How to Pull Small Groups and Do Learning Centers in Kindergarten

How to Pull Small Groups

People often ask me about how I do small group guided reading and learning centers in my kindergarten classroom.  In order for me to do either of these things, I do a group rotation with my whole class.  I have attempted to explain how my rotation works below.  Hopefully, it will be clear enough to be some help to you!


I do a group rotation every day with all of my students.  This is how I manage it:  There are four groups, and all of the children are in one of the four groups. We rotate through all of four of the groups every single day, and I meet with all of the children every single day.

My Four Groups

1.  Language Arts

2.  Math

3.  Art – (We usually do book making types of activities that you can find here.)

4.  Independent Learning Centers

When we begin, one group goes to my language arts table, one goes to math, one goes to the art table, and one is for either an independent activity with a manipulative or some type of reading or math game or activity with a volunteer.  If the volunteer doesn’t come unexpectedly, then I give the children a manipulative to play with, such as pattern blocks, Unifix cubes, or puzzles.

The Independent Learning Center Table
This last independent table could also be done as little mini centers.  I have done it this way in the past.   So what happens at this table is that when the children arrive here, they find themselves divided again into even smaller subgroups with different activities.  So let’s say the Red Group arrives at the independent table.  When they get there, two of the children will find their names next to the Sight Word Wands; two of them will find their names next to some letter beads and they will string the beads to make sight words; and the remaining one or two more in the group will find their names next to some CVC Puzzles.  Last year, I had a small group set of six iPads, and I was able to give the children educational apps to play with at this table instead, and that was delightfully EASY- and the children LOVE it!  Here is a list of my favorite apps.

This is our fourth center, which is our independent center.

If I do have an extra volunteer, then here are some things I do at that independent table:  Any kind of follow up activity is a good idea, such as a reading or math game that they can play.  If a volunteer doesn’t come, I give them puzzles or some other type of manipulative to play with independently.  It’s much harder when a volunteer doesn’t come, but it can work if you need it to work.  The teacher of the RSP class at my school also likes to send her kids over (just one at a time as a reward)  to help the Kindergartners for the purpose of increasing the self-esteem of the older student, so sometimes I get one of those kids.  They love it!  And usually, they really can be of use and are quite helpful to me!

The activity that they do depends a lot on the skills of the volunteer I get on each day.  Some of them love to just play games with the kids, and I have developed quite a lot of different games that follow my curriculum closely.  One of my volunteers is a teacher that is staying home with her kids for a while.  She always does a Sing and Spell the Sight Words worksheet when she comes.  These are worksheets that follow my Sing and Spell the Sight Words CD’s.  All they are is just the words to the songs, with the “target” word left out, as in a cloze activity.  So the kids sing the song with her, and then try to track the words to the song written on chart paper.  They find all of the target words that they can find on the chart, and underline them with Wikki Stix.  Then they each have a Sing and Spell booklet with those worksheets in them.  They find the correct page, and fill in the missing word over and over.  So if the song is about the word “go,” then they would be writing the word several times within the context of the song, and then try to read the song back to that volunteer.  If there is extra time, they use white boards and review some of the words from previous weeks by singing the songs together and writing the words.

The Language Arts Table

This is a guided reading group at my language arts table.

During this rotation, I do the language arts table activity myself, (like guided reading or writing, or a phonemic awareness, a worksheet etc.).  When we are done with my activity, I check to see how close the others are to finishing before I ring the bell to rotate everyone from one table to another.  When it looks like most children are finished, I will ring the bell.

The Math Table

This is our math table, which was being run by an intern from a local university.

For math, my aide usually does a follow-up activity with my kids.  And yes, I do run both math and language arts concurrently!  I introduce the concept and also practice it whole group either before we begin our small groups, or on the previous day.  Then my aide or a helper does the follow up with manipulatives in a small group during our rotation.  So, I suppose it is unusual that my math is running at the same time as my language arts, but that works out well for me and my Kindergarten team at my school.  It has been the accepted practice there for many years.

The Art Table

This is our Art Table.  The children are doing one of my Singable Books, “Dinner’s Ready.”

 The art table is always run by a volunteer, although of course there are times when there is no one there to run it, and that’s just the way it is!  What can you do but just deal with it?  If I were in the situation in which I knew that I would NEVER have a volunteer there, then my projects would be much simpler, probably.  I always leave something there at the independent centers and art centers for the children to do or play with when they are finished, such as a manipulative like pattern blocks or unifix cubes.  They are not allowed to pick out another toy instead, and they cannot leave the area to go somewhere else if they finish early.  They MUST stay there until the bell rings.  This is very important to the management of any independent center; children must stay there until you tell them it is time to switch.  If you provide something else for them to do that is more fun or more appealing than the real assignment that you want them to do, then they will likely rush through that assignment to get to that more appealing activity.
One of my teammates seems to usually run short of volunteers each year, and she has become very good at teaching her kindergartners to be independent at the art table!  She makes a big deal at the beginning of the year about cleaning up your work area when you are done, and then setting up the spot again for the next person, and the children usually rise to the occasion.  I believe that this means that in between groups, she stops to check to see who has followed her directions on this and gushes over who did well, praising them for it a LOT.  Likewise, if anyone forgot to do it, she has them fix it right then and there.  After a while, they get really good at it.  Basically, you have to pick your battles and stick with them!  If that is your battle, then go for it and win it!


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Heidi Butkus

About Heidi Butkus

Heidi Butkus has been teaching in California public schools since 1985. She has somehow managed to stay in Kindergarten all of those years, with the exception of five years in first grade, and also taught a parent participation preschool for a short while! Combining a strong knowledge of brain research with practical experience, Heidi has created a wealth of fun and engaging teaching techniques that work well with diverse populations. She has presented at conferences nationwide, and is the owner and founder of Heidi has also created fourteen original CD's and DVD's for teaching beginning reading and math skills, three musical plays designed especially for young performers, and has written some picture books and many other teaching resources. Heidi's multimedia workshops are filled with fun and motivational educational activities that have been classroom tested and revised for effectiveness with all types of learners.
  1. dear Heidi,
    hi, i’m trying to get my kids to work in groups ( kindergarten) and was looking at your post. two questions if kids are sent to work with material on tables which is specified in the way you have said then where is the choice which is so necessary to keep children’s interest alive? and secondly since children have short attention spans and varied abilities when i try to group them like this some child finishes the activity first and wants to go and take material from another area if i try to discourage this he gets bored and starts to fidget. what do you do in getting all kids occupied so that they move together from group to group. initially i send them to the area but if they finish first they can go and take material from another area as long as there is room in that area ( which they know if there is an empty peg there) am i on the right track. i would love for all my kids to move together from group to group but it does not happen in my class. can you help?


    afshan from Pakistan.

  2. Hi, Afshan! Sorry, it has been too long since I have looked at these comments. As far as choices are concerned, I give my kids free choice time in the afternoons. They can all choose to play with any of the materials that I designate at that time.
    As far as your other question is concerned, when I first started teaching, I did as you did- I let them go to the next center when they are done. I do not do this anymore, since it resulted in chaos for me! No matter what center they are at, they must stay there when they are finished. I always designate some kind of manipulative to play with when they are finished with that particular activity. That manipulative must be played with at that table, or on the floor very close by. This is how I keep my groups together, and also how I keep certain children apart! I do have lots of interesting things to explore and play with in my room, so I don’t have a lot of trouble finding something for them to do at each center when they are finished. I try to pick something for them to do that is not super entertaining though (such as a favorite toy) so that they do not rush through their assignment just to get to that other thing. I usually choose puzzles, books, or interactive gadgets such as Hot Dot sets. I also give them pattern blocks or unifix cubes, or Gelboards with letter magnets. They also enjoy just drawing on individual white boards, too. But no matter what, they can NEVER just go to the next center and start playing with that stuff. This puzzles my volunteers at first. But, I explain that when the kids get to that other center, they will say that they already did that, and want something else. It seems a little “hard lined” to some people; they think I am being tough on the kids because of it, I think. But once the kids get used to it, they are just fine with it, and they do understand that they WILL get their turn with that object, no matter what.

    I always try to give them only enough work to be able to get it finished in LESS than the 20 minutes that they have, also. That way, they will get to play with that manipulative. Otherwise, when I ring the bell, they might not be finished, which creates a problem. They also would not have gotten to play with that manipulative either, and that creates a problem as well.

    I think if you can demonstrate for your class how this works, and show them the rules for the centers using child volunteers to show them, they will get it and will cooperate with you. But you will have to be very consistent with them. Make NO exceptions. When you are done with your work at center #1, the ONLY thing you can do is THIS manipulative, and that’s it. Once you start making exceptions, you will have lost the whole battle! They will always push it, I think- at least my kids would!
    I hope that helps,

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  4. Hi Heidi!

    I was wondering if you have a specific blog post about how you introduce centers to the kids at the beginning of the school year? How many centers do you introduce each day? How do you teach the rules and routines for centers? Thanks SO much for everything you do, you are a great inspiration!

    Fun in PreK-1

  5. Hi,
    I noticed that you used the SIPPS program. Our district just adopted it. I would love your feedback on whether it was effective for your students. Thanks.


  6. To Heather,
    Yes, it is effective, especially in teaching kids to sound out words. The biggest problem is that it is just plain dull to use. Both the kids and teachers get tired of it, and my administrator really didn't want us to do anything that wasn't in the script, (as far as "spicing it up" was concerned), so that made it doubly boring. I'm a very creative person, so that was like a death sentence to me!

    I totally recognize the value of the program in that it combines phonemic awareness, phonics, sight words, writing and reading into the lessons all at once. That is a good thing, but the average attention span of a kindergartner doesn't match the length of the lesson, unfortunately. If you try to do all of the elements of the lessons altogether as they are intended, you may very well lose your students, especially as you get past the first ten lessons. Once the children know more, there is more to drill them on, and the lessons get longer and longer. We needed to meet with all of our reading groups every day, so each group couldn't last more than 20 minutes. But if I did the entire lesson in the manual, I could easily spend 30-40 minutes per lesson- especially if the groups were LOW. These kids don't respond or process their thoughts quickly, and they don't write quickly. So I wound up splitting the lessons in to sections, and really practicing each section thoroughly each day. On Monday I did the guided reading portion. On Tuesday I did the phonemic awareness and phonics and sight words part. On Thursdays I did the writing part,and then we also had them try to write some sight words and work on printing, etc. And yes, that means I just did one lesson per week. But my low kids got the lesson reviewed several times during after school tutoring three times a week.

    (On Wednesdays, we did Step Up to Writing, which was a different required program in my district.)

    The other teachers on my team always did two lessons a week, but went much faster. At the end of each year, we always compared notes. The other kids never went any further than mine because they always wound up needing to go back and re-do the lessons, probably due to having rushed through them. So I don't think that going so fast really helps much!

    Good luck with it. Personally, I appreciate its strengths, but I just wish I could have used it in my own way, supplementing as I saw fit. However, during the last year I used it, this was not allowed.

  7. Hello Heidi,I am a Kindergarten teacher I read your article about managing groups, very informative. My concern is about those kids who are destructive and do not play as part of a group and spoil other children’s play. How to tackle them? My next question is about making groups, do you make ability groups or mixed ability groups? Last but not the least how do you manage bad behavior in your class?
    Best Regards Talat.

    • Hello, Talat,
      Children that bring discipline issues with them to school are always a big challenge to teachers! The first thing to do is see if you can figure out what is causing their behavior problems. If you can figure out what the real issue is and solve it, then you are half way there. Try to meet with the parents and see if you can get them on your side. I try very hard to bond with each and every child in my room at the beginning of the year, because a child that really loves his or her teacher will usually not cause such huge problems, I have found. Try to pull the child aside and see what you can do to create a better relationship between you and that child, just as a start.
      I wrote a blog post on this type of issue a few years back, and you might benefit from reading my responses there. You can also see how I tend to manage my behavior problems in my room from that post. But generally, I try to distract and redirect as much as possible, and use praise a LOT. I use a lot of movement breaks with music to keep the kids from getting too restless. And when all of that doesn’t work, I use time outs for children that refuse to cooperate (basically on purpose) and then loss of inside playtime for those that don’t respond to the time outs. For a particularly difficult class, I will schedule class rewards, but only let those participate in them that are following the rules. Those that have gotten too many time outs, etc., lose out on that reward. I also use behavior contracts for kids who seem to need constant communication between me and the parents, too. Finally, I DO pray for my kids! I try to tell them that I love them often, and remind them that I still love them, even when their behavior is bad! Some kids seem SO surprised- I wonder if their parents ever tell them that they love them? One child that had wound up in foster care and had suffered great abuse seemed to only expect me to hurt him when he did things wrong. Poor baby! I just kept hugging him and reminding him that I would ALWAYS love him, even when he was naughty, and that I would NEVER, EVER hurt him! After a while, he all but stopped the bad behavior for me- but not for his foster parents. He was eventually moved from their home and I never saw him again- oh, what a heartbreak for me! I do wish him well!

      We also talked about these sorts of issues yesterday (9/28/13) on my Facebook page and there were tons of suggestions for dealing with defiant children. If you are a FB user, check that out as well.
      As far as grouping is concerned, at the beginning of the year, I spend the first month in heterogeneous groups, and then move to ability groupings after four weeks are finished.

    • Hello Heidi, My friend needs your advice.
      In her class (age 3+) there are 26 students and one Teacher’s Aide. Most of the kids according to her are intelligent and grasp concepts quickly. The problem is that they do not sit for more then 5 minutes and distract others who work quietly by throwing, snatching resources from them. She spoke to their parents also but it did not workout. Please advise. Regards, Talat.

  8. Hello Heidi, My friend needs your advice.
    In her class (age 3+) there are 26 students and one Teacher’s Aide. Most of the kids according to her are intelligent and grasp concepts quickly. The problem is that they do not sit for more then 5 minutes and distract others who work quietly by throwing, snatching resources from them. She spoke to their parents also but it did not workout. Please advise. Regards, Talat.

    • Hello, Talat,
      It sounds to me that the teacher probably needs help with figuring out how to set some clear rules, consequences, and rewards in place. Also, if the children are only three years old, they should be spending most of their time playing and learning through play. If they are not ready for formal centers, this frustration will probably show up in their behavior. Also, I think that 26 kids in the class when there are three year olds in it is really way too much! So there are probably a lot of things going on here. She needs to do things that are developmentally appropriate for that age group.
      This is probably more than I can help with in a simple blog post, unfortunately. A teaching coach would be a better one to help- someone that can go in and figure out what is wrong and help her fix it.

      • Hello Heidi,
        Thank you for sharing your views,I have shared your suggestions with my friend also.

        Best regards

        • Hello Heidi,
          My school is planning to start (IB) PYP program. My concern in this regard is about the Project Based Learning. How to initiate a project for three year old children? And how to formulate driving questions which would lead them to the project? Waiting for your expert advice. Regards. Talat.

          • Hi, Talat!
            Wow, that sounds like a big change! I think that for preschool, I would get out some real objects or at least some really good pictures that would stir up their curiosity and get them to ask questions. Like if you think you would like them to learn about spiders, perhaps you could bring in one spider and get them talking about it and asking questions about what they would like to learn, and how they might learn it. Once you have their questions about what they would like to learn, then you can start making lesson plans. I think that with project based learning with the very young children, the trick is to include them in the planning. You may already have in mind what you want the topic to be (such as spiders, for example,) so you bring in a spider to get them moving in that direction. Then you just need to help THEM do the thinking of what you all might do to help them learn, by subtly suggesting things that might lead a child to say that everyone might be able to go home and catch a spider to bring back. Little kids are pretty easy to “lead,” I think!
            The only thing is that you’ll have to be prepared for them to lead you elsewhere! If someone in your class is obsessed with dinosaurs and only wants to talk about dinosaurs, you may need to do a unit on that FIRST, just to get it out of the way. Then once you have finished that, you may find them easier to lead in a different direction.
            I was discussing this same thing with my daughter, who was trying to plan a Project Based Learning unit for second grade. I told her that you may already know of the different types of projects that your students will likely do, or that you usually do. Just be prepared for them to lead you elsewhere- and make sure that you save some time after school to prepare things at the last minute! Or, keep other items ready to go that you can do while you wait until you can find the time to prep what you need. Gather some extra books on the topic to keep on hand, too, so that if that science or social studies time of the day comes, and you are not ready to proceed with the project, you can still do SOMETHING that day! Then pick it up where you left off as soon as you can.
            Good luck!

  9. Hello Heidi,
    Thank you for responding so promptly. Your expert advice is always very valuable and a great support for me.
    Best Regards

  10. Pingback: How to Make Lesson Plans For Small Groups & Learning Centers | Heidi Songs

    • Last year I had 28 students, and I still ran four centers, but with more students in each center. I’ve tried to do five centers rather than four to keep the group numbers small, but for some reason that never seems to work out very well for me!

  11. I am a second grade teacher and still struggling with pulling small groups back to work with. I use a version of Daily Five and some of my activities and centers involve two students working together. Or, I have two very, very low students that sometimes need help from a higher student in class. How do I pull a group back with students who are involved with other students in some way? Thanks

    • I think that if you can physically separate the children that are helping the others, you will know where the noise in your class is coming from. That will help you know who to ignore, and who to remind to work quietly.
      I believe that a mature second grader could be trained to teach the other very low ones in a quiet way, if you give them that responsibility and train them to do it. My daughter did this in third grade! Her teacher had her pull a reading group every day for extra practice, and she also tutored a child learning English with some flash cards each day. She loved it!
      I suggest that you give these children the responsibility of giving rewards to “their charges” when they are good, and helping you decide on discipline if their charges will not cooperate. I would guess that this will help!

      If I have not answered your question, please let me know. You may have been trying to ask something else, so feel free to clarify. 🙂

  12. Hello Heidi,
    I need your expert opinion on READING in Kindergarten.
    Can you please help and share some strategies where children can become independent readers and how to support children with reading disabilities?
    Hope to hear from you soon.
    Best regards,

    • Hello, Talat!
      I’m afraid I don’t have any existing blog posts on getting kids to become independent readers. The thing about Kindergarten is that there isn’t much that they do independently at all. The children thrive best on adult interaction! But I would say that they key to moving them towards becoming independent readers is giving them lots of practice reading and providing lots of materials that they can read at their reading level. I tried to always have a box of “easy reader” books on hand right next to my guided reading table, so that when we finished our lessons, I could direct them to those books and listen to them REALLY read- not just look at the pictures in the books.
      Another key to getting kids to be independent readers is to foster a love of reading. In my mind, that means sharing books that YOU love, and telling them why you love them! And then, you’ll need to get parents to read to them at home, of course. We have read aloud charts on our website, in which parents are supposed to write down the names of the books that they read to the children as a way of holding them accountable for reading aloud.
      Kids also need TIME to read alone and with each other- so check out the Daily Five. It has lots of great routines for making this happen! Just search for it on Google.
      Now as far as supporting children with reading disabilities in the classroom? Gosh, that’s a whole blog post! I’ll have to think about that one, I’m afraid! I do have this blog post, called “Signs of Dyslexia?” The fact is that it is pretty hard to be diagnosed with Dyslexia in Kindergarten; the process does take some time, and usually children “need to fail” for a few years before it gets to that point. Certainly there have been children in my class that I suspected had various learning disabilities, but as far as a READING disability, such as dyslexia? I’m usually not part of the children’s lives by the time they are diagnosed. 🙁
      I’m sorry I can’t be of more help at this time.

  13. Dear Heidi,
    Thank you very much,after going through your reply and the suggested links at least I can comfort my self that I am moving in the right direction.
    Best regards,

  14. Hi! I was hoping you had some ideas of how to run learning centers in a k/1 class? I usually have done literacy and math centers separate which has worked well. Now being in a Kindergarten Grade 1 split I am finding I am finding so many different centers to differentiate that I end up having 8 centers each time which is a lot… what would you suggest?

    • Hi, Amanda!
      That is really a tough one! When I want to do centers in my first/second grade class, I have done open ended centers in which I give all students the same manipulatives, such as plastic letters, and then have the children each make words from their own grade level’s lists. I have their spelling lists posted by grade level in the room, and I also have both of the lists on one piece of paper with two columns on it. That way, there is just one list to keep track of. The kids just have to find their own grade level’s list and start building their words.
      For math, the kids could all work with the same thing, such as multi-link cubes, and then have different task cards. The kindergartners might be working on matching sets cards, and the first graders might be showing addition problems with the cubes (example: five red cubes connected to three white cubes could represent the equation 5 plus 3.) Another example might be a Kindergartner rainbow writing the letter of the week, and a first grader rainbow writing the spelling words. Here are some more: A Kindergartner might work on matching rhyming words cards, and the first grader might work on matching AND writing those words on the cards. A Kindergartner might work on patterning with teddy bears, and a first grader might work on solving addition story problems using teddy bears to count.

      The beauty of a well run combination class is that the the younger students can be exposed to the higher standards, and may wind up far more advanced than they would have otherwise! But it would be a good thing to make it possible for the younger ones that may be “high flyers” in the rough! So if you find that some of your kindergartners can do (and WANT to do) the first grade center, I would let them! You may want to post names of those kindergartners who are allowed to do the first grade activity, if you are worried.
      When I do centers in my room, if there are different directions or activities for each grade level, I just put the additional grade’s supplies in a tub that sits right there under or next to the chair. The kids learned right away which tub to use. Just mark them with a “K” or “First Grade,” and they’ll have it quickly. So basically, they are all going to the very same location in the room and use the same supplies for differentiated activities whenever possible. If you can’t make that work, then they just grab their grade level’s tub, and do that stuff instead.
      I hope that helps! Feel free to reply with more questions. I’m happy to help!

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