Teaching

Getting an Early Start on Group Work: Tips From Teachers

By Elizabeth Heubeck — November 22, 2023 4 min read
Students in Jacqueline Chaney's 2nd grade class work to come up with a list of synonyms during a group activity at New Town Elementary School in Owings Mills, Md., on Oct. 25, 2023.
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Jacqueline Chaney’s 2nd grade class buzzes with activity all day long, and a good chunk of it takes place in groups. By just the second month of school, the 7- and 8-year-olds move effortlessly in and out of both assigned and ad hoc groups.

Some, such as for reading, remain fairly consistent. In others, students choose the members—with little fanfare. Sometimes, students take turns leading groups; other times, each member plays an equal role.

To an observer, the groups seem inclusive and productive. A student who seemed almost painfully uncomfortable in unregulated social situations, like recess, integrated seamlessly into the classroom group dynamics. One group, tasked with taking turns reading out loud, did exactly that for upwards of 30 minutes—without a single adult overseeing their activity.

How Chaney’s students conduct themselves during group work isn’t simply luck. Nor was it a haphazard decision to organize instruction in these group settings.

“Group work is an active, live experience,” said Chaney, who has taught at New Town Elementary School in Baltimore County for 16 years. “It provides students freedom to collaborate and engage in purposeful discourse.”

Introducing group work in the classroom starting in early elementary school doesn’t just benefit students in the near term. Becoming adept at the practice can prepare young students for future careers, as the professional workforce places an ever-increasing emphasis on collaboration.

But wrangling 20 or so young children into small and productive groups may seem overwhelming. Chaney and other advocates of the practice explain why it’s worth the effort and offer some tactics on how to make group work effective.

Benefits of starting group work early

Research and anecdotes link effective group work in early classrooms to skills that come in handy both inside and outside of the classroom.

In a Dutch study that analyzed group work among students between 5 and 7 years old, those who participated in group work more often were “more likely to stay on task, and were more likely to communicate effectively with their peers during lessons than the pupils in control classes,” according to the researchers.

Chaney also points to communication skills as a leading outcome of the practice. “Group work is such an important aspect in the elementary classroom. It is the foundation of setting the life skills of communication and collaboration,” she said. “The exchanging of ideas and learning and growing from one another is truly awesome to see.”

Karen Goeller, a lifelong educator and current K-12 deputy superintendent at Vigo County School Corporation in Terre Haute, Ind., shares Chaney’s sentiments. She sees group work as a way to “shape student relationships in authentic ways, resulting in more productive and healthy classrooms.”

This notion played out in Chaney’s classroom. Students exhibited tolerance and empathy for their classmates during a recent visit. In one group assignment involving four boys who didn’t seem to be connected socially outside of school, one of them—a non-native speaker who appeared to struggle at times with comprehension—lagged behind. One of his group members noticed, and immediately asked the others to wait for their classmate to catch up, a recommendation the others unanimously heeded.

Students also tend to like the flexibility that comes with group work, noted Chaney. “They enjoy the freedom of moving about the classroom spaces to work … and the flexibility to work with whomever they feel comfortable with,” she said.

Features like flexible seating arrangements in her classroom promote this adaptability. Tables made for six or eight, piles of decorative pillows arranged in designated spots on the floor, colorful rugs, and other nooks carved out in corners of the room encourage cooperative group work.

Strategies for building effective group work

But the success of group work among young students hinges on more than ideal seating arrangements. Poorly designed group activities can lead to chaos—especially when norms and expectations aren’t made clear, Chaney advised.

“Group work does not mean being thrown together [in a group] with a task to accomplish and then being left to their own devices. This is when the (usually) bossy leader rises to the top, the worker bees are frantic in making sure the task is completed, and the others are left out, either willingly or intentionally,” wrote Cheryl Mizerny, a teacher for over 20 years, most recently at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Chaney refers to the composition of groups as somewhat like the pieces of a puzzle. “You have all these pieces, the students, and they need to come together like a puzzle, bringing their own voice, experiences, views to complete a specific task,” she said.

Chaney varies assigned group leaders and other roles, from task manager to timekeeper and beyond, depending on the assignment and students’ individual strengths. Sometimes she lets students choose their own roles.

“I feel that since our class is run like a family, my students treat one another respectfully,” she said. “They can, in turn, work together to attain the stated goal.”

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