Using Cross Age Tutoring to Foster Social and Emotional Learning

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This is a guest post by Robbie Torney, a kindergarten teacher at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, CA. He is a graduate of the Stanford Teacher Education Program and also a recipient of the America Achieves fellowship for outstanding teachers.

 teacher taking on role of coach in peer tutoring

Mr. Torney and Paulina B. listen to Monse M. read

Social and emotional learning (SEL) helps children develop important cognitive, affective, and behavioral competencies that help them become successful students and people. The link between these competencies and success is intuitive (and supported by research). For example, students who develop strong relationship skills will experience academic and social success at school, at home, and eventually in life.

Advocates for SEL reject the false tradeoff between rigorous academics and SEL; we believe that social and emotional competence go hand in hand with academic success. We also reject the idea that students’ social and emotional competencies are fixed traits, and believe that given explicit teaching, support, effort, and dedicated practice, everyone can grow and develop their abilities and skills.

One easy way to build SEL into your week is to do cross age tutoring, which:

  • requires relatively little time. This year my kindergarten class is buddied with a third grade class; we spend 45 minutes each week reading, cooking, writing, playing, or doing math.
  • gives students 1:1 attention. Each buddy has one other person that they are paying special attention to within the context of broader classroom interactions.
  • is easy to plan for. As a teacher, you can step into a coaching role, supporting students with interactions and needs that will naturally grow out of any activity, task, or project your students are working on.

buddies activity

Prospero L. and Enrique R. design a graham cracker house

 cross age peer tutoring and social emotional learning

Israel G. and Gerrod W. read together

Here are some specific ways in which cross age tutoring supports SEL core competencies, both for my kindergarteners and our third grade buddies:

  • Self-awareness. A huge part of working with a buddy is recognizing what you are thinking and feeling; an age gap emphasizes how you assess your strengths and limitations. Do you not want to read Ride, Fly Guy, Ride again? Is your third grade buddy asking you to help read a text that is beyond your reading level? How is it making you feel when another student keeps winning in the math game your buddy made for you?
  • Self-management. When you have identified your thoughts and feelings, how do you regulate them? Cross age tutoring provides constant, two-way feedback for each buddy. Third graders receive feedback about how well they are engaging and supporting their buddy from their kindergartener’s focus and success; kindergarteners receive feedback on how well they are regulating their bodies with gentle reminders from third graders.
  • Social awareness. This is another competency that is accentuated by the age gap in cross age tutoring. It takes third graders some time to realize and remember what it was like to be a kindergartener (wait, they’re still learning to read?). It takes both buddies some time to learn about each other’s family, culture, and preferences.
  • Relationship skills.  Buddies often work with students outside of their affinity groups, building empathy and understanding within and across our classrooms. With this comes the need to resolve conflict constructively; to listen, cooperate, and communicate; and to help one another.
  • Responsible decision making. Buddies are accountable to one another. Having a buddy inherently requires you to consider how your choices will impact your buddy and others in the classroom. One example that stands out is Isabelle M., one of my kindergarteners. At the beginning of the year, she got very upset each time Warren K., her third grade buddy, asked to choose a book to read. It’s hard to see those same students now, stuck at an impasse over who was going to choose a book, because back in November Isabelle M. said: “Last time it wasn’t fun because I didn’t let you choose. How about you choose first today?”

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