Five Ways to Balance Teaching Children of Different Ages

Juggling teaching children of different age levels can be difficult even for experienced educators, but these five tips can help you navigate the challenge more effectively.

At-Home Learning: PBS SoCal and KCET, in partnership with LAUSD and in collaboration with California PBS stations, are offering broadcast programming with digital resources that adhere to California’s state curriculum. Download this week’s schedule.

As families adapt to the ongoing demands of at-home learning, one of the consistent, persistent challenges is the balancing act of teaching children of different ages. To support a group of learners with differing abilities and attention spans, it can be helpful to find quiet activities for all to do so that parents can shift their focus and attention between children as needs arise. This juggling act can be difficult even for experienced educators, but these five tips can help you navigate the challenge more effectively.

A dad examines an experiment with two children. | PBS SoCal

Do What’s Doable

Start with setting realistic expectations for yourself and your family. “Don’t expect kids to do schoolwork for seven hours a day,” advises Mary Fister, a Chicago Public Schools librarian, elementary school teacher and mom. Instead, she recommends, “set realistic goals for each child based on their age, attention span and areas where they need the most help.”

For many of us, the gap between our goals for children and the reality of what we can accomplish with them is frustrating, overwhelming and defeating. Forget defeat and take the win another way: focus on what you can do. Accept that it may not be feasible to follow all remote learning plans or do all assigned activities on a daily basis. Instead, try focusing on a specific time window each day when you can devote attention to helping your child tackle a specific project or assignment, and then build up your family’s remote learning stamina from there. Surrender what cannot be achieved that day or in that moment or—honestly—at all. Trust that whatever you’re doing is enough.

Plan Ahead: Be Flexible and Manage Kids’ Expectations

Teaching our children on the fly, learning alongside our kids, being digitally distracted by our work and social connections while juggling other household and caregiving obligations can be overwhelming. Conquer that feeling by planning ahead. Whether you’re writing out a to-do list, updating a calendar, or color-coding a spreadsheet with various kids’ logins, create a modular activity plan for the day beforehand. Then, be ready to adapt that plan to the needs of the day.

“We have an hourly schedule, but I try to check in each morning and make adjustments I know we’ll need (oldest has a school meeting during active time, or it looks like it will rain in the afternoon),” shares David Geerdes, a stay-at-home dad of three kids from Pre-K to 5th grade in Chicago.

While his children know what is expected of them for each hour, Geerdes also offers them the flexibility to choose specific activities within each category.

“They still have agency and can switch things up, so long as it is still in that category,” he says. “This way, they can make adjustments on their own they know are approved, and I’m free to handle other home stuff while only getting involved when I’m really needed.”

Being flexible and patient with your kids is important! Just ask Wilmer Valderrama.

Let Kids Lead

Empower your kids to individually make choices about what they get to do, and how. You decide the why, when and where. To keep kids of different ages engaged independently in parent-approved activities, Fister suggests that parents specifically look for learning opportunities that align with their children’s interests.

To grapple with competing interests between individuals, borrow this concept from theatrical improvisation and embrace the “yes, and” technique. This principle invites children to accept each other’s ideas and preferences and expand upon them. For example, your older child loves dinosaurs and your younger child loves trains (by the way, there’s a PBS Kids show for that: “Dinosaur Train.”) Explore this opportunity to introduce your kids to the concept of the “mash-up.” Combining their interests to challenge them to create, make, build, or do something together can be a great way to inspire creative problem solving, while also building key social/emotional skills such as collaboration and empathy.

When you can approach learning subjects by topics of shared interest, sustain engagement by differentiating instruction between learners. “Start with a subject and then adjust your parameters based on kids’ ages,” recommends PBS SoCal Early Learning Content Specialist Suzie Hicks. Accommodate differences in knowledge, skillset and attention span by providing a diverse amount of stimulation for the activity on that topic. For example, if your kids are working on stories about mythical creatures, give non-writing students an opportunity to tell the story by drawing pictures or acting it out with toys. When the youngest is done, encourage independent play while you check back with the older student on their writing. Extend the older children’s independent work by asking them for illustrations, or to prepare a more formal presentation to share and celebrate their completed piece. This could give you a chance to play with the younger child, or take a work break. 

Encourage Peer Teaching

Exploring subject and topic-based learning with different activities for different age levels is also a great opportunity for older children to teach younger children. Fister encourages parents to set up a “classroom” space in the home where this can take place. “It will be educational for both of them,” she adds. Older students can work on preparing learning activities such as worksheets and games to practice counting and math, the alphabet and phonics. Or have the older students design a simple science experiment, engineering or art project, while younger students play. When “school starts,” “teacher” and “student” can engage each other.

While older children might naturally teach younger children, it’s important to find ways to celebrate the unique skills and abilities of younger students, as well. Encouraging enthusiasm and sharing is one way to approach this, according to Hicks.

“Rather than establishing roles, create an aura of enthusiasm for learning in general,” she says.

Working together is important for parents with children of different ages, like this mom with two kids. | PBS SoCal

Modify The Same Activities For Different Ages

If doing different things with different children is too difficult, modify the same activities for different ages to keep everyone engaged in the learning process. This is another way to empower older children to mentor younger children.

As a K-7 STEM teacher, Greg Baker from Kenosha, Wisconsin, often adapts the same activity for different grade levels.

“One of my favorite engineering activities that can be used with any age group is structure-building with everyday items (index cards, plastic cups, etc.).”

Tasked with building the tallest structure possible, the primary grades focus on balance and a solid base, while the older kids discuss weight distribution, force and the engineering design process.

“All of the students are still building structures, but while primary thinks about the ‘what’ and ‘how’ behind their build, older students are starting to explore the ‘why,’” Baker says. “As with all good STEM activities, we always end with a reflection on how they can improve their design for next time.”

PBS SoCal Early Learning Coordinator Sandra Cruz encourages families at home to find everyday occurrences and materials to explore concepts such as scientific inquiry and the engineering design process.  PBS At-Home Learning resources are designed specifically to guide students of all ages to organically continue thinking about these next steps.

“The scientific inquiry process and engineering design process is not age-specific,” Cruz says. “If we can light that spark that helps kids explore and investigate their everyday world, that may just light a fire.”