Siblings: The Mixed-Age Classroom

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We have observed over the years the delicate balance between siblings placed in the same classroom here at Villa di Maria; more often than not, a younger sibling trails behind her older sister, or an older brother encourages his younger sibling during a moment of frustration. At other times, siblings may completely ignore each other, choosing instead completely different groups of friends and only regrouping when they enter the same car at the end of the day! Here, we discuss the benefits of the mixed-age classroom and how it relates to siblings in particular.

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The benefits of the mixed-age classroom are many: mainly the ability to observe, learn from, and be inspired by older children. But the younger children are not the only ones who benefit from this set-up; older children receive a boost of confidence in being leaders. In short, children learn to help and be helped by other children.

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Oftentimes, younger siblings are inspired by the work of their older siblings.  Above, a younger brother observes his sister working on metal insets and design work, and not only chooses the same work, but also chooses to work in close proximity to his sibling.

All of our Guides have had the pleasure of experiencing siblings within the same classroom (sometimes multiple pairs at once!), and there is consensus among them that the overall experience is a positive one, and quite touching at times. Reghan McAuley, Children’s House Guide in P1 at Villa di Maria, says “In my experience, children work well within the same environment as the adults are prepared to nurture all relationships. The Children’s House can serve as a brilliant extension of the home environment.”

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There is a community aspect to every Montessori classroom that is built on mutual respect. Having children of differing ages within the same community reduces competition, increases empathy and willingness to help, and produces, quite often, a feeling of family within the classroom. Older children feel a sense of pride and accomplishment (in addition to reinforcing previously learned concepts, leading to further mastery) each time they help a younger child. In addition to the mixed ages, the fact that somewhere around two thirds of a class returns each year reinforces the feeling of community and stability.

The feeling of community is so strong that oftentimes the younger siblings are chomping at the bit to join their older siblings! Children’s House Guide Jessie Braud of P2 shares this sweet anecdote:

“When I was doing morning drop-off last fall, I had opened the car door for two girls to come out, greeted them, and then paused to converse with the parent briefly as the girls were collecting their lunches and getting out of the car. Their father said goodbye to the girls and started to drive away when we both realized at the same time that the third and youngest sister (2 years old at the time) had gotten herself out of her car seat and was walking into the classroom!”

This dynamic is just as powerful as the children grow older. Upper Elementary Guide Rebecca Callander explains:

“I love having siblings in succession in the room, sometimes in the same classroom and sometimes apart. The eldest child paves the way and the younger often looks forward to a lesson that their sibling had. ‘I can’t wait to go to MMUN’ is a common one.  It makes the whole process less daunting when they watch their older brother or sister partake.

“Also, the younger children often stand on the shoulders of giants, so to speak, and assimilate information more quickly and sometimes entirely knowing the material before the lesson is even given. The depth of knowledge is extensive in younger siblings.”
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Children’s House Guide Heather Steinman in P3 adds:
“My own children were in the same classroom and I always remember that as having been such a positive experience! Watching older siblings care for and guide their younger siblings is just so wonderful and, among other things, I think it inspires other children to care for each other in the same manner. Also,  as the younger siblings get comfortable and find their own places in the environment it is exciting for all to witness their success and growing independence!”
Heather is not the only Guide at Villa di Maria who has witnessed on a more personal level the broad reach of benefits siblings take away from sharing a Montessori classroom. Of her own children, she shares:
“As a parent, I feel my girls have a respect for each other’s individuality that only comes from their experience of sharing classrooms over the years. This extends into our home life on a daily basis. They have an amazing ability to politely negotiate boundaries, and on the contrary, know how to include the other at appropriate times. Like all children in Montessori, in the end they truly recognized the gifts and skills the other may posses with full appreciation, rather than feeling envious or spiteful. They continue to spend a significant amount of time listening and learning and caring for each other. My favorite part is how they never fail to genuinely say good bye face to face, topped off with a hug as they now set off on their individual paths at separate schools.”

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For siblings who are not in the same class, recess is often a time for them to reunite! Above, a sister and brother and their friend work together to move a large branch for their fort-building.

Of course, some siblings inhabit the same space in very different ways. Lower Elementary Guide Anna Schwind explains:

“I’ve often been surprised by how infrequently some siblings interact in the classroom and at recess when they are given other choices of people to be with. The environment goes a long way toward setting up successful ways for them to act and be independent from one another.

“I’ve also witnessed many touching and protective actions of siblings toward one another, and not always in the direction you would expect (sometimes the younger is protecting the older!).”

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A younger brother watches as his sibling receives a lesson

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While sometimes the natural draw to one’s older sibling is beneficial, at other times it can prove distracting. At times, an older sibling may feel responsible for his younger sibling and focus on his wellbeing rather than focusing on his own work. At other times, the younger sibling may be distracted from his work to see what his older sibling is doing (see above). Rest assured; neither situation is particularly significant, and often the Guide can easily shift either sibling’s attention back to his original work within moments of the distraction. The above scenario lasted only a few seconds; the Guide gently redirected the little brother, who continued his own individual work right next to his brother. It is also worth noting that this is a natural part of the mixed-age classroom and has less to do with siblings sharing the same space than it does with having varying ages within the classroom; the littles will always be paying attention to what the “big kids” are doing, and will in turn be inspired to do that work once their time comes.

If distracted and disruptive behavior is part of a broader pattern, the Guide can implement a plan with the parents and the classroom Aide, as well as being conscious of the dynamic between the siblings, working with them to promote more functional behavior for all involved.

Sometimes Guides (alongside parents) decide to separate siblings. This may be a simple request from the parents before the beginning of the school year based on what the parents have observed at home (I spoke to one parent who assured me that his children needed a break from each other during the school day – and there’s nothing wrong with that!), or it may simply be based on the parents wishing for the siblings to establish their own space and boundaries (which is often seen with twins, but not always). There are also circumstances under which a complicated home dynamic may prove to carry over into the classroom environment and become difficult to manage. In this case, the Guide and parents may choose to separate the siblings. However, this is not a common occurrence.

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Overall, the Montessori environment provides wonderful opportunities for siblings to work and learn alongside one another. We are so grateful to be the observers of this sweet and special dynamic!