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The 10 essential elements of cross-age teaching

By Amber Shanahan

For more than 30 years, Youth Teaching Youth has been a prime example of a cross-age teaching program. In cross-age teaching, teens are not just assisting an adult teacher or informally sharing experiences,but facilitating an entire learning experience by teaching curriculum and fully managing a group of younger peers. Cross-age teaching can also enhance social and emotional learning for both teacher and learner.

Youth workers often ask those of us on the 4-H YTY team how they might start a cross-age teaching program of their own. Chances are, your program is already infusing some components, but there are 10 essential elements you need to define in order to do this well.

1. Dedicated Adults Who Support Teens

Strong and consistent support from a dedicated adult staff member or volunteer ensures that teens are fully engaged while teaching (doing), reflecting, and applying and provides safety and continuity.

2. Active Teen Recruitment

The 4-H YTY program partners with local school districts to identify and recruit interested teens; many of whom are not already involved in 4-H. Recruitment takes time and concentrated effort and often includes building dynamic partnerships with outside organizations to build a solid, active teen teacher base.

3. Strong Curriculum

A strong curriculum with a series of detailed lessons that teens can easily teach the younger youth is essential. The subject matter can be anything that is of interest to children and the teenagers; from science to decision making.

4. Initial Training

Initial training needs include defining expectations and responsibilities, while providing classroom management techniques and ages and stages information. Teens must also have time to explore the curriculum they will be delivering and work with their teaching partner to plan their delivery strategy.

5. Ongoing Training and Support (Reflection)

A key piece of the experiential learning process is reflection. The adult leader should facilitate exercises after each teaching experience to reflect on the highs and lows of the session while creating goals for any upcoming teaching opportunities.

6. Attention to Details

Where is the program being held? How are teens being transported? All of the everyday program coordination to pull a cross-age teaching program off can be intense. Ensuring that youth feel safe, supported, engaged, and have the opportunity to interact with their peers should be guided by the YPQA.

7. Recognition and Reward

Without teen teachers, your cross-age teaching program does not exist! Be sure to thank your teen volunteers sincerely and regularly.

8. Team Building

The 4-H YTY program pairs teens up in two’s and three’s to plan, teach, and reflect as a team. This creates a positive peer support network and provides real-world experiences when executing a program with others.

9. Setting Teens Up for Success

In addition to providing high-quality initial training and ongoing reflection, the curriculum that is used should be created with the teen teacher in mind. Developing an easy to navigate script allows teens to effortlessly deliver appropriate content without worrying about memorizing or missing key points. This in turn allows the teens to focus on managing the classroom and building relationships while teaching. Additionally, teens should teach their younger peers at least three consecutive times to provide opportunities to apply new skills and focus on identified goals.

10. Feedback and Evaluation

Feedback from the adult leader is crucial to ensure teen teachers are growing and learning through the cross-age teaching process. Additionally, the 4-H YTY team is experimenting with teens observing and providing feedback to each other using the YPQA tool. All cross-age teaching programs should be regularly evaluated to understand impact and to monitor program improvement needs.

Implementing a strong cross-age teaching program can provide countless volunteer opportunities for older youth participants in your program, eliminating the need to rely solely on adults to lead and teach, and leading to dual benefits for both the younger youth and the teens. What types of cross-age teaching programs are you offering in your organization, and what are some of the benefits you observe?

-- Amber Shanahan, Extension educator

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  1. I have noticed the confidence that the older youth gain through these kinds of experiences. They also find that they have a knack and a love for youth development that they may not have discovered otherwise. I have also found that some of these youth decide to go on to college to study youth development and/or teaching and make this their life's focus. What a great opportunity for youth--and pathway to further education and life's work!

    Of course, the opposite can also happen, where youth decide that this work does not suit them, so they find something that is a better fit. Either way, this can be so valuable for learning about oneself (as well as teaching).

    Thank you, Amber, for this post and for your wonderful webinar you (and Emily Fulton-Fischer) did today on "Utilizing a Flipped Classroom to Train Teen Teachers."

    1. Heidi, Thank you for your post! I appreciate hearing your shared experiences. It's absolutely notable that teens can be equally influenced to follow specific career ambitions based on their experiences... or not. It's our role, as youth workers, to identify what skills and benefits teens are gaining...regardless of their future teaching aspirations.

  2. This list of essential elements is great, Amber. I can see how these 10 elements fit nicely into our understanding of youth program quality as well. Safe Environment is covered by the attention to details element; Supportive environment is exemplified in ongoing training and teamwork; Interaction fits well with recruitment and recognition; and I see engagement in the feedback and evaluation element.
    I am really excited about the use of the YPQA tool to provide feedback to teen teachers. You have quality elements embedded into the framework of the programming for teen teachers and they pass those quality elements on in their teaching methods.
    Thanks for this great post!

    1. Hi Betsy, thank you for your insight... and yes! We're thrilled to be using the YPQA tool to share peer to peer feedback. Not only will this practice bring a fresh perspective to the assessment process, but will provide some wonderful opportunities for teens to gain social and emotional learning skills through peer interaction. Also, you're absolutely spot on with the correlation between quality and the essential elements. It's fascinating to know that teens identified quality elements as "must haves" in order to identify a program as successful. It shows how essential the quality elements really are to all participants (adults & youth) at all levels.

  3. Thanks for providing identifying the essential elements of a cross-age teaching program. There is great value in being grounded and clear in identifying the important components of a program before you start something.

    Where do you starting your planning if you want to build a program? Do you first look for an adult that can provide leadership to a topic, identify a curriculum, or recruit youth that can be your teachers? I can see many advantages in starting at each place. The curriculum could provide a vision that can support recruitment of youth and adults, finding an adult first can provide stability and leadership to a program, whereas finding youth first may be able to provide opportunities for their engagement at a much higher level.

    Where do you recommend youth workers begin when envisioning a program?

    1. Thanks for your questions, Mark. You're right, there are a number of potential starting points to consider. From our experience, however, the first step is identifying a potential need with the younger audience, as well as considering the leadership needs of the teens. And, because a program such as 4-H YTY relies heavily on partnerships between 4-H and other organizations (including schools), it's crucial that the identified partner be invested in and appreciative of the benefits of cross-age teaching. If there is partner buy-in and a need for both the younger youth and teens (meaning they are not receiving this type of opportunity in another capacity), you can begin to explore the other avenues you mention. A strong adult leader who can train and support the teens while building connections with the younger youth must be in place. This role may emerge out of the partnership or could be led by a volunteer. The curriculum piece is another consideration and, regardless of the topic, must be a tool that provides relevant and valuable content to both the teens and their younger counterparts while being uncomplicated in terms of delivery for the teens.

      To make a long response short, start with a needs assessment of your audience and partners and then respond to the coordination details. Thanks again for your thoughts!

  4. Thanks for an informative post, Amber. What, based on your experience and expertise, qualifies a curriculum as "strong" for cross-age teaching (in addition to detailed lessons)?

  5. Hi Joanna! Thanks for the question! In terms of the qualitative aspects of cross-age teaching, a strong program would consist of all 10 essential elements listed above AND follow the Experiential Learning Model (Explore this issue brief to see how the 4-H Youth Teaching Youth delivery and training model is mirrored after the experiential learning process:

    But back to the 10 essential elements--Teens are recruited based on their interest to teach, lead, and collaborate. Teens often participate because they want to, not because they are required to, which supplies enthusiasm around the role. This enthusiasm, paired with fundamental training (both initially and ongoing) leads to teens who take ownership over their role as a teacher. Having teen teachers that identify with and respect their role-model responsibility and feel confident to teach based on proper training and corresponding curriculum is the “meat and potatoes” of our program; what our team would identify as a STRONG base to grow from.

    Of course there are many other factors that lead to a strong program: partners that share mutual goals, detail-oriented coordination, and all of the other program quality elements that must be considered. With these factors in mind, you’re more likely to see social and emotional learning benefits for both the teens and their younger audience…and we believe that defines a strong cross-age teaching program.


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