Preschool through IB Middle School
School Leadership

Let's Work Together - The importance of thoughtful student grouping/pairing strategies

John Suitor, Head of School
As a school, we have been contemplating the following question of late: How do we pair and group students in ways that honor them and affords them a lower stress learning environment? Self-grouping and/or self-pairing can be particularly stressful for our students. Children reluctant to pair or children who are not seen as effective partners often have had their feelings hurt, feel unsafe in group work environments, and/or feel left out of an activity because the process of self-grouping causes stress and anxiety. Not being chosen for a group or asked to pair can be incredibly deflating to a child’s sense of self-worth.
So, while it is difficult to always have this at the front of our minds, at BCD we are working to make assigned groups/pairs a priority practice in our classrooms. No, we are not promoting artificial harmony. What we are doing is recognizing that as a pillar to the concepts of emotional and social intelligence that I recently discussed in another blog post, social grouping is an important area of growth and exploration that we sometimes need to create for our students. As with many of our structured lesson plans, these similarly “structured lesson plans” can teach students important lessons - and some would argue essential skills in today’s school and work environments. Yes, in rare cases where all children feel safe and seen, self-grouping and/or self-pairing can be a way to give agency to our students as they approach collaborative learning and problem solving, but we must also counterbalance this with initiatives that work to avoid situations that deflate students’ sense of self-worth and thus obstruct their ability to learn.
There are plenty of resources online that can help in develop groups or pairs in productive and innovative ways. They include but are not limited to:
  • Count off by 5s (or any other number greater than 1)
  • Birthdays Jan – March, April – May, etc.
  • Shirt color/shoe style
  • By last name
  • Assign the groups before hand
Sometimes establishing specific roles also helps. Many teachers use this strategy to organize classes (line leader, door holder, ambassador, etc.), and it is also effective for groups or teams. For example,  
  • Recorder
  • Reporter
  • Timekeeper
  • Devil’s Advocate
Lastly, encouraging the sharing of ideas amongst colleagues is incredibly helpful in building a thoughtful and inclusive community that is positive for all. To that end, I share with you the following creative lesson plan designed by 2nd grade teacher, Melinda Elzinga. On Fridays, her students have a chance to practice social skills and have fun at the same time through the "Picnic Partners" program where kids spend lunch in a casual pairing (assigned differently each week). They use this time not only to eat lunch, but to practice the art of conversation skills - part of Responsive Classroom - and to make friends with some classmates they might not know so well. Melinda shares, “Children choose their playmates every day and we, as grown-ups, facilitate play dates. When students stretch in a new but safe way to make light conversation and find common interests, they become better friends and more in-depth listeners. The rest of their lives they will be in situations that require reaching out in conversation - what better way to build stronger friendships and strengthen self-esteem than to practice with classmates?”
Boulder Country Day School    4820 Nautilus Court North • Boulder, Colorado 80301 • Phone - 303.527.4931 • After-hours x229 •
Boulder Country Day School, where academic distinction meets education with character. BCD is a top rated, accredited private school in Boulder, Colorado where every child has the opportunity to discover his or her own unique excellence. Distinguished by small class sizes, outstanding faculty, engaging academics and a focus on community, our preschool, elementary and IB middle school teachers strive to create a well-rounded educational environment that balances traditional subjects with the arts, world languages, athletics and project-based learning.