Every time I teach at a children’s ministry conference, one of the most frequent questions I get is, “But what if we have a bunch of different age groups in one class?” Multiage classrooms, whether used out of necessity or preference, can certainly present a variety of blessings and challenges. It’s easy to get caught up in what you can’t do when you have children from diverse developmental stages, but with careful attention and planning using a multiage classroom buddy system it can do more than survive – it can thrive!
Get creative with how you present lessons and activities. Because children of different ages have varying reading skills, direction-following abilities, and attention spans, using some version of the “buddy system” (where you pair older children with younger children, for example) is one of the most effective solutions to some of those built-in obstacles many leaders may face.
Why the buddy system?
When older children are empowered to lead younger children during times of prayer, reading the Bible, crafts, games, or other activities, we find that both the ‘big kid’ and the ‘little kid’ flourish. Not only is the group more manageable (and behavior issues less frequent), but overall, many find that the individual children grow in other, unexpected ways as well. Confidence, empathy, patience, relationships skills, compassion, and social maturity are all enhanced by allowing children to help one another.
Another benefit is that children may actually learn more. Sociocultural theory suggests that learning takes place best in social situations. And, as every children’s minister knows, there’s no better way to learn the Bible than to have to figure out how to explain it to someone else! Finally (and maybe most importantly), having a buddy at church ensures that every child has been seen and heard every time they are there. That’s a unique and special bonus.
1. Start at the top:
Make sure the leaders/helpers in your room are well-trained. The buddy system works best when the teens and adults in the room are all on the same page and understand all the benefits of the technique. This may mean training classes, and/or even quick meetings before class to go over strategies and the plan for the day.
2. Use Buddy Time wisely:
Don’t overuse buddy time. If you notice kids are beginning to feel resentful or overburdened by being the ‘older buddy,’ it may be a sign that you are spending too long in pairs. The key is balance – some large group activities, some independent activities, and some buddy time.
3. Give clear directions:
Though kids are happy to rise to expectations, it’s important to remember that the expectations have to be clearly spelled out. Make sure to give simple and specific directions before every buddy time – pointing out what each person’s role and task should be.
4. Stay involved:
Buddy time is not ‘break time’ for the leaders in the room. Be sure to move around constantly, monitoring to see if the buddy pairings are a good match, offering help, and generally keeping your eye on the situation.
5. Give LOTS of encouragement:
Be sure to point out successes enthusiastically: “WOW! You are being so kind to your buddy!”, “I love the way you are both working together!”, “I am so proud of how well you are (reading, working, worshipping) as a team!”
Interested in learning other ways to engage kids in your multiage or one room Sunday school classroom? Check out our other posts on this subject!