Working in a small group is a fantastic way for young children to learn how to cooperate and collaborate with others and to practice the social and academic skills that foster school success. It can, however, also be a very frustrating and challenging experience if students are not ready for the responsibility of working with their peers. In early elementary school, teachers play an important role in helping children learn how to work happily in groups.
Decide How Groups Will Be Formed
There are endless ways to form small groups for elementary school group work, but not all ways are equally successful. Consider the purpose of the group and duration of the group work experience. If students will be working together over a long period of time, it is essential that the teacher form the groups personally, taking into account the skills and personality of each participant. If students will be working together for only a quick activity, groups can be formed at random or by the students themselves.
Create Ground Rules
Before beginning any group project, it is important that a class create and discuss ground rules. As a class, brainstorm rules for working in small groups. Guide students in creating a short, positively phrased chart that establishes the norms and expectations for behavior during group work activities. This can include how they solve problems, how loudly they speak, how freely they can move around the room and how they organize their work. Review these rules at the beginning of every activity that is going to require collaboration.
Young children love role playing. Before beginning a group project, make a list with students of the problems or situations they anticipate could come up. Invite students to come before the class and act out possible solutions to these problems in advance. As volunteers role play, ask the students who are watching to evaluate how well the actors and actresses solved the problem or addressed the situation at hand. Ask students who did not have a chance to participate for suggestions or alternate solutions. Encourage everyone to voice their concerns before they get in their groups.
Even the youngest students love having jobs that are all their own. When students are participating in group work, assign each student in the group a very specific job. With the youngest students, one member of the group might be the "gopher" who gathers supplies, one student might be the "communicator" who gets the teacher if there is a problem and one student might be the "keeper" who holds on to all of the materials and makes sure nothing gets lost. With older students those jobs can become more task-oriented with one student being in charge of recording notes, another reporting information to the class and a third acting as a facilitator or mediator if problems arise within the group.
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