frienships in VERY small elementary school -- how does it work? - Mothering Forums
Learning at School > frienships in VERY small elementary school -- how does it work?
indigosky's Avatar indigosky 08:29 PM 01-31-2011

One of the schools we're looking at for DD is a very small one with about 6-8 children per grade. The grades are combined, so pre-K/K are together, 1-2 are together, etc., so each classroom actually has 12-16 kids in it.


There's a lot that's very appealing about the school, but for me, the small size is a real concern. 12-16 in a class sounds fine, but I assume that since one grade moves up each year, the kids probably are closest to the 6-8 kids who are in their same grade and therefore are in their class every year. And of course, if there's approximate gender balance, that means 3-4 girls and 3-4 boys per grade.


I think back to my own elementary school days, and there were moments of major friendship shifts. The clearest example in my memory is when best friend sort of dropped me in 4th grade when she got interested in boys and makeup. I'm so glad there were 10 other girls in my class when I needed new friends.


I'd love to hear about the experiences of anyone who grew up attending such a small elementary school, or anyone whose kids are currently in a similar situation. Are there situations where 2 kids pair off and leave another kid or two without a friend? What if you don't click with the other kids, or they decide they don't like you? Am I right to be concerned about such a small social scene?

Linda on the move's Avatar Linda on the move 08:41 PM 01-31-2011


I would ask at the school how it plays out there and what their policies are. My children go to a small school that doesn't allow exclusionary play. If two kids are playing and a third wants to join in, they must be allowed to join. The childrens social development is considered as important as the rest of their development.

At our school, it works great. At another school with different policies and attitudes, it could be a mess.
ecoteat's Avatar ecoteat 09:12 PM 01-31-2011

I teach in a school like that. We are preK-8, and the classes are PreK, K/1, 2/3, 4/5, 6/7, 8. PreK is pretty much its own entity. K-5 operates like a tiny elementary school, and 6-8 operates like a tiny middle school. I teach 6th-8th grade currently, but I have taught a 3/4 combo and a 4/5 combo there. I've been here 7 years. In some ways it is amazing. The kids are a family. There are about 70 kids in the whole school and we try to do whole-school and multi-age activities regularly. When you are that close to each other you deal with social problems like you would with your siblings because there is no escaping them. The grade shifting creates a different class dynamic each year, but it doesn't seem to throw off friendships too much. They will shift a bit, but they will still have to have lunch and recess together and they'll still play together outside of school. Sometimes a really small grade will come along (like our first grade has 2 kids this year) or one that leans heavily to one gender (last year's 8th grade was 7 boys and 1 girl). But it works out. The kids, especially the older ones, branch out to the other schools in the area. The peninsula that I live on has 6 towns that each have their own tiny K-8 school, so the kids at other schools have similar experiences and they all live in the same greater community.


Linda, we don't allow kids to exclude others either. Everyone is welcome to join anyone else's activity. That doesn't mean kids don't need help with that, but that is the expectation.


Right now there's a big drama with the middle school girls. There are 3 in 8th grade and a few in 7th that are all into boys and jockeying for status. Luckily the boy interest extends beyond our school! But the alliances shift. One week these three will be friends and those 4 will hang out, and then next week the groupings change. This happened even more when they were in 3rd/4th grade. With such small classes and such a tight community, the kids have a lot of support in navigating this. Sometimes it's really hard, but most of the time I think it was WAY better for their development than most schools I have experience with. The last school I taught in was a big middle school with 200 kids per grade. I never felt like that model met the social and emotional needs of kids. Then I came here and fell in love with the idea of small, tightly-knit schools.

ollyoxenfree's Avatar ollyoxenfree 08:20 AM 02-01-2011


I think you run the risk of problems with cliques no matter what size the class is. I've seen it happen in small classes and it is very difficult for the excluded child. You have a good point that it's helpful if there are other children to fill the void. If you do enrol your children in this school, I suggest that you also find extra-curricular programs for them after school or on weekends.


Having lots of friends outside of school can make a huge difference if social problems develop at school. 



Alyantavid's Avatar Alyantavid 08:34 AM 02-01-2011

The downside to really small schools is that you have a really small group to find friends in.


My son goes to a fairly small school, though bigger than the one you're looking at.  His class this year is the biggest yet with 16 kids.  Also until this year, they had 2-3 girls and the rest were boys, so for the girls at least, they had very few friends to choose from.


I went to the same school and while the friendships shifted a bit, I don't remember anyone being left out on their own.  We have very few issues with exclusion like that (of course I have a boy so it might be different for the girls).  I'd probably talk to the school and see how they handle things like that.

Linda on the move's Avatar Linda on the move 09:12 AM 02-01-2011

One of the up sides to a small school is that children look beyond the "same gender same grade" limitation on friends. My DDs have friends who are boys, who are older than them, and who are younger than them.  If you believe that you can only be friends with girls in your grade and there are only 3 girls your grade, then, yes, that's very limiting. There's no reason for that limitation, though. It's totally artificial.


But this, too, really depends on the school. Our school allows lots of mixed age times, has mixed aged homerooms, etc.

Alyantavid's Avatar Alyantavid 09:15 AM 02-01-2011

Originally Posted by Linda on the move View Post

One of the up sides to a small school is that children look beyond the "same gender same grade" limitation on friends. My DDs have friends who are boys, who are older than them, and who are younger than them.  If you believe that you can only be friends with girls in your grade and there are only 3 girls your grade, then, yes, that's very limiting. There's no reason for that limitation, though. It's totally artificial.


But this, too, really depends on the school. Our school allows lots of mixed age times, has mixed aged homerooms, etc.

True.  But at my son's school, the entire elementary doesn't go to recess/lunch at the same time.  So that does limit things a bit.  His school is K-12, so he may know some high schoolers better than some kindergarteners.   

SomedayMom's Avatar SomedayMom 03:12 PM 02-01-2011

Our school is bigger than that but with mixed age classrooms (Montessori).  It's not a huge school, but think 15-18 kids per grade level.  The thing a small school that works with mixed age classes the kids get to know the kids in the classes ahead of and behind them and it really expands their friendships.  DS (K) has friends who are preschool aged and friends in 1st grade right now.  Then those kids have friends on either side of them and it turns into everyone in the school having some sort of connection to each other.  So far, it is really great for him (and my younger son, who tends to prefer the older kids anyway).


Now, I went to a small school, but still bigger than that.  Single years.  I was a left out kid and it was not the best place for me.  I was miserable.


The thing is, when I went looking at schools I was very interested in how they handled bullying and how they helped kids with social/interpersonal relationships.  The school I went one paid attention, no one helped me, and there was no emphasis on how we treated each other.  In my boys' school they focus on community, they pay close attention to anything that might look like bullying and they do not tolerate it.  They focus on social skills, kindness, respect, above and beyond any other school I visited.  And watching the kids all the way works.  That will make a BIG difference on how friendship and socialization will work in a small school.

Peony's Avatar Peony 08:03 PM 02-01-2011

DD1's school is very similar. PK-8th grade. PK and K are the only stand alone grades so they are smaller and just different. From 1/2 and up, all grades are combined, the max number of students in a class is 18, most are less then that. The grades are not always equal. DD1 is in 2nd grade, there are only 5 2nd graders in a class of 17, and she is the only girl. There are 3 1st grade girls. Honestly, I was worried about it going in (she has been there 1.5 years and we settled on this school 2 years ago), but it has been a wonderful experience. 


She is friends with everyone, and I do mean everyone. We will be at the store and what appears to be a 5th grade boy will approach her and says, "Hi, DD1! What are you doing?". I'll ask her later who that was and she just shrugs and says he goes to her school, they played soccer together or something. She plays with the K students, the 4th grade girls, there is much less gender separation. While she still will prefer to find some girl to find play fairies with in warm weather, in the winter she is going down the sledding hill with 2 boys. The entire school gets recess and lunch together. While the pairing up could certainly happen in the classroom, at DD1's school because it is so small and is limited on girls, the teachers really try to include everyone. None of the girls sit together in DD1's class, they are in pods of 4 students, 1 girl with 3 boys, none of the girls care. And because they get so much time together as an entire school, 1.5 hours a day, there is more then enough time to go seek out other friends in other grades. I think that if DD1 went to a larger school then she would just be hanging out with 2nd graders, here she is just as likely to be playing with a 4th grader. Last year after she started school, her name is Madeline, a 5th girl  that she played with during lunch brought in an old Madeline doll of hers and gave it to DD1, that would not of happened in a large school setting. 


I love this setting for her, there isn't the ageism that some children get, and the girls play just as much with the boys instead of breaking off into separate groups. I am at the school enough to watch the older classes and know things are similar. 

delphine's Avatar delphine 12:04 PM 02-02-2011

My boys, (grades 1 and 3) are in a small school, though not as small as this one.  We have 135 students grades K-8 and a 15 student preschool.  We do not have combined classes, though if they school shrinks, it's an option. 


I think there are pros and cons, as with any situation.  My older son is not the most socially adept child in the world.  I really worried that he would not do well, especially since his grade is mostly girls.  He has attended the school since preK and I think the pros really outweigh the cons. 


Currently, there are 5 boys in his class of 16.  This is down from 7 boys last year.  Of the boys, 2 are a set of twins.  Honestly, my son does not have a lot in common with the other boys in his grade.  While they all get along, he really hasn't formed any close bond with any of them.  This is a concern for me, but I am not sure it would be any different in a larger school.  The biggest advantage, though, is that he knows every child at the school.  They do a lot of activities where they pair up older and younger kids, either as part of a program (5th grade buddies pairs up a 5th grader with a kindergartner) or more informally.  I like that my children's peer groups are not limited to their own age. 


My younger son gets along fabulously with everyone, so even though he's in the smallest class (11 students), it works out great for him.  Very individualized teacher attention and a real focus to meeting each child's needs. 


And, if we ever need a babysitter, we have a great list of 8th graders that my boys already know who are always willing to help out. 


In addition, our school does a lot of family focused activities, so we know just about all of the parents.  That adds to the sense of community, I think, and is an important aspect of building the atmosphere at the school. 


annethcz's Avatar annethcz 10:17 AM 02-05-2011

I think the PPers have covered it pretty well.  This sounds a lot like the school my kids attend and that I teach at.  For the most part, it's very inclusive.  Our school uses the responsive classroom model, and holds that the social curriculum is just as important as the academic curriculum.  In addition to mixed grade levels (we currently have a PK, K, 1/2, 3/4, and 5/6 classroom), we have daily homeroom in which grades K-6 meet together.  And because our school does ability-based grouping for math and reading, the classes are very fluid and everyone knows everyone else. 


I think that it's possible to have cliques anywhere you go.  That said, most of the exculsionary behavior I see or hear about at our school relates to sibling issues (usually an older sibling who doesn't want a younger sibling to join the group).  I have also been witness to exclusion amongst the older (5th or 6th grade) girls, and in that case it was a combination of personalities not meshing well, coupled with maturity issues. 


As PPers have said, I like that my children have friends of different ages and genders.  This fall the older kids played football at recess frequently.  I can see how in other schools, the girls or smaller kids might have been excluded.  But at our school, in order to have decent-sized teams, they NEEDED everyone who wanted to play.  My oldest son because better friends with a couple of girls in his class because he played football with them every day at recess.  I've also found that small classes make it easy to include everyone in the class.  My older DD had a sleepover birthday party last night.  Because of the size of her class, I had absolutely no objection to her inviting all 4 of the girls in her class without leaving anyone out.


Academically, there are pluses and minuses.  While there are numerous programs in place to help kids who are struggling with various issues, there aren't as many avenues for kids who are in need of greater challenges.  It works fabulously to move the kids who are ahead of the curve up to the next math or reading class when they are in the younger grades.  But what do you do for the 6th grader who is doing 8th grade math?  Creative solutions are needed.  Because it's such a small school, there is no dedicated art, music, or PE teacher.  The regular classroom teachers teach those subjects.  So each teacher knows his/her students VERY well, but there isn't as much specialization as in larger schools. 

Tigerchild's Avatar Tigerchild 06:35 PM 02-05-2011

While my kids' school is not that small, far from it, they are part of a small choice program that means that literally they will be in the same class with the same kids every year until 6th grade, with a few exceptions for maybe 1 or 2 kids leaving/coming in every year.


It's been interesting for me to observe the dynamics in their classrooms.  it's very different from my own experience (I never lived in the same place for longer than 18 months until I was 16), where I met all new classmates every year.


I think cliques can happen no matter what.  I think developmentally kids go through some social hard times in the 3-6th grade years for a variety of different reasons at each stage--but that happens with all new kids or all old kids to be honest.  What IS really interesting about my kids' classes is that the kids almost seem to have sibling relationships with each other, especially by now in my daughter's class (most of the kids have been together for 3 years now).  Sounds great, right?  Except for what do siblings do?  Not only do they love and protect each other (hopefully), they also know exactly how to (and occasionally relish) push each other's buttons.  They get sick of each other.  They squabble.  They don't like that s/he is looking at them.  They get annoyed at each other.  Luckily all of our teachers know about this family dynamic and are for the most part really good at helping them through it.  I have seen sibling-esque (minus violence) throwdowns/hissy fits go down. OTOH, in 2nd grade when two children in particular were being bullied by a non-program 6th grader, not only did he have 22 OTHER 2nd graders going for him (not physically again, but verbally as in "leave my friend alone!  Go away!  What are you doing!"), making sure everyone was safe at recess, but also all of THEIR blood sibs and their sibs friends.  You might fight like family, but anyone else tries to do anything and they better watch their step.


Is everyone best friends?  No.  Do the third graders occasionally indulge in "You're not my friend!! (this half hour)"?  Yes.  Are there best friend/groups?  Yes.  Has the teacher had to talk to the class about bullying being about more than punching someone, that it can also be writing mean things or saying mean things or teasing someone after they ask you to stop?  Yes.  But is it an overall safe environment?  Yes.  They're learning those things together.


I think it largely depends on the administration, teachers, and the parents as to how that plays out.  We have a pragmatic, no-nonsense administration that is very serious about making sure that the environment of school is physically, emotionally, and verbally safe.  We have teachers that know the kids AND the families AND happen to be really really good at helping kids work through their conflicts (and because of all the parent support, they also have TIME and space to do that as needed).  The parents are a family like community as well (with squabbles, s/he's looking at me, button pushing, but also ferocious support of one of our own when needed) though we tend to view ALL the children as *ours*, which helps support the safe space and helping them learn how to be safe and nurturing with each other.


I think you can have an unsafe chaotic small school, and a welcoming, nurturing, loving big school.  i think that always has far less to do with the kids than the adults.


so what are the adults like at this small school? 

MamaFran's Avatar MamaFran 07:59 PM 02-05-2011

I went to a very small school from pre-school through 12th grade.  I graduated with a class of 13 so through the years the class size fluctuated around that number. 


In elementary, we had combined classes like you described, but the overall size was a big larger, around 30.


The great thing was that the school was very much like a family, the students couldn't get away with anything.  The teacher, principal or superintendent would have your parents or grandparents on the phone pretty quickly if someone was causing trouble.


As for friends, I only remember one boy having problems with friends. People were nice to him, but he had serious emotional problems.  I think he was actually ADHD, and the school wasn't well equipped to handle his challenges.


The one downside that I experienced was that I was always so-and-so's sister.  There were certain expectations and sort of prejudices since I was the last of all my family to go through the school.  My dad and his siblings went there, and then all my cousins before me.  And yes, some of the teachers were there when my aunt and uncle graduated.  Also, there weren't as many extra curriculars to develop outside interests. 


Those are my thoughts.  I thought it was great in elementary, but I think a bigger environment is beneficial for middle school and high school.

mom2ponygirl's Avatar mom2ponygirl 12:32 PM 02-07-2011

My friend's daughter did have trouble with that.  She was one of 5 girls in her grade.  The others ganged up on her as a bonding ritual.  They also teased her for interacting with the boys.  It was a rough couple of years for her.  However, such situations don't always happen and can happen in much larger schools as well.  If you like everything else about the school, I wouldn't hesitate because of the small size.  If a bad social situation develops and you can't find a way to resolve it after significant time, then I'd look elsewhere.  


GoGoGirl's Avatar GoGoGirl 02:19 PM 02-07-2011

I saw this from new posts.  I went to a school like that...1st through 8th grade, we had 6 girls and 12 boys in the class.  The boys didn't seem to have a problem with cliques, but it was awful with the girls.  Every year, the girls collectively decided which girl was "gross" or "totally weird," and made that girl's life hell.  I was the outcast in 7th grade.  It was very, very traumatic for me.  I threw up a lot before school, because I was just so scared and I didn't have the skills or confidence to handle it.  I will say that the teachers tried to step in and prevent the bullying.  I think it backfired though--the girls just got sneakier about their nastiness.  Grade school was so bad for me that after I finished 8th grade, I purposely went to a high school no one from my grade school went to, and I never spoke to any of the girls ever again.

Owen'nZoe's Avatar Owen'nZoe 02:42 PM 02-07-2011

I went to a small school with a class size of 16 in my grade. 6-8th grades were absolutely miserable. The cliquishness was awful, the school did nothing to discourage it, and while different grades were on the playground at the same time, in my experience it never really made up for the horrible feeling of being an outcast in your own class. Honestly, I would have a really hard time sending my kids to a small school given my experience, but at the very least, I'd make sure that the school is proactive about dealing with cliques and bullies. And I'd be sure to talk to parents who have / have had middle schoolers there, because that seems to be when the social issues get really bad.

Owen'nZoe's Avatar Owen'nZoe 02:45 PM 02-07-2011


Originally Posted by GoGoGirl View Post

  Grade school was so bad for me that after I finished 8th grade, I purposely went to a high school no one from my grade school went to, and I never spoke to any of the girls ever again.

 Same here. :( Honestly, I'm almost 40, and until very recently, I still feel almost physically ill on the rare occasion I run into a couple of the girls. I swear, I'm otherwise pretty well balanced! lol.gif