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Cross-age teaching has social and emotional benefits

By Amber Shanahan

Teens and younger youth both benefit from cross-age teaching. In fact, it may be the most effective way to provide opportunities for positive youth development and encourage youth to avoid delinquent behaviors. Younger children respond enthusiastically to teen behavior modeling, so rapport is established very quickly.

Our center runs the 4-H Youth Teaching Youth program (4-H YTY) in four Minnesota counties. The model includes strong partnerships between county-based 4-H programs and local schools. During the 2013-2014 school year, our staff trained 761 teen teachers, and they in turn taught the 4-H YTY curricula to nearly 10,000 elementary-aged youth in greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area school districts, making it one of the largest 4-H projects in Minnesota.

We knew that cross-age teaching benefited youth social and emotional learning, but we didn't know exactly how. To find out, we interviewed elementary school educators who had recently observed a cross-age teaching program in their classrooms. These educators pointed to 4-H YTY activities that taught elements of SEL, such as conflict resolution, role playing and storytelling. Moreover, interviewed educators all said that cross-age teaching programs are an effective way to support high impact social and emotional learning, both for the students and their teen-teachers.

Why it works

  • Educators saw the older youth forming an identity around the role of "teacher," and the teens became more confident and competent in their role from week to week, with increased self-awareness. Younger youth felt "at ease" with the teens, and displayed heightened participation in emotion-based activities facilitated by the teens.
  • The smaller age gap in cross-age teaching emphasizes social-awareness, as both the students and the teen teachers tackle each other's strengths and limitations. Younger youth are attentive and understanding of their teen teacher's imperfections, and learn elements of empathy through observation. Teens reflect on how they interpreted information only a few years back and are able to tailor their teaching to foster their student's needs.
  • Educators observed self-management through the teen's ability to provide high-quality classroom management, which signifies strong training and preparation by the teen teachers. 4-H YTY curriculum provides an easy to follow "script" for teen teachers, yet it also allows for improvisation. Teen teachers quickly learn how to manage their reactions while managing others. The younger students are observing positive role-model skills that they can immediately apply to other aspects of their lives.
  • Enriched relationship skills were highly notable. Educators witnessed relationships being built between the younger and older youth. These relationships allowed for honest question-and-answer discussion between teacher and student, and provided opportunities for the younger youth to learn about issues and topics that teens are presently facing. Teen teachers work in groups of two or more, so the younger students observe positive teamwork occurring.
  • Responsible decision making is reflected in the fact that the teens are the lead provider of this content, as the act of teen teaching models positive peer pressure to the younger youth. Teens experience a sense of responsibility as they know that the success of the classroom session is directly related to their preparedness, professionalism, and ability to manage their students. The students are learning how to make responsible decisions through the curriculum content itself, and deepen their understanding of this content through cross-age discussion.
In 4-H, social and emotional learning is not something that we have to work hard to embed into our programming. It is the nature of what we do -- it's already happening. We just needed to take the steps to understand how we align with SEL. Are you running a cross-age teaching program? Can you see the social and emotional skills benefits? Are you evaluating these benefits?

-- Amber Shanahan, Extension educator

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  1. Amber, thank you for this thoughtful post. As I have become more familiar with the Youth Teaching Youth program I have really been amazed by the relationship building that you spoke about in your description of how YTY works to bring Social and Emotional Learning. Teen teachers develop such an affinity for the youth they teach through this program. I wonder if any of the educators that were interviewed mentioned teen teachers being more open to difference after teaching younger students? I wonder if their affinity for the diversity (of ideas and interests) they see in the youth they teach creates an openness to diverse ideas and interests in their teen peer groups.

  2. Betsy,
    Thanks for your comment, and great questions! Though these particular interviews focused on what was observed in the elementary classroom, a recent 4-H YTY teen teacher evaluation found that participation in the YTY program has stimulated a deeper understanding of other's viewpoints, and teens become more mindful of both the students they teach and the adult teachers that impact their learning. You can find the abbreviated results of this evaluation on the 4-H YTY website, Additionally, research states that teens who participate in cross-age teaching programs are more likely to be actively involved in their communities, which contributes to positive community change. An assumption could be made that community involvement would lead to broader recognition and enthusiasm of diverse ideas and interests, but certainly further research must be conducted to verify that assumption. Wonderful correlations, Betsy!

  3. Amber, the numbers you have trained are incredible! It is exciting for our Social Emotional Learning Initiative team to see this program underway. We will be interested in reviewing your early evaluation results to see how this can inform our work as we bring the skills and frameworks into practice for youth workers. Most of what you highlight in this blog relates to the relationship and decision making skills. This is exciting and I am hoping there are some other layers we can peel away as we look further into what SEL looks like in practice. Thanks for your work!


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