Success or Survival in the Multigrade Classroom

Part 2 — Laying the Foundation

by Sandra Wright Smith1

This is article two in a four-part series on teaching in a multigrade classroom. Article one is Success or Survival in the Multigrade Classroom: 1 — Crossing the Cultures.

Underlying beliefs, values, and thought processes determine the outward behavior, communication, and traditions (patterns) of any culture. To understand a culture, one must come to understand and assimilate the foundational values and principles upon which the cultural thinking is based. Therefore, as we begin to understand the culture of the multigrade within its own paradigm, it is vital to look first at the foundational principles upon which it is successfully built.

To illustrate the components of multigrade instruction more clearly, I would like to describe a house in which I once lived. It had a simple ranch-style exterior with an offset roof, thus lending itself to the nickname, “the chicken coop.” The interior of the house, however, is what set it apart from all others.

My father designed it ten years before the market would allow him to build such a thing. His goal was to provide uniquely designed, cost-effective homes, built to meet the needs and preferences of individual homeowners. Unfortunately, his ideas looked unrealistic at the time, and it was difficult to sell them. The hardest people to convince were other contractors.

“It won’t work.”
“It won’t last.”
“It just won’t be cost effective.”

Sound familiar? Yet understanding the foundational principles of home construction, my dad knew they would work. Today split-level, bi-level, and tri-level homes are popular designs. Contractors think nothing of building one.

True multigrade education very much parallels those first uniquely designed tri-level homes. Using the tri-level “chicken coop” as our model, I would like to picture for you what multigrade instruction should look like. Through the front door, a person entered the living room, and from it all three levels could be seen. The feeling of freedom came from the open access to the other levels.

A wide stairway lead down to the lower floor, used as a family room. Another stairway lead from the living room to the upper floor, or dining room and kitchen, which hung as a balcony over the family room, or lowest floor, and overlooked the living room. The levels were distinct floors, which allowed for structure and maximum use of space, yet with open accessibility between living areas.

Similar characteristics are also true of the multigrade format for instruction. Grade levels are not completely taken away in this instructional format. As in the house, the grade levels provide the basic structure for educational goals and clear guidelines for learning achievement. There are distinct levels of expectation in the learning process. Yet open access to all the levels gives mobility for students to work on the levels of their individual needs.

This contact with all the other levels offers a greater depth of learning. As the teacher focuses on the student, the grade-level standards become platforms with open walkways rather than limiting walls. As the high vaulted ceilings did, the openness of the multigrade approach to instruction provides the students the freedom for unlimited achievement.

The foundation of a tri-level house is poured using the same materials as standard homes. However, the steel support beams need to be altered from conventional placement in order to support the unique structure.

In the same way, the foundational principles for multigrade education are similar for all successful learning. Where and how the principles are utilized, however, make a difference in being able to “build” the organizational and instructional model of the multigrade.

Principle #1

Balance vs. Extremism

The root, or core, of many issues in multigrade learning is that of keeping a balance in a world of extremes. I’ve always been fascinated by a pendulum in motion. It moves from one extreme to another and back innumerable times before finally coming to a balanced rest. The slightest outward or inward pressure will set it swinging again. However, the shorter the distance between the ball and the pivot, the fewer and less extreme are the swings.

So it is with our balance in life or in teaching. The closer we are to our God of balance, the easier it will be to respond and adjust with His wisdom and thus keep our own balance.

Familiar rhythms of life are set by a consistency of schedule, instruction, expectations, and discipline. These give confidence while students learn new, unfamiliar concepts. One balance needed in the multigrade classroom is between consistency and flexibility. This allows for teachable moments, the uniqueness of students and teacher, and the inevitable unexpected.

Another critical balance must be maintained between student individualization and group-standardized- or curriculum-orientated goals. Long-range goals provide a framework into which individualized goals may be established. Instruction can then be designed to work with the student’s learning abilities, aptitudes, and learning styles. Motivation in learning is stimulated by this balance of standardized long-range goals and individualized short-term objectives.

One of the balances most uncomfortable for a teacher to attain is in teaching styles. Teachers tend to teach according to their personal learning style. Conscious planning is needed to prepare lessons in a variety of teaching styles so as to meet student learning-style needs.

Under stress, however, a teacher will often revert to using only the style that is personally most comfortable. It is crucial that the multigrade teacher consciously and consistently evaluate and adjust his/her teaching based on student needs in order to keep a balance.

Principle #2

Individuality of the Student

Diversity within the multigrade is easily accepted due to its multi-age distinctive. Yet the multigrade must allow for diversity even beyond age-level norms to the individuality of each child. Students may be given the freedom to be on differing levels in various areas of learning; thus individuality is accepted and in fact encouraged.

One of my fourth-grade students had the reading ability of an early second grader, the math skills of a beginning third grader, the emotional needs of a first grader, and the sensitivity to others of a sixth grader. Can you see why this child would have difficulty in a single-grade classroom where the standard norms were required?

Within the multigrade classroom, she found a home. Her academic instruction was continually adjusted to build on what she knew and to encourage growth. In that year she was able to grow beyond standard expectations in both the academic and social areas.

Acceptance is the ability to see, understand, and respect the personhood of an individual, leaving open the way for that person to be all he/she can be. Understanding of personality

types, learning styles, and developmental stages will enable the teacher to better meet the differing needs of each child.

Principle #3

Total Growth of the Student vs. Intellectual Focus

Two ultimate educational goals are to develop self-directing, autonomous individuals and to develop maximum individual potentialities (Pavan, 1992). Time needs to be allotted for kinetic, emotional, social, aesthetic, and spiritual development.

This is often the hardest balance to maintain. The pressure of academic goals, which demand great time and energy, often upsets this balance. This often results from the perspective that nonacademic areas are “lesser priorities.” In order to keep the balance, the priorities of development must be equalized with continual adjustment to student needs.

Principle #4

Room for Change/Room for Growth

Students in a multigrade school often remain in the same class for a number of consecutive years. Teachers need to continually allow such students to have “new beginnings.”

Due to relative position changes within the social structure of the multigrade class, developmental labels are removed as adjustments are continually made. A student “does not remain the youngest or smallest or largest or slowest year after year … “ (Stehney, 1970). Thus growth and change are expected and encouraged, developing a healthy, relational self-awareness, which will carry on into adulthood.

Principle #5

Relevancy in Practical Application

Life/study skills are those that enable the student to be successful in learning throughout life. These basic skills include concentration, listening, analytical processing, concept reiteration and application, time management, work prioritizing, self-motivation, and self-discipline. By laying the foundation for continual development of these skills in the student’s earliest years, the teacher can empower the student to be a successful lifelong learner.

The beauty of the multigrade is that the instructional format and organization reinforce these skills by requiring their daily development and practice. Teachers need to reinforce the use of these skills through daily organization as well as occasional reminders throughout the year.

Principle #6


I have often thought that running a multigrade classroom is much like the work of a short-order cook. Twenty orders will be lined up requiring different menu combinations, different cooking methods, and different timing. This multifaceted task requires incredible coordination of resources, efficient handling of equipment, and all possible tact. Preparation, organization, and alertness are required to make it through “rush hour.” So it must be with the multigrade classroom teacher to “stay ahead of the game.”

Upon these foundational principles we can build teaching approaches, methodologies, and organizational strategies that work for the learning success of your multigrade students. Using the comparative illustration of a tri-Ievel home, in future articles we will be “framing in” a multigrade model beginning with four basic approaches to teaching that maximize the learning process on all levels.


Miller, B. (1991). Teaching and Learning in the Multigrade Classroom: Student Performance and Instruction Routines. ERIC Clearing House on Rural Education and Small School, Charleston, WV. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 335 178)

Pavan, B. N. (1992). School Effectiveness and Nongraded Schools. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.

Stehney, Virginia A. (1970). “Why Multiage Grouping in the Elementary School?” The National Elementary Principal, Vol. 49, 21-23.

Go to Success or Survival in the Multigrade Classroom: Part 3 — Instructional Approaches (article three).

Permission to copy, but not for commercial use.

  1. Sandra Wright Smith is a Multigrade Specialist/Educational Consultant and Director of International Family Services, Mission Training International.