementary and middle school – though in some high schools classes are leveled in all subjects). It can sometimes be upsetting to a student or his parents to have him placed in the “low” group or in a group lower than his perceived ability. Since it is still early in the year, it is best to have your child stay in the group in which he is currently placed and schedule a conference with the teacher to discuss his placement. At this conference, the teacher should be able to provide concrete evidence to support your child’s group placement and will also be able to give you an idea of the benefits of your child being in said group (working with students at his own level, more one-on-one attention, material more geared towards his interests and abilities, etc). If you still feel misplacement has occurred, find out if there is the opportunity to move to another group if your child demonstrates a stronger ability than he has previously or performs better in the near future. But keep in mind that there will be advantages to the extra attention and assistance he will receive in his initial placement, and if you express positivity about the group your child is in he is more likely to stop feeling badly about it.

In an ideal world, teachers would always be able to work with small groups of students to give them the specialized attention and instruction they each need. Since the reality is that most teachers don’t get this utopian classroom, dividing a larger class into smaller groups provides a viable and positive alternative. Whether grouped by ability or for other reasons, a smaller group gives students the opportunity to interact more constructively and gives teachers the chance to give students more assistance and attention beyond what they can do with the whole, larger class.