Ageless Grade Levels?

grade levels

This month’s post could easily have been titled “Education’s Long, Divisive Debate of Teaching to a Child’s Developmental Age versus Chronological Age” — but I thought that might be too long ūüôā

No matter what you title this debate the question remains the same: Why do we continue to divide up students by how old they are versus how many skills the know?

My Classroom this Year

In Special Education, we have a variation of the same problem. Many of our self-contained classes are mixed grade/age/ability/learning difference levels.¬† For example, I currently teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in our Autism-Core Class. I am teaching state required common core standards that must be scaffolded according to my students’ needs as well as integrating their IEP Goals as the overarching compass of our units. My students range from ages 10-14, with ELD (English Language Development) Levels of 1-5 and a few EO’s (English Only) learners sprinkled in. When assessed, my students are reading anywhere from a 3rd-7th¬†grade level. Math is a little higher, probably because it’s universal in any language and more concrete in content.

Now, some educators would balk at the learning makeup of my classroom and advocate for grade-level specific classes. But I say, this is how it should be.

We Started Off with 1 Teacher for All Grades

If you’re a “Heartie” or a fan of shows like “Little House on the Prairie”¬† or “Anne of Green Gables” (I love her!) or even just remember a little of your Frontier History, you’ll note that there was one teacher for all of the kids in the town. That teacher was responsible for instructing whole group lessons in all core content areas and differentiating was required across K-12 subject-matters.

Really it was an administrative decision based on funding and student enrollment. There was one teacher that needed to teach to everyone.

Age Division is Partly Based on Administrative Necessity

It’s just plain easier to put all of the 9 and 10 year-olds together and call it Fourth Grade. The reality is that when working to place so many students, particularly within the public school setting, it is more convenient to group by ages and then, if the school and district chooses, to branch out from there. Some schools have various differences within the age level programming, such as Gifted and Talented, but few public schools structure their groupings with a focus on mixed-age levels determined by skill mastery.

Yet there are more supporters of this type of class groupings within the last 10 years than was previously thought (a few snippets of the conversation below):

What’s really frustrating, though, is that it seems like everything from text-books to games to a student and parent’s mindset is categorized by ages and grade levels in place of skill mastery. Due to the limited to no-retention policies, a fifth student who has not yet mastered their multiplication tables will go on to sixth and seventh and eighth grade and possibly be more behind in that skill area as the years go by.

Here’s What I Want¬†

What I would like to see in the span of my teaching career is a move away from grouping students by chronological age and grouping students more by what they know. If a 3rd grader is ready to go on to 5th grade reading but needs more time in 2nd grade math, then let that be our guide in how to structure classes and provide the right support, intervention, instruction and content for that student.

With technology, our society is becoming more and more individualized. My hope is that education jumps on board and begins to guide a student throughout their academic career by what they know instead of how old they are.

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Has Your Child Been Unfairly Labeled as a Behavior Problem?

behaviorThere is no doubt that one of the most difficult conversations you may ever encounter as a parent occurs when the Principal calls your¬†home to discuss the behavior of your child in class today. “This is the third time this week that¬†Seth was disruptive. Is he off his ADHD medication, perhaps?”

It’s tough to realize¬†that your child, your baby,¬†has been labeled as a Behavior Problem at school. You may naturally blame yourself or look for others to blame before making the connection that the school your¬†child is attending may not be the best fit for him or her after all.

We must initially acknowledge that our American school system is only equipped to handle the mainstream population, meaning that any student who is an outlier from that average fails to have his or her needs completely met by the system itself.

I see this¬†often in my line of work. Children who have I.E.P.’s (Individualized Educational Programs)¬†and B.I.P.’s (Behavior Intervention Plans) a mile-long may really be suffering from lack of structure and accommodation¬†at the school they are attending.¬†Any teacher will tell you that out of a class of 27 there will be at least¬†five students who come with an IEP. It’s unlikely they can solely cater to this student’s exact needs without a shadow or teacher’s assistant to alleviate the stress and time constraints of getting through the lesson, assigning homework, reviewing for the quiz, and answering¬†27 different questions in 48 minutes or less. They will also tell you those students with extra needs may slip through the cracks while no one is watching. It’s a slippery slope from being labeled as “disruptive” to being suspended indefinitely. I’ve seen it happen, usually to very bright but non-conformist kids.

So what can you do about this?

My first recommendation is to fight back, nicely of course. If your child is being labeled as a Behavior Problem it is your job as the parent to be your child’s advocate by getting involved, which gets the attention of the school.¬†To do so you can attend PTA meetings, parent/teacher/principal meetings, allow your child to undergo psychological testing to rule out or define true¬†learning or behavioral issues, ask for classroom accommodations such as sensory supports, and hire a shadow or tutor to help your child identify what he or she may be doing that is perceived as disruptive. Lesson of the Day: Be on the side of the school without being on the side of the school.

My second recommendation is to look inward: Are you providing the appropriate structure and accommodations in your home environment? This is always a delicate issue to bring up but a necessary one if you want to get to the bottom of your child’s behavior issues. Chances are if there is little to no structure in place at home¬†and your child doesn’t respect you (the authority figure and his or her model for appropriate behavior) then it is likely your child doesn’t respond well to structure and authority figures at school. This may be the root of the issue. It takes a bigger parent to admit that they are part of the problem, but the good news is that you can also be part of the solution. Start by making structure a priority in your home: open up the family forum to set a weekday schedule in place (see my example here). Then, stick to it! Follow-through teaches your family perseverance and the ability to take action on a plan.¬†If you¬†need help with initially instilling structure in your home call upon a professional Family Coach. Their job is to¬†create, implement, and facilitate positive discipline and structure that naturally gives way to positive changes. (Read more about Family Coaching here)¬†Remember, it takes 21 days to form a habit and only three to break it so make it a priority to stick with the plan once it’s in place. If you do, you’ll see noticeable differences in just a few short weeks.

My final recommendation is to research other schools¬†that may appropriately accommodate the behavior challenges that your child exhibits outlined in their IEP or BIP. There are a ton of wonderful private schools out there that may seem unreachable from where you stand but let me assure you that the right school can provide the right education, both mentally and emotionally, for your child. We all know that the right education, only second to the positive foundation provided at home, makes all the difference moving forward in school and, perhaps, in life. I implore you to do your homework and research the best fit for your child;¬†it could make all the difference.¬†If you’re in Los Angeles, contact Stacey at As an expert in education Stacey’s mission is to, “Help families choose the perfect school that¬†fits for their child… [and] help lead the way in picking an environment that will make a difference in your child and family‚Äôs life”.

These are difficult changes and realizations to make but I ask that you take a hard look at the particular situation you’re in,¬†being as objective as possible. If your¬†child¬†has been unfairly labeled as¬†disruptive¬†then it is your job to get to the root of the issue by¬†openly communicating solutions with¬†your child and¬†your child’s¬†educators.¬†If your child really is struggling with¬†a behavior challenge¬†then acknowledge the¬†need and provide the best care possible by making appropriate accommodations, reaching out for help, and¬†fighting for your child’s ability to learn in a conducive, stimulating environment. Most importantly, whatever you do don’t give in or give up. Education is too important to have your child sitting on the sidelines or in the Principal’s office day in and day out.

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