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How to Use Ability Grouping Without Damaging Self-Esteem

Working in the education sector is challenging. As an educator, your main goal is to "educate," but every student is different. With students learning at various paces and capacities, organizing your students in the classroom can feel challenging. You want to ensure all of your students get the right support without hurting any feelings or stunting their progress.

A common practice within schools is ability grouping (placing students in groups based on their academic results). Ability grouping allows educators to tailor their lesson plans and provide more or less support to the students, dependent on their progress or abilities. 

However, some students may take these groupings personally. If the educator has placed them at a lower level, this can cause self-esteem issues and affect their academic progress. They can become overly focused on the label of a slow-learning student, and in the act of a self-fulfilling prophecy, they begin to perform poorly. 

Protect Your Student's Self Esteem with Ability Grouping

There are ways to approach ability grouping that leaves your students with high esteem and eager to learn. Below are four ways to ensure you are protecting your students' mental health when utilizing ability grouping in your classroom:

Avoid Degrading Labels

As simple as it sounds, changing the name of your grouping system might help remove the preconceptions the students have about their learning levels. When explaining the grouping system to the students using terminology like "equal groups" or "equal system," the labels might remove any ideas of hierarchy. It might also encourage the concept of group fluidity; the student can change their groups as they continue to improve in academic performance. 

Honest Communication

In the classroom, communication is crucial. When first introducing ability grouping, you must take the time to ensure all your students understand why you are separating them into their specific groups, highlighting how it will benefit them. It is also important to explain how your students can move into higher groups as abilites flucutate.

Ensuring transparency helps build trust between you and your students; they can then take control of their learning. If you can empower them to feel in control of their education, they will likely gain greater confidence in their abilities.

Implement Regular Grouping Reviews

Ensure you are regularly reviewing your student grouping; this will help you and your students. Sometimes we can get caught in the repetitive nature of our lesson schedules, forgetting that our students can improve their skill set over time. Every lesson should inspire your students to improve and work harder for better results.

Reviewing one another can also stop them from feeling branded as low-achievers or high-achievers. There is always an opportunity to develop into a higher-ability student, and once students know this, their potential is unlimited. 

Take the Pressure Off High-Ability Groups

Even though it is essential to support and nurture the lower ability groups, the high-achieving students may also suffer from mental health difficulties. The students in the higher ability groups may feel like there is an unspoken pressure to work at higher levels than all other students and retain their high grades across the board.

The mindset that you, their parents, or any authority figures view them as high-achieving may push them into perfectionist mentalities, resulting in burn-out, anxiety, and depression as they grow older. Reassure your high-ability students that while you would like them to continue working at high levels, there is no pressure to work harder or to a higher standard than everyone else.

Remove the preconception that high-ability students are immune to an off day and let them know it is perfectly okay for them to struggle from time to time. Hopefully, this can help to relieve any pressure and anxiety from the top-achieving students to always perform at their highest level.

Achieving Ability-Grouping in Your Classroom 

Ability grouping may not work for everyone; it can be successful in classes of approximately 30 students. Keep in mind that every student is an individual--they will learn and excel in different environments. Many schools and educators have not used ability grouping, and students still succeed. 

On the other hand, ability grouping may challenge your teaching skills and your student's ability to learn and adjust their learning style, but it's worth ensuring that your students receive the best experience from their groups. You never know how your classes may shape the world's future.

Written by Aimee Bradley
Education World Contributor
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